The Gravel Bike: What, why and how.



Buckle up folks, this one is going to be a long one!

I mentioned in a previous post that I had the intention to build a gravel bike and that has now come to pass!

I had been toying with the idea of building a winter bike for a while but anytime a potential road frame came up there was just something that didn’t feel right and stopped me from pulling the trigger. It took me a while to figure out why I was so hesitant to get another road bike but what it boils down to is that I miss going off road and a lot of the road bikes I was looking at all felt a little…sterile or soulless.

I love road riding, but there’s so many more routes that open up to you when you have the ability to swing off road on to gravel tracks, bridleways and single track.

I decided that any new bike I was going to buy/build had to be something that made me smile each time I take it out. I wanted to recapture that sense you got as a kid when you went out on your bike for the day not really knowing where you were going. That sense of fun you would get from bombing a hill faster than you really should be for the type of terrain and then coming home with a massive smile on your face after it all.

It had to be something I felt a connection with. There’s way too many bikes out there that I have looked at and felt absolutely nothing about in the sense that they don’t excite me in any way, shape or form (Giant bikes, I am looking at you!) and there was no way I was going to invest so much time, energy and money into something I didn’t care about.

Also, as my son gets more and more into cycling, he wants to ride longer distances and the roads around where I live are dangerous enough at times as an adult when it comes to dealing with traffic so being able to take more off road routes gives us the chance to get out together for a few hours without having to worry about cars….just livestock!

So without further ado….the gravel bike is born!

Frameset: Brother Cycles Kepler Disc 

I wanted to go for a steel frameset for comfort and durability. I’m a big guy and dealing with the off road conditions needs something with a bit of strength. Built with 4130 double butted chromoly steel, it doesn’t necessarily have the panache of saying its built with Reynonds or Columbus tubing and the 4130 tubing has been a staple of steel frames for a number of years. Whilst the frameset it self is manufactured in Taiwan along with a lot of others, Brother Cycles are UK based and the framesets are all designed in house by them and they’re approach is that If we wouldn’t be happy owning it, we wouldn’t be happy selling it. 

I prefer dealing with smaller companies where possible. I love my Ridley, but when I had a warranty issue a few years ago, it took months of chasing to get it resolved and was incredibly frustrating to deal with. When I had a question about the derailleur hanger setup, I had a response from James (one of the founders/owners) within a few hours.

Brother don’t have a huge product line (2 complete bikes and 6 framesets), but that’s not a bad thing. If you are focusing on making sure that the products you do put out are quality pieces of kit then to me, that is what matters. Do what you do well and having a huge product line isn’t as important. I suppose gravel bikes/adventure bikes/bikepacking (however you want to define it) is still more niche than road riding or mountain biking is so the companies out there have to be producing quality kit or they’ll just be cast by the wayside.

Lastly (I promise!), just look at the colour scheme!! None of that bland, one colour boring paint job here!

Groupset: Sram Apex 1×11 Hydraulic Disc

For the type of riding I plan on doing a 1x groupset made sense. It’s simple to maintain and will give me plenty of range for riding gravel/off road as well as the option to slap on some nice wide tyres for winter road riding. A 42 tooth chain ring and 11-42 casette means plenty of climbing capability even on steeper gradients with a 1:1 ratio I’ll be able to keep a higher cadence rather than having to grind away (as I had to on the Marmotte)

 

Wheels: Hunt Wheels 4 Season Gravel Wheels

Another British company with a great reputation. I will admit I was on the fence about Hunt Wheels previously when I wanted a new set for my Ridley but I have yet to hear anyone who has a set provide negative feedback.

Given that my aim is for this bike to be durable (and sticking to a budget) carbon wheels were not an option but after talking to my riding buddy Karl who has this exactly wheelset it was another easy call to make. At a stated weight of 1629g they are mid range in terms of weight but have plenty of positive reviews

They were fast to ship even though they were listed as being on backorder arrived ahead of the scheduled deliver and contain everything you need to install six bolt discs and immediately run tubeless. Win-Win!

Tyres: Panaracer Gravel King SK (Tubeless Compatible)

OK, there was a moment of lust when I picked these tyres. I LOVE the brown/tan sidewall look and given the awesome reviews and how popular these tyres are it was a no-brainer. I mean, just look at them:

 

Finishing Kit

New Deda Stem and then whatever bits and pieces I had lying around, mostly PRO cycling components (Bars, Seatpost etc.

 

The Build Process

I’ve never built a bike before. Tinkered with one? Yup. Replaced parts? Yup. Built one from the ground up? Not even close! This was always going to be a learning experience and was from the get go. I came back from a weeks holiday in North Wales (Check out Henbant farm and campsite as it was an amazing place to stay!) to a lot of boxes which I’d had delivered to my parents house in my absence.

[Picture of boxes etc]

I was not in a rush to build it, sure I wanted to get it built and get riding but I also wanted to learn more about bike building as I went.

The first thing I did was to install the headset with a home made rig my uncle Vince pulled together and it worked like a dream. I missed taking a photo of it, but it consisted of a piece of threaded bar, several large washers, two bolts and some wrenches. Honestly, this was one of the parts I was most nervous about as it obviously involves pressing one component into the frame but it went surprisingly smoothly.

Next up, the bottom bracket. No issues and nothing exciting to speak of.

Setting up tubeless tyres on the wheels was interesting, but again, we perhaps got lucky here and everything went relatively smoothly with minimal sealant covering everything. Personally, I love the tan sidewalls!

The only part that was tricky was that as I had ordered the groupset form a company in Germany the brakes were back to front to what I am used to and whilst they came pre filled and pre-bled, I was not looking to accidentally send myself over the handlebars when mistakenly thinking i am applying the rear brake. Combine that with the fact that the hoses were about 25cm too long for both the front and the rear, this meant I was about to get very acquainted with the process of draning, sizing, filling and bleeding hydraulic brakes. But that was part of the reason for building instead of buying. Anyone can buy a bike, and sure, a lot of people can build a bike, but I never had.

After a quick trip to Halfords (The LBS didn’t have any bleed kits) I was elbow deep in cable cutters, DOT 5.1 Brake fluid and syringes for of the stuff. This was at the point where I learned the value of not rushing things and respecting the process. The brakes are integral, so I wasn’t taking any chances with half-assing things and rushing the installation. I wanted to be confident that everything worked perfectly and after watching and re-watching the GCN video on bleeding SRAM hydraulic brakes they were installed and working perfectly. Another new skill acquired.

Next up, it was the derailleur and gear cable to be installed. After an hour of tweaking the indexing was done and everything was shifting as it should be. No front derailleur meant that was it for the groupset. We were now within spitting distance of the finish line.

Lastly and perhaps the most crucially was cutting the steerer tube. I was bricking it about this part, so after a judicious application of spacers and many adjustments the steerer was marked and entrusted to the hands of my uncle Vince to make the cut.

I was like a kid at Christmas at this point. Once that was done and we installed it all, it was just the bartape to be done and I was done. I had built my first bike!

And here it is!

I am smitten with this bike.

It’s not the lightest or the highest spec, but its what I wanted.

I know every little nuance of this bike and how it works. I love how it looks and I love how it rides. It makes me want to just go out and anywhere for a ride.

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