Riding home Monday evening I spotted this old Schwinn mountain bike parked on someone’s parking strip. A beater to be sure, but a perfectly functional beater, and in Portland, even beaters parked unlocked and unattended are thief magnets, so I rode by, glancing over my shoulder as I wondered what was up. It was then I realized that some other folks on the street had already put out their garbage and recycling. So I went back, leaned my bike on a tree, and knocked. The guy who opened the door, noticing my helmet and garb I suppose, said simply “Please, God, take it.” That was all the invitation I needed so I thanked him and walked the final blocks home with 2 bikes – one with very flat tires. One concerned driver stopped to gruffly ask “Is that your bike?” I’m not sure which one he figured didn’t match me, but I briefly explained what was up. It was good to know at least one person would question the shadiness of someone wheeling 2 bikes down the sidewalk.
The bike is a 1986 Schwinn High Sierra. I recognized it immediately as I was riding by – the Charlie Cunningham designed roller-cam brakes are pretty distinctive – because I just picked up a nearly identical bike two months ago Actually, the first one isn’t technically ‘mine” as I only brokered the deal and it’s owned by the new bike club – “Wheelz” – that Mark A and I started at our school. That bike costs $40 and while rideable now, will supply hours of wrenching experience for our budding adolescent bike mechanics.
Both bikes are the same “bronze” color with chocolate brown rear triangle, mostly Suntour friction drivetrains, and plenty of braze-ons for racks and fenders. The specs can be found here. The one I just picked up is way too tall for me – the seat tube is 23.5” C-T, but I don’t really care; I just want to get it back out on the road or trail. Speaking of trails, in my poking around for info on this bike, I came across this interesting tidbit. Seems Ned Overend won the Pacific Suntour MTB series in 1984 riding for Schwinn on a stock High Sierra (though by 86 he had a custom Paramount MTB for racing.) So while the bike may fit the “clunker” status by today’s dual suspension-crabon fibre-disc brake-200mm travel standards, it carries a fine pedigree.
Once I got the bike home and looked it over, I discovered some pretty interesting modifications, highlighted in the pictures below. Obviously, the person who owned this bike was tall and rode it in the dark. The 12V headlight is huge – I think it’s a motorcycle headlight – and the customized heavy steel plate mount is tapped directly into the handlebar, not clamped on. Initially, I was stumped by the customized padded platform bolted to the water bottle bosses. A step to help mount the bike? Combined with the mismatched pedals – plain cheapo newish platform on drive side, original Suntour beartrap with custom heavy-duty adjustable rubber toe strap lag bolted to custom made steel plate on left – I thought the bike had been modified by some giant machinist who for some reason could only pedal with his left leg. Neighbor Paul solved the mystery, pointing out that the plug on the end of the wires from the headlight would just reach a motorcycle battery installed on the platform above the bottom bracket. And then there’s the grease fittings. The one below the bottom bracket may be stock – some 80’s MTB’s had them – but I’ve never seen one on a headtube. Who was that guy? There’s also a magnet on the front wheel and one on the left crank, so whoever he was he tracked his mileage and cared about cadence.
I’m a believer in beausage, and this bike’s got it in spades, though of a very workmanlike quality - more like a 50-mission B-17 than a vintage Mercedes. It may be ugly as sin, but someone put a lot of love and sweat into making this bike their vehicle, and they obviously rode the heck out of it.
Another thing I noticed is the small chainring seems to have the most worn teeth. If the rings are all original, it’s no doubt from hauling that battery around. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts he pulled a trailer too.
It still gets to me that these early mountain bikes, or ATB’s, or utility bikes, or whatever you want to call them, get so little respect. This bike was on the trash heap and headed for a meltdown, though a few hours work on my part should have it ready for another 25 years of faithful service with only basic maintenance. Meanwhile, a Schwinn Varsity from the same year, with a gaspipe frame, considerably lower grade components, steel suicide wheels (at least in Portland; you’re just asking for it if you take those out in the rain) and a steel cottered crank, will fetch $100-$250 from the fixter crowd. And while a Varsity is fine, for what it is, I’ll take the High Sierra any day.
Final point: 1986 and the bracketing years were a helluva time for bikes, if my basement is any indication. Between T’s Bridgestone T-700, my Trek 400, Trek 560, Nishiki Riviera GT, The Miyata Terra Runner, and Big C’s Japanese Bianchi, we’re rocking the mid-80’s bike boom.
"Suntour XC-Power" "Cunningham Design"
Is that a step? The customized battery platform...
...for powering this bad boy.
Wouldn't it be easier to just buy a toeclip?
Grease fitting on back of headtube. Dreading what I'll find when I open it up, but I'll bet the stem isn't stuck.
Speaking of stem. Mismatched shifters - right is 6-speed Shimano indexed. Check out light switch on the left and that forged cable guide.