My gravel-mutt has gone through two major iterations, the first of which used an aluminum comfort hybrid frame hung largely with cheap and/or free mountain bike parts. Later I upgraded a few components and swapped the hybrid frame for an old lightweight cross country mountain bike hard-tail. It was fun to put together (twice), and it’s fun to ride. It’s more than up to the task of the variety of gravel surfaces here on the Palouse.
The first iteration felt (and looked) a lot more like a typical road bike. But when I swapped the hybrid frame for an old mountain bike frame, things started getting a little bit more unconventional. The geometry is all kinds of weird for a drop bar bike: the bottom bracket is pretty high; the head tube is super short; the top tube is very long (so much so I got a frame size smaller than usual); the steer tube is uncut with a huge stack of spacers; the seat tube is way short so there’s a ton of seatpost sticking out; and of course the frame and fork are suspension corrected so there’s a big ol’ vertical gap between the top of the front tire and the crown of the fork.
It’s a unique looking ride. And it rides pretty well. For how high the riding position is, it feels surprisingly stable and confident on descents (not ideal for leaning into corners, of course). It’s pretty comfortable for long hauls, has huge tire clearance (I run 2” tires as often as anything else) and has wide enough gearing for my mediocre fitness level to tackle anything the Palouse offers.
So let’s do a little build breakdown:
- Frame: 2007 Gary Fisher Paragon – Unused old stock with a new Trek paint job. It’s lightweight and pretty stiff, but relatively compliant for aluminum. And the externally butted tubes make for an interesting look.
- Fork: MRP Rock Solid – This carbon fork is actually still in production. It’s kind of cool and weird. It has carbon tube legs bonded to aluminum dropouts and an aluminum crown. It was just laying around the shop.
- Wheels: Old Bontrager RXL 29 – These are used wheels that were rotting in a coworkers garage. He sold them to me on the cheap. And then one of the rims actually started disintegrating as I tried to clean them up and true them. The hubs seemed fine. So I replaced the bad rim, and re-laced both wheels.
- Tires: Bontrager XR1 Team Issue – Old stock. Good lightweight mountain bike tire.
- Brakes: Shimano BR-R505 – Antique cable actuated disc brakes. They still function admirably.
- Headset: Cane Creek 40 – No complaints. However, when I pressed the cups I didn’t align the lizards (I’m not worthy!).
- Saddle: WTB Laser V – I want to like him, but I’m not sure he’s gluten free. Jokes aside, I like the old stitch down leather saddles. Feels premium. And has held up pretty well for its age.
- Bottom Bracket: Truvativ Howitzer – Heavy, old, and strange by more modern standards. It has external threaded cups and a separate spindle that both crank arms are bolted to. Definitely not a design that stuck around.
- Cranks: Bontrager King Earl – Old stock. Heavy but solid. I think these were designed for downhill bikes.
- Front Derailleur: Shimano Nexave 3x – Incredibly cheap. Like free. Also definitely the part that wears out the fastest aside from the chain.
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano Alivio 9s – Used part. One of Shimano’s budget shadow derailleurs. It works.
- Shift Levers: Microshift Bar Ends – Probably the most convenient and cost effective way to adapt an old mountain drivetrain to drop bars. Super reliable.
- Brake Levers: Tektro RL340 – Simple, functional, comfortable and relatively inexpensive. These are the short-pull variety (RL520 is the long-pull option) because oddly the BR-505s are an early road standard disc brake.
- Bars: Salsa Cowchippers – (Most important for last!) I like how wide they are, but I sometimes wish they were shallower. I know there are shallower wide flared drop-bars out there (including Salsa’s own Woodchipper), but I can’t try them all! As outlined in my previous treatise on budget gravel bikes, these things are expensive! I’m not made of money! And all my opinions here are unsolicited and uncompensated (sad).
The shop I work at has an extensive “back catalog” of parts, so I’ve found a few funny old parts to hang on the bike. But generally these aren’t odd in the cool and collectible sense (at least not yet) they’re just uncommon to find on any bike in regular use these days. If you rode mountain bikes in the early aughts you might find some familiar bits.
Disclaimer: As a bicycle bell-boy there are definitely some discounts available to me. But more significantly, I have access to very inexpensive and sometimes free parts that are occasionally proffered to me by my friendly coworkers and the generous shop owner. All of this is to say that what was a relatively affordable build for me, may not quite work out that way for you if you lack the same resources. So don’t look to my build as an explicit guide to making your own budget bike, not even a rough model, more just a curiosity (gravel freak?), a peculiar conglomeration of hand-me-downs, inexpensive parts, and old inventory odds and ends.