Tag Archives: bike

100 of the best vintage mountain bikes

This is something I thought would be interesting to share. It’s adapted from a list I’ve written myself in recent years, as I’ve  searched for interesting vintage mountain bikes for my own collection.

As one might guess, there is an obvious bias towards the following:

  • bikes from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, principally 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995
  • MTBs with steel frames
  • mass-produced MTBs
  • MTBs that won’t cost an arm and a leg
  • MTB brands that were available in the USA, Canada, and the British Isles

It’s not exhaustive, and it’s not especially objective either. It’s simply a list of what I consider to be the best 100 vintage mountain bikes. These are all bikes I’d like to own, and would consider buying for myself, in the right size and condition.

I plan to add links to photos or catalogue scans for each of the listed bikes, in the near future.

The list

Alpinestars Cro Mega (e-stay or normal)

Alpinestars Alu Mega (e-stay, without cracks)

Alpinestars Ti Mega (e-stay, without cracks)

Bontrager Race / Race Lite

492Bonty1

Breezer Storm

91breezerstorm

Bridgestone MB-1

mb1

Brodie Sovereign

93-brodie-sovereign

Cannondale Killer V series

Cannondale M series

Diamond Back Axis

Diamond Back Axis TT

Diamond Back WCF / Vertex

Giant ATX

Gary Fisher Montare, or any pre-Trek steel Fisher

GT Psyclone

GT Zaskar and Xixang

GT RTS

GT STS

Haro Extreme

20150806_093418

Ibis Mojo

KHS Montana Comp

Klein Attitude (pre Trek)

Koga Miyata Ridgerunner

Kona Hei Hei (Titanium)

Litespeed Titanium (without cracks – lifetime warranties no longer valid after buyout)

Mantis Valkyrie

Marin Rift Zone

Marin Eldridge Grade

Marin with late 80s to early 90s splatter paint

Merlin Titanium (without cracks – lifetime warranties no longer valid after buyout)

Mountain Cycle Moho

Mountain Cycle San Andreas

Muddy Fox Courier Comp

Nishiki Alien

Orange Clockwork

Orange P7

Orange Vitamin T (or T2)

Overburys Pioneer

Pace RC200 (and other RC frames)

Panasonic MC Pro (rare but awesome)

Pro Flex 855 (and similar)

Raleigh Dynatech Torus

Raleigh Dynatech Diablo LX, DX, or STX

Raleigh M Trax Ti 3000 or 4000 (1995 model with UGLI fork)

Raleigh Special Products Division 853 (hard-tail or full suspension)

Raleigh lugged and brazed 531 frames from the late 1980s (Moonshine, Thunder Road, White Lightning, and others)

Raleigh USA Technium Chill

Ridgeback 704 XT (and similar)

Rock Lobster / Amazon

Rocky Mountain Fusion

Rocky Mountain Blizzard

Santa Cruz Heckler

Saracen Kili

Schwinn Paramount

Scott Team or Pro

Slingshot

Specialized Stumpjumper (steel)

Specialized Stumpjumper (M2)

Specialized FSR

Trek Singletrack series (steel)

Trek 8000 Series, bonded carbon composite

Trek Y33

Univega Alpina 500 (and similar)

Yeti Ultimate (steel)

Zinn (anything)

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How to buy a vintage mountain bike

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.

But also check out my highly subjective list of some of the best vintage steel or aluminium mountain bikes. If you’re up for a less conventional bike, then perhaps an elevated chain-stay (e-stay) mountain bike might hit the spot. I also highly recommend Raleigh Special Product Division’s titanium and steel composite frames, which are usually very good value for money. For more refined tastes, hand-built Reynolds 853 frames occasionally come up for sale.

My rides: Diamond Back Apex 1996

My Diamond Back Apex served me well over a period of 17 years, traveled with me to university in London, to the Spanish island I lived on for a year, then Mexico, Korea, and finally Portugal.

Its story starts in the summer of 1997. With my M Trax 400 showing its age, I thought it would be cheaper to simply buy a new bike, instead of keep replacing the moving parts as they each reached the end of their lives.

I opted for a sensible rigid steel bike, inspired by my best friend’s own 1994 Diamond Back Apex, and I wasn’t disappointed. Light, responsive and compliant, with a generally nice set of components, my Apex was a joy to ride.

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After a hiatus of nearly a decade, it was on my Apex that I reconnected with mountain biking, but its geometry was a little problematic for my aging back, so I had to build a new, more suitable bike. When I finished building my Rourke 853, the Apex went into storage, and its frame forks were passed on to a new owner, whose re-build can be followed on this retrobike thread.

This is the final photo of my Apex, before its final disassembly and shipping over to the UK for its new owner.

20150108_103129

Dynatech: awaiting trial

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:

dynatech awaiting trial

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.

Vintage road bikes: my shopping list

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:

Image from here.

Image from retrobike, here. Lovely.

2. Bianchi Columbus TSX

bianchi_tsx

Seen on this forum. There’s something about that colour of paint.

3. A hand-built steel frame from Roberts.

Delightful. Photo reblogged from here.

4. Or perhaps Rourke?

Drool. Image credit.

Google is also telling me there are quite a few excellent frame builders or manufacturers who I’d barely heard of in the mountain biking world. For example:

5. Colnago

Image from here.

6. Merckx

Image also from this page.

Now I just need to find one in my size…

Reynolds 501: the entry-level workhorse of vintage mountain bike frames

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.

montage1

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.

k2_decal1

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?‘.

optima

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.

Rourke 853 first ride

Finally built up and ready to ride, this is my Brian Rourke 853 mountain bike. 20150206_125313 After collection from the bike shop, I couldn’t resist taking it for a spin around downtown Porto for a little test ride. 20150206_132106 I love the chrome together with the polished aluminium of the Shimano Deore DX rear mech. 20150206_125432

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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!

Rourke 853 mountain bike build

And now for something special in the steel mountain bike department – my ‘new’ Reynolds 853 Rourke frame.

20150104_10393520150104_110321

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.

Photos of the final build and first thoughts from testing riding to be added soon!

StaFast – Reinventing the Flexstem?

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.

Screen-Shot-2014-12-03-at-12.37.19

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

n_girvin_stem

Little more than a hinge and a bit of rubber added to a quill stem, yet a huge innovation in its time.

Suspension: is it really necessary for mountain biking?

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.

Chili_Bomber4 vs. Kona Project 2 rigid fork

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.