Tag Archives: retro bike

Ten of the greatest vintage aluminum MTB frames

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.

1. GT Zaskar

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2. Kleins (pre-Trek)

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3. Yeti Ultimate

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Edit: Thanks to Anthony for pointing out the above frame was actually steel. However, this doesn’t detract from the objective fact that its a freakin awesome bike!

4. Alpinestars Alu Mega

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5. Cannondale

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6. Nishiki Alien

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7. Mantis Flying V

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8. and 9. Mountain Cycle San Andreas and Moho

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10. Amp full suspension

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E-Stay Mountain Bikes

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).

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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.

My 1993 M Trax Duo Tech 300

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.

Raleigh M Trax 300
Raleigh M Trax 300: unpacked and ready to ride

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 good

  • 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.
M Trax 300: destination Nun's Cross
M Trax 300: test ride, destination Nun’s Cross

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.