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What’s better? Gravel or CX?

The upstart discipline could be muscling the old muddy format into the tape

Photo by: Matt Stetson

by Jake Williams

After almost two years of e-racing and pandemic-inspired solo challenges, mass cycling events are returning to North America. As summer turned into fall, the traditional cyclocross season looked to be in direct competition with its trendier and debatably more enthralling breed of event: the gravel race. On the surface, both offer plenty of excitement for the price of admission, but if it came down to a choice between one style of race or the other, how many might abandon their 33-mm tubulars?

Well before the onset of COVID-19, many cyclists flirted with the idea of ditching their cyclocross and road bikes altogether, in favour of the omnipotent modern gravel bike. A decade ago, before the term gravel bike existed, people would come to the bike shop looking for a Swiss Army-knife bike. Any experienced salesperson would walk them to the modest selection of cyclocross bikes. The sales pitch would typically brush past the Eurocentric, mud-loving specifics of cyclocross and get right to the point: “This bike is great for multi-surface riding, and has room for bigger tires.” Sound familiar? Those riders, now tired of the same paved commute, would start to expand their riding repertoire, looking for their next challenge. For many of us in 2011, that meant a handful of muddy point-to-point events in the spring, with the crescendo being several back-to-back weekends of cyclocross racing in the fall.

If you ask many seasoned cyclocross racers about their first experiences racing ’cross, they would likely have plenty to say. What feels absurd and awkward at first can transform into a full-bodied and borderline rhythmic experience. The sport’s inherent learning curve and niche placement in the world of cycling is part of the allure. Spending time developing and practising the necessary skills to succeed in ’cross can often bring us back to our first memories on a bike, weaving through trees and cutting across the local playground. There are few things that stand out more than the benign but profound eureka moment of properly remounting your bike after hurdling through homemade barriers made of PVC tubing on a damp autumn evening. A cyclocross race course can often be so difficult it enhances the shared experience between racers. What may have started off as a detailed plan of tactics and strategy can devolve into riding around in the mud with your friends having a laugh. Add a healthy amount of heckling and a few beer hand-ups into the mix, and you’ll have racers coming back for more.

Photo: Matt Stetson

’Cross, however, isn’t the only show in town. Those longer mass-start events have gained momentum and are no longer just an early season tune-up for road racers. In fact, gravel racing as it is known today has been a staple for competitive and recreational cyclists alike for many years. That salesperson who used to sell a few cyclocross bikes for their versatility has spent the past 18 months inundated with customers looking for gravel bikes.

For starters, you are likely to spend more than a meagre 45 minutes, or the length of a cyclocross race, on your bike. Before gravel bikes – with their wider-than-’cross tires and stable handling – were the default choice for racers, you would see everything from full-suspension mountain bikes to road bikes on the start line of gravel races. And truthfully, calling these full days of riding bikes “gravel races” is a disservice to most of these events. The reality is the event is whatever each participant makes of it, and that is a huge part of their charm.

Barry-Roubaix is one of those events, and just happens to be the largest of its kind in North America. Every year more than 3,800 cyclists take over the small town of Hastings, Mich., for this one-day event. At the start corral, the excitement is silenced when the town’s mayor welcomes everyone over loudspeakers. Riders are asked to remove their helmets before the Star-Spangled Banner plays. It feels like a town holiday. There’s a fire truck on display and a vendor area complete with a stage. The day’s food trucks set up for a busy after-party. The gun fires to signify the start. Whether you’re fighting for position in a fog of dust and dirt at the front or rolling out for a scenic day on the bike, a successful gravel event will leave you and every other participant with a sense of accomplishment.

It’s hard to believe that the hardcore cyclocrossers might give up their annual tradition of gluing tubulars anytime soon. The Type 2 blast of serotonin that kicks in while sprinting for the hole shot or closing the gap to your nearest rival going tape to tape is hard to beat. Those with less interest in tasting blood or finding a new max heart rate will likely opt instead for their local gravel race on competing weekends. Meanwhile, ’crossers will secretly save up for their new gravel bikes in hopes they’ll get the chance to see what they’re missing.

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine.