Building a Better Gravel Grinder Part I

I should probably have considered the new wheels and tires that I put on my bike a month or so back to be part I, but I had not yet decided on what path this transformation was going to take so I punted.

The two things that I am trying to achieve with this transformation are simplicity, e.g. reducing the number of failure points, and comfort. Unlike a lot of riders who crank out a twenty mile ride at a twenty mile per hour clip I find myself in the saddle for three hours or more on the weekends and about two hours per ride on the weekdays. That is a lot of saddle time for someone who works in an office job full time. Comfort is critical and I do not want something to fail twenty miles from my start point because it is a long way back. Trust me, I found out the hard way that I had not replaced the twenty six inch tube with a 700c tube until I was looking down at a slow leak sixteen miles from my house. Whoops.

The first change that I wanted to make was to get rid of the front derailleur. Several times this season I had to clean out masses of limestone dust, sweat, and grime from the pulley mounted on my seat tube in order to regain the ability to shift the front derailleur. Considering how little I used the second chainring I deemed the entire front shifting regime to be expendable.

Thankfully, the world of single chainring drivetrains has taken the road world by storm in the last year or so. Okay, maybe not the road world but definitely the sub-segment of riders who spend a majority of their time on less than ideal surfaces like gravel, crushed limestone trails, or straight up dirt. Full-up OE crankset solutions exist, but I am cheap. I wanted to go with an aftermarket conversion that replaced my two OE chainrings with a single aftermarket chainring.

Dropped chains you ask? Yes, if you just removed the front derailleur and went on your merry way with the original chainrings there would likely be a lot of dropped chains in your future. This new breed of chainrings takes care of that problem by using a “narrow wide” tooth configuration. This helps prevent dropped chains and removes the need for a chainkeeper. A lot of 1x riders are also using so-called “clutched” rear derailleurs that restrict chain movement to only the times when a shift is activated. It is a bomb proof solution, but I am going with the down and dirty solution for now to see if I enjoy the single chainring experience.

Two manufacturers of narrow wide chainrings caught my eye in preparation for this project: Race Face and Wolf Tooth Components. Both offered a 110 BCD chainring to fit my OE FSA Gossamer Compact crankset. Initially I considered the Wolf Tooth option to be preferred—small company making their stuff in the U.S.A.—but a trusted rider of the gravel who also rides a converted single chainring rig swayed me to the Race Face chainring. I am sure that the Wolf Tooth is a quality component and there are a lot of online reviews that attest to the fact, but I was convinced by the opinion of someone I consider trustworthy that I would not go wrong with the Race Face chainring. It was a judgment call.

In terms of tooth count a range of options were available, but I settled on a 42 tooth chainring. Using the Sheldon Brown “Gear Calculator” I figured on the following gear inches:

Gear Inch Table

You can see the two original chainrings on the left and right with the chosen narrow wide chainring in the middle. With the narrow wide 42 tooth chainring I am losing a little on the top and bottom end, but I am keeping a pretty good amount of the overall range. Unlike a lot of group riders who are worried about cadence I ride mostly by myself so the difference in steps is not a critical issue for me. The calculations are based on 700c wheels with 35mm wide tires and 170mm crankarms.

The cassette was considered for replacement, but considering that I spent 90% of my time riding on one of the cogs I figured that there was another season of life if I spent more time in cogs with 11, 12, and 13 teeth.

Installation was a snap. If this is something that you want to do make sure that you get the correct chainring bolts otherwise you will end up making another trip to the LBS in anger. I had a set from a single speed build I put together years ago.

All told the look is a lot cleaner:


But how does it ride? Stay tuned for a long term report.

Note: I paid retail for everything mentioned in the above post. No one sent me anything to test nor does anyone expect any kind words in return for the use of their products. I would love to be one of those lucky people, but instead I just ride what I think will work best.


2 responses to “Building a Better Gravel Grinder Part I

  1. Pingback: Building a Better Gravel Grinder Part II | My Green Misadventure

  2. Pingback: 104 BCD Unicorn | My Green Misadventure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s