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Things to consider, and things to avoid, when building your gravel bike
By Eric Ekstrand
Okay let me start off by making something clear, I’m a bit of a cheap-ass. I may work in “the industry” and be surrounded by more high-end bikes and parts than most people see in a lifetime. But that doesn’t mean I can afford to ride any of it. Another thing to note is that I’m married with kids. What does that have to do with anything? Well, in my case, it means I neither have the time nor “domestic capital” to get out and ride for multiple hours everyday anymore. So when I am able to get out and ride, I need to make my time count.
My Morning Commute on one of the many gravel paths around Minneapolis.
We have it pretty good here in the Twin Cities, with over 120 miles of designated bike paths and bike lanes circling the metro area. Much of the trails on my side of town are of the crushed rock "rails-to-trails" variety. So it’s pretty easy for me to hop on my bike and ride for an hour or so and only deal with pavement at the street crossings. I’ve ridden these paths on a hardtail, a full suspension mountain bike, a fat bike, even my 700x23 carbon road bike.
But the best tool for this job has been my old 24 pound steel Lemond Poprad cyclocross bike, clad in 700x32c puncture resistant steel bead tires, full fenders and a more upright seating position. Will it go as fast as the carbon roadie? No. Will it keep in better control in the loose and washed out areas of the trail? Without a doubt, yes. Yet despite it being my go-to bike as of late, I really started to think about upgrading the old mare.
The trusty old Poprad
This past March an opportunity presented itself, that even a cheap-o like me couldn't refuse. The Racery had a blow out on some old inventory of Litespeed Titanium bikes and frames. I’ve always wanted a Ti bike, but being... "financially frugal" they've always been too expensive, so I was psyched to finally get my wish. I purchased a 2014 Litespeed Pisgah mountain bike frame, with “MWC” (Multi Wheel Compatible) - meaning you can run either a 650b or 29” wheel. The Racery has great deals on cyclocross frames that you can substitute for your build.
My thought was to build “The One” - one bike that could be a gravel bike, a commuter, a roadie, even tackle a little singletrack if needed. I had some old parts cluttering up my shop; a pair of take-off 29” Dt-Swiss Mtn wheels, some old handlebars and other odds and ends that cyclists collect over time.
There was one catch though, I would have to sell a bike to fund this project. Without hesitation, I did a quick clean and full tune-up on my Ridley Excalibur road bike, and posted it on Craigslist. It only took a few days and it sold. As much as I try not to get emotionally attached to any bike, it’s always hard to see one of the flock go, but in this case it was pretty easy. A young high school kid, that was just starting up in the road scene bought the bike and I was glad to see him get a great deal on the bike. Now, with cash in hand the real fun can begin!
The first piece of the puzzle.
The first thing I did was to research what others were doing on their gravel bikes. I checked out sites like BikeRadar, slowtwitch and I looked at the Salsa Cutthroat in particular, as that was what I was envisioning. Now, with an end result in mind, I started to put together my shopping list. I already had a few parts, but I still needed a drivetrain, disc brakes, tires, a headset and a fork. The latter being the most questionable piece of this rolling puzzle. Being that the Pisgah is a mountain bike and designed to be run with a suspension fork, finding the correct fork was going to be the biggest challenge.
I contacted Litespeed to see what they were using on their “adventure bike”, the Ku:wa. I was told they were running a carbon fork with an axle-to-crown height of 390mm. Fortunately for me, we had a cross fork in the shop with that exact height. Unfortunately for me, it proved to be far too short, creating a far too steep steering tube angle. The result of such an angle would have made the bike twitchy and unstable – not what you’re looking for when riding on loose surfaces.
After more research I decided on a Whisky number 9 carbon fork. It was the same axle to crown height as the suspension fork that the frame was designed around - plus it was on sale (again see opening statement). Once the fork was picked out, the rest was easy - or so I thought.
Anyone up for a little Whiskey?
For my drivetrain I went with the work horse of the Shimano line up and chose Ultegra 11 speed. For brakes, I went with a pair of TRP Spyre disc brakes, to match up with the mechanical Ultegra levers. Per my sales manager's suggestion, I opted for a pair of 700x40c Clement X’plor MSO tires. Litespeed requires a internal/external headset combo, so I went with a CaneCreek Zero stack top and external cup lower. For the Bottom bracket, I went with a Wheels Manufacturing Thread Together unit, to work with the Ultegra cranks.
A few days later my parts arrived. I called my wife and told her I had to work late (don't judge me) and then went back to the shop and started putting it all together. The first thing I noticed was that the Whiskey fork was huuuge (try NOT saying it like Trump). I quickly installed the headset and fork, and slapped the wheels on it... oh oh. So I'm 6' tall and I went with the size large Pisgah, which should be fine. However, this fork really raised up the front end to a rather uncomfortable height - should I ever need to quickly put my feet down. Oh well, keep on keeping on.
I installed the rest of the parts and it all went pretty smooth until I went to install the Ultegra cranks. It turns out that the cranks wouldn't fit because the big chainring (52t) would hit on the rear chainstay. Okay, so now I need a different crankset. Oh well, keep on keeping on. Luckily, everything else went on without any real issues. I had started with an old 110mm stem, but even just sitting on it in the shop I could tell it was too long, so I swapped it over to a 100mm length.
By the time I left work that night, other than cranks, it was all ready to roll. When I got home I went out to my shop and started digging through my old parts bins. Low and behold I found an old pair of m960 XTR cranks, with the same bottom bracket as the newer Ultegra cranks. The only issue was they were pretty beat up and the chainrings were completely wore out, but I had an idea...
Before and after a little steel wool and elbow grease.
I remember reading a blog on how to polish up these old cranks and use them with a single chainring. So I took some steel wool and started cleaning them up. I had to shift gears here (get it, shift gears?) and change from a double chainring up front to a single, but that was easy enough. I ordered up a wolftooth chainring that would work with these old cranks and an 11 speed drivetrain. So here is what it looked like at this point:
You can see how high that front end sits.
A closer look. Yes you can fit your whole hand in there.
I rode it with this set up for a few weeks and quickly realized that the fork really was too tall. The Whisky 9 had a 483mm axle to crown height, and that was just too much for this application, so I started looking for something shorter. I looked at all the options through our wholesalers, and l even checked ebay.
After far too much searching I ended up having to go directly to China. I bought a carbon fork, via ebay, with a 450 mm axle to crown height for a 26" wheel mountain bike. It's not nearly as sexy as the Whiskey, but it dropped the steerer tube down to a far more manageable angle. Here's what it looks like in it's current state:
So far I've been very pleased with the ride quality with this set up.
You can see the tire's almost too close to the fork crown now.
I've been riding it with this set up now for about month and a half, and I like it. I've ridden steel, aluminum and carbon, but there really is something to riding a nice Titanium bike. I'll say it again, I'm really impressed with the TRP mechanical disc brakes. I rode Avid BB7s years ago, and these are hands down far better brakes. The Ultegra drivetrain, is as you'd expect rock solid, especially in this 1x11 setup. But that brings me to the one issue I'm having. Those old cranks with a 32t front ring just aren't cutting it. If I could find a bigger ring I might go that route. But I think I may just look into a pair of 2x cyclocross cranks and install the front derailleur that I bought at at the beginning and call it all good.
What if you just want to get started with a great off the shelf solution? You can check out the cyclocross bikes that The Racery has in stock for some killer deals. Once you get the bike you can mix and match parts to build up your dream gravel bike.