Operation Gravel Grinder

Behind bars for life!

Behind bars for life!

I was at a vulnerable point in my life — a little bored with the status quo of running and searching for something new to work on this summer.  Knowing I was in this impressionable state, Levi swooped in and convinced me that the Gold Rush Bike Rally would be a really good idea.  It’s 35 miles (and 3500′ of gain) through the foothills of Boulder on pavement, dirt roads, some old rutted jeep roads, and a bit of single track. Raising money for a worthy cause, beer sponsor at the finish line, etc. Sure, why not?

But what to ride?  My trusty Felt road bike gets taken out and exercised in occasional bouts of spandexity and a serviceable hardtail sits underutilized in my garage as well. I’m protective enough of the former that I wouldn’t want to ride it on anything that might ding the paint. The mountain bike? Yeah, it would work okay, but would be drastic overkill for this sort of thing and I’d be hating life trying to keep up with people on the pavement. The ideal would be something mid-way in between the two; tough enough to take a little rutted road abuse, but sleek enough to not be a complete moose on the smooth stuff. Nowadays, the genre of bike that best fits this description is cycle cross (CX); a road bike, but built for inexplicable racing through mud and single track and carrying over obstacles; looks like a road bike but slightly beefier.  The problem: I don’t have a CX bike nor can I justify dropping $1k or so on one right now.

Maybe I’ll try building a bike of intermediate capabilities for this ride (and other adventures) and up my bike mechanic fu from a level 1 to a level 2 in the process.  The mantra is that you can never have too many bikes, right?  Come to think of it, I haven’t had a decent garage project (garagect?) in a while and some hands-on work would probably do me a world of good.  Could I convert one of my existing bikes into a CX bike? What about that old steel road frame I’ve got hanging in the garage?  Hmmm…  

After a nice refreshing bout of obsessive research, I decided what I wanted: general road bike geometry (drop bars, 700c wheels), medium-width treaded tires for the dirt but something that still will be ridable on pavement (32-40 mm width), more aggressive brakes for the steep descents (ideally disk brakes, but more realistically at my cheap-ass price point cantilevers), and a low gear range for the steep ascents (a triple chainring?).  Back in the day (presumably before CX racing became a thing), hybrid bikes were the midpoint between speedy road bikes and bombproof mountain bikes; they looked like an anaemic mountain bike with no suspension.  The term “gravel grinder” is apparently what I’m looking for and apparently this is something people actually build and ride. Okay!

Option A: converting an existing bike to gravel capabilities wasn’t really going to work. The old road frame doesn’t have the clearance for wider tires nor the hardware for canti brakes.

Option B: search through the pile of donated bikes at Community Cycle looking for something to meet my criteria: 58-61 cm frame, 700c wheels, mounts for cantilever (or disk) brakes. Everything else can be added as needed. In short order, I found a lovely sea-foam blue/green Diamond Back Cross-Campus hybrid bike which met all these criteria. It needed a bit of work to transform it from a mid-90s hybrid bike (the epitome of uncool) to a mid-teens gravel-grinding adventure bike (totally rad in all ways!).

The build:

With great glee, I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty. I stripped most of the pieces off the new blue bike and my old road frame and began assembling. Of course, vanity plays an important part in my cycling and one of the pieces which was non-negotiable was my old Stella San Marco leather saddle (with bronze rivets!). If building a bike around a beloved saddle is wrong, well, I don’t want to be right.

Starting conditions. Note the cute mini-fender on the rear. I came *this* close to putting that back on at the end.

Starting conditions. Note the cute mini-fender on the rear. I came *this* close to putting that back on at the end.

Lesson number one is that there are a lot more fiddly technical details about bikes than I’d realized. I knew the basics (there are two or three different standard wheel sizes, etc.) but figured that everything else was largely interchangeable.  Heh!  No!  Seat posts come in about 30 different diameters and the wrong size is not going to work, period. Derailleurs aren’t necessarily going to arbitrarily work with each other and brake levers can’t automatically be fitted to any sort of brakes. Etc. Etc. Accordingly, a lot of the pieces I’d hoped to reuse weren’t compatible with each other and I ended up having to get new (or “new”) parts.

Here’s where Community Cycles came in really handy. The nice thing about CC, besides the granola Boulder vibe and cool tunes, of course, is that members ($50/year) can use their shop (and pester their mechanics) for free. They’ve got all the tools I don’t have and an extensive collection of used parts (stripped from donated bikes) in bins to sort through, most of which are about $5 each.  While it was aesthetically unsatisfying to not recycle as much of my old gear as possible, it let me tune the new bike to have exactly the gear ratio, brakes, shifters, and bars I wanted just by digging through the parts bins. At about $5 per part, this didn’t break the bank either.

What did break the bank were the various unexpected parts that had to be acquired new. The bike itself was $75. The rear wheel turned out to be beyond repair, so a new one had to be acquired ($60). Certain parts just weren’t available in the used bins and had to be purchased new through a regular shop (Performance). Some items (cables, tires) it seemed like a good idea to pick up new. It all added up quicker than I’d expected and suddenly building my own bike was neither cheaper nor faster than just buying a fully-assembled machine from Craigslist or something like that.  I haven’t added up the final tally (probably best not to), but it’s probably in the $300-400 range, plus a couple dozen hours of my time.  It might have been cheaper and certainly would have been faster to buy something off Craigslist which would do just as well and be more flashy and modern.  However, the satisfaction of riding something I personally created is pretty huge and I have definitely upped my game in the bike mechanics department.

Here’s the total breakdown on the components and where they came from:

  • Original to the blue bike: frame, front wheel, brake arms, front derailleur.
  • Recycled from my own garage: saddle, pedals, stem, bottle cages, some cables and housings, assorted small parts.
  • Recycled from CC parts bins: brake levers, rear wheel, cranks, chainring (52/38/24), freewheel (7 speed 14-28), brake pads, bar end shifters, bars, rear derailleur.
  • New: seat post, chain, tires (32 mm “touring” tires), front brake hanger, some cables/housings, bar tape.

The result is a big blue bomber of a bike with the gear ratio from hell (52/14 all the way to 24/28) with decent components (Shimano Deore LX), stripped of all identifying marks (it’s no longer a Diamond Back), which will hopefully be ideal for the race and other fun this summer and more.

Smoke Test:

The bike is finished with still five weeks to go before the ostensible reason for its creation. I’d ridden the new blue beast around a few times including across Boulder, but had never really taken it out for an official inaugural spin. For the first official ride, I kitted up and went out for a quick (30 minute?) cruise on some of the local paved and gravel bike paths. Time to grind some gravel, see if anything breaks, and if it will do what I designed it to do.

Done! First real test ride.

Done! First real test ride.

Whenever you actually use something with which you’re intimately familiar, you can’t help being hyper-critical. Are the handlebars set too high? Hmmm, shifting is a little mushy going into the top gears. The brakes are rubbing a bit in the front? What was that weird clicking noise? What if there’s a crack in the frame or something?  However, after about ten minutes, the internal fretting and analysis were replaced by a feeling of exhilaration and an ear-to-ear grin.  Riding a bike is simply, awesomely, genuinely fun!

The 30-minute test ride turned into a 90 minute concatenation of a couple of my local trail running routes.  The Blue Meanie made quick work of the official CX course at the Louisville Rec Center doing things I never thought I’d do with a bike with drop bars. It climbed the very steep dirt trail segments in it’s bottom “ninja” gear like it was wearing crampons. It flew down the pavement at very nearly the speeds I expect from my skinny-tire road steed (a little bit more momentum, but smooth, oh so smooth!). The bar end shifters took a little getting used to and I found myself spending more time in a particular gear than I would with the combined brake/shifters I have on my other two bikes. I was moving across gravel at really quite frightening speeds, but the tires never seemed to slip. The big wheels rolled right over the small rocks in the trail and it was smooth here too.

Wheee! That was a blast!

Wheee! That was a blast!

Wow! That was really an extraordinary amount of fun and if subsequent rides are the same, this experience is time and money well spent.  And building the bike from the frame up made it even better; like the extra smug enjoyment you get from a meal you cooked yourself, a bottle of your own home brewed IPA, or watching your own kids do something clever and original.

Many thanks to Will and Knox at Community Cycles, Shawn at Performance, and friends Todd, Andy, and Dave for the patience and technical input.  Also Levi who talked me into this whole enterprise in the first place but has since dropped out of the Gold Rush Bike Rally.  Maybe if you ask nicely I’ll let you ride my bike.

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6 Responses to Operation Gravel Grinder

  1. Richard says:

    Very nice indeed. A little but surprised that on a frame that old you didn’t need to replace the headset or bottom bracket, but then the Boulder climate is fairly easy on bikes.

    Spot on about it being much more satisfying to ride a bike you have built yourself too. Something fresh out if a box might perform better, but it’s nowhere near as much fun.

    • cdan4th says:

      The bottom bracket was in great shape, surprisingly. The headset was a bit janky. It could probably use replacing, but I cleaned it out and figured I don’t turn much 😉

  2. shad says:

    You know CX season starts in Aug right? It is 40mins of fun every weekend.

  3. Bandit Andy says:

    Now you’re talking! If you fall in love with gravel, come to Iowa, we’ve got 55k miles of the stuff. If you want to ride here you don’t get much if a choice BUT to ride gravel. It’s really fun and from a native Iowan perspective, it has changed the way I see this land. From interstate commutes through city to city, so slow rolling the rural hills and towns, taking in views I’d never had the opportunity to appreciate before.

    One thing that will drastically improve your experience on gravel is going tubeless and some nice folding bead tires. There might just be a way to do that “ghetto” style in yer olde Blue Meanie if you get creative and go see what other ppl have done with “not tubeless ready” wheels. Heck, my HED Belgium blacks aren’t recommended for tubeless, but they do the job great anyways. Rolling a 37mm tire at 35psi is wonderfully squishy,forms right over those rocks and softens the blow of rutts and washboards.

    If you really get the gravel bug, get out and shoot some of those CO vistas for us will ya?! Cheers!

    • cdan4th says:

      Thanks! It’s a hoot. Much as the rolling corn desert sounds, the fire roads and gravel hills here in CO is probably what I’ll stick with! First, some better brakes, though, and maybe a lighter frame too 😉

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