I’m well aware that everybody and their hamster has a gravel bike at this point, and I generally try to stay away from things that are SUPER trendy. But I needed a quarantine project for the spring of 2020 and I spend a lot of time in northern Minnesota where the dirt roads vastly outnumber the paved ones, and can lead you to far more interesting places besides.
The bike in the photo above was my starting point. I wanted to spend as little money on this project as possible while still ending up with a rig that could roll over pretty much anything I wanted to. I looked at used bikes on eBay and Craigslist but didn’t find anything that stood out, so I went out to the garage and took a look at my old commuter bike. My parents bought it for me when I was going into middle school and told me it would be the last bike they ever bought me. I did not imagine that I would still be riding it a decade later, but it presented itself as a wonderfully economical and capable option. It had a few key characteristics that told me it would make a good base for my project:
- Clearance for wide-ish tires – the bike was sold as a flat-bar hybrid and came with 32mm slicks but I could see there was plenty of room in the back if I wanted to run wider rubber.
- Geometry I was comfortable with – I’d been riding this bike for a long time and knew the frame worked for me. I planned to get a new fork and drop bars so that I’d be a little more stretched out. The original position was fairly upright.
- Expendable – I have purchased a few bikes since owning this one and wasn’t really using it. I also figured since it was old and not that nice to begin with, I could really play around with paint and learn how to build a new bike from the frame up.
- Aluminum – The frame itself was fairly light and definitely strong. It was a heavy bike, but that was due to the heavy, low-end components that came with the stock build. I was confident I could lighten it and keep it versatile.
- It was free – I already owned it, so all of the money I put toward this project would be going to parts that made an already functional bike even better.
- Carbon fork – improve ride quality and handling on loose, bumpy surfaces
- New groupset – 1×11 setup for simplicity and to reduce the risk of dropping my chain
- This includes a new rear hub and rebuilding the back wheel, since the stock cassette was 9-speed and I needed room for 11
- New saddle – the old one didn’t agree with my keister for long rides
- New brakes – short-pull V brakes that would work with the drop bar levers
- Drop bars – for variety in hand positions and stability at speed on dirt roads
- New bottle cages to match the paint job
- New bottom bracket – the old one was square taper and heavy
- New crankset – the old one was a heavy, square taper triple
This was the area of the build I was least comfortable with, but the one that I most wanted to explore. I have been following accounts like ETOE and oldshovel on YouTube for a while and love the work that they do. Since it’s a low-end bike and it wasn’t yet the season for gravel riding, I felt no reservations about stripping all of the stock parts off this frame and removing all the old paint.
First, I tried paint stripper. I had seen Spindatt strip a Specialized Tricross on his channel down to bare aluminum and I thought that would be a good look for my bike as well. After 2 hugely unsuccessful attempts at stripping the frame (I think they baked the paint on in some weird way that they didn’t do with their other frames), I decided to sand it clean. But after a few hours sanding with little to show for my effort, even using 60 grit sandpaper, I realized I would not be able to get the frame down to bare metal using that approach either. I decided to sand the frame smooth and knock down the high points from the decals (I’ve never seen a bike with paint like this since). Once I’d gotten the frame smooth, I set up a very low-budget paint booth in the garage using tarps, coat hangers, a sawhorse, scrap wood, and an oscillating office fan.
I played around with the idea of designing a logo for my own, made-up company and getting decals cut out of vinyl to customize the paint job even more. But I didn’t like any of the ideas I came up with and I don’t own a vinyl cutter, so I bought some pre-made Specialized vinyl decals off eBay for about $10. I planned to spray a base color and then put the decals on to spray the main frame color over that before removing the decals. Eventually, I settled on navy blue and a golden yellow for my color scheme to match my school’s colors.
The only problem I really faced was that I didn’t let the base color cure for long enough. It may have been a good idea to let it sit longer or spray a light clear coat over it before applying the decals. What ended up happening was that when I removed the vinyl decals before clear coating the entire bike, it peeled up some small chips from the base color. It isn’t super noticeable, but it would be nice to have a perfectly perfect paint job. That said, I’m pleased with how it turned out. I also sprayed the fork for fun and for practice, even though I planned to buy a carbon fork to improve the ride.
Building it Up
- Rear wheel
- New Shimano 105 11-speed rear hub and new double-butted spokes to rebuild the rear wheel. I didn’t have any experience building wheels, so I learned on YouTube and used the rear triangle as a built-in truing stand. The wheel has held up so far.
- Bottom Bracket
- New Shimano Hollowtech II BB.
- New take-off Shimano FC-RS500 crankset from Craigslist. I removed the included 50-34 chainrings and used them to replace the worn rings on my road bike.
- Used Wolf Tooth elliptical 42t drop-stop chainring from FB Marketplace. I found this ring for a steal and it was exactly what I was looking for. I’d never used an elliptical chainring before, but I don’t think I have a preference either way.
- New 11-46t Shimano CS-M7000 SLX cassette.
- Bars & Stem
- Used Salsa stem and alloy Ritchey WCS flared drop bars from Craigslist.
- Sensah SRX 1×11 groupset from eBay. The groupset included shift/brake levers and a rear derailleur that claimed to be compatible with 46t cassettes.
- Used Ritchey Carbon cyclocross fork from Craigslist. I initially bought a ZERO carbon fork, but the head tube on the Sirrus was quite long, and it was too short. The Ritchey is nicer anyway.
- Used Kenda Small-block 8’s – 35mm – from Craigslist. I’ve heard of people having issues with these tires, but they’ve worked well for me so far.
- New WTB Volt poached from my sister’s new Surly Cross-Check. She got a different saddle and I took it as payment for helping her with maintenance.
I’ve been maintaining my own bicycles for years, but there were some aspects of bike building that I was unfamiliar with. I consulted YouTube (mostly RJ the Bike Guy) for help.
I’m thrilled with how the bike turned out. For under $500 all-in, I have a good-looking, smooth-riding, uber-capable gravel rig that is fast on tarmac, fast on gravel, and a joy to pedal on both.
Below are a couple pictures of some delightful roads it has taken me down to date:
My future plans for this bike revolve almost entirely around the 2021 Day Across Minnesota gravel bike race. I’ve listed below the main upgrades and adjustments I intend to make to this bike to get it race-ready for 240 miles across my home state.
- Whisky no.7 carbon setback seatpost – to smooth out the ride even more, and I’ve always wanted Whisky parts on a bike. I think I can finally justify the cost.
- New saddle – I’ll be testing a few out over the summer.
- Panaracer Gravelking SS 35mm tires – should be perfect for the DAMn course and I’ll be converting my rims to tubeless. They’re the stock rims, drilled for Schrader valves, so I hope I can make it work.
- 11-42t cassette – the 46t cog is nice for climbing really steep grades, but I won’t need it for the DAMn and will benefit from slightly smaller gaps in my gearing.
- 44t or 46t chainring – preferably from Wolf Tooth. If I can find a used one for a discount, I will probably get it. It will be nice to have a little more top end speed than the 42t provides.
- 3 bottle cages – with stops approximately every 60 miles, I think I’ll need to carry 4 bottles (I don’t want a CamelBak). I’ll carry one bottle in my jersey
- To achieve this, I’ll be using the Wolf Tooth B-Rad system to hold 2 bottle cages using the single cage mount on my down tube.
- Custom Frame Bag – I’ve already written a post on this, more to come.
- SRAM Rival 1×11 groupset – I currently have this on my commuter at school. I will be taking it off and bringing it home with me. I have the shifters, BB, crankset, and rear derailleur. The Sensah has worked well and I like the shape of the hoods, but I have heard stories of them failing mid-ride and would rather not deal with that in the middle of a 240-mile race.
If you have any feedback for me or ideas for me to try, I always appreciate brainstorming and experimenting with different approaches. Head to the “Contact Me” link and shoot me an email. Or leave a comment on this post. Thanks for reading!