New tires for sure, new tubes if you can source them (even if they appear to hold air, currently). Butyl 26" schraeder tubes aren’t rare, but they might be in short supply currently. If your shifters are still smooth, you’re in good shape, if they’re really tight, go to YouTube and see if you can find a video on your specific shifters. Internal grease from that era might be old and crusty, in need of a full clean out.
As far as selection on new rubber for gravel, 26" stuff might be limited, but you should be able to find something a little smoother and lighter. Look for the legacy brands who still have loyalists for their old-school sizes: Maxxis, Continental, etc. For gravel, I never needed much tread, I relied on volume so something pretty smooth would work, and something a little too aggressive will wear down to perfection in a few dozen long rides.
I wouldn’t F around trying to get OEM rims from a 199x bike to run tubeless.
New tubes may be in short supply like the rest of the bike world, but those aren’t rare. If you ride enough and want to try it, start looking for a rim brake 26" QR wheel set designed for tubeless… Or contact a bike shop that builds wheels for this kind of thing.
Depends on how gravelly your gravel is but I run Schwalbe racing ray/ralph combo on my mtb that works nicely on loose gravel and doesn’t roll too badly, even on roads. If you want something for harder packed gravel , have a look at the Billy Bonkers tyre.
Tires and tire pressure are one of the most impactful changes you can make to change the character of a bike.
Tires for 26” wheels are hard to come by. You will need to first see what is available and then pick from that. I heard Maxxis just delivered an order to the US.
Since the bike has 2.1” (53 mm) tires on it already, you should be able to fit pretty much any gravel tire. Because you are a beginner, I suggest at least 44 mm wide tires, if you can find them. Wider tires are more confidence inspiring and smooth out the ride more, if you run the right pressure.
Tire pressure is really important. If your pressure is too high the bike will ride rough and have poor traction. If it’s too low you risk getting pinch flats. The wider the tire, the lower the pressure you need (by a lot), but higher weight and tougher surfaces need more pressure.
Unfortunately, it’s not simple to recommend a pressure because of those factors plus most tire pressure gages on bike pumps aren’t very accurate. However, there is a simple way to find a pretty good pressure. Adjust tire pressure until the tire sags (deflects) by around 15% when you sit on the bike. To estimate the 15% you can look at the tire from the side first and identify where that is relative to the knobs, then watch the knobs when you sit on the bike.
I also encourage you to not even attempt tubeless on those wheels. It’s likely hopeless.
Final thought, since you’re new to this, it’s best to have an (older) mechanic give the bike a tune up. They may find something else wrong that may change your plans.
Thanks - solid advice. I’m reasonably competent on general stuff relating to more modern road bikes (rebuilt my cannondale synapse from bare frame last year) but agree I know little about older stuff so this is a really sensible and good tip
I converted a Ridley cx bike to use for gravel. Put carbon handlebars and thick tape (Fizik) to dampen road shock, a set of Hunt tubless wheels with 38mm Gravel Kings (great all-round tire, fast on asphalt), and a Red Shift suspension seatpost (worth the weight it added)
Honestly, I think the only “non-CX” thing is the suspension seat post. I think you “optimized” the current setup for gravel. No shame, but not terribly applicable to the old-school rigid 26" bike we’re talking about here.
This all depends on how crazy you want to get. The advice above is solid…but if you’ve ridden it a bit and want to experiment, it’s often possible to convert these old mtb’s to a drop bar with 700c wheels. I did that a few years ago with an old Gary Fisher Cronus and it’s a blast to ride
Nice - drop bars (I have a spare set) and potentially (cost permitting) a move to different shifters and brake levers is a definite ‘phase 2’ consideration once I’ve got some seat time on the current setup.
700c wheels is a nice idea but cost wise I’d rather spend the ££ on a set of aero rims for my road bike
Also - the lugs for the rim brakes on the frame are located as 26 inch specific so there would be a lot of ‘fiddling’ to make it work (potentially).
The brakes were my biggest challenge. The front was set up to do canti’s pretty easily. I found some long-reach V brakes from China that set me up in the rear. Thankfully I had a set of Ultegra wheels already, so getting set up tubeless was painless.
That looks perfect for a 26" on the types of gravel I’ve ridden. Let us know how it rides once she’s up and running. My 26" townie has only seen townie duties, so when the OG Bontrager muds wear out, I’ll keep this in mind.