[Image gallery at the end of the article]
In another article, I covered the 1981 Stumpjumper and how, in the most hipster of fashions, I acquired one of the first 500 units ever made and restored it to a near-original riding condition. I decided not to revel in its irony, as hipsters are wont to do. I wanted to actually ride it: to take it out on the trails and see how it performed. I was willing to sacrifice my knees, wrists, and any unwanted hipster cred, to find out. Even though I have access to myriad modern human-powered trail-riding vehicles, I didn’t want my Stumpy, as important as it is to mountain biking history, to just hang on the wall (really, though, it looks awesome on the wall of the bike shop, but I cannot help thinking that it is lonely up there).
I am in no way a suspension hater. I do not, in any way, consider myself a cycling purist. I would never think that the awesome, modern, technology placed on mountain bikes today is not pure cycling. I just happen to be weird enough to be considered somewhat of a bike technology Luddite. If you want to ride a full-squish bike and get rad, then, by all means, don’t let me stop you. Maybe I like making things hard on myself, I don’t know. I can only compare my slight aversion to cycling technology to liquid soap: there’s no reason for it…yet it exists.
I love rigid bikes for their simplicity. There are no lower leg services, no air cans, recharges, dampers, seals, and fewer bearings to wear out. I have endured the discomfort that seems to be purposely built into these bikes just for the sake of being outside on the simpler machines. I believe that this bike represents mountain biking at its purest: kind of like hiking with wheels. Sure, I have to fistfight rocks and inhale trail dirt whilst pushing the bike through creeks and up steep sections of fire roads filled with angry hikers and dogs. It is all worth it.
Romero Canyon Trail in the Santa Barbara front country is a great trail to test a mountain bike. It begins with a steep fire road that is transected by a few rocky creek crossings, leading to a loop that includes single track, and some flatter, flowier parts. The trail features sand and loose rocks, patches of flat, slippery sandstone, and harder dirt with water ruts. The conditions were mostly dry with the exception of the creek crossings and occasional shady mud patch.
The Stumpy, at least with my legs, had a hard time climbing the steep fire road portion. The 26-inch wheels and the slack head tube angle were no help at all. It took a lot of concentration, oscillating my body back and forth over the rear wheel for traction and the handlebars to keep the front wheel on the ground. I never got the hang of popping wheelies in my life, and starting a bicycle circus act on a steep incline was not my idea of a good time.
The gearing, being a traditional triple-chainring setup, was not quite enough to make it over some of the steeper parts of the incline. The ratio of the lowest gear (0.91 in this case) just isn’t low enough when compared to bikes equipped with super-large sprockets. I found myself having to stop periodically to push the bike uphill. This didn’t bother me as I was intent on photographing the bike anyway.
ON THE FLAT AND FLOWY
After getting to the top of the fire road, I took the left fork towards East Camino Cielo. In the sections that weren’t covered by giant boulders from the 2017 Debris Flow, the bike handled well. It was a little twitchy due to the head tube angle. That was quickly overcome by the fact that it cornered like a boss. I found that I could maneuver the squiggly parts with ease. However, the more technical sections, when attacked at slower speeds also tested my handling skills, with moderate success.
I believe that there is a reason rigid mountain bikes also double as commuters. Those of us who compete in the revered and exclusive Cat 6 racing every morning would agree that this geometry is very comfortable for riding in the saddle for longer distances on flat surfaces. On the flat parts of the trails, I only needed getting out of the saddle once I needed to avoid an obstacle like a rut or a heap of rocks.
After reaching East Camino Cielo and resting for a while, I headed back down. I was hesitant, at first, to do this. This bike is almost 40 years old, has no suspension, and uses a threaded headset (the original, in this case). I was afraid the bike would rattle apart. Since I was running tubes deflated to 25 psi, I was also afraid that I would flatten the tires and destroy the original wheels right away.
Because the frame geometry was so slack, I didn’t really need to lower the saddle at all. When it seemed like the wheels and headset would hold up, I braved faster speeds. I was able to make it down the single-track portion of Romero, stopping a few times to navigate the rockier sections on foot. In retrospect, with my ass still sore while I write this, not lowering the saddle for the descent was a bad idea.
The original Mafac cantilever tandem brakes are no match for today’s hydraulic disc brakes. Many canti-haters would tell agree. However, in combination with the massive leverage offered by the Tomiselli motorcycle brake levers, they weren’t all that bad. They were enough to make me confident that I could slow my descent safely.
CONCLUSION AND PICTURES
I will probably ride this bike on the trails again, but not anytime soon. There are just too many modern rigid mountain bikes options that are built better, use stronger materials and parts, and have more comfortable geometry. Bikes like the Surly Karate Monkey, Salsa Fargo, Velo Orange Piolet, and the Kona Unit X come to mind. So if I were to shun suspension altogether, as I am wont to do, I would definitely keep the old Stumpy on the wall for the time being. It would be much more satisfying to beat up a bike that isn’t considered an icon. But for the sake of the Stumpy itself, I am compelled to ride it in the dirt every now and then.
Hey! Look at these awesome pictures!