Anatomy of a vintage mountain bike

What defines what you think of as a vintage mountain bike? Anything with 26″ wheels and no dropper-post, something made before suspension and disc brakes were ubiquitous or a steel frame and forks with friction gears and a portage strap? I suspect the picture you conjure in your mind is different to everybody else’s, it is a purely subjective thing, and as I was dwelling on this I thought it appropriate to commit on (virtual) paper what it is that to me defines a vintage mountain bike.

Anatomy of a vintage mountain bike - stance
Hand-built steel frame and fork and top of the line Shimano XT groupset

Steel frames and rigid forks

For me, the best and most memorable mountain bikes from back in the day were finely crafted from steel by men with beards (or moustaches at least) in sheds. Regardless of whether the shed in question was in sunny California where it all started, or Croydon there is something alluring to me about a steel frame and fork, thin tubes, builder’s quirks and a sense of connection to the way the bike was put together. This connection is not to be found in a modern carbon frame, stamped out of molds by robots, and it adds to the mystique and legend of certain builder’s output. Whilst suspension arrived early it didn’t really work terribly effectively until the early 00’s, rigid forks tracked better, weighed less and were still being piloted to race success in the late 90s. Not everyone is aiming for race wins of course, but the rigid fork still benefitted plenty of riders by making them choose their lines carefully and learn how to negotiate trail obstacles and drops without the back-up of suspension cush.

Anatomy of a vintage mountain bike - the finest workmanship
Fillet brazed from Reynolds steel, cantilever braze-ons

26″ wheels and skinwall tyres

Apparently the 26″ wheel is now a thing of the past, relegated to kids bikes and BSOs, but for over twenty years it was the only size readily available and everybody managed to keep going. Whilst “the Industry’s” push for development in the MTB world meant we were all forced onto bigger and then slightly smaller (but still bigger than 26″) wheels the original size still to me looks proportionally better (admittedly more so on my small sized frames). The 26″ wheel is still more than capable of dealing with most casual MTB’ers weekend runs, perhaps not as fast, or as comfortable as some but it worked for many years and as far as I’m concerned 26″ ain’t dead yet.

Skinwall tyres offer very little in the way of performance benefits, perhaps a little more suppleness in the sidewall and a slightly lower weight aside, but they look great. Blackwall tyres were everywhere from about 1993 thanks in part to how good those Kleins looked with them on, but as the current fashion for skinwall gravel and road tyres confirms there is something about the skinwall tyre, whether vintage or retro re-pop.

Quill stems and flat bars

There was a time when light weight was the be all and end all of the mountain bike upgrade path, weight was shaved, drilled and chopped from every part which led to the frankly rather uncomfortable sub 20″ handlebar craze. I wouldn’t recommend riding a silly narrow bar coupled with a 150mm zero rise stem as many did back in the day, but flat-ish, long-ish stems with flat bars provide a low, racy position that can still handle really well. The bike below sports a 130mm Nitto made stem with a 56cm X-Lite titanium bar and the position feels really good to me, it lacks the same chuck-ability and precision when going quickly that my modern bike has, but frankly I scare myself more often that not on that, and I like the restricted pace of a vintage mountain bike. The other thing these 1″ quill stems and 25.4 clamp bars offer that modern bikes don’t is some flex, often pedalled (pun intended) by the modern bike media as something to be avoided at all cost a little give from the front end makes a difference when riding rigid.

Anatomy of a vintage mountain bike - controls
Quill stems, canti brakes, flat bars and 3 at the front

Triples up front, not many at the back

Since the ‘invention’ of 1x drivetrains a few years back the front mech has almost disappeared and we now have a Spinal Tap 11 or even 12 gears at the back: unfortunately more gears at the rear = bigger cassettes, narrower chains and more expense. I like to spin so appreciate a triple at the front, six at the back is plenty if the ratio allows and the interchangeability of six, seven and eight speed systems in regard to chain and chainring width keeps the cost down and options high. 

Anatomy of a vintage mountain bike - gearing
Seven speed drive trains and hand-built 26 inch wheels

Trick bits, chi-chi, upgrades

A catalogue-spec-down-to-the-inner-tubes build can be great fun and the thrill of the chase in tracking down the specific, elusive part you need is almost as much fun as riding to some. For me though whenever I bought a new bike in the past, and even when I buy a (new to me, but old) bike now I inevitably change something immediately, whether it’s the saddle to improve comfort or more likely I’ll ‘upgrade’ a standard set of wheel skewers or brake levers to something more exotic, or trick. Back in the day we waited with baited breath for the newest copy of MBA, MBi or MBUK to come out, and the pages that received most attention (aside from the two page Stif adverts in the UK mags) were the reviews of new, normally either brightly anodised or dangerously light-weight trick bits, I still get the same sense of excitement now when I see a pair of Cooks cranks!



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