Gravel bikes are all the rage right now among cycling enthusiasts. With their rugged construction and versatile tire clearance, gravel bikes allow riders to explore backroads, trails, and unpaved terrain. If you already own a mountain bike, converting it to a gravel grinder can save you money compared to purchasing a dedicated gravel bike. This transformation can also give your existing mountain bike new life and expanded capabilities.
Benefits of Converting Your Mountain Bike to Gravel
Turning your mountain bike into a gravel bike offers a number of advantages:
- Save money – Purchasing a brand new gravel bike can cost over $1,000. Converting your current MTB costs a fraction of that price.
- Familiar feel – You’ll get the same fit and handling you’re accustomed to with minor component tweaks.
- Lighter weight – Swapping to slick tires and removing suspension can drop pounds from your mountain bike.
- Improved efficiency – A gravel bike rolls faster on pavement than heavy knobby mountain bike tires.
- Enhanced versatility – With a wider gear range and smoother tires, you’ll be able to ride gravel, pavement, trails, and beyond.
Factors to Consider Before Converting Your Bike
While turning your MTB into a gravel grinder is fairly straightforward, there are some key considerations:
- Frame clearance – Make sure your frame has room to fit wider gravel tires, generally 40-45mm or more. Measure clearances carefully.
- Brake reach – Wider tires may require longer reach brakes. Check if you have adjustment room or may need new brakes.
- Bottom bracket drop – A lower BB drop improves gravel bike stability. Your MTB may have a higher BB height.
- Suspension – Dialing out suspension improves pedaling efficiency on gravel. Consider locking out or removing front forks.
- Tire tread – Larger, smoother gravel tires will vastly improve speed and handling on pavement.
- Gearing range – Swapping your cassette for a wider range of gears helps power up steep hills.
Step-by-Step Guide to Converting Your Mountain Bike to Gravel
With the right parts and some mechanical know-how, you can convert your MTB to gravel relatively quickly. Here are the key steps:
Upgrade Your Tires
The #1 change to make is switching from knobby mountain bike tires to smooth rolling gravel tires. Look for tires around 38-45mm wide with shallow tread lugs. Popular gravel tire options include:
- Maxxis Rambler 40mm
- WTB Byway 47mm
- Panaracer Gravelking SK 43mm
- Specialized Pathfinder Pro 42mm
Wider tires at lower pressures provide more compliance and traction on rough terrain. Install tubeless if possible for fewer flats.
Remove or Lock Out Front Suspension
Locking out front fork suspension improves pedaling efficiency on gravel. Consider removing front suspension completely if you want a lighter rigid setup.
Removing front suspension:
- Disconnect brake line and remove brake caliper
- Loosen stem and handlebar
- Remove fork lower legs and crown race
- Install rigid fork
Upgrade Your Cockpit for Long Rides
Gravel riding often means long hours in the saddle. Enhance comfort with these easy handlebar changes:
- Add padded bar tape
- Install new ergonomic grips
- Fit clip-on aero bars for alternate hand positions
- Attach a bento box to your handlebars for food storage
Optimize Your Gearing
The ideal gravel gearing balances low range for steep hills with high range for fast downhills. Swap your cassette and chainrings:
- Cassette – Fit an 11-34, 11-36, or even 11-40 tooth cassette for easier climbing.
- Chainrings – Compact road cranks (50/34T) or a single chainring works well.
Improve Braking Power
Check if your current brakes have enough reach to clear wider gravel tires. Mechanical disc brakes with removable pads are easiest to adjust. Otherwise, new long reach caliper brakes may be needed.
Minor Fit Adjustments
Dial in fit by raising handlebars, going shorter on stem length, and experimenting with saddle position. Gravel riding places less demand on your body than trailing mountain biking. Optimize for comfort.
Optional Upgrades for Enhanced Gravel Capabilities
Take your mountain bike gravel transformation even further with these upgrades:
- Dropper seatpost – Improves descending control letting you drop saddle out of the way. Great for tackling rough terrain.
- Flared drop bars – Allows multiple hand positions. Improves control. Reduces fatigue.
- Tubeless wheelset – Creates an airtight tire/rim interface. Reduces risk of flats. Lets you run lower tire pressure.
- 650b wheel conversion – Fitting smaller 650b mountain bike wheels and tires adds more tire clearance.
- Carbon fiber fork – Drops weight. Soaks up vibration and enhances handling.
- Bikepacking bags – Attaching frame, seat, and handlebar bags lets you carry gear and supplies. Ideal for bikepacking trips combining dirt roads with gravel trails.
Gravel Bike Gearing Overview
Understanding gravel bike gearing helps you customize your MTB for off-road adventures:
- Cassette – Wider range cassettes with 40 or 42 tooth large cogs are common. Allows easier climbing.
- Crankset – Compact double (50/34T) or single chainrings (38-42T) give enough low-end range.
- Chain – Choose an 11-speed model to pair with 11-34/11-40 cassettes.
- Rear derailleur – Fit a rear derailleur with sufficient total capacity and a wide cage to handle 40+ tooth cogs.
- Shift levers – Compatible 11-speed shifters ensure solid shifting performance across all those gears.
Maintaining Your Gravel Bike
Once converted to gravel, ongoing maintenance keeps your bike running smoothly:
- Inspect tires frequently. Remove embedded debris. Seal small punctures with sealant.
- Clean your bike after muddy, gritty rides to prevent excessive drivetrain wear.
- Lubricate the chain every 100-200 miles with wet lube. Reapply after rain.
- Have suspension serviced annually. Change oil, bushings, seals to prevent leaks.
- True wheels as needed. Check spoke tension. Gravel can loosen spokes over time.
Gravel Bike Skills to Master
Developing key riding skills helps you handle technical gravel terrain with confidence:
- Proper cornering – Carry speed through turns. Don’t brake or pedal in corners. Shift weight to outside pedal.
- Descending loose terrain – Stay centered and light on handlebars. Let the bike move around underneath you.
- Riding standing up – Power up short steep pitches or combat fatigue by alternating standing and seated pedaling.
- Picking smooth lines – Read terrain ahead. Pick the best line instead of following others’ tracks.
- Stopping quickly – Get low with bent elbows. Weight over rear wheel. Squeeze brakes firmly.
Gravel Events to Try After the Conversion
Once you’ve successfully converted your MTB to gravel, it’s time to put it to the test at a real gravel event. Popular nationwide gravel races and rides include:
- Dirty Kanza – The original premier gravel race held annually in Kansas featuring 200+ miles of Flint Hills gravel.
- Gravel Worlds – Located in Nebraska. Multiple gravel distance options up to 150 miles.
- Grinduro – Combination gravel race and party held in various locations centered around camaraderie.
- Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder – Rides historic Oregon Trail on gravel roads around Idaho. Offered as a multi-day bikepacking event.
- Gravel Locos – Texas event in March with mileage options from 65 to 150 miles.
Frequently Asked Questions About Converting Mountain Bikes to Gravel
What’s the biggest difference when riding converted gravel bikes vs. mountain bikes?
The most noticeable difference is the increased speed and efficiency when riding gravel bikes with smoother tires on pavement. Mountain bikes use a lot more energy pedaling chunky knobby tires.
What are the best tires for converted gravel bikes?
Look for 38-45mm gravel tires with minimal tread from makers like Maxxis, WTB, Panaracer and Specialized. Tubeless tires can reduce flats.
How much does converting a mountain bike to gravel cost?
Budget $200-600 for key parts like tires, cassette, chainring. Saving money is a big benefit over buying a complete gravel bike.
Can I convert a full suspension mountain bike into a gravel bike?
It’s possible but not ideal. Locking out the rear shock can help. Removing front suspension is better. Consider a hardtail mountain bike instead.
How do I carry cargo on my converted gravel bike?
Add frame bags, seat bags and handlebar bags to carry gear. You can also install front and rear bike racks for panniers when bikepacking or bike touring.
Converting your mountain bike into a gravel bike can breathe new life into an aging MTB. With some affordable component swaps, you can transform your bike into a fast, capable gravel grinder ready for backroads and beyond. Dialing in the ideal gearing range, installing smooth tires and removing excess suspension are the most important steps. Then it’s time to hit the gravel and appreciate your bike in a whole new way.