Gravel Culture: Why DIY?
Gravel Union On
29 June 2020
Olly looks into why you might consider building your own dream gravel/adventure bike, rather than going for an off-the-peg factory produced one.
“That’s a bloody abomination” said the lycra-clad cyclist with a very strong Yorkshire accent. He didn’t realise he was a) talking about my bike and that b) I was standing within earshot. I was secretly pretty chuffed with his comment. I’m not generally a very “stand out and try to be different” type of guy. I don’t have a blue sprayed Mohican haircut, I’m a tattoo-free zone and with the exception of a strange addiction to properly-ironed Italian shirts, I don’t dress that differently to the rest of the world.
But when it comes to bikes, I’ve always had a slightly anti-establishment view on what was right. It started way back in 1991 when I decided that drop bars (fitted at a somewhat rakish angle) were the ideal accompaniment to a perfectly ordinary mountain bike. At the time I thought I was destined to be the new John Tomac (whereas actually it made me look like a bit of a berk and as you can tell from my facial expression, it didn’t really improve the bike)
I then spent the next 25 years ignoring trends and happily plotting my own route through cycling life – a predilection for 1.5” MTB tyres when everyone else was running 2.0” or bigger, flat bars with bar ends when everyone else was running riser bars, a love of non-indexed thumb shifters when STI shifters were de rigueur and a violent allergy to dropper posts meant none of my bikes ever really fitted in with the herd. It wasn’t any better away from the MTB scene either – I started running disc brakes on my CX bike back in 2008 and used a homemade tubeless set-up for years, when the considered opinion was that they were too troublesome and that tubes were best.
With a history of riding something slightly odd, none of my riding friends were really that surprised when I turned up on a regular group night ride on this:
I got some good natured ribbing along the lines of “hope you’ve got a good dentist when all your fillings are shaken out” and “if you die, we’re going to leave your body at the side of the trail”, but also a surprising amount of positive comments. Pretty much everyone wanted to do the “carpark heft” test (around 8.5kgs is the answer…) and I had a quite a few offers of people wanted to use it on the climbs.
The basis of the bike is a Trek Procaliber 9.8 SL frame. It’s decently light, has clearance for tyres up to 2.4” and the Isospeed system really takes the edge off typical gravel/adventure riding, making for a significantly more comfortable ride. I’ve fitted a Shimano XT Di2/Ultegra Di2 mash up groupset (as I built this before Shimano GRX was released) and then fitted as many bump-absorbing, lightweight carbon bits as I could afford/justify. The bike is currently wearing its summer wardrobe so has very minimally treaded 2.3” Bontrager tyres fitted, which I run at 17psi/1.2bar. They’re somewhat sketchy on gnarlier/MTB terrain (or if it’s just rained), but are crazy fast and offer an impressive amount of cushioning.
Getting the fit right was a bit of a struggle, with quite a lot of time spent measuring/re-measuring, comparing with existing bikes, scribbling figures on the back of envelopes and head scratching. A modern XC MTB is designed to be long and low, which is great and ideal for creating the basis of a fast gravel/adventure bike, but the effective top tube is long. 617mm long in fact. This compares to 566mm on the equivalently sized Trek gravel bike. In order to make the stretch reasonable I went for a 50mm stem – the shortest I’ve ever owned and about the only part of the bike which is on-trend!
So, the big question is, why bother? What’s the point in buying a perfectly decent bike and then taking off half of the components and replacing them with something totally different? Surely bike designers and engineers have sweated every single detail to make factory-built bikes work perfectly and fit perfectly?
And the simple answer is of course, (mainly) because I can! Where I live I have great riding straight from the door, but it’s by no means gnarly. My nearest proper mountains are 2 hours drive away and everything close to home is a mix of gravel paths, fast-but-smooth singletrack, forest trails and moorland tracks. The kind of trails that are slightly too lumpy to be fun on a CX bike or ‘traditional’ gravel bike, but way too gentle to warrant riding a modern XC MTB on.
All of the bikes I’ve ridden over the past 30 years have had one thing in common – I wanted them to feel fast. I’m by no means a top level racer and have no aspirations of entering world cups (or even local CX races any more), but I do want my bikes to feel fast. A bit like choosing to drive an old car with no power steering, slightly shonky brakes and manual wind-down windows. Think 1960s Mini Cooper S versus the modern BMW Mini. It won’t be as practical, or safe, or comfortable, but I would be willing to bet it’s a heck of lot more involving (and arguably more fun) to drive.
Everyone who has ridden the Monster (as it’s known) have used the same phrases to describe it – fast, fun, sketchy. It’s way too much bike for most “pure gravel” rides – certainly on the Strada Bianche of Tuscany it would be entirely out of place, but in this current Covid19-affected world, where most of us are riding from home, staying local and looking for the most fun-per-minute that we can find on local trails, then my homemade Monster is (in my view anyway) the perfect bike.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in an off-the-peg bike, there is an alternative. If you have deep enough pockets you could go full custom and get something built from the ground up, but you can equally build something perfectly suited for you with some careful research and some rootling through the bits box you probably have stashed away in your shed.
Why DIY? Why not.