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Buying an off-the-shelf gravel bike vs. vintage MTB conversion?

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Buying an off-the-shelf gravel bike vs. vintage MTB conversion?

Old 07-14-22, 04:33 PM
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willydstyle
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Buying an off-the-shelf gravel bike vs. vintage MTB conversion?

What are the pros and cons to each approach here? I know that drop bar conversions end up costing a lot once you start factoring in the price of the bars/stem/brake levers/shifting and replacing all the cables to work with the new components. So is there any advantage to converting a vintage rigid MTB other than just cool factor?
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Old 07-14-22, 04:39 PM
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Converting an old bike can be interesting and fun. That said, I wanted a gravel bike and bought myself a really nice one. It checks all the boxes, gravel specific drivetrain, big (700 x 45 tires, Spiffy looks, good fit and it doesn't feel unresponsive compared to my terrific road bike. I could possibly have done some work on my touring bike conversion wise, But I have been having a ton of fun riding my brand new gravel bike this year
Plus, I haven't bought a new bike in over 10 years
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Old 07-14-22, 05:21 PM
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Biggest advantage of converting a vintage 26er? If you already have the parts on hand, the conversion cost is pretty much your labor.

Biggest disadvantage of converting a vintage 26er? If you lust after a gravel bike, you'll probably want 700c wheels over 26". Also, prices for 26" stuff are going up as the supply evaporates.

The bike above is a 26er path racer I built up from a Schwinn Montague folding bike. Other than the bike ($40 Goodwill purchase) and a set of different wheels ($20 private sale), I had most of the parts on hand, so overall cost was minimal. Lots of fun to build and ride.
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Old 07-14-22, 05:32 PM
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Steve B.
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Biggest issues in my mind are should you use drop bars with STI and want any kind of mt. bike derailers, cassette, etc... you need to deal with incompatibility issues between road and mountain groups. A lot of research would be needed to find out what components play well with each other. Brakes as example cam be problematic to get road shifters pulling cable adequate for V or Cantis. I almost did this a few years ago with a 1990 vintage hard tail. I had sold the rigid fork and replacing a 1" steerer fork was expensive. The concept is great in my mind as a 26" wheeled mt. bike that takes 2" tires would make a great gravel bike, IMO.
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Old 07-14-22, 05:39 PM
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Originally Posted by willydstyle View Post
So is there any advantage to converting a vintage rigid MTB other than just cool factor?
IMO, there is no performance advantage, and the smaller wheel size and rim brakes might be a disadvantage, depending on your riding conditions and terrain.

I've got a buddy in the throes of doing such a conversion to his old Voodoo, and so far it's been a pain in the backside for many of the reasons outlined by Steve B.; he's seriously considering chucking it and getting an actual gravel bike. You may get better results, of course.
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Old 07-14-22, 05:51 PM
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Camilo
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Another option is to find a cyclocross bike. The down side is the rim brakes and usually a ~35mm tire size limitiation. However, I used one for about 10 years and it was great.
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Old 07-14-22, 06:19 PM
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Agree with all comments above, I think it really comes down to what kind of experience you want to have. If you're a big geek for building up bikes as a hobby, it can be really rewarding to turn that 26er into a personalized treasure and rip it all over the place. But if you want a more "road-ish" geometry and modern amenities like disc brakes, maybe an "off the rack" gravel bike is the way to go.
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Old 07-14-22, 06:32 PM
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And as additional though, disc brakes on a modern gravel bike allow some greater flexibility with different tire sizes. I run a 2nd wheel with skinny road tires, swapping wheels is painless. Im in the process of trying to fit 40mm tires on a touring bike with V brakes and cannot get the inflated tire past the pads, I need to inflate after the wheel is installed. Thats not an issue on a disc bike,
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Old 07-14-22, 06:50 PM
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I prefer building a bike though depending on what I have frame wise I might want something newer. Plus depending on where I plan on riding a newer bike with a more current tire size like 700c or 650b as there are more options for gravel tires.

I personally would not want a frame with a quill stem but I personally am not a huge fan of quill stems especially if I wanted to run alt-bars or more modern 31.8 bars. I like a nice 4 bolt faceplate and a threadless steerer tube so I can find fork more easily.

If you have a good parts bin then I would probably build something which I have done a bunch but my favorite bike is a new frame with 700c wheels but a decent portion of the parts were from the bin.
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Old 07-14-22, 07:07 PM
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I still ride 26” Mtb’s, including one that has fairly steep head/seat angles and a short wheelbase. I built both bikes from the bare frames.

In my opinion, there are no pros and only cons. I can build one if I wanted to and still wouldn’t waste my time.

I’m sure many will disagree, but the coolness of a drop bar 26er has probably left the station.

Just go buy a gravel bike.

John
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Old 07-14-22, 07:47 PM
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Depends on what you want. I did a DB conversion on a 1993 Trek 970. Threadless stem was stock on the bike. Bike is in like-new condition. The conversion ran me about $200. $25 for shifter/brake cable set including housing, shifters are Tourney 3x7 speed $67 (returns on Amazon..they work perfect), bar tape $25, inline barrel adjuster for front derailleur, $45 for bars(Ritchey Ergomax), $25 stem. Fast(good tires), comfortable, fun bike to ride. I run street/touring tires on it(Schwalbe Big Bens) and use it as a touring bike.

The front/rear derailleurs are XT(original). I had/have no issues with shifter/DR compatibility. The rear DR is completely compatible with road shifters(well known), the front DR seems to work like you'd expect any triple DR to work. Just set it up like any other (road) DR and no issues. An inline barrel adjuster helps with the setup. Road shifters and canti brakes(original) are compatible. Gearing is 46/36/26 in front(XT original) and 12-32 in the rear(original was 13-30). Wonderful bike.

Is it a hip and trendy 1x..no..but I'd rather have the triple. While I can afford something new, I tend to place more value on a bike like the one I have. As I said..depends on what you want.
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Old 07-14-22, 08:29 PM
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Originally Posted by willydstyle View Post
So is there any advantage to converting a vintage rigid MTB other than just cool factor?
Starting from an old MTB is usually driven by convenience and/or economy. They're used because they can often be found cheap, are versatile as a base to built from, and often already have a lot of parts on them suitable for the final build; sometimes they don't need any "converting" at all, if someone wants to ride gravel on flat bars.



I got my '84 Stumpy for a drop-bar conversion six years ago.
I wanted a drivetrain that would give a good sprawl of gears (in terms of both range and spacing) for spirited road riding, and some super-low bailouts for the steep gravel roads in the foothills. This can be problematic even with current gravel groupsets, but in 2016 the options were pretty much hopeless. The Stumpy already had a traditional wide-range setup built around a 48-38-24 triple, which was a reasonable starting point. Its cylindrical seat tube also leaves a lot of room to fudge with the FD and chainring setup, compared with newer frames with braze-on FD mounts (or no ability to attach an FD). The 1.5-step 3x8 triple is very good for my purposes, and required changing very few things.
I also wanted versatility with respect to space and mounting. The Stumpy can readily fit tires over 2" wide, and those fenders mount very nicely and with reasonable clearance. In 2016, a lot of gravel bikes were stingy.
I also really liked the color that the previous owner powder coated it with, the overall aesthetic has worked out great.
Finally, I got it in near-rideable form for around $250. Even after making a bunch of changes, it was far cheaper than buying and modifying a new gravel bike would have been.

Consider what you want from your gravel bike, and get something suitable. If you're looking at a vintage MTB and you're not sure why you'd want to buy it, then it probably doesn't make sense to buy it.
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Old 07-14-22, 09:38 PM
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Very few drop bar 26er conversions look good. Like very few.
The c&v forum has a years long thread on this very topic and for every 1 good looking 26er drop conversion there are 5 goofy looking conversions due to geometry(or the person not having the correct size frame).
Old rigid mtbs can be good starting points or they can be terrible- there is a wide range due to the geometry changes taking place in the 80s and 90s. Some will have very long top tubes and a low front end which creates all sorts of fit challenges.

Shaow bottom bracket drop of older rigid mtbs also isnt what I want in a gravel bike. I want to sit in it vs atop it and a larger bb drop helps make thst happen.

Personally I wouldnt care about brakes too much. Good canti brakes with new pads can work fine. Or v brakes will work too if you just buy travel agent converters and install on each brake. Disc really isn't needed. It's nice, but hardly needed.

I converted an early 90s hybrid to a drop bar gravel bile and my brother in law did the same with an early 90s Trek 750. You get 700c wheels, older frame styling, lower cost, less wonky geometry, etc etc. Pretty much the best of all worlds.
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Old 07-14-22, 11:03 PM
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Originally Posted by Camilo View Post
Another option is to find a cyclocross bike. The down side is the rim brakes and usually a ~35mm tire size limitiation. However, I used one for about 10 years and it was great.

^ Totally agree with this. CX bikes feel right at home on the road, and as long as you don't get too deep into the gnar, they're as capable as a gravel bike offroad. Maybe find a used Surly Cross-Check. It's got that old school steel & canti vibe, with plenty of room for rubber.
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Old 07-14-22, 11:22 PM
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Originally Posted by Rolla View Post
^ Totally agree with this. CX bikes feel right at home on the road, and as long as you don't get too deep into the gnar, they're as capable as a gravel bike offroad. Maybe find a used Surly Cross-Check. It's got that old school steel & canti vibe, with plenty of room for rubber.
The old canti-braked Kona Jakes of various levels are great too and I tend to see them quite often for sale. I ended up with a Jamis Nova Pro which I was very happy with and only replaced it with a Lynskey GR300 because I was rendered crazy with spend-o-holism after the second stimulus check last year. I won't call it crazy n+1ism because I gave the Nova Pro to a MTB-ing friend and he's learning to enjoy drop bar riding on mixed pavement, gravel and easier single track stuff.

Another good thing about rim-brake cyclocross bikes that probably come with 9 or 10 speed shifters is that good wheelsets can be easy to deal with and pretty inexpensive. Cassettes are readily available, and rim brake wheel swaps from my experience are just a bit easier than disc brakes. I had two wheel sets for the Jamis, one with really skinny (23-25mm) tires for pure road riding and the other with 36s. With the skinny tires it was 90+% a full-on road bike. With the fatter tires, it was 99% as capable is my current "real" gravel bike with similar tires. The only exception that I can put fatter tires (650BX50) on the Lynskey, but usually ride with the same set of tires I took off the Jamis.

Another down side to a "real" cyclocross bike is the gearing. They come with weird pretty much specific cyclocross racing gearing, cranksets and rear clusters that - for me - lacked the high and low gears I prefer. i actually retrofitted mine with a 50/34 double and a MTB cassette (11-34) and RD.

Last edited by Camilo; 07-14-22 at 11:28 PM.
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Old 07-15-22, 12:01 AM
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Originally Posted by Camilo View Post
Another down side to a "real" cyclocross bike is the gearing.
That's an easy enough fix, as you said. Mine's a singlespeed, and is probably my favorite bike in the garage.
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Old 07-15-22, 05:01 AM
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Originally Posted by willydstyle View Post
What are the pros and cons to each approach here? I know that drop bar conversions end up costing a lot once you start factoring in the price of the bars/stem/brake levers/shifting and replacing all the cables to work with the new components. So is there any advantage to converting a vintage rigid MTB other than just cool factor?
Going singlespeed makes the whole conversion process a lot easier and cheaper...I converted my Surly 1x1 to a gravel bike. All I had to do was purchase drop bars, a stem, drop bar brake levers which are compatible with my mechanical disc brakes and a set of 700cc wheels/tires. The most expensive part was the wheels, I went with a really good quality strong durable rims and hubs. But you don't really need to spend money on wheels, you can just keep you original wheels if you want to keep the cost down. Nothing wrong with a 26 inch wheeled gravel bike.
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Old 07-15-22, 05:06 AM
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Originally Posted by Camilo View Post

Another down side to a "real" cyclocross bike is the gearing.
I think people stress themselves too much about "proper" gear ratios ....And what is a "real" cyclocross bike or gravel bike ??.
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Old 07-15-22, 09:19 AM
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Take a look at these gravel bikes. https://www.renehersecycles.com/unbound-xl-was-epic/

Competition success so it works. These bikes are basically re-created vintage skinny tube road bikes with massive tire clearance. Jan is riding his own re-created 1930s/1940s Nivex derailleur. Together with a rod actuated suicide derailleur in front. Both are riding re-creations of Mafac cantilever brakes. Will note that Mark was confident enough it would work to do the race on a bike that he had only previously tested for 15 miles. Jan used the same bike earlier this year to set Fastest Known Time on the Oregon Outback course. If you think top 30 is not much to brag about recall that these riders are 54 and 58 years old.

Yes, an old MTB will be just fine. They are not all the same and the way they get equipped will not all be the same. Play with your bike and see what happens. If you try something dumb that doesn't work well try again. Most of the time it is going to work.

No one here seems to follow geopolitics. How about the Tour de France? Teams there are using last years parts and some are even using 2020 parts. When the top pros and their sponsors can't get what they want you won't either. Get ready to go through your parts bins, get ready to cannibalize old bikes you can find.
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Old 07-15-22, 10:23 AM
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Making a pig's ear out of a pig's ear will be costly and ultimately not all that satisfying.

I would recommend deciding how many $ are available and perhaps make some sort of decision based on that.
But that might just be me.
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Old 07-15-22, 10:51 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B. View Post
....A lot of research would be needed to find out what components play well with each other.
Fortunately all that research has already been done, and there is a lot of real-world experience to draw from right in these forums. I'm pretty sure there is an entire thread for drop-bar conversions, and this is sometimes discussed in the C&V forum. I've done that conversion on several of my bikes.
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Old 07-15-22, 12:06 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfchild View Post
I think people stress themselves too much about "proper" gear ratios ....And what is a "real" cyclocross bike or gravel bike ??.
Look at a CX race bike sometime. 46/36 X 12-25 is not what I'd choose for gravel. And don't assume those who like to dial in their gearing are "stressing themselves." It's really not that complicated.
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Old 07-15-22, 06:09 PM
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This is one of my "gravel bikes". It's an '89 Trek 970 Singletrack. Up until a few weeks ago I had drop bars on it but I'm trying out these Soma Oxfords (Nitto Albatross) and so far I'm liking them. Tires are currently Continental Travel Contact but of course with a MTB frame and 26" wheels, you have a very wide range of tires you can use on these bikes. I also have a '93 Trek 930 and a '95 Rockhopper, in different configurations of handlebars and wheels. I even use one of them (the 930) as an actual mountain bike.

Fully-rigid MTB frames from the late-eighties through about the mid-nineties are very versatile. Look for something that's full DB chromoly - frame, rear triangle, and fork.

What makes it work for me is that I'm perfectly satisfied with the 3x7 gearing that these usually have. That makes converting them to a gravel bike, touring bike, upright townie, whatever, pretty much a question of wheels/tires, and handlebar/cockpit setup. If you go drop bars you usually need new shifters and brake levers, but it depends. I also included a picture of the "cruiser" I built for my wife. That's built on a '96 Rockhopper Ultra and that's for smooth roads and paved trails. You can do a lot of things with these frames, and a gravel bike is something they do well.

And yes, the 970 below that I'm calling my "gravel bike" performs that job very well. The roads where we live are all hardpack dirt and some gravel, and that comprises most of our riding.



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Old 07-15-22, 06:13 PM
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Originally Posted by Jeff Neese View Post
This is one of my "gravel bikes". It's an '89 Trek 970 Singletrack. Up until a few weeks ago I had drop bars on it but I'm trying out these Soma Oxfords (Nitto Albatross) and so far I'm liking them. Tires are currently Continental Travel Contact but of course with a MTB frame and 26" wheels, you have a very wide range of tires you can use on these bikes. I also have a '93 Trek 930 and a '95 Rockhopper, in different configurations of handlebars and wheels. I even use one of them (the 930) as an actual mountain bike.

Fully-rigid MTB frames from the late-eighties through about the mid-nineties are very versatile. Look for something that's full DB chromoly - frame, rear tubes, and fork.

What makes it work for me is that I'm perfectly satisfied with the 3x7 gearing that these usually have. That makes converting them to a gravel bike, touring bike, upright townie, whatever, pretty much a question of wheels/tires, and handlebar/cockpit setup. If you go drop bars you usually need new shifters and brake levers, but it depends. I also included a picture of the "cruiser" I built for my wife. That's built on a '96 Rockhopper Ultra. You can do a lot of things with these frames, and a gravel bike is something they do well.



I want a mountain bike frame to do something similar. I want to be able to fit the 2.3" wide Rene herse tires and will probably use similar handlebars.
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Old 07-15-22, 09:55 PM
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Originally Posted by wolfchild View Post
I think people stress themselves too much about "proper" gear ratios ....And what is a "real" cyclocross bike or gravel bike ??.
What I was getting at saying "real cross bike" are the bikes sold off the shelf as factory built-up cyclocross that I saw back in the rim-brake, 10 speed cyclocross bike era when I bought my Jamis frameset used. My wife's used Cannondale 10 speed cyclocross bike came with the same gearing. They very typically had something like 46/36 cranksets and 11-26 +/- cassettes. I liked neither the 46-11 high gear nor the 36-26 low gear. To me, that was just impractical gearing - but probably well designed for what a cyclocross racer would see on a typical course - no need for either normally high or super low gearing on a cyclocross course that a road rider or a mixed surface/gravel rider would prefer. I have no idea what cyclocross bikes are marketed with these days. I think they now have disc brakes and probably 1X 11 or 12 speed gearing? I don't know what an off the shelf cyclocross bike now has for high and low gearing or if there's any consistency at all. But there are some differences between what a gravel/mixed surface rider would want vs. someone who rides on a cyclocross course.

And yes I do "stress" over gearing because I know which high and low gears I need for my age, fitness and terrain - in other words what's proper for me. I don't call it "stress", I call it simply knowing what the rider wants and needs for their age, fitness, terrain, etc, and actually going out and getting it rather than putting up with impractical gearing. Why imply that it isn't a good thing to do?

Last edited by Camilo; 07-15-22 at 09:59 PM.
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