You open the door and flip the light switch. The dank smell of the basement first hits your nostrils as the strip lights flicker lazily for a few seconds. These eventually warm up and fill the small room with a cold, harsh light.
The walls of the storage room are lined with the dusty carcasses of once loved bicycles. Someone made a choice to buy each of these bicycles, but most are now forgotten. Some are clearly used on occasion, their tyres pumped up and frames less dusty. The rest make for a tragic sight, perhaps their owners have moved out of the building a long time ago, perhaps the bikes will never be used again.
My KTM hybrid bike lay against the back wall, and was slowly heading in that direction. The chain covered in a light coating of rust, the tyres completely flat. After all, the last two years were dedicated to the road bike. In 2020 I got hooked – I loved the speed, the ideas of where I could travel, and how far I could travel in a day.
An itch to scratch
The leaves are now turning orange, and slowly falling off the trees, covering the ground in a fine blanket of orange and brown. On most mornings, the air is frosty and the tops of the nearby hills are hidden in mist. It’s time for gravel biking.
It was an itch I had to scratch. In the midst of the recent craze of gravel biking (something between road and mountain biking), I’m conscious that I don’t have a gravel bike. I could buy a newl bike of course, but I already have two road bikes and my old KTM. With the current economy, it just wouldn’t seem particularly prudent to spend several thousands on a bike I might not use too often.
That’s when a thought occurred to me. When I last used my KTM two years ago, I did enjoy some light off-roading but became frustrated about the lack of grip on my road oriented tyres, an unsuccessful search for more suitable tyres, and my general lack of fitness. On reflection, over the last 2 years this type of riding has become called “gravelling”. Perhaps I already have a gravel bike?
The last time I rode the KTM, I couldn’t remove the pedals, the disc brakes squealed, and the hydraulic brake systems desperately needed bleeding. Now filled with excitement, I booked my KTM in for a service at my local bike shop, and I was advised to get a new pair of knobbly 40mm gravel-dedicated tyres.
Two days later the phone rang and I was told that the KTM was ready. Back in the shop, it looked like a brand new bike. Yes, I’ve taken care of it previously and made some upgrades, but the design is minimalist and quite modern – classic KTM black and orange. Optically, the new tyres really made the difference, and it stood there, looking like a lean mean gravelling machine.
The test ride
The next Saturday, I went for my first ride off-road. I had planned a particularly steep climb to test both the bike and myself. This started off with an asphalt sector with a fairly consistent 16-20% gradient, eventually turning right onto a dirt sector which was covered with rocks and leaves.
I have never modified the gearing of the KTM, which I previously understood to be a generic “hybrid” bike. It has a now rather old fashioned 3x crankset (three rings up front) – today 2x and 1x are common, with the latter preferred on mountain bikes. This means I have 48/36/28 on the front, coupled with a 11-32 cassette on the back.
In its smallest gears, this gives me a 0.875 ratio, which is very nice for climbing up steep hills. At best, my road bikes have a 1.000 ratio (same size ring at the front and cog at the back). On my test ride, the KTM managed its way up the 20% gradients very well, and I made it to the top without stopping. Upon reaching the dirt sector, I lost my confidence and had to give up and push, but I’m sure I could have made it with more training and confidence.
The route I picked included some flats and downhills as well. The front lockable suspension worked a dream, and I was very happy that I previously installed a dropper post, as this allowed me to push down the saddle and easily shift my body weight when the surface got sketchy. As I rode through a well-used forestry road (essentially a mud bath), the new knobbly tyres bit through the mud and slime.
Back on the tarmac, the big gears gave me a 4.63 ratio, almost comparable to compact road bike gearing, which allowed me to reach 40 km/h on the flats even with the chunky tyres.
On Sunday, I decided to go for a longer ride with a group of gravellists around another nearby hill. Everyone was kitted out with a mixture of gravel bikes (carbon, aluminium and steel frames) and a couple of cross-country mountain bikes.
Riding the KTM I managed to follow the pre-planned route without issue, travelling along gravel, asphalt, grass fields, fire roads, muddy forest paths and single track. The bike performed admirably, and I really noticed the fitness I had built up over the last two years.
The gravel / mountain bike bug has really bit me (again). I’m already on Komoot looking for new off-road and steep routes in my area. Over the last year, I’ve been following races such as Unbound Gravel and the Silk Road Mountain Race with fascination. Following my recent long-distance experience, I now want to try an ultra-endurance gravel ride. This could be something as short as a long day in the saddle, maybe something with a few thousand metres of ascent, perhaps up the side of a mountain range.
Bought in 2008, my KTM is a bit of a paradox in today’s world. I’ve always understood to be marketed as a “hybrid” bike, essentially a well built bicycle which performs well on and off-road, but excelling in neither. It is often cherished by commuters and bike tourers, however this is perhaps what drove my to road bikes – given the choice, I wanted to pursue more speed on asphalt rather than pure mountain biking.
That being said, the KTM essentially occupies a niche which gravel bikes have recently filled. Narrower tyres that a mountain bike but with an aggressive profile, a more upright riding position, and generally designed for speed but also light off-road capability. I always knew the KTM was well equipped, already having disc brakes in 2008, a wide range of gears both for speed and climbing, front suspension, and a lightweight carbon frame.
Curiously enough, there is already the expectation that gravel bikes may soon be equipped with front suspension. As mountain bikes become more aggressive with solely dedicated to off-road riding, this may be a justifiable niche.
If this doe happen, the only difference between the typical gravel bike and my KTM would then be that I have flat bars rather than race-style drop bars. I have some ideas on new handlebars though – watch this space.
The bigger picture?
I rediscovered a 14 year old bike which I had almost left abandoned in my basement. With my minor upgrades, I took an excellent touring platform and made it into a bike which competes with modern gravel / cross-country mountain bikes. I have also rediscovered a passion and a new hobby.
Yes, I could have bought a new gravel bike, but this would have cost me a lot of money for little comparable benefit.
In today’s state of the world, this find got me excited. How many people have got things lying in their basement or their attic, simply because they stopped fulfilling their purpose a few years ago? It can be a bicycle, a tool, clothing, a toy, anything.
Maybe with a quick repair, a service, a fresh coat of paint, some tender love and care, any object can find new life and purpose. Whilst we are certainly far away from resource scarcity in many cases, we have become a consumption-driven society. So many things today have been designed only to be discarded, creating problems with waste disposal and pollution.
With inflation on the rise and fewer bike components available, instead of immediately looking to buy something brand new, perhaps it’s now time to have a look in your basement. Take a look at second hand markets. Why not start a new restoration project? Maybe try a new shape of handlebar? Different brakes? Friction shifters? Different profile and sizes of tyres?
People such as TheRadavist, Seth at Berm Peak and Path Less Pedalled are particularly inspiring (one conversion video as an example). Their blogs and videos are an eye opener for me, especially where many people get a bike and either leave it as is, or make only the upgrades necessary to make it faster or perform better. Why not make it more fun or more unusual? Path Less Pedalled even shows how to build a bike specific for fly fishing, another hobby of mine.
These last two years, it’s become a trend to repurpose old 90’s mountain bikes into gravel bikes. I did think about doing the same, but I already had my KTM lying around. Now that I have repurposed it, the thought of the rides I can now do fills me with excitement. Where will I go? Who will I meet? Where will I sleep? I might do some races on it, and learn some skills – I certainly want to learn to wheelie and bunnyhop, maybe even learning how to ride downhill trails and tackle jumps.
Why not recycle your cycle?