Sunday, May 17, 2015

New (20-Year-Old) Toy!

Oh, Craigslist, why must you tempt me so?

Meet the latest arrival in the garage, tastefully photographed against said garage per the Society of Terrible Amateur Bicycle Photographers Official Rulebook. That's a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper, steel, 20.5" frame, with no squishy bits save the tires. When I saw it listed on the local List of Craig for a song, I decided it simply had to be mine.

It wins nostalgia points because this is the same exact model (and color, even, though a different frame size) that I sold to my Dad back in 1995 during the shop gig where I actually got semi-good at mechanicking. He was recovering from a near-death cardiac "incident", and that Rockhopper was going to be his comeback bike. Eventually, he decided that he still liked his Cannondale road bike more, "incident" or not, so the Rocky was briefly loaned to my then-girlfriend who became my then-financee who is currently serving time as my now-and-future wife. Once I ponied up to buy her a bike of her own, the Rocky went to my sister, where it remains to this day.

Even putting aside nostalgia, though, I think these bikes were (and are) the bee's knees, cat's pajamas, and dog's bollocks. In the mid-to-late 90s, the steel hardtail was still trying (gamely) to compete with cheap aluminum as a viable race weapon, and the result was some pretty light and lively frames, even at midrange price points -- a far cry from today's tank-like steel off-road frames that emphasize bike-polo durability over ride quality. Trek had their 900 series, Gary Fisher had the Hoo Koo E Koo, GT had the Karakoram, and Specialized had this Rockhopper. Geometries had coalesced around a pretty quick-handling standard (with minor variations) thanks to the iconic Bridgestone MB series, though Bridgestone USA was defunct by the time this Rocky hit the sales floor. That bike layout became so standardized that it was just known as "NORBA geometry" for its ubiquity on the professional race circuit. It felt great on dirt and -- though this falls in the category of Unintended Side Effects -- it didn't feel like a chopper on pavement (pretty easy to do when the longest suspension fork on the market had maybe 70mm of travel). Most of these bikes had a full complement of braze-ons if you wanted to add fenders and racks to make them solid utility bikes. In short, they were simple, fun, versatile bikes.

When I take off my rose-colored riding glasses, however, I know darn well that this example is pretty rough. The paint is battered, which isn't unusual for the matte finishes on these frames. The low-end Shimano and Grip Shift parts left a lot to be desired when brand new, and they have not aged well in the last 20 years. But with a bit of adjustment, the bike still runs, and I've now commuted on it enough to confirm that it's worth a few well-chosen upgrades from the parts stash. Even with pretty abused wheels, horrible tires, and a Slime tube in back, it has that lively feel I remember. I'm going to swap the Alivio crank (which Shimano eventually recalled due to breakages) for a Sugino XD, dump the worn-out Grip Shifts and rear derailleur for nicer ones I got from reader Steve K (thanks, Steve!), and hopefully find a good deal on some 26" non-disc-brake wheels (which modern bikery thinks is an obsolete format). With those changes and fresh consumables (rubber, brake pads, cables), I'll have a mechanically good-as-new MTB for chump change.