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Gravel on A Dustbowl Budget PT V: Lessons Learned

In my experience, all builds teach us something new. In the last 25 years, I have built (and racked up big mileages on) three drop bar bikes using cross country mountain bike framesets as the starting point. I’ve also ridden and owned traditional cyclo-cross bikes for some years. Both genres have taught me a lot about myself and my preferences in terms of components and contact points.

This time round, I knew exactly what I wanted in terms of bar patterns, width, gearing etc. Before I reflect upon what I’ve learned from building “Denise”, there is a trend for more extreme conversion of older, 90s MTBs to gravel rigs. However, because everyone’s doing something, doesn’t mean it’s always the right route. Conversions can be very costly in terms of resources-monetarily, physically and time-related. Research and planning save a lot of cash, sweat and tears.  Michael Stenning offers some final thoughts.

gravel bike budget project

Considerations

For a gravel biased build, using a cross-country mountain bike frameset I’d suggest going a size bigger than your usual. This isn’t an exact science, nor a failsafe. For context, I’ve typically raced on 18inch mtb framesets but for a gravel build, needed something a little bigger and with a longer head tube. 

gravel bike bar lights

These would keep the geometry closer to that of a cyclo cross/gravel bike. This also helped, given I was running 700c wheels. A 42-inch (106cm) wheelbase isn’t outlandish and comparable with some contemporary 47cm (18.5-inch) gravel bikes. Longer than a comparable cyclo cross bike, though. Prior to my ownership the Dawes’ cantilever posts had already been repositioned and the concept tested as a cyclo cross bike, for several seasons. 

Another important consideration is tyre clearance. Mountain bikes from this era had no issues with 26x2.1 but if you’re going the 700c route (possibly with disc mounts/adaptors), check there’s sufficient clearance between intended rubber and seat stay bridge. 

gravel bike budget project

I’ve gone for 700x40 and could probably stretch to 45mm. It also roomy enough for spiked tyres when snow and ice strike.

That aside, 40mm seems my sweet spot, providing a decent pocket of air to soak up the lumpy, bumpy stuff and good clearance for mud and other gloop. The lack of a chainstay bridge also helps on this front. I didn’t want to go the disc route with “Denise”. A few experienced frame builders also recommended leaving well alone and sticking with cantilevers. These will prohibit the latest generation of gravel specific guards, such as these Mud Hugger Gravel Hugger  which may be another consideration for some. 

gravel bike build budget

Seat posts were also anything but standard during the late 80s and early 90s. I reckoned 27.2 but it was in fact 27.0, which makes choice a little trickier. Some, including BBB still offer reasonably nice metal seat posts in 90s typical diameters. You may also be able to find a NOS Cane Creek Thudbuster ST  in 25.4 and employ a decent quality shim to suit your chosen frame. I went for a second-hand USE SX suspension model. Point being, it's something to consider before choosing a frame. 

Then of course, headsets. Denise has an old fashioned 1-inch head tube and threaded fork steerer. Decent one-inch headsets aren’t too difficult to source but still relatively rare. Quill to Ahead converters aren’t my first choice either, but in practice, this one has been a godsend and works very well with the short, rigid stem. 

Transmission

gravel bike transmission project

I’d gone for a simple but eclectic mix of road and mountain bike as that’s what I had. However, it was a considered collection. One I knew would play nicely. Road bike cranksets and mountain bike frames can present clearance hassles at the chain stays- something I’d experienced with Ursula’s original build. 

In that instance, we’re talking a 113mm Shimano UN52 and square taper Stronglight 100 touring triple. Both worked well enough but ran a hair’s breadth from the chainstays. I was glad to switch to a stiffer Shimano Alivio crankset a few years down the line. Mistakes I wasn’t going to repeat.

 

Bar end shifters might lack the snappiness of Brifters but they are mechanically simple can be set to friction and very rugged. I’d gone for a ten speed 11-25 cassette, allowing me to use a short cage Tiagra road mech and giving a range of 35-79 inches. I’m not spinning out on the road or bogging down through the mud. I may go for an 11-28, since the Tiagra will cope, but I’m not planning on a “mullet” 1x10 setup.

500 Real World Miles & Beyond

gravel bike rider project budget

The rear wheel needed truing (having taken a spanking in transit) but I wanted to get everything bedded in and just indulge in that new bike infatuation. I’m delighted to report everything looks and more importantly. behaves in excellent proportion. Exactly as I’d hoped. 

bike gravel cycling bicycle

We’ve been sent Some 40mm Maxxis Ravager and WTB Nano tyres which has also allowed me to explore the bike’s true potential. Denise’s acceleration and handling, whether belting down a lumpy lane, loose surfaces or through a muddied woodland trail is predictable yet very engaging, never failing to excite and induce huge grins. The lofty bottom bracket height is also handy for clearing unexpected obstacles-including the odd homicidal squirrel. Climbing and descending also following the swift, yet dependable narrative-even when I’ve been flagging.

The USE SX post was feeling a little arthritic but easily addressed by stripping and applying some Peaty’s Speed Grease  to the elastomers. Doing upped comfort without robbing cadence. I was surprised to find the Pro Turnix saddle a less-than-ideal seating companion, so substituted it for this shorter (260mm) and slightly wider (146mm) Ritchey WCS Cabrillo.

seat post suspension saddle bicycle bike
brake calipers bike bicycle pads

I’ve also switched the rear Shimano CX50 for an old school, NOS (New Old stock) Suntour XC SE (self-energising) cantilever from the late 80s, since the CX50 couldn’t behave itself.   The XC SE employs the Pedersen designed “self-energising” system. As the pads engage with the rim, they energise the arms pulling them forward and inwards for added power. I recall seeing these on tandems and other specialist builds but only at the rear, for reasons that should be obvious! 

 

Aside from replacing consumables and product testing, I have no intention of making significant changes. I’ve an urge to switch the very reliable and likeable Wellgo MO94B SPD Pedals for a period pure, first-generation Shimano SPD that I’ve had 30 years.

bicycle bike clipless spd pedal wellgo

Denise will remain a quasi-minimalist gravel bike, while Ursula will continue to serve as my faithful, drop bar mountain bike cum four seasons load lugging beast of burden. After 25 years and many thousands of miles, the old girl is due to go under the torch. Modernisations, minor repair and modifications and of course, new paint.

Closing Thoughts

cycling shoes gravel mtb

Repurposing bikes is nothing new. Old tourers often became off-season cyclo cross bikes- strong brakes, good lateral stiffness, big clearances and low gearing being obvious plusses. On the flip side, low bottom bracket heights though great for laden stability limited their off road, root clearing potential.

Then of course, there’s the retired race bike as winter trainer, characterised at their simplest by mudguards, older groupsets and stouter tyres. 90s cross country mountain bikes can make superb, long haul rough stuff tourers cum adventure bikes- provided they’ve got rigid forks, mudguard and four-point carrier and bottle bosses. 

For me, successful repurposing is about choosing the right starting point. One requiring minimal structural, hard to reverse modifications and minimal compromises in the real world. Denise handles every bit on par with some pedigree, mid-price cross bikes I’ve owned but with bigger clearances.

Sure, she’s a little heavier than a gravel bike with carbon forks and for some, cantilevers lack the same sleek kudos and outright bite associated with discs. Minor points for me and I’m genuinely glad we’re not all the same. My long serving and much loved Carradice SQR Tour is heavy and might not ooze cool. However, carrying capacity, bombproof reliability and the system’s rigidity suit my temperament. 

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