With its hand built, lugged and brazed construction, light weight Reynolds 531 tubing, and its distinctive paint work and decals, the Raleigh Thunder Road was near top of Raleigh UK’s late 1980s MTB range.
I acquired the complete bike for 30 pounds from ebay, and although many of the moving parts will need to be replaced, the frame is sound and the paintwork will clean up nicely.
The use of Reynolds 531 Mang Moly tubing should give this frame a nice feel when ridden, compared to the cheaper, heavier and stiffer Chrome Moly steel more frequently used on 80s and 90s MTB frames.
The joining of the seat stays and seat tube is very old school, but tended to be the weak spot of Raleigh’s brazed steel frames. Several former employees can attest that when an MTB frame was returned to them for replacement under warranty, very often it was due to a failure here.
But I don’t think I’ll be really hammering this frame, so I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep over this potential structural weakness.
Several months ago I acquired a bike listed as a ‘retro Raleigh’ from ebay, with the aim of using it as a parts-donor for another MTB build currently in progress.
The bike turned out to be in mint condition, having been bought, ridden once or twice, and then stored away for 22 years, and the parts have been really useful for my Dyna-tech MT4 build.
The top tube decal was removed by the owner, who can’t remember which model he bought, so I was unable to identify the bike. What I can say with certainty is that this is a 1993 model (based on the groupset) from near the top of Raleigh’s cromo range of mountain bikes.
However, I’ve been unable to find a bike with the same colour and specifications in the 1993 Raleigh catalogue. The components match well those listed for the Peak:
The Summit would have come with a suspension fork, otherwise being identical to the Peak:
Lower down the range were the Apex, which would have had an Exage groupset (not Deore LX) and a Girvin suspension stem:
And below the Apex were the Strata and Ravine, again with cheaper groupsets:
None of these bikes match the colour of my purple Raleigh. So what is it?
The only other unusual feature of my bike is the presence of a sticker from German bike retailer ZEG, making it probable that the bike was originally produced for the German market. The sticker says (in German) ‘exclusive model’, suggesting this may be a Peak produced by Raleigh for ZEG in a different colour.
However, the original owner told me that he owned the bike from new, having bought it by mail-order from a bike shop in the United Kingdom, which makes the ZEG sticker all the more puzzling.
On the other hand, Raleigh were known to sell some of their bikes in alternative paint schemes – perhaps the pink paint job of the Peak didn’t go down well with some (male) consumers, and a purple and green variant was produced as an alternative. But this is pure speculation…
With 2015 drawing to a close, there’s been a new addition to the collection of vintage Raleigh moutain bikes — A nearly mint condition M Trax 500 from 1993.
As you might guess from my other blog posts, I do have a soft spot for this particular early nineties mountain bike range, having ridden a 400 as my first serious bike, back in the day.
The M Trax 500’s metallic paint job is quite splendiferous, and the titanium bull-horn handlebar gives the bike an aggressive look.
Sadly, the Exage trigger shifters are not very durable, and broke down almost immediately after taking possession of the bike.
This is in contrast, ironically, to the bullet proof Deore DX thumbshifters that were included on the 420, 400 and 300 models of the same year. I guess I’ll end up fitting thumbshifters to my 500 as well …
In 1994, Raleigh introduced a new head tube badge for their Dyna-Tech range, which replaced the classic Raleigh heron badge. With its interlocking black and electric blue design, the new head badge was distinctive and alluded to the cutting edge technology contained within this range of bikes.
Check out this example of the 94 head badch, from velobase.com:
As an M Trax owner who wished he actually was a Dynatech owner, I was unable to resist the urge to buy the Dynatech jersey, with its head badge inspired design.
The idea seems to have been to distance the Dyna-Tech range from the rest of the Raleigh spectrum, at a time when Raleighs were increasingly seen as uncool, especially compared to UK brands like Orange, or American imports like GT and Marin.
The following year (some might say unfortunately) Raleigh abandoned the Dyna-Tech brand in favour of its recently created M Trax range. In terms of marketing and profits, this was probably a good idea, but to the detriment of Raleigh’s image among the more serious mountain bikers of the time.
I still ride a 1994 Dynatech Diablo, with UGLI forks, and it is one of my favourite bikes for regular cross-country rides. Sadly, however, my upper body outgrew the jersey sometime in the late 1990s, and I hang on to it mostly for nostalgic purposes – and to one-day have a replica jersey made up for my older, taller self to wear.
This year’s winter build (one of them) is going to be a 1992 Raleigh Dynatech Voyager. Its Reynolds cromo steel tubing (apart from an aluminium head tube) promises a lively feel, perhaps without the comfort of its big brothers in the Raleigh titanium range.
Check out the Dynacurve top tube. Lush. Only the largest size had this feature, making this a quite rare (but not priceless) frame.
The matching Dynatech cromo stem and Reyolds 501 cromo steel handlebar complete the fuselage nicely.
Which parts to build this up with? Ideally, I’d keep things as period correct as possible, so Shimano Deore LX / DX would fit the bill. And the look I’m probably going to try and capture can be seen in this early Dynatech brochure:
Or possibly something along these lines (again, from an eary nineties Dynatech brochure):
I recently spotted this gem on youtube, from Milltown Cycles, showing a dude riding UP a substantial flight of stair on what appears to be a custom-built mountain bike which uses 36 inch wheels.
Awesome! Check out the video below:
A number of custom frame builders are now able to build 36er MTBs, which use rims originally designed for off-road unicycles. The ideal application of such large wheeled MTBs should (in theory) lie in non-singletracky marathon events, but there is essentially no information published on the web concerning how much faster or slower 36ers can be compared to 26ers, 650b, or 29ers.
While browsing the web and thinking of possible future vintage MTB projects, I inevitably get side-tracked by all the photos of splendiferously beautiful mountain bikes of yesteryear.
I usually just book mark the photos for future inspiration, but here I’m going to show five of my favourites, if not necessarily cost-effective, vintage mountain bikes.
This utterly stunning Dave Lloyd
A sublime bespoke build from one of the great frame builders of the British Isles. The colour-matched Girvin Flex Stem (and other parts) is a nice touch.
The Alpinestars Ti Mega
Super expensive, and with a frame prone to cracking near the bottom bracket. But wow!
Fat Chance Yo Eddy with aqua-fade
Known to ride like a dream (for a rigid steel bike), this bike’s look simply blows my mind.
Anodyzed GT Zaskars
What’s not to love about this bike? Loads of purple anodyzing, and Spinergy wheels. Really awesome.
The Mantis Flying V
The frame design in itself looks great, but the paintwork and the touch of tasteful purple anodyzed parts really are the cherry on top of the cake. This frame is currently up for sale, as it happens, on retrobike, for a couple of thousand Euros.
From my collection of vintage MTB frames, this is my Muddy Fox Courier Comp. It hails from the golden age of Muddy Fox mountain bikes, before the brand started using its name to peddle mountain bikes that were complete and utter rubbish.
This was something of an impulse purchase, Fortunately, it cost peanuts. My interested was piqued by its Tange Infinity steel tubset, with a beautiful wishbone structure on the seat stays, and its bright green paintwork with matching steel stem.
The paw-print stamped into the seat tube sleeve is also a nice touch.
I have no plans to build it up, as yet. But if anybody has any ideas, please feel free to add a comment below.
Gear shifting technology has come a long way. The latest groupsets offer unrivalled shifting performance, with electronic shifting and autonomously calibrating derailleurs now available at the very top end of the Shimano spectrum.
But I still prefer thumbshifters, namely Shimano’s 7 speed Deore and Deore XT early 90s. In fact, I still use thumbshifters on most of my mountain bikes.
Deore has been among Shimano’s off-road groupsets practically from the very beginning of the first wave of mass-produced MTBs. Offering an excellent compromise in terms of price vs weight and performance, Deore has long been a favourite for riders who are unable or unwilling to splash out on the slightly superior XT (and XTR) groupsets.
There are a number of suggested origins for the name, including ‘of gold’ and ‘of ore’, but the original meaning is quite different. However, the deer head motif on some early XT derailleurs points us in the right direction.
To put it simply, ‘Deore’ means ‘deer’, and is a loanword absorbed into the Japanese language from English. In a way, I find it touching that the early engineers and their marketing should have imagined mountain bike riders as akin to deer, gracefully making their way through the wilderness.
A far cry from the hardcore freeriders and downhillers that characterize the modern MTB scene!
What first drew me to this frame was its unique design, with its elevated chain stays, curved top-tube, and the U-brake bosses on the rear. After having a detailed look at the original, complete bikes shown in the early 90s Haro catalogues, I had to have one, and I acquired my 21.5 inch, 1990 or 1991 Haro Extreme Comp frame as a Christmas present.
Then, over a period of a year and a half, I slowly but surely acquired the parts that would be necessary to build the complete bike. Although not identical to the original bike as shown in the catalogue, the mix of parts, importantly, is period-correct and give a very similar look.
This is the result of my first build:
In particular, the chrome-plated chrome-molybdenum Big Fork from Tange has a striking form, and contrasts with the black paintwork of the frame. The vintage Dan Falvey stem and Deore DX seat post help keep things real with steel, for added strength and some extra shock absorption.
The Shimano Deore 7 speed thumbshifters give slick, accurate shifting, with the added bonus of allowing the front derailleur to be trimmed when necessary.
The bike rides really well, particularly when sprinting or riding uphill. Unlike my hardtail rides, even on the steepest climbs there’s no sign of the front wheel lifting or wandering.
Moreover, and this might be imagined, it feels as though I’m faster, or more powerful, on climbs. I might test this using Strava, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the shorter chain stays and head-down were to be delivering greater traction and/or greater power.
Unfortunately, in its current form I have a few problems with the bike.
Firstly, the short head tube means it’s not easy to set the bars at a comfortable height – even using a quill stem with a bit of rise such as the one currently fitted. And the narrow bars make the steering a little twitchy at times. Solutions I have in mind include fitting a wider bar, and looking for a quill stem with even greater rise. Fitting a suspension fork would also help to elevate the front end a little, although I’m growing rather fond of the chromed Tange Big Fork – at least in the looks department.
The brakes don’t quite have the stopping power I’d like. This is partly due to my poor set-up of the front cantilevers (which can be sorted with a bit of work), but the lack of set-up options for the rear U-brake means the only way to change the modulation is to experiment with different brake levers (incidentally, this is one of the reasons U-brakes fell out of favour in the 90s). A set of shimano servo wave levers (with shifter pods removed) would be my first choice here, but Magura hydraulic brakes could also be a useful alternative solution.
Undoubtedly, there are many options to make my Haro Extreme Comp more enjoyable to ride. The real question is whether it makes sense to spend much time or money doing so.
The thirty-sixer MTB poses a number of exciting possibilities for taller mountain bikers (see my detailed discussion of the pros and cons). Until now, 36 inch wheeled mountain bikes have been the preserve of those able to commission a bespoke steel bike – but this might be set to change, after Taiwanese manufacturer Wheeler unveiled its first 36er MTB last month.
Little is known about Wheeler’s 36er, but it’s rumoured to be a production model. If true, then we’re probably on the cusp of a new wheel-size war. We’ll likely see development of MTB-specific 36-inch rims and tires (at last!), prices will start to come down, and there’ll be more choice of components frame materials.
In the mid nineties (1994?), Raleigh UK launched their first full-suspension mountain bike: the Activator 2. This was the successor to their popular, but very low-end, Activator.
Here’s how the Activators looked in the Raleigh catalogue:
Incredibly, the catalogue blurb makes the rather bold claim of ‘improved acceleration’. On this note, I recall a school friend of mine had an Activator 2, and he thought it was far superior to my M Trax 400 – until we swapped bikes and raced each other up a slight hill, which showed him just how much energy was getting drained away by his gas-pipe steel and pogo-stick bike.
All in all, the Activator range was not for serious mountain bikers, and opting for suspension at this price point is almost always a false economy.
The nineteen-nineties saw an explosion of innovative new mountain bike technology, one of the most important being suspension systems, which allowed a mountain biker to ride faster, for longer, across the more rugged trails. While suspension has continued to evolve year upon year, the fundamental design of the most popular modern suspension systems come from the 90s.
And as such, there are a number of suspension forks and suspension frames that remain surprisingly capable by today’s standards. Although highly subjective, and by no means exhaustive, this is my list of what I consider to be the 10 best full suspension frames from the 1990s.
Marin Mount Vision / Rift Zone / East Peak / Alpine Trail Photo from this retrobike thread.
OK, so you have some idea about what model of vintage mountain bike you’d like to have. How do you go about buying it?
By far the best place to buy a vintage mountain bike (or any kind of vintage bike) is retrobike.co.uk. Prices are generally fair, and the sellers are almost all honest. Ebay is a bit of a mixed bag: prices tend to be higher that at retrobike.co.uk, and borderline fraud is not uncommon, unfortunately. Gumtree can also serve up some gems, if you’re able to collect from the seller.
Retrobike doesn’t just have a for sale forum, there is a also a forum for posting ‘wanted’ adverts, of you’re looking for something specific. More often than not, somebody who has the item (or bike) you’re searching for, and will reply to your advert. There is also a handy forum where the retrobike.co.uk community can be asked for honest valuations on any bike or component.
Things I look out for
A rule of thumb is that buying a complete (or nearly complete) bike is more cost effective than buying all the parts separately. Of course, if money’s no object, or you have a specific set of components in mind, then by all means do the latter!
Similarly, sometimes it pays to buy a ‘donor’ bike to get a full set of components to turn your bare frame into a complete bike. Some even buy complete bikes for a single part, and then break down the remains to sell separately, to cover the cost of that single part.
I’ve found that the level of wear on moving parts usually makes little difference to the price of a vintage bike. A bike with a nearly worn out drive train could sell for the same or a similar price as an identical bike with very low mileage. The key to detect a low mileage bike is to look at the parts that wear out fastest: tires, chainrings and cassette. It helps to know beforehand what the original specs of the bike were.
What I try to avoid
I try to avoid bikes with evidence for having had a hard life, or which haven’t been looked after. For example, a little bit of rust is not necessarily deal breaker, but it would be pot luck as to whether the rust is just skin-deep, or has gone all the way through the tubing. In the event of there being more than a little bit of rust, I would not touch the bike with a barge-pole, unless the frame is something really special and/or cheap.
It sometimes happens that a seller tries to sell a decent frame, but built up using low grade parts, to an unsuspecting buyer. I’ve seen frames go cheaply on ebay, only to get relisted a week or so later at an inflated price, having been built up with inferior parts. Imagine a Zaskar built up with a Shimano SIS pressed steel and plastic drive train!
A seized seat post is another ‘gotcha’ that occasionally crops up. Although not fatal, it does take a fair bit of work to remove (or dissolve) a seized-in post. Similarly, beware frames that have been stripped down, with the exception of the bottom bracket, which could be hinting at a seized in bottom bracket.
Suspension can be a thorny issue, as it can be hard to tell whether they still work. For suspension forks that use elastomers, it’s common to find the elastomers have disintegrated. Oil forks may require new seals. If you really want suspension, it may be best to buy separately a set of forks that you know are in good working order.
Finally, beware adverts or listings with no photo of the item, or only limited photos. A good seller will show the bike from all angles, and will show and describe honestly the condition, and any damage to the item.
Which bikes to choose?
Tastes and budgets differ, so there is no clean answer to this question.As a general rule, it’s hard to go wrong with a double-butted cromoly steel frame with a Shimano LX or DX groupset, which should cost somewhere in the region of 75 to 150 pounds (100-200 Euro; 120-230 USD) in good working condition.
Often overlooked in favour of the lighter titanium models, Raleigh made some really nice bonded steel Dynatech frames during the late eighties and early nineties.
The innovation made by Raleigh for this range of bikes was the bonding together of the main tubes, often from different materials, to build a frame that is light yet strong. The Raleigh brochures of the day boasted that bonding gives stronger tube joins, compared to welding or brazing.
I really love the very visible engineering on these frames in the form of lugs, and the absence of messy welds (although the rear triangle is still welded). Let’s have a look at a couple of the bikes.
Unlike for some brands, surprisingly little information exists on the internet about the Raleigh Dynatech brand – despite being one of the coolest serious mountain bike ranges from a British manufacturer during the early nineties. To remedy this deficiency, over the next few months I plan to catalogue and showcase as much of the Dynatech range as possible.
To get things started I give you the 1991 Raleigh Dynatech mountain bike catalogue’s front page, whichhas to be one of my favourite catalogue front covers of all time:
Depicting a Dynatech Encounter handcuffed on a dank backdrop, the imagery evokes danger and subversion, and the bike screams ‘ride me, as though you stole me’.
Check out this thread at retrobike to see a surviving Encounter close up.
I too have a similar Dynatech Mission frame and forks at home, awaiting trial, which can only happen once I’ve decided exactly how I’ll build them up… And I have every confidence it will be as fun to ride as my Dynatech Diablo STX or my M Trax 300 or 400.
Mountain biking has a rich and varied history, and this richness was at its zenith during the 90’s. That era saw a big-bang of innovations – some of which are still with us today, while others, including some that seemed like fantastic innovations at the time, have fallen out of favour and slipped into obscurity and ridicule.
This iconic design of frame (said to have been invented by Richard Cunningham) started to appear around 1988, and lasted well into the mid 90s, the elevated chain stay (or e-stay) gained a cult following, but never came close to replacing the classic double-triangle frame design.
E-stay frames allowed for greater clearance for the rear wheel, a shorter wheel-base for better climbing and manoeuvrability, elimination of chain-slap, and the ability to remove a chain without breaking it.
For many, these advantages outweighed the downsides, which included additional weight, and some extra lateral flexibility and weakness in the bottom bracket area.
A fair few e-stay frames eventually snapped or cracked after sustained but not excessive use – particularly those built from aluminium or titanium. It’s still possible to find e-stay frames for sale on ebay or retrobikes, mostly in steel, but with the odd uncracked aluminium or titanium specimen.
The rise in popularity of 29″ and 650b wheeled mountain bikes has rekindled interest in elevated chain stays, as a way to have a shorter wheel-base when using big wheels: There are already e-stay 29er prototypes going around. It would be rather ironic if a modern innovation like large wheels were to now lead mountain bikers back to an extinct design like the e-stay.
The 90’s also saw the arrival of the Slingshot, yet another eye-catching and quirky frame design. With a hinge where the top tube and seat tube join, and a steel cable on a coil spring replacing the down tube, the manufacturer claims the design provides some suspension and more efficient use of energy. I’m not entirely convinced of its positive effect, but it doesn’t appear to do any harm. Nonetheless, it’s telling that it has remained sufficiently popular for its manufacturer to remain in business even today.
3. Lawwill Leader suspension fork
Designed by Mert Lawwill, this incredible looking suspension fork benefited from a single shock unit, constant fork rake during compression, and stiff steering.
These features would have been valued during the 90’s, especially when most other suspension forks were about as stiff as a soggy noodle.
Another innovative linkage fork, this usually came as standard on the K2 / Pro Flex range of full suspension bikes. Like the Lawwill, these forks gave stiff steering and a unique look – some loved them, other hated their look.
5. Suspension stems
Before the advent of suspension forks, suspension stems were a cheap way to dampen trail-buzz. Some riders complained of sore wrists as a result of the change in angle of the handlebar. Others found the substantial side to side flex unnerving, when using bar-ends and sprinting out of the saddle.
Curiously, at least one company (StaFast) is now manufacturing suspension stems for modern mountain bikes. It’ll be interested to see if suspension stems make a come-back.
6. Pro Flex full suspension bikes
Photo credit: Pro Mountain Biker by Jeremy Evans and Brant Richards.
With a Girvin fork and split seat tube frame design, Pro Flex full suspension bikes looked pretty awesome. The pro XC riders of the 90s usually preferred to have the rear suspension locked out to avoid wasting too much energy bouncing up and down – not that they admitted it in public, of course.
Using what may have seemed like a good idea on paper – placing the rear suspension pivot on the top tube – the Klein Mantra was pretty awful, by most accounts.
A few riders liked the absence of suspension bob while pedaling, the main issue for most reviewers seems to have been the way the rear suspension only works when the rider is seated. Unsurprisingly, these are among the cheapest of vintage the Kleins.
8. Cannondale Headshok
Another cool looking suspension fork, the Cannondale Headshok gave steering similar to a fully rigid fork, but with a couple of inches of suspension travel. It worked fine in dry, Californian conditions, but in muddy northern European conditions, the seals just weren’t enough to keep the moving parts clean and functional for very long.
9. GT RTS
At one time I was considering buying one of these frames, as they were deemed among the best XC full suspension frames, because the rear suspension system stiffened up while pedaling. Fortunately, more sensible designs have now taken hold in the world of XC full suspension!
I still might get hold of one, though!
10. Glued frames
Around 1990 Raleigh UK and Raleigh USA developed a new range of mid to high-end mountain bike frames, partly constructed using aerospace bonding technology. The three main tubes were glued into steel or aluminium lugs, resulting in frames that were lighter and stronger than welded or lugged and brazed frames.
Initially the frames were made from steel, like the example below:
But later, Raleigh UK started using titanium main tubes and an aluminium head tube, to reduce weight and give some of the benefits of titanium’s resilience. The examples below (M Trax 300 and Dynatech Diablo STX) come from my collection.
Note the bonded steel and aluminium fork on the Dynatech Diablo SXT.
Instead of titanium or steel, Raleigh USA opted for aluminium main tubes in the Technium range, which gave slightly different ride characteristics and weight.
The 1993 Raleigh M Trax 400 was my first serious mountain bike.
Its ‘Duo Tech’ frame featured an aluminium head tube, Reynolds 501 cromoly rear triangle, with titanium top and down tubed bonded into lugs. This unconventional design made for a frameset that is lighter than it looks, with some of the benefits of titanium, and a rear triangle with a great balance between compliance and stiffness.
The specimen above is owned by another retrobiker (see this thread, and amazingly, it looks almost all original). Photos rarely do justice to its paintwork, which was black with coloured metallic flakes.
My only regret about its appearance is that Raleigh didn’t badge their M Trax range as the much cooler Dynatech instead. It’s been said that Raleigh thought ‘M Trax’ would sound more 90s and appealing to the youth of the day than ‘Dynatech’. However, as a teenager at that time, I just thought it sounded naff – perhaps among the worst named bike brands ever.
For all intents and purposes, this was a Dynatech frame with Dynatech components, with a (mostly) lower groupset than the contemporaneous Dynatechs.
Raleigh Special Products Division Duo Tech titanium – cromoly frame. Top tube and down tube are commercially pure titanium, while the rear triangle was Reynolds 501 cromoly steel. 19.5″ centre to top. Black with glitter.
Cromoly fork, 1-1/8″ threaded steerer. Suspension corrected for ~40-50 mm travel forks.
Dynatech steel seat post (Kalloy). 27.0 mm diameter.
Steel quill stem and steel handlebar (ripe for upgrade to aluminum!)
Shimano Altus A10 derailleurs, chainset, and 7 speed cassette.
Shimano Deore 7 speed thumbshifters.
Dia Compe SS5 brake levers.
Diacompe 986 brake cantilevers.
Wheels: Rigida Laser aluminium rims on Shimano Exage hubs.
Saddle and tires – no idea.
Upgrades made over the years
Green Control Tech bolt-up titanium skewers.
Panaracer Smoke and Dart tires, kevlar bead.
Sram Gripshift X-ray shifters.
Hope screw-on rear hub, with Sachs 8 speed cassette, built with Mavic ceramic rim.
This is where mountain biking all started for me – the humble Raleigh Marauder. I bought it from a friend at scouts, with money saved from my paper round, in 1991 or 1992. Although heavy and not particularly reliable due to the generally cheap components, my Marauder opened up new frontiers for a young cyclist, keen to explore the forests and moors around the family home in suburban Plympton.
Many Sundays in spring or summer were spent riding around Plymbridge Woods, or the tamer areas of Dartmoor, with a group of friends from the 3rd Plympton Scouts. Trail skills were developed, fitness was gained, bicycle maintenance was learnt, and fun was had. A packed-lunch at Yelverton or Meavy, supplemented with cake from the village shop, before pushing on around Burrator Reservoir, then home via Wotter and Bottle Hill. Looking back, it’s surprising how many miles we’d rack up on quite basic bikes.
I can remember bike snobbery creeping into the equation, even then. Indexed or rapid fire shifters, 501 tubing, and true off-road tires were what everybody wanted. One lad managed to get his parents to buy him a new bike each year: Raleigh Montage, Raleigh Mirage, Raleigh Yukon. One of our scout leaders who’d often lead our rides had a Raleigh Peak, with a Girvin Flexstem for suspension. The coolest (or wealthiest) lad had a Marin Muirwoods, which I believe most of us coveted, and for good reason – it was an excellent and stunning mountain bike.
Sadly, I have no photos of my own Raleigh Marauder – the photos below are taken from a gumtree advert of the same model as mine, which appears to be essentially all original.
Virtually all components are steel, including the wheels. Together with the gas-pipe steel tubing of the frame made for a heavy, solid-feeling bike.
The gears didn’t have indexing, and the brakes weren’t great, but it was all easy to get set up. The high profile cantilevers somehow compensated for the awful brake levers.
This bike was surprisingly durable, and served me well, but by the end of 1993 I’d began lusting after sweeter meats. On my visits to Battery Cycle Works’ Raleigh showroom, I’d fallen in love with the Dynatech range of titanium-cromoly bikes, and had resolved to sell the Marauder and save up for something lightweight and cool.
Common sense tells us that the more expensive and modern a mountain bike is, the faster it is.
Otherwise the pro’s would still be winning XC races on rigid steel bikes with 21 gears and 26″ rims, instead of big wheeled carbon rigs decked out in M9000 and various other boutique components. Right?
However, the reality is probably not quite this simple, and I’ll tell you why.
Are vintage (or retro) mountain bikes faster? The answer to the question really depends on how you ride. In an all-out cross country or downhill race, there’s little doubt that you’ll be faster on a modern bike. The better traction, lower rolling resistance and superior suspension will all add up to faster laps, especially on XC courses that seem to be tailored to exactly the kind of bikes pro XC racers ride these days.
But most mountain bikers are not pro racers. So, what about the ‘normal’ rides that ‘normal’ mountain bikers do? I think its fair to say there’s probably no such thing as a ‘normal’ ride these days, what with all the different tastes and styles that have blossomed in recent years, from old school XC to hardcore free-ride; from trail centres to epic wilderness expeditions. Clearly, it’s a case of horses for courses — different bikes will excel under different conditions.
What do vintage mountain bikes do best? Aside from their obvious advantages of low purchase and low maintenance costs, the stretched out, head-down riding posture of your typical 90s vintage bike helps significantly when climbing. This posture allows rider to make good use of those powerful lower back muscles, thus bringing significant extra power to the pedal stroke — as is the case with the typical road-bike riding posture.
And if your ride takes in some road sections to link up different off-road trails, a vintage MTB is going to be faster here too, thanks to a more aerodynamic rider posture, allowing one to make-up time (or save energy) for the more technical down-hill trails on your route.
It’s certainly no surprise that some top pro MTB racers now go for the old-school, head-down riding posture. To give one example, olympic and world champion mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavý famously prefers to ride this way – albeit with a thoroughly modern bike, of course!
With my mountain bike collection growing nicely, I’ve been pondering adding a vintage road bike to the collection, for those days when I feel like a bit of road training .
Now, I have to admit I don’t know much about road bikes, but here is my own ‘shopping list’ of road bikes I’m considering buying. Aside from my Raleigh / Dynatech brand loyalty, there’s no rhyme of reason to this list/ Except that the frame must be steel – obviously!
1. A Raleigh Dynatech, preferably a bonded titanium / steel frame:
If you owned an entry level Raleigh mountain bike during the mid 80s to mid 90s, then chances are the frame was made from Reynolds 501 tubing. It was the workhorse tubeset at the bottom of Reynolds’ steel range, and was cheap, strong, and not especially heavy.
As the proud new owner of a vintage Reynolds 501 mountain bike frame similar to the Raleigh Montage pictured below (from retrobike), I’ve been browsing through old catalogues and reading up on the tubeset used in my frame, to get to know what exactly I’m going to be riding.
The story of 501 pretty much begins with new mountain bike craze in the 1980s which saw a deluge of cheap, mass-produced chromoly frames from the USA and Japan, using tubing of quality that typically lay somewhere between the basic ‘gas-pipe’ tubing and the Reynolds 531. Partly in response to this, Reynolds developed their 501 tubeset, allowing the company to compete in this sector of the bicycle market.
A key difference with 501, compared with 531, was its manufacturing process. Whereas 531 tubing is drawn out to form tubing, 501 tubing was seamed, meaning it was drawn as a sheet before being pulled into a tube, and then welded. The welding part of this process results in some (potential) weakening of the product. Anecdotal evidence, from various cycling forums I’ve perused over the years, suggests that 501 is indeed weaker than 531, with failures occurring along the seam in the tube.
At the time, Reynolds claimed that their 531 and 501 tubes were of equal tensile strength when manufactured, but with 501 being having a tensile strength of about ten percent less than 531 after being welded.
As for frame weights, 501 was pretty competitive. Reynolds claimed a 501 frame would be 2.3 kg, compared to 2.2 kg for 531 ST (Special Touring), 2.05 for 531 C (Competition Racing), and 1.9 kg for 531 Professional (road racing and time trials). Frame size wasn’t stated, as I recall.
The related tubeset ‘Reynolds K2’ then appeared during the early 90s to replace 501 in some mid range steel Raleigh mountain bike frames. K2 tubing was used in lugged and brazed steel frames from the Raleigh and M Trax ranges from 1992 or 1993 to 1995. K2 is rumoured to be similar to 501, but with a twist.
This seat tube decal comes from a page in the 1993 Raleigh Off Road catalogue, and appears to be one of the only photos of a Reynolds K2 sticker to be found on the web, to the best of my knowledge. And since information about the K2 tubeset itself is so scant and difficult to find, this short blog post quite possibly represents the most authoritative description of K2 tubing in existence on the web!!
That same 1993 Raleigh catalogue says this about K2:
Let’s start with the frame. CAD designed for maximum performance, the frame is built from Reynolds K2 Cromoly Mountain Tubing. Developed exclusively for Raleigh, the Reynolds K2 tubing has eight laterally aligned ribs on the butt section providing superb lower triangle rigidity and enormous strength in the areas of maximum stress.
After I contacted Reynolds, I was fortunate enough to get this reply from Terry Bill, who spent 49 years working for Reynolds:
K2 was a special tube set made for Raleigh. I have no records, but from memory, it was a 501 CrMo material, and had 8 flats along its full length (not butted). It was one of the earlier “oversize” tube sets. 31.8 down tube, 28.6 top and seat tube. The flats (laterally aligned ribs referred to by Raleigh) would only be for about 2/3rds in the seat tube so the pillar could be entered.
The concept of tubes with 8 flats along the length was first used by Reynolds in their 700 Classic road tube set, but it was not popular with the small builders, they wanted to use the “butted” term when selling frames, and we withdrew it.
Raleigh then adapted it for their K2 mountain bike range. The K2 top and down tubes had 8 flats along the length and no butt. The seat tube was only flats for part of the length so the seat pillar could be fitted. Raleigh did this because they felt the flats gave extra stiffness to the frame, to stiffen the BB shell to stop the sideways movement when pedaling.
In 1996, K2 was replaced with the Reynolds Optima cromoly tubeset. Like its predecessor K2, this was a tubeset produced especially for Raleigh, for use in their bottom of the range Special Products Division models.
Terry Bill also told me this, about Optima tubing, which confirms some internet rumours:
Raleigh Optima tubes were again special manufacture for Raleigh. These were a butted 501 material, but the butts were very short.
Almost no additional, reliable information exists on the web about Reynolds Optima, aside from a handful posts on bicycling forums which are all a variation on ‘I found a bike and the frame says it is Reynolds Optima, is it good?‘.
Decals such as this, found on some Raleigh Special Products Division frames from the late 90s, prove that Reynolds Optima really did exist. As we now know, optima was essentially a new version of 501, presumably having been tweaked to cope better with tig welding, which in turn allowed for lighter frames compared older lugged 501 or K2 frames.
A rather nice, vintage Raleigh mountain bike came up for sale recently on retrobike, which set me tripping on nostalgia via google image search.
Raleigh did some excellent mountain bikes back in the day – see my titanium Dynatech Diablo and my titanium M Trax 300, for example. But by the early 90s, Raleigh’s steel framed bikes had come to be seen as a bit naff, unfairly some might say in hindsight.
Their Dynatechs were still a bit cool, but other UK brands or imported American mountain bikes were the new must-haves for the coolest mountain bikers. At least this is how I remember things as a teenaged mountain biker…
However, twenty years on a bit of digging on google and retrobike yields some great examples of surviving 90s Raleighs. And while they don’t have the overt XC racy looks of rival brands like Marin, Cannondale, or Orange, I still find them visually appealing in a way that’s hard to explain.
Perhaps this is partly down to details like the lugged frame design and the Raleigh head badge, which hint at the heritage of bicycle manufacture at Raleigh and give a vintage feel to an already retro bicycle.
Reblogged below are a just few of the fabulous Raleighs I’ve come across:
Raleigh Thunder Road.
Pure awesomeness in the form of a Reynolds 531 mang-moly steel frame. Photo from a retrobike thread dedicated to Raleigh MTBs. I’m now currently building one of these myself.
… from the same retrobike thread as the Thunder Road. Another 501 frame.
For those who’ve already seen my Rourke 853 build, I’ve felt the need to swap out the slightly long Salsa stem for something a bit shorter and more comfortable for my poor back … being tall is not always as good as you’d expect.
During a trip to my local bike shop, I picked up what appears to be a cheap Aluminium and carbon ahead stem from a Taiwanese manufacturer I had never heard of before: Karbona. Quite why I did this, when known-branded stems were available for a similar price, I do not know. Below is an image of the KTB-19 stem, taken from the Karbona webpage.
I’m not quite sure what to make of “3D forged CNC machined design, AL + 3K carbon tube wrapped”. I can only guess this a combination of forged aluminium to make the main body of the stem, with some CNC machining to finish some detail, then with carbon added on to the main tube of the stem.
My hope is that the use of some carbon will result in extra damping of some trail buzz. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that vibrations transmitted up to the stem through the steerer tube will bypass the carbon section, by passing through the aluminium under the carbon wrap.
In terms of cosmetics, the finish looks OK when new, but not quite up to the offerings of some top brands. Once home and starting to be fitted to the bike, I noticed the paint flakes off very easily. Moreover, this 1-1/8″ stem is a very very tight fit on the steerer tube, which caused a bit of a headache when the time came to put the top cap on and tension the threadless headset. I can only guess that the designers failed to account for the thickness of the paint. If Karbona ever bothered to test whether this stem actually fits the intended steerer diameter, they would have noticed this. This lack of attention to detail doesn’t bode well, and I feel this stem will merely be a placeholder until I manage to find something that inspires more confidence (preferably another, shorter, steel Salsa).
But now the only thing left to do is to try the stem out on a real off road ride, and if the weather permits, that’s exactly what I plan to do this weekend. So watch this space!
Finally built up and ready to ride, this is my Brian Rourke 853 mountain bike. After collection from the bike shop, I couldn’t resist taking it for a spin around downtown Porto for a little test ride. I love the chrome together with the polished aluminium of the Shimano Deore DX rear mech.
Overall it rides like a dream, most things work as they should. The Deore XT thumbshifters provide surprisingly crisp indexed shifting across the cassette, and the XTR V-Brakes stop exceptionally well. The Pace RC 36 suspension fork looks great, but will need a bit of tuning to get the sag and damping set up to my satisfaction. And the long stem and narrow bar are going to need changing for something a little more practical!
And now for something special in the steel mountain bike department – my ‘new’ Reynolds 853 Rourke frame.
The frame seems to have survived its journey over from the UK, and once unpacked it’s clear I’ve landed a truly stunning frame.
Hand-made from Reynolds 853 tubing sometime slightly after 1995, this is a real work of art.After the tubes were welded together, legendary framebuilder Jason Rourke (son of Brian Rouke of Brian Rourke Cycles) added finely crafted, decorative lugs, and other sublime details such as the wrap-around chain stays (see below for a close up from Brian Rourke Cycles’ webpage).
The red and black paint job is awesome enough, but the chrome-plating on part of the rear triangle is the icing on the cake. Cosmetics aside, I have high hopes for how this frame is going to feel.
My build philosophy for the Rourke takes what I hope to be the best aspects of 90s and modern mountain bike technology, with a mix of Deore DX, XT and XTR groupsets, and other parts (Hope, Salsa, Middleburn, Titec etc.) I had lying around the man-cave begging to be attached to this splendiferous frame.
I’ll never trust any bike component made of anything with atomic number lower than 22, and that’s why I still ride steel instead of aluminium. Well, at least that’s the tired joke I tell on the Sunday rides with my mountain biking club.
Aluminum mountain bike frames have come a long way since the old days. But Jesus Christ, aren’t modern frames boring? Back in the 90s, bikes were made to be as cool and flashy as possible, and despite my general distaste for aluminum frames, I did (and still do) have a soft spot for several of them – particularly the ink blue Zaskar.
Here’s a run-down of my ten favourite old school aluminum-framed mountain bikes.
The 90s saw an explosion of boutique aftermarket parts for upgrading or adding style to your mountain bike. Usually CNC-machined from aluminium (aluminum) billet and finished with brightly coloured anodizing, many of these products were the must-have add-ons for any 90s mountain biker. Or at least for those who could afford the often exorbitant retail prices!
Ironically, while their high prices implied superior quality compared to mass produced, forged parts from the likes of Shimano and others, the reality was rather different: CNC-machining often resulted in comparatively weaker, or shorter-lived components, as many long-term user of Hope’s titanium hubs (like me) or Ringle’s Zooka stems will attest. For a deeper discussion of the merits of CNC-machining versus forging, see here.
Here’s my entirely subjective list of the top ten boutique components from the 1990s:
Steel is arguably the best material for building mountain bike frames. Despite being somewhat unfashionable these days, what with carbon becoming nearly as strong and new aluminium alloys becoming more robust, steel is still the choice of frame material for cyclists who desire a bike with a ‘soul’.
My bias in favour of retro steel bikes should be obvious by now, but I hope most would still agree that the past few decades have seen a great many truly awesome steel mountain bikes over the last few decades, some of which are still in production in some form, while others are defunct but live on in our memories, or better yet, live on in the collections of retro-bikers.
This is my top 10 vintage steel mountain bikes, in no special order. It’s entirely subjective, based on little more than my personal tastes and my memories of reviews or gossip from back in the day.
1. Team Marin
During the nineties, Marin’s range of MTBs was spectacularly beautiful. The zolatone paintwork with neon fork and stem went together perfectly, and I think look great even today.
Below is a page from an early 90s Marin catalogue, showing the Team Marin with its superb cro-mo frame, kitted out with Deore XT.
Looks aside, these bikes rode really nicely – of course.
2. Trek Single Track
Trek’s Single Track ranges of the nineties were a true benchmark in mass-produced steel MTBs, with great handling and judiciously chosen specs.
Next to the frills of the Cannondales, Konas and GTs of the same era, Treks were often considered a bit staid and boring. Yet the Trek 970 shown below (from the 1994 Trek catalogue) still looks incredible, even today.
3. Kona Explosif
One of the benchmarks of mass-produced, but mid to high-end steel mountain bikes. And about as cool and edgy as one could get without putting up the cash for a hand-made boutique frame.
Although never particularly stunning at first sight, the Diamond Back Axis (and the Apex, a lower-spec bike using an identical frame) was a no-nonsense all-rounder, and arguably the best that could be bought at that price point.
Photo from the 1994 Diamond Back Catalogue (in Spanish!). The little brother of this model was the Diamond Back Apex, which I and my best friend both used to own, and which had a very similar or identical frame, but slightly less expensive components (STX and LX instead of Deore XT).
5. Raleigh Special Products 853
Considered by many to be hugely uncool back in the day, at least when compared to mainstream US brands like GT or Marin, Raleigh UK’s high end mountain bike frames were somewhat underrated back in the day. Although better known for their innovative titanium offerings (see, for example, my M Trax 300, the M Trax 400 or my Dynatech Diablo STX), Raleigh’s Special Products Division also turned out some particularly fine hand-built Reynolds steel mountain bike frames in the 1990s (see the Dynatech Encounter), up until the end of that decade until the company got bought out and ruined by a group of money-grabbing executives.
Shown below is an exquisite example of a late 1990s Raleigh Special Products Division, hand-welded Reynolds 853 steel frame (photo credit: retrobike.co.uk).
Also worth looking at are the 853 full suspension frames from the same era:
One of the legends of the North American mountain bike scene, Rocky Mountain have more than 30 years experiences designing and building awesome bikes, tested and refined in the wilds of British Columbia. The Rocky Mountain Blizzard really stands out from the crowd as a retro classic, with its unmistakable styling and superb handling.
Classy British designed, Taiwan-built, cromoly steel bikes. Light, responsive, and with racy styling, Oranges were popular with image-conscious MTBers who wanted to buy British, and who had a little extra money to spend.
9. Specialized Stumpjumper
10. Nishiki Alien
After Richard Cunningham invented the first elevated chainstay frame in the late 80s, a number of other brands also jumped on the band-wagon, including Yeti, Haro, Saracen, and Nishiki, with the Nishiki Alien being one of the most iconic. E-stay frames typically benefited from having shorter chain stays, leading to noticeably superior climbing ability, faster handling, and elimination of chain-slap. Their appearance is also radically cool.
Check out the Haro Extreme range from the early 90s as well.
Expect e-stay designs to be explored all over again, but this time for 29er designers looking for shorter chainstays.
Some mountain biker swear by thumbshifter gear levers, such as the Shimano Deore SL-MT62 lever shown below. Renowned for their reliability and functionality, these components can command surprisingly high prices when in good working and cosmetic condition.
One of the main advantages thumbshifters have over the more common, modern trigger shifters, is their ability to easily trim the front mech, in order to find its ideal position for each gear. The same can be said for throttle gear shifters, such as those produced by SRAM, Sachs and others.
Fast forward several decades, and we find that Shimano has finally realised that trimming a front mech can be useful, and that the 2015 XTR range will include this. According to Shimano:
The FD-M9050 uses computer controlled auto trim as the chain moves up and down the cassette to keep the drivetrain running smoothly.
In other words, Shimano have finally found a way to allow users of trigger shifters to trim their front mech, to avoid the annoying rubbing chain sound that can happen when the chain is at one of the extreme ends of the cassette. Albeit an extremely expensive and complicated way, that may take some time to trickle-down to more modest groupsets.
But I’ll be keeping my Deore thumbshifters for the time being.
Mining has long been part of the history of Dartmoor, predating the roman conquest of Britain. Evolving from simple beginnings, 20th century mining activity saw the implementation of total destruction of large swathes of moorland to make way for open cast mines. Those familiar with Dartmoor will be aware of the blight of the china clay quarries near Lee Moor.
Now, I understand that the industries of the world require minerals, that local people need work, that moorland is generally of little economic use except for mining, and that landowners are free to sell their land. But I just can’t help lamenting the loss of some of the most accessible moorland bordering Plympton.
Bottle Hill, near to Drakelands and Newnham Park, is the latest casualty of the high price of minerals. In this case, the aptly named Wolf Minerals has been busy digging up Bottle Hill, restarting the open cast exploitation of one the world’s largest known tungsten and tin deposits.
Although it’s nice to know that one of my favourite areas of Dartmoor now has such importance for the global economy, and that its exploitation will directly provide for around 200 local jobs (and will help to indirectly support numerous other local jobs), the loss of this beauty spot is difficult to stomach.
This was where, in 1994, I did my first proper mountain biking with a small group of friends (one of whom is now sadly deceased) and my younger brother. It’s where I went to think or to get a bit of fresh air after school, or just to have an enjoyable mountain bike ride on those (all too common) days when poor weather made the higher moorland areas too risky. I recall seeing many other cyclists up there, as well as walkers and families enjoying a picnic on a sunny afternoon.
This iconic frame design (said to have been invented by Richard Cunningham) started to appear around 1988, and lasted well into the mid 90s, the elevated chain stay (or e-stay) gained a cult following, but never came close to replacing the classic double-triangle frame design.
E-stay frames allowed for greater clearance for the rear wheel, a shorter wheel-base for better climbing and manoeuvrability, elimination of chain-slap, and the ability to remove a chain without breaking it.
For many, these advantages outweighed the downsides, which included additional weight, and some extra lateral flexibility and weakness in the bottom bracket area.
A fair few e-stay frames eventually snapped or cracked after sustained but not excessive use – particularly those built from aluminium or titanium. It’s still possible to find e-stay frames for sale on ebay or retrobikes, mostly in steel, but with the odd uncracked aluminium or titanium specimen.
The rise in popularity of 29″ and 650b wheeled mountain bikes has rekindled interest in elevated chain stays, as a way to have a shorter wheel-base when using big wheels: There are already e-stay 29er prototypes going around (photo below).
It would be rather ironic if a modern innovation like large wheels were to now lead mountain bikers back to an extinct design like the e-stay.
Out of my entire collection of bikes, the Raleigh Dynatech Diablo is probably my favourite. With essentially an identical frame to my M Trax 300 – a cromo steel rear triangle into which titanium top and down tubes are bonded – the Dynatech is fairly light for its era (25 lbs), and has a responsive, yet comfortable feel when ridden.
Added shock absorption, albeit nothing in comparison with a suspension fork, is provided by a titanium handlebar, cromo steel stem, and my favourite detail – a pair of lightweight and rather rare UGLI forks. UGLI stands for Uncle Gerald’s Latest Invention, after their inventor at Raleigh, Gerald O-Donovan. The crown unit was bulge-formed from aluminium by Japanese outfit Eisho Seisekusho, into which steel or titanium blades (depending on the Dynatech model) were bonded, and with aluminium dropouts from Spinner being bonded onto the blade ends. Their design gives them noticeably more flex than ordinary steel rigid forks (particularly the titanium-bladed variant), which becomes quite obvious under hard braking.
The STX groupset works well enough considering it’s 20 years old, with the only problem being the left hand shifter that occasionally misfires when shifting up to a larger ring. The STX cantilever brakes are surprisingly powerful when correctly set-up, and give more than enough stopping power in dry conditions (disc brakes would be better in wet conditions, naturally).
Is there anything I would change?
At various times I’ve been tempted to fit a suspension fork to gain some speed on technical and downhill sections, but I could never bring myself to retire the UGLI fork, because apart from its handling characteristics, it makes the bike stand out from the crowd. The colour of the frame is perhaps my only significant dislike. White with black does have a sort of modern classic look to it, but I really prefer the original 90s Dynatech paintwork. Colourful, ostentatious designs really made the Dynatechs stand out from the competition.
Way back in the early 90s, before real suspension was invented, Girvin came up with the innovative Flexstem. Designed to soak up a bit of trail buzz, which would otherwise be transmitted to the rider’s upper body, the Flexstem was little more than a normal stem with a hinge and an elastomer. Some riders complained that when using a Flexstem, the constant rotational motion of the handlebar would irritate their wrists. Nonetheless, the Flexstem plugged a gap for a few years until real, fork suspension arrived on the scene, and was then forgotten by nearly everybody.
The StaFast suspension stem
Now fast-forward to Fall 2014, when sta-fast announce they have developed an innovative suspension stem for bicycles, retailing at the hefty price of $350 United States Dollars.
Although unlikely to pose a threat to fork-based suspension on mountain bikes, one might expect the StaFast to find its niche in the touring and commuter bike scenes, where rigid forks are the norm.
The good old Girvin Flexstem
Little more than a hinge and a bit of rubber added to a quill stem, yet a huge innovation in its time.
Modern mountain bike technology is incredible. The arrival of decent suspension, hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless tires, and many other innovations all help today’s hard-core mountain bikers go faster than ever before, for longer, over more challenging terrain.
The contrast with the technology we used in the 90s couldn’t be any stronger. It’s actually quite hard to believe we rode off-road with rigid forks, cantilever brakes, and so few gears, and lived to tell the tale.
Few would seriously argue that modern mountain bikes are not better overall than their 90s ‘retro’ ancestor, but here are some ways that 90s mountain bikes were better…
1. Low maintenance, low cost
One of the great things about mountain bikes during the 90s was their simplicity. No shocks to tune up, no hydraulics to bleed. Keeping your bike in good working order was pretty easy, and rather cheap by today’s standards.
Thinking about going out for a ride? Just grab the bike, check the tire pressure, squeeze the brakes, double check the most crucial bolts are tight enough, and off you go.
2. Just one wheel size
When everybody used 26 inch wheels, borrowing a suitably sized replacement inner tube from a riding buddy was a heck of a lot easier than today, what with 26 inch, 650b and 29 inch. A single size of wheel also made thing simpler when upgrading to the latest frame – just fit your existing wheels to the new frame, without worrying about whether to make the jump to a trendier wheel size.
3. Steel bikes, built to last
As a material for frames and cycling components, steel is hugely under-rated. Steel is cheap, strong, fatigue resistant, and easy to repair. Rear mech hangers can be bent back into alignment numerous times before they are ruined; damaged or rusted tubes can be removed and replaced; disc tabs can be added easily to usher a retro steel frame into the 21st century.
It’s true that steel frames and components are not the lightest, yet they aren’t overly heavy and some would argue the strength of steel is worth the slight weight penalty compared to aluminium or carbon. In any case, weight doesn’t matter much these days, judging by the 28-30 lb weights of most mid-range modern mountain bikes.
There is also an argument to be made that steel bikes are the ethical choice. A good, hand-made steel frame will last a lifetime if cared for properly. Choosing this over far-eastern aluminium or carbon will significantly reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of your bike, and as such will help the environment – you know, the wilderness and countryside we ride in.
4. Shifters that allow you to trim your front derailleur
I’ve never understood the need for having indexed front gears. Not only are shifts between chain-rings much less frequent than shifts on the rear cassette. But indexing also forces you to use a single front derailleur position, which can take a lot of tuning to get just right. When not perfectly tuned, the chain can grind noisily on your front derailleur’s chain-guide when using gears at the extreme ends of your cassette.
This is (or was in the 90’s) easily solved if your gear levers are thumb-shifters or grip-shift, because both allow micro-adjustment of your front derailleur. Goodbye grinding chain, hello perfect front derailleur alignment!
5. Bikes were lighter despite all that steel
Back in the 90’s, a mid-range mountain bike would have weighed in at somewhere around 24-25 pounds – significantly lower than the 28-30 pound weight of a typical mid-range mountain bike today.
However, concerns about bike weight seems to be more about vanity than performance. Dwarfed by a rider’s body weight, the weight of your mountain bike is barely worth worrying about. Unless you find yourself regularly carrying the bike over obstacles, or your bike is super-heavy, just lose some body weight instead.
Convention now says that mountain bikes should have front suspension forks. They are now considered an essential feature, by nearly all mountain bikers and mountain bike manufacturers. Even the lowest end, cheapest of the cheap, steel-rimmed, gas-pipe framed mountain bikes in your nearest supermarket have something resembling front suspension.
And the benefits of decent front suspension are quite clear. They allow a rider to ride faster over most off-road terrain, give extra steering control due to the enhanced front wheel traction, and absorb vibrations that would otherwise sap a rider’s energy. In other words, front suspension allows a rider to go faster and for longer. Good suspension also provides an extra margin of error when you hit gnarly terrain features a little too fast – soaking up hits and giving you a better chance of staying on the bike.
What has happened to our trails since the advent of good-quality, cost-effective, long travel suspension forks? Has mother nature added extra rocks, roots and bomb-holes to make our trails that much gnarlier? Have the laws of physics fundamentally changed to make it impossible to ride off-road on a rigid fork? No, of course not. Simply put, expectations have risen regarding the speed one can ride off road; riders usually want to keep up with their riding buddies, to win races, or get good Strava times.
So, having front suspension is a no-brainer then, right? Not necessarily, as it turns out. Suspension comes with several drawbacks:
adds weight to the bike
a fraction of the energy of each pedal stroke is lost compressing the suspension – unless locked out
slightly sloppier steering due to fork flexure, although the most recent forks are getting pretty stiff
head tube angle changes as the suspension progresses through its travel, changing the steering of the bike
modern suspension forks require regular maintenance, particularly when used in wet and muddy conditions
significantly increases the retail price of a mountain bike, or means the rest of the bike will be worse at the same price point
Most riders and manufacturers now agree that the positives that come with using front suspension outweigh the negatives. I agree with this, but only if your priority is to ride as hard and fast as possible.
While generally a little slower, riding rigid forks allows a mountain biker to burn calories faster than when riding with front suspension. Riding rigid also places a greater importance on trail skills, particularly the reading of terrain and selecting the fastest/smoothest line. This means a rider generally needs to become fitter and more skilled to keep pace with riding buddies who use front suspension.
In conclusion, there is probably no single answer to the original question: is suspension necessary? The answer will depend on individual taste, riding style, budgetary constraints, and the type of terrain being ridden.
My own view is that suspension is by no means necessary, but is not worth thinking about unless you’ve got the rest of your mountain bike kitted out with a decent frame and good components.
Way back during the early 1990s, Raleigh’s Special Products Division (or RSP for short) came up with the novel idea of bonding titanium or cro-moly steel tubes into steel or aluminium lugs, to build mountain bike frames that had a fairly low weight, a rigid rear triangle, and some of the damping and flex of titanium.
In its day, this was something of a genius idea, insofar as it allowed ownership of a hand-built titanium bike, with prominent ‘Titanium’ decals, for a fraction of the price of a welded, full titanium framed bike. While there’s little doubt that some clever marketing, along with a generous sprinkling of ‘titanium aura’ tinged hype, played a role in the relative success of RSP’s ‘Duo Tech’ framed mountain bikes, their performance and ‘ride quality’ was also usually quite highly regarded by those who rode them.
Originally branded as part of the Raleigh Dynatech range until 1994, and part of the Raleigh M Trax range from 1993 to 1995, the demise of the Duo Tech frameset came when the cost of materials and fabrication rose to such a level that the frameset stopped being profitable — at which point Raleigh switched to more conventional designs and materials.
My 1993 Raleigh M Trax 300 Duo Tech
As the bottom of the range model of the newly introduced M Trax brand, the M Trax 300 was the cheapest titanium framed mountain bike you could buy, retailing at about £350 back in 1993. Bought for the princely sum of £50 from retrobike.co.uk, this is my best value for money bike purchase to date. It’s getting common to rebuild retro bikes to their more or less original specifications using parts collected from ebay, but my M Trax is a true survivor: all original parts (down to the tires, grips, and brake pads), very little use at all, and carefully stored for 20+ years, albeit with some conspicuous rust on the bottle cage bolts and brake bolts.
After removing the reflectors and adding modern SPD pedals, at 27.5 lb it is not unduly heavy by modern standards, but is close to the upper weight limit that a self-respecting 90s mountain biker would be able to tolerate. The bike has potential for some easy weigh savings, such as replacing the steel stem, bar and seat post with lighter aluminium versions, and fitting lighter tires.
The bike feels lively and springy (less so than a good all-steel framed bike, however), with noticeably more trail-buzz being soaked up by the steel controls and titanium tubing than I would usually expect with the 90s standard set-up of aluminium controls and an all-steel frame.
Steel controls and seat post give added confidence (at least for a taller/heavier rider like me).
The Shimano Deore II thumbshifters and hyperglide cassette shifted between gears remarkably smoothly, which some may find surprising for a bike of this age. The ability to shift across the entire block or chainset in a single movement was appreciated.
Reasonably light in weight.
Metallic turquoise paint job looks the business.
Titanium at the price of far-east steel.
Ostentatious decals on the top-tube emphasize that this frame has TITANIUM.
The not so good
The gear ratios are a little on the high side for the steepest off-road riding, with its lowest ratio being 1:1.
A design fault in the Altus chainset’s non-replaceable inner ring makes chain-suck episodes all too frequent.
The plastic four-finger Dia Compe brake levers look ugly and lack power.
The bar is just slightly too narrow to steer the bike properly over technical terrain.
RSP’s Duo Tech frames were known to de-bond, and there are anecdotal tales of having a tube pop out of its lug mid-ride, in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, this seems not to be an especially common problem.