Gravel Culture: Going custom

Posted By Gravel Union On 19 February 2021

Spending time building your own gravel bike is incredibly rewarding, but can lead to marital disharmony, not to mention financial ruin if you’re not careful. So, with these pitfalls ready to catch you out, why should you bother? Olly delves deep to find out.

“Who are you again?” said my wife in only half-joking tones, as I came back into the house at nearly 11pm after spending “Yet another” evening working on my bike. For most ‘normal’ gravel riders, the process of finding the perfect bike to ride involves some internet research, seeking opinions from friends, a couple of bike shop visits, some deliberation over a beer or two, deciding what size/colour/configuration you want and then putting down some cash. Your new bike arrives. You beam from ear to ear and then take it out and ride the hell out of it.

But for some slightly ‘special’ gravel fans (and I include myself firmly in that category) the thought of buying an off-the-peg bike is somewhat of anathema. In the past twenty or so years, I reckon I’ve only bought two complete bikes. All the rest have started life as a combination of a frameset and boxes (and boxes) of parts. For me, half the fun in owning a bike is the build process. By choosing every single aspect of the final build, I end up with something not only custom* built for me, but by doing the build as well I’ve invested time, energy and care into the bike and that must make it ride better, right?

*I should say that although I describe my bikes as “custom”, they’re not custom in the sense of a custom-built frameset. The frames are factory built, but then I choose the spec and the details to create a final build that is perfectly suited to me.

For those of you who have been reading Gravel Union for a while, you might have read this which was all about why I wanted a #monstercross bike in the first place. Essentially, I was looking for the fun, speed and sketchiness of a CX bike, but with the durability and surefootedness of an XC MTB.

In the summer of 2020, my Trek Monstercross was 4 years old. Not old by any standards, but even though I’d been super careful with how I looked after it, the frame was starting to show signs of being ‘well loved’. Some scuffs here and there. A couple of divots out of the paint. Not the end of the world and it didn’t affect how the bike rode, but it was looking a little tired. I decided it was time for some housekeeping.

I’d always loved the look of bikes where the paint job was coordinated and the frame, forks and stem either matched or complimented each other. I did a bit of head scratching, looked for some inspiration on some of the fantastic on-line design tools that are available and came up with a design. I was working firmly on the keep-it-simple-stupid principle and decided that pale grey (RAL 7001 Silver Grey, for anyone who is interested…) with gloss white graphics was the way forward.

I packaged up the bits and sent them off to my painter of choice and a remarkably short time later, Stu sent me a small collection of images to show how the paint job was getting along. Perhaps I’m just easily pleased, but seeing these shots set off little tingles of excitement and I couldn’t wait to get them back and start on the build.

Building a bike up during a global pandemic, where the supply of spare parts had dropped massively, meant I spent many hours hunting for the little bits I needed. I wasn’t changing anything really significant, but it was surprising how once you start thinking “oh that bit looks a bit scruffy, maybe I’ll change that too” you rapidly end up with a much smaller bank balance and a daily visit from the postman delivering “yet more bike bits”.

After twenty years of putting my own bikes together, I’ve learned that the build process is likely to take way longer than I initially allow for. If I’m doing it properly (every thread cleaned and appropriately greased, helitape put on all the potential rub spots, shrink wrap fitted to exposed cables, sound insulation put inside the down tube to stop rattling etc etc etc) you can lose entire days of your life on it. Or evenings in my case, as I was doing it after work. I’m sure that a pro-mechanic with all the skills, experience and tools handy could do it in the half the time I took, but jobs like feeding the Di2 cables through the handlebar to get to the junction box just took soooo much time.

When you build a bike up yourself, you can choose how much time to spend on getting it ‘right’. I’ve sweated all the details and tried to get the build as close to perfect as possible. In the end I reckon I spent around 30 hours on the build. At this point any bike shop mechanic would laugh, roll their eyes and ask why I bothered. In purely commercial terms spending so much time on one build makes no sense at all.

But every single time I look at this photo I think it was worth the effort. Of all the bikes I’ve built, this one is the one I’m most proud of. I’ve shown the photo to quite a few of my friends and although some of them don’t understand why anyone would choose to ride a bike like this, all of them have approved of how it looks.

I’d just better hope that it rides as good as it looks now then.

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