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Best MTB frame for Gravel Bike project?

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Cyclocross and Gravelbiking (Recreational) This has to be the most physically intense sport ever invented. It's high speed bicycle racing on a short off road course or riding the off pavement rides on gravel like : "Unbound Gravel". We also have a dedicated Racing forum for the Cyclocross Hard Core Racers.

Best MTB frame for Gravel Bike project?

Old 05-15-20, 03:26 AM
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wagonfanatic
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Best MTB frame for Gravel Bike project?

I want to build a DIY gravel bike and I'm on a budget. I think my best path is taking a 26er MTB frame and adding drop bars and modern gearing (likely 1x9 or 1x10).

My question really pertains to the frame. I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can. I currently have a 1993 Gary Fisher Aquila...double butted Tange "evolution light" steel frame. How does this stack up to other used MTB frames out there? Is this frame a good candidate?

I know my bike won't be the lightest or the fastest, but I just want something fun that I can shred over all terrains.
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Old 05-15-20, 07:21 AM
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Originally Posted by wagonfanatic View Post
I want to build a DIY gravel bike and I'm on a budget. I think my best path is taking a 26er MTB frame and adding drop bars and modern gearing (likely 1x9 or 1x10).

My question really pertains to the frame. I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can. I currently have a 1993 Gary Fisher Aquila...double butted Tange "evolution light" steel frame. How does this stack up to other used MTB frames out there? Is this frame a good candidate?

I know my bike won't be the lightest or the fastest, but I just want something fun that I can shred over all terrains.
93 was the last year before Trek bought the brand. These might have the 1-1/4" Evolution headset; a new stem might be hard to source, should you need one. Other than that, its a mid level double butted NORBA hardtail frame.

93 catalog can be downloaded here

Last edited by DorkDisk; 05-15-20 at 07:23 AM. Reason: perhaps a quill to ahead adaptor for this size exists?
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Old 05-15-20, 07:43 AM
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Here's a thread on MTBR showing mtb conversions. https://forums.mtbr.com/29er-bikes/b...er-462507.html

and one on here Show Your Vintage MTB Drop Bar Conversions

Ritchey made a nice mtb back in the early 90s friend had one and I've always liked that bike.
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Old 05-15-20, 08:36 AM
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Originally Posted by wagonfanatic View Post
My question really pertains to the frame. I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can. I currently have a 1993 Gary Fisher Aquila...double butted Tange "evolution light" steel frame. How does this stack up to other used MTB frames out there? Is this frame a good candidate?
Frame geometry is, to me, way more important than tubing specifics when it comes to rigid MTBs from 25-25 years ago.
MTBs went thru a quick progression from '86 - '94 that completely changed the geometry and really affects drop bar conversions. Everyone's body measurements are different, so some may love one style of frame more than the other. Point is, there is a big difference and the 'best' frame from the wrong period is worse than a 'decent' frame from the right period.
In general durnig that 8 or so year span, MTB geometry shortened the wheelbase, shortened the chainstays, and lengthened the top tube.

As for what frame is 'the best', look for something that is double butted Tange, True Tember, or Ishiwata cromo and heat treated(but certainly not necessary). Triple butted existed too, mostly as a marketing gimmick, but some good bikes were built with Ishiwata triple butted.
If you can find a Tange Prestige tube frameset, that will for sure be a higher end frame.

MTB tubing was so stout back then that heat treated or not- the frame was a beast and tubing walls really werent too thin due to the nature of the sport.

TT OX Platinum, Tange Prestige(Richtey Logic Prestige too), etc- these were nice, but maybe 400g was saved on frame weight when compared to a mid-level frame made with Tangle Double Butted tubes.

Your bike's 'evolution light' tubing isnt a Tange model of tubing, its just whatever the Fisher brand decided to use that year for tubing- its a marketing name. No idea where it falls along the line of weight or 'greatness'.
But again, if it fits your body for a drop bar conversion, then its better than an MB0 that is ill-fitting, even if it isnt as light.
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Old 05-15-20, 10:09 AM
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Originally Posted by wagonfanatic View Post
...I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can....
I know my bike won't be the lightest or the fastest, but I just want something fun that I can shred over all terrains.
I'm confused. You do or don't want the lightest? I have a Klein from those days that may be the lightest, but you are talking steel? Anything from the mid 90's is probably good geometry wise - they are a lot like today's gravel bikes, but with a higher bottom bracket (which I like, but is not in fashion these days).
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Old 05-16-20, 09:58 AM
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I got this for a similar project - a Specialized rockhopper comp '94 double buttet cro mo. My only complaint is the 1 inch fork, making the stem availability problematic, but I have one 100mm for 1 inch and a oversized with a shim should work as a last resort. I also found cheap new old stock of both Pro 1 inch carbon spacers and Pro 1 inch ahead cap. The cantilever brakes would be replaced with two pairs of v breaks along with all other remaining parts that i have transfered from another bike and I definitely will use 3x7 gears.


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Old 05-16-20, 10:05 AM
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If you want to build a DIY gravel bike on a budget, it's tough to beat the MTB you already own.

If I were looking to save weight, I'd look around for an older MTB built from thin wall steel. My '93 Bridgestone MB 1 weighs 25 lbs stock; that's not bad for an old steel mountain bike.

Also the geometry on an old MTB may be a bit funky for a drop bar conversion so you may want to consider keeping it flat bar. There are a lot of good designs out there that allow you to use multiple hand positions. I like trekking bars. They're cheap and they work.

Last edited by bikemig; 05-16-20 at 10:08 AM.
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Old 05-19-20, 03:57 AM
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Originally Posted by wagonfanatic View Post
I want to build a DIY gravel bike and I'm on a budget. I think my best path is taking a 26er MTB frame and adding drop bars and modern gearing (likely 1x9 or 1x10).

My question really pertains to the frame. I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can. I currently have a 1993 Gary Fisher Aquila...double butted Tange "evolution light" steel frame. How does this stack up to other used MTB frames out there? Is this frame a good candidate?

I know my bike won't be the lightest or the fastest, but I just want something fun that I can shred over all terrains.

my 1990's rockadile... built several years ago. love it. bomb proof.
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Old 05-19-20, 08:52 AM
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92 KHS



Before the drop bar conversion



Before the rebuild

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Old 05-19-20, 12:38 PM
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Tire choices are a bit limited, assuming you want gravel-specific tires, for 26" wheels. I played around with converting my Cannondale SM1000 (circa 1991) and the wheels and tires where the biggest limiter. There options out there, but getting it the way I wanted started to blow up the cost-benefit.
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Old 05-19-20, 04:11 PM
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Panaracer Paselas come in 26 x 1.75 and make a good inexpensive gravel tire, comparable to Gravel Kings. You can also get 26" cyclocross tires or splurge on Compass RTPs in 26 x 2.2.
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Old 05-20-20, 05:35 PM
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Originally Posted by av1 View Post
I got this for a similar project - a Specialized rockhopper comp '94 double buttet cro mo. My only complaint is the 1 inch fork, making the stem availability problematic, but I have one 100mm for 1 inch and a oversized with a shim should work as a last resort. I also found cheap new old stock of both Pro 1 inch carbon spacers and Pro 1 inch ahead cap. The cantilever brakes would be replaced with two pairs of v breaks along with all other remaining parts that i have transfered from another bike and I definitely will use 3x7 gears.


This is what I thought of instantly! No suspension correction to deal with...
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Old 05-23-20, 06:38 AM
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Don't discount using an older hybrid bike and adding drop bars. Some of them were more high-end with road-bike based components, lightweight butted crmo or Al frames, and more sporty geometry. Models like Trek 7700 FX, Felt SR51/71/81, Marin Larkspur or the Jamis Coda series are examples.
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Old 05-25-20, 10:48 AM
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Is there a reason you are looking at 26"? You might be able to find a nice 29er on Craigs List that would also set up well for a gravel bike.
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Old 05-25-20, 11:14 AM
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Originally Posted by bluehills3149 View Post
Don't discount using an older hybrid bike and adding drop bars. Some of them were more high-end with road-bike based components, lightweight butted crmo or Al frames, and more sporty geometry. Models like Trek 7700 FX, Felt SR51/71/81, Marin Larkspur or the Jamis Coda series are examples.
This. Though the OP seems to be interested in steel bikes, high-end models of which with lightweight double-butted steel would include Trek Multitrack series, Schwinn Crosscut/Crosspoint, Miyata TripleCross, Gary Fisher Sphinx, and Diamondback Overdrive/Override. They would all make excellent gravel bikes and can fit 42mm+ tires, and the first two pop up relatively often on FB/CL. IMO a steel hybrid with 700C tires would make a better gravel bike than a 26" MTB, they're just faster unless you are dealing in the smallest frame sizes.

That said, your Gary Fisher Aquila is a nice frame. Nothing else is going to be that much better in terms of frame quality.

Last edited by c0rbin9; 05-25-20 at 11:21 AM.
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Old 07-27-20, 09:36 AM
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Originally Posted by vlicon View Post
Is there a reason you are looking at 26"? You might be able to find a nice 29er on Craigs List that would also set up well for a gravel bike.
If OP is going expedition touring, 26 is the default choice as tires, tubes and parts are universally available and can be found in Third World countries.

Not just for gravel biking but for bikepacking, adventure riding and road touring.
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Old 07-27-20, 03:34 PM
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IMO a steel hybrid with 700C tires would make a better gravel bike than a 26" MTB, they're just faster unless you are dealing in the smallest frame sizes.
I did this. I didn't ride the hybrid version much. Too much trail and too long a wheelbase for me just made the bike handle and accelerate too slow, so I dismantled it. It would be great for pure gravel though, when you valued stability over anything else, and aren't going racing speeds. My "modern" gravel bike doesn't handle a whole lot different from my 25year old mountain bike. Biggest difference is in the components (and that difference is huge). I don't think it is worth it to try to put drop bars on something with the low stack and short head tubes used back in the day. If I needed hand positions, I'd use a Jones bar and be done with it.
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Old 07-28-20, 02:04 AM
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+1 for starting with a frame you already have. If you do look for a new-to-you frame, another type of tubing to look for is Reynolds 853. For that matter, one can find used 26" titanium MTB frames for much less than a new bike would coat. 20+ year old MTBs are pretty terrible for single track, but good for drop bar gravel & bikepacking (albeit with relatively high bottom bracket, as already mentioned, which I haven't found to be a concern).

In terms of frame details, frames with 1 1/8" head tubes give you more fork options than 1"; I've had good experience with rigid carbon MTB forks from "carboncycles,cc", which come in multiple steerer diameters and lengths, brake mounts, and fork crown heights, for <$200. Also, you might be able to find a frame with disc brake mounts in addition to (or instead of) canti posts, which lets you fit 650b/27.5 wheels with up to 45-48mm tires even in a frame originally meant for 26" wheels, and there are now many 650b gravel tire options.

Finally, if you use a frame with a threaded headset, I recommend using a quill adapter so you can use modern 1 1/8" threadless stema, and also to help raise the bars. Old MTBs were designed with the bars below the height of the saddle, similar to road racing bikes, and raising the bars with a quill adapter or longer threadless steerer is more comfortable for many many people.
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Old 07-29-20, 08:52 PM
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Originally Posted by scubaman View Post
Finally, if you use a frame with a threaded headset, I recommend using a quill adapter so you can use modern 1 1/8" threadless stema, and also to help raise the bars. Old MTBs were designed with the bars below the height of the saddle, similar to road racing bikes, and raising the bars with a quill adapter or longer threadless steerer is more comfortable for many many people.
Anyone interested in going threadless on a threaded fork for a gravel bike conversion may be interested in this:
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Old 07-29-20, 09:32 PM
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Originally Posted by joejack951 View Post
Anyone interested in going threadless on a threaded fork for a gravel bike conversion may be interested in this:
The build in that YouTube video uses an "innicycle conversion headset" to adapt 1" threaded fork to 1 1/8" threadless headset and stem. I'd never seen that product, nor that approach, before! Looks like that product is discontinued. Anyone know more?

I've used standard quill adapters, which use the original threaded fork and a 1" threaded headset. Those can be a bit heavy, but they work fine, and also come in different lengths for flexibility in setting the height of the stem and bars.
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Old 07-29-20, 09:48 PM
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Originally Posted by wagonfanatic View Post
I want to build a DIY gravel bike and I'm on a budget. I think my best path is taking a 26er MTB frame and adding drop bars and modern gearing (likely 1x9 or 1x10).

My question really pertains to the frame. I want to get the lightest, strongest, and best used MTB frame a can. I currently have a 1993 Gary Fisher Aquila...double butted Tange "evolution light" steel frame. How does this stack up to other used MTB frames out there? Is this frame a good candidate?

I know my bike won't be the lightest or the fastest, but I just want something fun that I can shred over all terrains.
There are slightly lighter MTB frames, but I'd run with what you got. I wouldn't want to do 1x9 or 1x10 unless in very flat country. I'd likely try to dig up a cheap 2x road or CX crankset/BB/FD if using brifters.
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Old 07-30-20, 01:38 PM
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Originally Posted by scubaman View Post
The build in that YouTube video uses an "innicycle conversion headset" to adapt 1" threaded fork to 1 1/8" threadless headset and stem. I'd never seen that product, nor that approach, before! Looks like that product is discontinued. Anyone know more?
Time to come clean: it's my product

Not discontinued, just in between production runs. The product took some time to gather a following then quickly sold out. It's returning to the shelves by late August/early September with a few upgrades. You can read more here: Threadless Conversion Headset
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Old 07-30-20, 01:46 PM
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A general comment..
It's not like you have a wide range of readily available old MTB frames to choose from and one that happens to fit you or geometry you desire, it's going to be hit or miss. Use what you have until you find something else.

Last edited by u235; 07-30-20 at 11:02 PM.
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Old 07-30-20, 09:06 PM
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Originally Posted by joejack951 View Post
Time to come clean: it's my product

Not discontinued, just in between production runs. The product took some time to gather a following then quickly sold out. It's returning to the shelves by late August/early September with a few upgrades.
Very cool! I had no idea this existed, and am very happy to have discovered it. Seems like a genuinely better mousetrap. Cheers!
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Old 07-30-20, 09:07 PM
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+1} Pre suspension fork - 80's
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