Tag Archives: rocky mountain

Ten of the best vintage – retro steel mountain bikes

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.

team_marin

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.

singletrack

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.

1995 Explosif size 19 catalogue

From the 1995 Kona catalogue (see this thread).

 

 

4. Diamond Back Axis

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:

rsp300cat

… not to be confused with the truly awful Raleigh Activator range of MTBs!

6. Rocky Mountain Blizzard

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.

Photo taken from here.

7. GT Psyclone

Fillet-brazed steel goodness, this is arguably the finest GT frame of all time.

Photo borrowed from this blog.

8. Orange Clockwork

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.

orange1

9. Specialized Stumpjumper

 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.

nish_alien

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.

5 Ways Mountain Bikes Were Better In The 90s

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.