September Blog - (building a great gravel racer on a budget)

bike build, Custom build, gravel bike build, Shimano GRX -

September Blog - (building a great gravel racer on a budget)


September Blog - (building a great gravel racer on a budget) was born out of our online mountain bike business: - We were excited to see mountain bike technologies like hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless tires taking hold in the drop bar bicycle segments. We saw a high level of excitement from consumers for these new breeds of road and gravel bikes and felt we could add a lot of value for customers by drawing on our mountain bike experience. Being lifelong cyclist we have experience in all disciplines of drop bar riding including cyclocross, track, road, and gravel. We firmly believe in the online sales model. This business model allows us to reach a wider consumer base than would ever be possible with a brick and mortar shop and allows us to make high quality connections in a very cost effective way. We understand buying a bike or bike part mailorder may not be right for everyone and every transaction, but we feel today’s performance bicycle consumer is highly informed on their purchasing options and values the convenience and variety of online ordering. Please let us know how we are doing or if there is anything we can do to serve you better. 

In this blog post we hope to share a few things that are currently giving us some stoke. This includes a recent bike built that is our first build with Shimano’s new GRX gravel specific groupset. We also share some thoughts on the current state of competitive performance gravel componentry and some stuff we just think is cool. Got your own ideas on these topics let us know:

We have just completed our first bike build with Shimano’s new GRX components. We think our bike builds are known for being very high value. Our goal is to find the “sweet spot” in terms of performance and value. We know today’s online bike customer has many options and is fairly cost sensitive. We would like to share some of our tricks for building a great gravel racer on the cheap. Our basic thesis here is to go with a used but in top condition frame-set, closeout 29er MTB wheels, and some well chosen progressive component choices. We feel a combination or used, closeout, and new components allows you to build a bike that punches well above its weight class (or price tag) - POW!!

Here is out build spec followed by a discussion of the thinking behind the major component choices - How did we do?  

Frameset (Frame, Seat-post, forks, headset)

Niner RLT RDO 59cm frame and fork

Chris King Drop Set 2 - matte turquoise

Cervelo carbon seat-post

Groupset (Front/rear mech, front/rear brakes, shifters, cassette, crankset, chain)

Shimano GRX 11-speed 1x11  

RX600 shiters / RX400 brake calipers

RX812 1x11 rear derailleur 

M8000 11-42 cassette

RX800 42T crankset 

HG900 chain 

RT900 rotors


DT Swiss Spline 1700 (2016ish?) 29er - 22.5mm internal width - centerlock

Ratchet freehub shimano 10-speed MTB  


Maxxis Rambler 45c front

Panaracer Gravel King SK+ rear


Spank Flare 25 - 46cm Vibrocore


Thomson Elite X4 - Jungle (CeraKote)

Bottom bracket

Wheels Manufacturing - PF30 to Hollowtech 2  


Ergon SL3 - large - Pro Carbon

Bar Tape, Water bottle, & Cages

Supacaz - because wild AF


Shimano XTR 

Why did we choose these parts for our gravel racer build and why is it cheaper in terms of cost? We think the cheapest but most viable option for most people to get into solid gravel racer is to start with a used cyclocross bike. In the build we did one previous to the Niner we built a used Pivot Vault 2 we found eBay. We paid about $600 for the Vault 2 frame with an eBay discount coupon on black friday. This frame was probably about $2200 new and we think maybe would have gone for about $1200-1400 for a used one without issues. Overall it was in good condition but was probably priced low for a used carbon frame because the headset was rusted out and the carbon steerer was cut fairly short so the stem could be slammed. If I had to guess this frame was probably used by a team for one season indicated by the low front end and lack of care on the headset after a wet CX season. The cool thing about living in the internet age is that it is easy to find geometry, specs, and owner’s manuals for older models online. Pulling the geometry chart we determined the large had a 575mm effective top tube (perfect for the intended rider) and we pulled the spec of the headset so it could be replaced. The headset replacement cost was about $40 for a Cane Creek 40 Series model. At the time it was bought The Vault 2 was a current model but Pivot has since released the Vault 3 which is even more gravel centric. A used cyclocross bike or frameset is a good starting point for a lot of people because there is a fairly strong used market for good cross bikes with good deals relatively easy to find. Cyclocross disc models have been on the market much longer than gravel specific frames. Late model used cross bikes will most likely have disc brakes, wider and better tire clearance than a used road bicycle, and geometry a little more suitable for off-road use. Buyers should be cautious in the used market. Sellers in the used market have trouble letting go off their well loved bikes and often overestimate the resale value. We like eBay for used frames because there a number of large scale used re-sellers there that have a process for evaluating condition and pricing it fairly, We also like eBay’s feedback system, this can go along way in determining the trustworthiness of a seller. Ok, that is all well and good but why are we discussing the Vault 2 when this build is clearly a Niner RLT? The Vault 2 build went well, the only hang up was the frame spec said max tire clearance was 33c (33c is the UCI limit for cyclocross tire width but most local race promoters in the USA don’t care or check). 33c tire size is great for CX but is probably narrow for gravel. Most current gravel racers are being spec-ed with 40c tires, We figured we could squeeze in a 35c but got a couple tires mixed up and installed a 38c Panaracer Gravel King, it actually fit very well without any rub in the corners. For our second gravel build we wanted to go with something a little more gravel specific. Here is what we were trying to correct over our cyclocross to gravel conversion. We saw many progressive gravel bikes were being built with longer top tubes and shorter stems and slightly slacker head angles. The 59cm Niner has a 585mm effective top tube, it has a taller head tube, clearance for up to 40c in the rear and we were able to fit a 45c Maxxis Rambler in the front that still had ample mud clearance. The longer top tube on the Niner allowed us to shorten the stem by 10mm relative to the cyclocross Vault 2. We thought the head angle would have been slacker than the Vault 2 but surprising it was the same at 72d in the larger sizes. We found the Niner RLT on eBay also. We did pay a bit more for this one at $1300 for the frameset with bottom bracket. It was in great condition. At the time of purchase this model was still current in Niner’s lineup but since then it has been replaced by a newer model. When it was new it was going for $2300. Our thinking on the Niner was to get a progressive gravel racer used as it would still be fairly current with many new models still coming to market. In addition to the longer front the Niner had longer thinner seat stays for comfort off road. We wanted to highlight the differences between these two builds because we feel it is highly relevant when it comes to time to transition from one’s first cyclocross gravel conversion into one’s first gravel specific frame. We saved about $1000 by going used and we were not disappointed, but we took the time to do the research in making a used purchase. I think it is worth mentioning that we are not a Niner or Pivot dealer. Why did we not go with a frame from one of the brands we sell? Fair question and there are a few answers. The Wilier Jena is a fantastic frame but in our mind this is a premium import, even at out dealer cost it would have been significantly more $$$. In these build write ups we try to give helpful info for customers on a tight budget. We also would have considered the Cinelli King Zydeco carbon but as of this writing it is not available yet. We do think that people looking for a great deal on a brand new turn-key gravel racer under $2k should take a look at the Cinelli Zydeco alloy, Money well spent at $1699 shipped in the USA. 

Swoop here:

For this build we wanted to stick with carbon frames and top end parts and see how much we could stretch the $$$ budget. Also, trying progressive frames from other companies allows us to stay current and try new things as well as understanding how to put together build kits for for different brands. Looking for a build kit? We do any and all brands and can put together the perfect build kit for your next build. 

Got questions? Email us: 


Let's continue our discussion with the component group.  

For this build we went with Shimano’s new GRX gravel group. Shimano is billing this group as the world's first gravel specific group with two main benefits 1) gravel specific ergonomics, and 2) gravel specific gearing options. We are loving these components and think Shimano has done several clever things so riders can make the most of this family of component options. 

Here is what makes the GRX line a winner in our minds - 

  1. Instead of going with very set levels of components like their road line, GRX is more of a family of components with several layers of performance levels and several parts being able to overlap in the different levels. Additionally these components are compatible with Shimano’s road and mountain chains and cassettes. There are also some unique parts like a left brake lever with internals for a dropper remote and inline brake levers for the flat section of the bars. In our mind the main layers are:

RX800 DI2 2x11 or 1x11

RX800 2x11 or 1x11

RX600 2x11 or 1x11

RX400 2x10 

Check out our GRX build kits here:

For our build we planned to go with the top mechanical shift / hydraulic shift group RX800 in a 1x11 setup - We decided to go with mechanical shift as we were looking to get the most performance for $$$. The price of the DI2 derailleur and shifter are not much more but all the wiring, wiring harnesses, battery, charger, and wireless unit adds about $500 to the cost of the electronic groupset. The RX800 DI2 shifters have a revised pivot location to give the best ergonomics, so we hope to try those units in the near future. We ended up going with RX600 shifters that are paired to RX400 flat mount hydro calipers as the RX810 rear shifter was not available at the time of the build. So our final build list ended as follows:

Shimano GRX 11-speed 1x11  

RX600 shiters / RX400 brake calipers

RX812 1x11 rear derailleur 

M8000 11-42 cassette

RX810-1 42T crankset 

HG900 chain 

RT900 rotors

We are very stoked on how this part group and build turned out. GRX delivers the light, crisp, and precise shifting you have come to expect from Shimano STI shifters. We would like to touch on three areas of this group; 1) the ergonomics - did this deliver on the promise? 2) gearing - did this deliver on the promise? And lastly 3) price and value- as we know this is always a concern for our customers.  

Gravel Ergonomics

To get the most of the GRX ergonomics we pair the new shifter/brake hoods with Spank’s new Flare Vibrocore 25 drop bar which has as you probably guessed, has a fairly extreme 25d of flare in the drops. The shift/brake levers are not just rebranded road units but newly shaped models for specially gravel usage. We choose this bar because on the mountain side we have been impressed by Spank’s Vibrocore tech. Vicrocore means there is vibration damping foam that has been injected and cured to the inside of an alloy bar. We think this tech works well for DH riser bars and does fantastic when using risers on motorized bikes like the motoped or Sur-ron, so we are very curious how it will do on gravel and can see how it would add comfort on gravel roads that have been graded and have that high speed road “buzz” effect. As of this writing we see SRAM’s ZIPP component line just release a new drop bar with flare at Eurobike. Zipp’s All Road bar is shaped in a way to keep the shifter hoods straight. They claim this keeps pressure off the wrists and is what the riders their polled riders wanted in a gravel bar. We mention this because we had the same concern about the GRX ergonomics and it was out first time riding with a heavily flared drop bar. After about three rides on the GRX set up our fears were gone. Surprisingly, we found when riding or climbing on the hoods our hands seemed to still put weight vertically down on the hood, even though the shifter/brake levers were at a slight angle to match the flare of the bar. Our rider normally rides a 44cm road bar but went with a 46cm flared bar to give the front end a little more stability on rough stuff and for when the gravel bike is used to ride single track. We did not experience any wrist discomfort or soreness with the GRX levers. We did however notice an increase in stability when riding on the hoods and in the bar drops. We find this is optimized by pointing elbows out slightly and the large flat section of the front of the new GRX brake levers make it very easy to grip the shift/brake lever firmly for riding a rigid fork gravel bike through rough sections. We should note,  when charging hard through rocky section on a rigid bike it still possible to hit rocks hard enough the hands get almost shaken off the hoods. We had to remind ourselves a couple times on some rough single track we are not on a 29er with a suspension fork. Overall we are very sold on GRX’s ergonomics paired with a flared bar, so much so our rider is considering switching his cyclocross and road bike to flared drop bars. We should note, we are still interested in trying Zipp’s All Road bar solution as well as GRX’s top of the range DI2 shifter that has the improved pivot locations. Shimano delivers on GRX’s ergonomics promise.      

Gravel specific gearing 

When we started researching on what gearing to choose for our build and whether to go with a 1x or 2x setup we started watching Youtube videos from some of the top gravel uploaders. We really like 1x setups from our mountain bikes and the owner of this build was already riding a SRAM Force 1x11 setup on his cyclocross bike with a 40T front ring and 10-42t cassette. The general consensus online for marque gravel events like Dirty Kanza, The Great Divide Race, or STB-GRVL, a double was ideal with a 46-30 front and 11-34 cassette rear. Keep in mind Dirty Kanza’s main event is 200 miles in one day and the Tour Divide is over 2700 miles over many days. We are thinking for most riders that are going to do 2-4 hour rides a few times a week the 1x setup is going to be more than sufficient as they don't need the range or the extreme low gearing for bikepacking loads. The other benefits of a 1x setup are significantly more affordable wheel options (discussed more in the wheel section below) and 1x setup also allows the use of a super grippy narrow-wide front ring, less complexity and weight by losing the front derailleur and maybe the front shifter internals. 

We understand some are interested in both options. so for the sake of this discussion we will discuss both 1x and 2x options as well as GRX’s main competition: SRAM AXS. So, in terms of a double setup Shimano’s RX600-11 crank uses a 46-30T this was exactly what our research seemed to recommend for longer gravel events. Furthermore, if the racer wants to game the competition by running slightly taller gears the RX810-2 crankset comes in a 48-31T. We concluded Shimano did their homework here to get the gearing right and give the gravle racing community the right options. In addition to getting the gearing right, they re-designed the front derailleur for the 17t jump and offset the rings about 2mm to give more room for meaty tires. A fair question would be “what about SRAM’s AXS?” in terms of purley just the gearing we think SRAM missed the mark a little here on double crank setups for gravel. I will explain what I mean. We are stoked on SRAM AXS and both the Red AXS and Force AXS have been good sellers here at . We find the most popular option in AXS to be 2x road setups with rim brakes for road usage, be we are seeing the HDR disc option catching on. The closest gearing option for gravel is a AXS double setup would be the the 46-33 crank gearing paired with the 10-33 12-speed cassette. This setup’s lowest ratio is 1 to 1, this still seems a bit too high for all but the most fit gravel racers. We are aware some of the fastest gravel racers are using full aero road bike builds with sub 32c tires and road gearing, but we think this is not practical for most riders. This leads use to believe that SRAM really intended the AXS double setup for road or pavement riding. Now, SRAM does offer what they call a “mullet bike (business front, party in the back)” option for gravel. This options pairs a 44t 1x front with a 10-50T eagle mountain cassette. This is achieved by pairing a AXS drop bar shifter with an Eagle AXS wireless rear mountain bike derailleur to run the Eagle mountain chain and cassette. This setup gives you a 4.4 to 1 top gear and about a 1 to 1.14 bottom gear, very close to the 1 to 1.13 low ratio a 46/30 with 11-34. We think the Mullet bike setup may be a winning option for gravel as it comes very close to our researched ideals and we like 1x packages. Here is a chart that summarizes our findings on gearing options: 

Conclusions / Notes

2x systems

Highest gear

High ratio

Lowest gearing

Low ratio

Shimano RX600




1 to 1.13

ideal setup for long distance events (by our research)

Shimano RX810-2




1 to 1.10

slightly taller





1 to 1

too much top, not enough bottom (road setup)

1x systems

Highest gear

High ratio

Lowest gearing

Low ratio

Shimano RX810-1 W/ 40T w/ 11-42




1 to 1.05

our preference for shorter events in Shimano

SRAM AXS (mullet w/ 44T) w/ 10-50




1 to 1.14

closest to ideal in AXS for long events

Shimano RX810-1 w/ 42T w/ 11-42




1 to 1

not enough bottom

SRAM AXS (mullet w/ 46T) w/ 10-50




1 to 1.08

too much top end

SRAM 1x 11-speed w/ 40T w/ 10-42




1 to 1.05

our preference for shorter events in SRAM

Gearing conclusions

When we listened to top experts and athletes in the gravel community, the general feeling was a 46/30 double paired with a 11-34 cassette was ideal for long distance top events. Shimano was the closest to ideal gear ratios by offering those ratios exactly in their less expensive RX600 2x11 line. Wait!, but isn’t a wider range of ratios always better? As you can see there were many offerings that added top, bottom, or both in terms of range, but we see two risks in adding unneeded range 1) if you have gears you almost never use we think that your bike may be suffering from dead weight or you might be better served by a 1x setup that allows a narrow-wide style ring and no front derailleur. Many long distance gravel events become about saving energy and being as aero as possible. We are thinking descents have to be fairly steep to utilize top end gear ratios that are 4.2 to 1 or higher and perhaps the racer might be better served by coasting and resting to recover in those situations. 2) We find when riders get tired they instinctively go to their lowest possible gear (no matter how low that gear is). Why does it matter? For shorter rides we think a typical gravel rider can go with even less range as the ride can be a shorter distance at a higher intensity. In comparison between Shimano and SRAM in terms of gear ratios only, everyone should be able to find something they like. For longer distance events we think Shimano GRX has the best ratio options for 2x setup, followed by the SRAM “mullet” setup that had similar range and ratios as the GRX double in a 1x package. For shorter events, distances, or casual riding we prefer the 1x setup with very similar ratios being offered by both brands, but we would prefer the older SRAM 11-speed to the “mullet” setup as it may have too much range for shorter distances and a heavier cassette for a given performance level. One other detail worth mentioning is that we did not look at increments between gears. Most riders are comfortable with 11-speed setups, SRAM is making the argument that AXS and Eagle are better because more gears, range, and smaller increments, we are also seeing some companies making the argument that fewer speeds (like 9 speeds), simplicity, and larger increments might be a winning formula. We will let the consumer sort out that question.    

GRX Price and value

We think at this point it is worth reviewing where we have been. On “gravel specific ergonomics” we think GRX is a win. On gravel specific gearing we think GRX listened to the gravel racing community and delivered a lot of options, but in terms of top of the line performance we would probably give the win to the SRAM AXS “mullet” because it delivers almost exactly the same ratios in a 1x setup which is lighter than a double, it offers the benefit of a narrow-wide front ring, and the simplicity no front derailleur. Lastly we look at price and value. Here are the current prices for each group- 

We think total group price tells much of the story in terms of value:    

AXS Mullet (Force AXS & Eagle X01)

AXS rear derailleur 


Force AXS shift/flat mount disc





Force AXS 1x DUB 44T crankset


GX Eagle chain 


XG-1295 cassette


2x Centerline 6-bolt rotors 



GRX RX815 DI2 2x11


e-tube wiring kit 


Shifter/brake front

RX810 L

Shifter/brake rear

RX810 R

Rear Derailleur


Front Derailleur 


Crankset (48-31T, 170, 172.5, 175)doubles





HG800 11-34t

2x rotors



GRX RX812 1x11

Shifter/brake front

RX810 (no shift)

Shifter/brake rear

RX810 R

Rear Derailleur


Front Derailleur 


Crankset (40t) (165,170,172.5,175) singles 





M8000 11-42t

2x rotors



GRX RX810 2x11


So, in conclusion to build SRAM’s AXS 1x wireless “mullet” group your looking at about $2700 for drivetrain and brakes compared to $2300 for Shimano’s top of the line electronic GRX DI2 2x group. Here is the kicker for us, we think most riders will opt for the RX800 level which is the top level mechanical shift / hydro brake group - This is the level we opted for in our value build. The 2x group comes in at about $1400 and the 1x group just about $1300. The group we built came in slightly lower as we went with the RX600 shifters and RX400 calipers. At about half the cost of AXS mullet and about $1k cheaper than GRX DI2, we think the RX800 level parts deliver an awful lot of performance per $$$. We are aware by going with a non electronic (wired or wireless) group we may be sacrificing those ultra precise fast shifts and light touch customizable buttons. In value terms, GRX RX800 wins hands down. 

Mountain bike wheels deliver the best value. 

OK, so far we saved about $1k by going with a carefully chosen used frame. We made the argument for GRX RX800 being the best value for a modern performance gravel group. The third major area where we create value is by going with a XC MTB 29er wheelset. I think most cyclists get why we did this right away, but we will spell out our argument for those who don’t. There are numerous high performance XC 29er wheels on the market that can be bought cheaply as closeouts or dirt cheap used. The mountain bikers have moved on from 22-25mm internal rim width rims for wider higher volume tire options, but on the flip side many top wheels brands are marketing new 22-25mm internal gravel wheels as the hot new premium ticket. Now, here is the part to get excited about both types of wheels use the same disc spacing and axles sizes: 100x15mm front and 142x12mm rear. 22-25mm internal width rims are perfect for 38-50c high volume gravel tires and the most 29er wheelsets will come pre-taped for tubeless out of the box. We bought the 2016’ DT Swiss “Spline 1700” wheelset on closeout from one of our suppliers for about $200 for the set, retail would have been about $300 and the original price back in 2016’ would have been about $1100! These wheels had DT Dwiss’s well loved ratchet freehub, straight pull spokes, and after giving these wheels a spin we are fairly confident they have ceramic bearings. We have heard of even better deals in carbon 29er wheel closeouts. So, are there any compatibility issues to be aware of with this strategy? Yes, our Niner had matching axles sizes so we were able to install these wheels without any modification, but many newer gravel frames have started using the 100x12 front axle standard, there are adapters available to go from 15mm hubs to 12mm axles, this will just add a little bit of additional cost to your wheel purchase. Perhaps a bigger issue here is 10-11 speed mountain hubs do not use the same size freehub as 11-speed road hubs. If your running a 1x setup with a mountain cassette like us you don’t have to worry about as 11-speed MTB cassettes like the ones used for GRX 1x overhang the spokes slightly and will have no spacing issues. 11-speed road freehubs are 1.85mm wider than their MTB counter parts, so if you plan to run a road double or a road cassette you may need to do a little modification to get your 11-speed road cassette to work with your MTB wheels. The easiest fix we have found is to get a new 11-speed road freehub (make sure you can find one for your brand of wheels before you buy the wheels, DT Swiss seems to be the easiest brand to find replacement freehubs). Now when the 11-speed road freehub is installed on the MTB hubs this will make the hub spacing about 1mm wider than normal, most frames (if not all) will accommodate an extra 1mm without issue, but this may throw your rear wheel’s dish off by .5-1mm. This is a very small amount but purist may want to re-dish the rear wheel. We want to again note this is only for 11-speed road cassette setups on MTB hubs, we think most people will opt for the 11-speed MTB cassette option that does not have this issue. In summary finding a deal on a set of 29er high performance MTB wheels can save you hundreds of $$$ and still provide prefect axle size, rim width, tubeless, and disc spacing for 1x setups! POW! 

(the GRX rear brake did not include and adapter for 160mm rotors - We used a TRP adapter - plan according for your build)

We have covered all the major area (frameset, groupset, and wheels) and how we saved cost on each, we just have a few more comments on some choice parts we are trying out. We upgraded the stock Niner headset to a Chris King Dropset 2, the spec was a perfect match, Chris King makes their own bearings that now have a lifetime warranty, and the matte anodized finishes are rich in color. Please hit us up if your looking to add some Chris King bling to your bike. We are very stoked on the tire setup we choose. Panaracer’s Gravel King SK is the current “gold standard” in gravel tires and made an excellent rear tire for speed on this build, it is worth mentioning it is relatively cheaper than other top shelf tires delivering the value. We wanted something a little more aggressive for the front and we love Maxxis’s MTB tires so went with the Rambler 45c in the front. We are calling our tire combo the “reverse mullet” because party in the FRONT, business in the back \m/ -  We also went with a unique and new Thomson Stem. The X4 is their MTB stem but we find it is a stiff robust option for drop bar bikes also. The ‘Jungle” color comes from a functional surface coating called CeraKote, which is primarily used in military equipment. Thomson claims the ceramic coating is superior to anodizing in terms of adding durability. We think ceramic coatings may be the future of MTB/CX/Gravel component finishes. Last but not least we went with Shimano XTR SPD pedals, we have owned many Shimano SPDs over the years, they never disappoint, with XTR being the lightest, and we are pretty sure Shimano’s spindles are the stiffest. 

That concludes our build review we hope you found it informative- Disagree with anything? Did we get it right? Need advice for your next build or upgrade project? 

Please drop us a message: 

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