Road to Gravel: My Peugeot Gravel Bike Conversion
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Back several years ago, I decided to start riding a bike again.
Sure, we all rode bikes as kids around the neighborhood and from house to house getting into adolescent trouble. As a kid, though, the thrill of riding a bike, no matter what the purpose, was freedom. When you're a youngster with no other mode of transportation, your bike is your best friend. It gets you from point A to point B, it jumps mounds of dirt, and it becomes a dirt bike with a strategic crushing of an aluminum can.
When you're young, there's nothing your bike can't do and there's nothing you can't do on your bike. The possibilities are limitless and the adventure is priceless. What's fun about all of that nostalgia is that it can manifest itself again as an adult. For me, it started as a fitness endeavor with a Wal-Mart bike that wasn't long for this world. From there, it progressed into a consignment-bought 1984 Peugeot PH-10 and quickly progressed into an all-road steed: my 2014 Felt F75.
For some time there, my F75 was my baby. I rode it at any opportunity, sweated in the hot Texas heat, and eventually decided to set goals, train, and test the limits of my endurance. Alas, after about 6 years of riding the Felt and getting into the structured training of TrainerRoad, the allure of riding fast on the road seemed fleeting. Over those years, the roads got more tired, drivers got more distracted, and my overall desire to be safer while getting a good workout kept me on the indoor trainer more than I would have liked.
For those reasons, I decided to build a gravel bike. It wasn't any gravel bike, though, it was a Phoenix of sorts. That kind of bike that rises from the ashes. Once thought dead, but is now given new life. You guessed it, I rehabilitated, re-worked, and rebuilt the ole Peugeot and converted it into a gravel bike: a do-it-all, on-or-off-road rig that could handle anything I put my mind to.
These sorts of builds aren't uncommon, but in the days where you could very easily purchase a gravel-specific bike, it almost seemed asinine to cobble together new components to build the bike I wanted. If any of you have ever built a bike from a frame, then you know that there are some costs associated with it that you wouldn't otherwise bear on a new off-the-rack build from a local bike shop. That said, I put my mind and my hard-earned money to the test.
From Concept to Creation: Building a Gravel Bike From Nothing
For some time now, I've wanted to build a bike. I've become increasingly more mechanically minded over the years: I can work on air conditioners, build furniture, complete simple woodworking projects, and do practically anything around the house that requires some common knowledge of construction.
Building a bike seemed to be right up my alley especially so considering the wealth of information available via YouTube. Heck, you can practically build or do anything with a good YouTube video.
For a novice bike mechanic, however, building a gravel bike from basically nothing is nothing short of a challenge. See, several years ago, I decided to break down and buy a set of bike tools from Performance Bike. The issues we have living an hour plus from a credible bike shop are that A) bike maintenance requires quite a trek and B) the spending on both fuel and a mechanic's time is better spent on purchasing good tools and learning a new skill. Needless to say, I had the basic toolkit (no pun intended) to complete a build from scratch.
The concept of this bike started from this article I found a while back about a Peugeot city bike that was converted into something far less city bike and much more do-anything machine. I knew if something like this mid-80s Peugeot could be converted into a bike worthy of Lost and Found, then my old Peugeot roadie could see a similar fate.
Starting From Scratch: A Stripped frame and Some Spray Paint
There are a lot of details in converting a nearly 40 year old bike into something modern, and most of them I won't be addressing directly. If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments or shoot me an email and I'll do my best to answer them. The little things were absolutely the things that took the most time but could also take up an entire blog post or two.
I'll spare you most of the more boring and monotonous details of building a bike to say that I started from dead nothing.
To start, I stripped the frame of its components, stripped the paint (in the most painstaking ways possible), and started with a bare steel bike frame. There are lots of YouTube videos out there about how to strip the paint off of a bike, but if you embark on one of these tasks with one of these older steel framers, be aware that they don't make the paint like they used to! The stuff is the real deal and very much made to be permanent.
I put some of my HVAC skills to the test and brazed a few mounts on the frame and fork for what I would most assuredly use for carrying extra gear, water bottles, and whatever a true adventure bike may need. A few Montana spray cans of primer, color, varnish, profanity, and a can of 2K clear coat later, I had a painted, workable bike frame.
Note to anyone who may burden themselves with this project: Montana cans are the way to go if you don't have access to a professional painting rig and be sure to use a good 2K clear coat to finish the job. I initially used the Montana varnish which made for a phenomenal finish, but it didn't actually protect the paint nor the finish. After contacting Montana, they recommended using a 2K clear coat which marginally helped, but the acrylic Montana varnish underneath the 2K refused to set and would, therefore, leave indentations from hanging the bike or leaning it against a surface for too long.
The Build Up: Kitting out an Old Bike with New Parts
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of this whole project was actually building up the bike. I've gotten spoiled over the last few years with integrated brake/shifters (more commonly referred to as "brifters") which offer not only convenience, but precise control on the road and require fewer hands to shift awkwardly mounted friction shifters which were mainstays of bikes until the integrated shifter became a thing.
One of my biggest obstacles was actually the width of the dropouts on this steed. A bike of this era wasn't designed for the components of 2020 and therefore required a bit of work--the work of some all-thread, a few washers, some nuts an a couple of open-end crescent wrenches. The process is fairly straight forward and doesn't require any special tools, only a little muscle and some patience. All said, I had to get my front fork to a standard 110 mm and the rear to a standard 135 mm. The front was already close, but the rear needed some work. I'll link to the video to cold setting a steel frame from RJ The Bike Guy below.
Note: I actually cold set the frame before I painted, but for the flow of this post, I thought it better to include this information in the components section.
From there, it was a matter of fitting the new components I purchased across various internet vendors. I went with new components largely because there weren't many used components available for the specific kit I wanted. That said, I spent a nice pretty penny buying the group set that ultimately became the driving force of this build (no pun intended). Here's what the component makeup looks like:
SRAM Apex 1 Right Shifter/Left Brake Lever
SRAM Apex 1x11 Rear Clutch Derailleur
SRAM Apex 1x Crankset w/ 42T Chainring
SRAM 11-42 Cassette
KMC 11 Speed Chain (SRAM wasn't long enough for my chainstay length)
Tektro R559 Long Reach Brake Calipers
Salsa Cowchipper Bars
WTB Volt Saddle
Mavic CXP 22 Wheelset (converted to tubeless)
Panaracer Gravelking SK 35 mm Tubeless Tires
Cheap FSA Headset, Quill Stem Adapter, & Cheap Stem from eBay
All-in-all I probably spent somewhere around $750-900 in kitting out this bike with components. What saved me majorly was twofold. One, I was able to recycle the stock wheelset (at least a $400 value) from my Felt and two, I decided not to convert this bike to 650b wheels as the original 27" setup doesn't quite allow for a smooth transition. Had this bike originally been built around 700c, I would have made the switch to 650b.
Riding a New Old Peugeot Bike
The reason you're all here for sure: How does this monstrosity actually ride?
Surprisingly well, actually. I've put several hundred miles on this bike and really haven't had any significant problems, especially considering that the mechanic was yours truly. The Apex 1 groupset is phenomenal, and I absolutely love the 1x setup much more than I ever could have anticipated. SRAM absolutely nailed the shifting and it's absolutely perfect for riding rough gravel where you need to have your hands on the drops for control but can still shift with the simple flick of an index finger.
Shifty and sandy road surfaces tend to bog down these tires and cause a rider to do much more steering and controlling than riding.
The 35 mm Panaracers are great tires. I couldn't go any bigger as my frame just wouldn't allow it and even 35 mm is pushing the limits of this old gal. Fortunately, though, most of the caliche roads around here don't require big rubber to navigate and very well could be ridden on more narrow tires. There are some routes in northern Erath County that have much worse gravel roads, and this is where the 35 mm tires suffered greatly. Shifty and sandy road surfaces tend to bog down these tires and cause a rider to do much more steering and controlling than riding.
As a road machine, this bike handles and rides admirably on our crappy unkept chip-and-seal roads. I avoid the glass-smooth highways at all costs as I figure getting hit by a semi-truck is probably more catastrophic than getting chased by an ambitious canine. Nevertheless, the combination of steel frame and bigger rubber paired with lower tire pressures helps make these pavement endeavors far more enjoyable.
Getting the fit correct on this bike took some time and a bit of trial and error. I had my Felt professionally fit at Fort Worth Cycling and Fitness a while back, so I had a good baseline to work off of. Unfortunately, the geometry of the Peugeot leaves something to be desired. Even with a 17-degree stem, the bike sets up much more like my race geometry Felt and much less like a modern gravel bike with its generally slack, more upright angles.
This played to a major disadvantage on a ride in northern Erath County where the rough roads (and still unproven bike fit) wreaked havoc on my shoulders, neck, and mind. By the end of that 40-mile massacre, I vowed to never ride a gravel bike again. I've since adjusted the fit satisfactorily to give me, what I believe to be, the most optimum riding comfort this bike avails. All that to say, if you're looking at going from retro to modern with a vintage bike, take careful consideration to how you can tweak things to make the fit work in your favor.
Bikes are fun. Bikes are awesome. I can't ever deter anyone from having fun with or on a bike no matter how they slice it up. If building a bike you'll love means you'll ride it more, then by all means go for it! If, however, you'll be sore at yourself for spending a lot on building up a 30-plus year old bike when you could have just as easily put that same money towards a new bike that had all of the components and geometry you wanted in the first place, then go that route.
To be honest, I fall somewhere in between: glad I did it, but kinda wished I hadn't.
And to be perfectly fair, I've since ordered a new, proper gravel bike: a Twin Six Standard Rando 2.0 in For-The-Love-of-God-Don't-Run-Over-Me Yellow. It's a steel bike, just like the Peugeot, but with all of the things I wanted from the get-go: 650b/700c compatibility, plenty of mounts for bottles, racks, and gear, disc brakes, and lots of tire clearance (up to 48 mm for the 650b build). Something I found when shopping for bikes during the COVID pandemic was that 1) most steel manufacturers didn't have bikes in stock and 2) all of the manufacturers I looked at (mainly Surly and Salsa) made bikes that were either 650b or 700c, but neither manufacturer made one (or would commit via email) that it would be cross compatible.
The funny thing about this whole adventure is that the Peugeot is a complete and total instigator in my journey through cycling. Six years ago, it served as the first proper road bike I ever owned which sprung me into road cycling with a modern road bike purchase. Fast forward to today and it's instigated another bike purchase and a second discipline of the sport.
If anything, I owe the Peugeot a great debt of gratitude for spurring me into uncomfortable realms of cycling. While I don't see it ever fitting knobby MTB tires and dragging me to the singletrack, it nevertheless has left and continues to leave an indelible mark on my cycling heart.
How to cold set a steel bike frame: RJ The Bike Guy: Cold Setting a Bike Frame
How to spray paint a bike (I didn't use this, but found it later): Spray Paint a Bike at Home
Install Recessed Mounted Caliper Brakes On Vintage Bike Frame
More to come as they come to mind!