Gravel and adventure biking really is the latest buzz in the cycling industry with loads of new brands as well as major manufacturers jumping in feet first to capitalise. Rightly so, there’s some great fun to be had, and a real universal appeal to this type of bike.
So what is a gravel bike then? Essentially it’s a midway point between a mountain bike and a road bike. A hybrid? well, sort of, but not sit up and beg. Its a bike built to be as fast, effortless, and as comfortable as possible off road without the use of suspension. Most have drop bars and use larger capacity tyres to increase comfort and speed. They also lean towards being an adventure bike, one you can load up with luggage and off road tour.
I’m a road cyclist at heart (despite most of my misspent youth being off-road and on bmx tracks) and having ridden locally for years I know the New Forest tarmac like the back of my hand. That being said there’s a hell of a lot more riding to be done in the New Forest if you stray from the tarmac to hit the gravel. We have miles of fire tracks, single track, heath paths, and bridleways running all over the forest. If I want to explore them a gravel bike would be the perfect answer, but seeing as this would be a third or fourth bike it couldn’t really be an expensive one! I wanted something a little faster, both on and off road. The hunt was on.
I had a suitable parts bin at home with some relatively choice componentry, 10 speed 105 group with wide range cassette, Planet X drop bars and stem, and some race face x type cranks and bottom bracket. I just needed a donor bike with wheels and frame. I know the aforementioned list of parts is a pretty tasty selection but you can easily find decent second hand parts that would fit the bill on Ebay or in your local bike jumble without breaking the bank.
I was open to any frame material but budget would lean toward either steel or aluminium. Personal preference, from experience of two bikes I have already, I would definitely opt for steel. It has far more forgiving ride characteristics. The frame would have to be 700c wheels and as a minimum have cantilever brake mounts, discs being a massive bonus.
Straight to Ebay it was then searching locally for something that fitted the bill, a few things popping up but most were out of budget. Main reason for this is gravel bikes are in, and as soon as somethings en vogue Ebay sellers jack up the values. Needed another approach so tried facebook selling groups but nothing showed up. Lastly I tried gumtree, and found the perfect bike. A complete 1994 Dawes Street Sharp for £25.
Dawes are renown for their steel touring, adventure, and commuter bikes. In fact the 90’s Galaxy models are one of the true forerunners to todays gravel bikes and, because of this, they still command a decent amount on Ebay. They are great tourers. The model I picked up has identical geometry to the Galaxy but is made from Reynolds 501 rather than 531. (As a note, most current frames listed as 4130 chromoly will be to the same spec. ie modern tube sets are well branded but no more advanced than good old 501!).
The bike was near identical spec to when it left the factory. Including the original 20 year old tyres! First thing to do was to give it a look over, see what was staying and what was being ‘retired’. I’ll be frank, not a lot survived. Frame, seat post, headset, and wheels made the cut.
All stripped down the frame was cleaned and polished, forks removed and checked, then reassembled with a headset service. It was then time to fit the parts bin to the bike, and all was going swimmingly until it came to the wheels. Even though they were a nice double walled stainless eyeleted rims built with stainless DT spokes onto Shimano parallax hubs, being twenty five years old mean it wasn’t a simple case of slotting on a cassette and chucking in the frame.
The free hub was only seven speed. This meant that fitting a 10 speed cassette was off the cards, it was too narrow. Luckily I knew a fix, all 8 speed and above Shimano freehubs have enough space on them to fit up to 11 speed cassettes. It was just a case of swapping it over. A quick message to The Woods Cyclery in Lyndhurst and a good condition second hand unit was sourced. Freehub cleaned up I stripped the rear hub down to swap over. Now whilst it’s not the most taxing job there are a couple of considerations when doing this. First one is the axle spacing, essentially the new free hub is 5mm longer than the previous so it does eat into the axle protrusion slightly. Ie the axle no longer goes through the dropouts as far as it did before. That 5mm is not directly translated as 2.5mm reduction either side though (there is increased overhang of free hub body over axle cone, ie the external hub body extends out closer to the dropout more than it effects the over locknut dimension) its probably just under 2mm each side meaning theres still plenty of axle exposed. Second one is the wheels axle position and wheel dishing. This is where you could encounter most issues as the extra 5mm of hub could end up pushing the wheel across the frame causing poor brake alignment or at worst tyre to frame contact. I had to re-dish the wheel slightly but that was just a simple case of tightening the spokes on one side of the wheel and loosening them the other. My tips for this are to remove the tyre and do it in the bike, measure the distance from each chain stay to where you want it to be (use cut zip ties around the chain stays as guides), do it quarter of a spokes turn at once moving around the wheel spoke by spoke. On an old wheel never do it straight away add a drop of lube to each spoke nipple and leave to soak overnight.
When I build a bike I like to do it in a fairly specific order. Frame prep, bars/stem/seatpost/saddle, crankset, shifters/levers, brakes, groupset (bar chain), tyres on to wheels, wheels into frame, chain, cables, grips/bar tape, then set up and test. Anal eh? but I find it all goes together easiest this way and gives least chance of you making a mess of a new paint job or bar tape. Assembling the Dawes was relatively straight forward but with any resto mod (old bike new kit) theres normally a little fettling required, the wheel was the first step, the second was getting a 31.8mm bars and 1 1/8″ a-head stem to fit to a frame that has a 1″ threaded steerer. Theres two ways to do this, you either ditch the a-head stem and go for a quill with a 31.8mm clamp like THIS, or a a quill adapter like THIS. Because I was happy with stem length and angle I opted for the quill adapter. It isn’t the prettiest option, but its a quick fix. The third issue was the wide range (11-40t) cassette with a standard road derailleur. Overcoming this problem is pretty easy, its as simple as fitting an extra hanger between the frame and the derailleur to increase clearance for the larger (32t and above) chain rings. You can get one HERE.
All these little issues fixed the bike was was assembled, set up and test ridden. To say I was pleased with the results would be underselling it a little. The Dawes rides lovely. Despite being steel and a little on the heavy side it was nimble and went well enough to propel me to a couple of KOMs on one of its first few rides! One of the main contributors to this is tyres. I opted for hutchinson Overide tyres, they are super fast rolling, lightweight, and have a tough carcass. Perfect for a gravel bike, and slotted into the Dawes rear end nicely. The other big factor is the frames material, steel really smooths the trail chatter out. Its a great material to give that positive yet noiseless ride. One thing thats often overlooked today is the use of curved bladed forks on steel bikes, they do add another layer of comfort. Bumps are not transferred directly to the head tube, and because to the curved and slightly longer construction they offer a little more deflection.
So there you have it, Building a gravel bike on a budget. Ok so I know I already had some decent parts lying about but its still possible. Here’s a quick run down of costs including going rate for parts I had in storage. Bike/frame (inc wheels) £25 (gumtree), 105 shifters and rear mech £50 (Ebay), race face cranks and bb £25 (Ebay), oval narrow wide chainring £10 (Ebay), bars/stem £25 (planet x), bar tape £1 (yes £1 from Planet X), quill stem adapter £10 (Ebay), 10 speed wide range cassette £45 (Ebay), wolf tooth copy mech dropper £5 (Ebay), KMC 10 speed chain £15 (Ebay), full jagwire cable set £5 (Ebay), tektro cantilever brake set £20 (Ebay), saddle prologo kappa rs £10 (Ebay), hutchinson override tyres £60 (Ebay), self sealing inner tubes £4 for two (Aldi!). Thats a grand total of £310 and you have yourself a Reynolds 501 tubed adventure bike with all the mod cons. Thats a real steal. What other bicycle manufacturer gives you that much spec for that little money? lets not forget what is new on this bike as well, cables, cassette, chain, chainring, brakes, bars, stem, tyres, tubes, and bar tape. It rides like its new, and it rides like a modern gravel bike.
Ok so I can hear a few people having a whine that I’m buying a lot of parts online and from Ebay to complete this bike. The matter of fact here is that its simply not cheap enough to build a bike from parts through your LBS. They either don’t fight for your business, stock the range, or deal in serviceable second hand parts. If its not current season or the brand with the largest margin quite often they struggle to be interested or to be able to help. The flip side to this is that getting involved in these kind of projects is more of a personal thing, the hunt and build is part of the fun! and paying a bike shop to build and source would put the prices through the roof.
So what are my plans for it? I would like a nice seat post and quill stem that match and maybe some flared bars. I would prefer to swap out the cranks for some road items with a narrower Q factor. Mainly the plan is to ride it and have some fun! maybe get some luggage and do some wild camping and bike packing.
So who’s up for building a budget gravel bike and joining me? Gravel bikes need not be expensive. They are knock about, fun, and rugged bikes. You aren’t building it for speed, breaking weight records, and they certainly aren’t something to train on. A lot of the price in the industry is build on fashion, function hasn’t come a long way! Go on, scrape a little cash together and have some fun building something. Hey, I’d be interested to see people do it cheaper! it must be possible. Don’t succumb to the hype, just build it and get out and ride!