Gravel Time

It’s ready. After five months encompassing frustration, much swearing, a great deal of time desperately searching for instructional videos on the internet and last but not least procrastination my second summer project bike is complete. In a post that I suspect will only be enjoyed by the cycling geeks, here’s the story.

Here is the starting point. A 1997 Merlin Mountain Bike frame bought on Ebay for the sum £55. On paper this might seem like a strange starting point but let me explain. Modern gravel bikes are in practice very similar to the MTB’s of old in terms of off-road capability, why not therefore use that as a base rather than spending at least 10x more on a dedicated gravel frame? Actually, to counteract that sweeping statement there are a few reasons against which I’ll go into later.

 

There were a few things I needed to make sure of in terms of compatibility regards the frame. This one ticked all the boxes, the hub spacing was 135 not the older 130mm standard, it would take an A headset rather than an old fashioned threaded one and importantly it was compatible with a Shimano hollowtech II bottom bracket. Another positive was that it was being sold by a bike shop not a private individual, usually a safer purchase.

Once I got the frame home it was very clear that it was in need of a respray. I did debate this because I was a big fan of the original decals and colour scheme, sadly they were too far gone. After a large amount of deliberation I decided to go with a turquoise blue. This went very well with the black fork I’d decided on, a few of you might turn your noses up at going with a steel one but the classic looks and durability of the material were enough to persuade me.

Alongside the fork I fitted the headset and bottom bracket, both relatively straightforward tasks once I’d sent the fork to the bike shop to get the crown race fitted having not yet added a headset press to my toolkit. This threw up an unexpected problem, I had an ultegra 6800 crank going spare and decided to fit that to the frame to check the compatibility. Not for the first time the clearance on the frame proved to be an issue, with a 52/36 combination the outer chainring was rubbing the chain-stay. Luckily my plan had always been to fit a 1x drivetrain, nonetheless it did serve as a sign that the project might not be smooth sailing the whole way.

Next up it was time to decide on a pair of wheels. The frame would have been built to take 26′ models, which for anyone who doesn’t know have very much fallen out of fashion in recent years. I took a bit of a risk going with 650b instead. This won’t have done wonders for the handling of the bike but on the plus side it did allow me to go for a set with a SRAM XD freehub. That in turn meant I could run a cassette with a 10 tooth smallest sprocket, partially compensating for the limited clearance up-front. In the end I went with a 10-42 and a 38t narrow-wide chainring.

Unfortunately a rather large bill for the bike shop put an end to the project for another month or so. The soul upshot of this was that I had the time to carefully research the options I had in terms of the other components. I’d heard good things about SRAM Rival 1 components so opted for a rear-mech from that line. In an ideal world I’d have just bought that groupset in full. Annoyingly you can only get one with hydraulic disc compatible shifters and I planned on running mechanical ones. Necessitating the left shifter and right brake lever needing to be purchased individually.

Getting the cables in place took the best part of a day, having never cut outers before I had to go back to secondary school Design-Technology lessons to remind myself of the correct technique for using a hacksaw. A few of my early attempts weren’t exactly the neatest – let’s just say it was lucky I had two cable kits. With the addition of some bar tape it was finally looking like a bike. The following day setting up the shifting and front brake was refreshingly straightforward. As ever there was a small hitch, the 175mm Ultegra crank was very slightly too long and once again was rubbing the frame. I could have gotten around this by fitting a few extra BB spacers but that in turn would have meant over tightening the crank bolts to ensure they stayed in place with a reduced amount of axle to fit them to. I relented and ordered a new 165mm 105 crank which luckily solved the problem.

The last hurdle was sorting out the rear brake. A disc conversion at the front had been very easy, just a matter of buying the right fork. At the rear it proved much less straightforward. The first adapter I bought simply couldn’t be made to fit the frame and the second was so flimsy that it probably wouldn’t have been safe to use. For a good few days I trawled the internet in search of a cost effective option. Thankfully I found one, the only drawback being the humungous postage cost of getting the part shipped from the USA.

I’m sure one question you’re probably asking yourselves is how much all this has cost. Unfortunately my original budget of £1100 was blown spectacularly, the full build has come to £1380. I admit that it would have been possible to get a very decent brand new gravel bike for that money. However this project wasn’t entirely about keeping costs down. Along the way I’ve learned a huge amount about how bikes work encompassing many mechanical skills that will serve me well in the future. Another upshot is ending up with a totally unique machine, one that I know inside and out – hopefully this bike won’t ever need to go to the shop to be fixed.

If all goes to plan this build will make winter training a lot easier. It’s purposely designed for the muddy lanes of Devon with the wide tyres, disc brakes and mudguards making riding on them seem like a far less unpleasant prospect. Now to get off the sofa, turn the computer off and take it out for a spin.

Thanks for reading.

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