Rough Ride: 1981 Stumpjumper Restoration

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

A lot of people have this vision of bike shop employees swimming in a sea of free bikes and parts. Bike swag for days: trucker hats, t-shirts, stickers, mugs…the occasional branded spork. While we are certainly in closer proximity than most to get all that nifty bike graft, free bikes are still pretty rare. Even when we do get a bike gratis, it’s usually some clapped out, broken down, bicycle-like thing that is not worth fixing. I’d rather get loads of sporks from some lube company, rather than deal with some old, crummy bike.

This past spring, however, some dude came into the shop and donated his old bike after learning how much it would cost to repair. Not knowing what to do with it, the employees spirited it to me during my lunch hour. I reluctantly took it off their hands, thinking that I was going to have to make the trip to Bici Centro to donate it. Nevertheless, it was a free bike and it looked really cool. I decided to take a closer look at it. It was made from Japanese Tange Chromoly steel, and had, what looked like motorcycle brake levers and friction shifters on the handlebars. It was, to my delight, a very old and beat up Specialized Stumpjumper.

I didn’t really know it was special until I started researching it. I always thought the first Stumpys had lugged frames. Most of the people who claimed to have the first-year bikes usually showed up with a lugged frame. This one did not — it was TIG welded. But it had the ridiculously huge Tomaselli brake levers, a TA Specialties crankset from France, Suntour drivetrain and Wheelsmith Wheels. I figured it must have been a frankenbike that was pieced together over the years. It wasn’t until I started reading more articles about the first Stumpjumpers that I realized I had one of the first 500 ever built. Somebody slap me.

An early promotional ad for the Specialized Stumpjumper

<namedropping>
A free Specialized Stumpjumper from the first batch of 500 ever ordered by Mike Sinyard and Tim Neenan and designed by the latter. Mr. Neenan’s signature is on the chainstay, and the design had come from his own Lighthouse Chapparal from 1979. I was feeling the weight of having this mountain-biking icon, this symbol, this…closest thing I have ever come to possessing a holy relic. The first production mountain bike. I stopped short of slapping myself.
</namedropping>

Realistically, though, it is a bicycle. A special one, to be sure. But it was in rough condition and it needed work.

Though it sported most of the original parts, the previous owner rode the crap out of this bike for the past 38 years. It was a survivor of the dirt, not the enthusiast’s collection. The last thing I wanted out of this was a collector’s item. I decided that I would make it rideable, replacing the broken and worn parts here and there in the spirit of keeping it a living bike. Potential pretension aside, I wouldn’t mind showing to as many people as possible. In deference to Indiana Jones, I say that this beautiful relic does not belong in a museum. It belongs back in the hands of somebody who would enjoy riding it. Namely, yours truly.

Problems: one of the open-bearing bottom bracket cups was rusted into place, the chainrings were worn into shark tooth-like pointiness, the large moto housing for the moto brake cables (a defining feature of the early Stumpys) was cracked and splitting, the rear derailleur was totally shot, and the rear wheel bearing cartridges were also producing a nice grainy noise when spun. Many of the parts on this bike, though original, needed a lot of work, or replacing.

Parts, tools, and rust.

My first task was to get all the working parts shiny again. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know steel wool and metal polish. The Mafac brakes were particularly bad, as was the headset and seat post quick release. Overall it took me a month, becoming very familiar with steel wool and metal polish, to get all the parts derusted.

That was the easy part. The biggest problem was the bottom bracket. Before we got to that, we had to remove the cranks. TA Specialties uses very weird (read French) threading on the outside of the cranks: 23 mm, a bit larger than the more common square-taper crank threads common today. However, getting the correct crank puller was not as hard as pulling the crank itself. The top lip of the threads had been bashed in over the years making it difficult to get purchase on them. Retapping the threads was the only option if I wanted to make them serviceable in the future. While I searched for the correct tap, I used a blow torch and a rubber mallet to remove the cranks.

The most problematic part of the Stumpy restoration required some heavy metal.

The drive side bottom bracket cup, being completely seized, required the use of some serious heavy metal. We tried everything: a pin spanner, a lead pipe attached to the pin spanner for leverage, various solvents and stinky fluids, but to no avail. Alas, we had to cease in fear of breaking the wrench and damaging the bottom bracket shell. We then used a drill and cutting fluid to enlarge the spindle hole wide enough to insert a special removal tool. It was a frustrating and sweaty experience, colored by many expletives and crying in the corner of the service area. Once it was out, we chased the threads and refaced the shell. I ordered a replacement cup, and after I lubed the crap out of it, we had a serviceable bottom bracket once again.

After sourcing the proper tap from China, I was able to get the cranks into shape and installed with replacement TA Specialties chainrings. A new-old-stock Suntour aRX rear derailleur and a new chain got the drivetrain going. It was only a small matter of replacing the original Mafac tandem brake pads with Kool Stop clones and routing the housing and cables. Good times.

Chasing and facing the bottom bracket shell. Making the old like new again.

The bike is finished! It looks great and is super close to the original spec. I certainly hope that anyone who owned one of these or was involved in the original project to create them would agree with me: I must take it up Romero Canyon (and back down) so I can get the full feeling of nostalgia. Besides, my joints haven’t taken enough of a beating lately anyways. I can’t wait.

I did manage to gather some deeper wisdom after all was said and done. Bikes are made to be ridden. If they hang on the wall too long or rust out in the garage, you are doing yourself, and the bike, a disservice. Not only will you become weak and out of shape, having a beautifully restored museum piece in your collection only increases your pretension. Besides, who cares that it is not a hundred percent restored? I really don’t need to hear about how I haven’t sourced the proper headset bearings that were only made for three months in 1980 and can only be found by engaging in a Romancing-the-Stone-type adventure. Hang on, let me go find a cartel boss to take me into the Colombian wilderness in a souped-up Jeep to locate the last cache of bearings, whilst being chased by Danny DeVito and a bunch of pretentious hipsters, only to shell out a whole bike’s worth of money for a measly part I won’t see. Get out of here.

Facts are facts. There are already bikes in museums. I don’t need to go that far with a restoration. I just want to ride every bike ever. It’s a goal I have. I will follow up with another article reviewing how the bike rides on dirt. While you wait for that, check out these cool pictures of the Stumpjumper in question and tell me you wouldn’t ride it.

Touring Bike Trail Trial: Sutra’s Not Dead

Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.
Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

I have often asked myself life’s deepest, most meaningful questions in the search for more knowledge: How far can I ride a touring bike on a singletrack trail? Will road plus tires even work on singletrack? When do I get to use the stuff I learned in Algebra 2? Who invented liquid soap, and why? I grew ever more pensive. As I carried my bike over some of the more difficult parts of Romero Canyon Trail, I tried to keep my mind off of my bad decisions…and the flies from the inside of my nose.

The Kona Sutra pictured above is certainly a capable bike. It is even able, with some difficulty, to make it on a trail, provided there aren’t that many loose rocks and dirt. Having converted the bike to 650b last year, the bottom bracket is nice and low, offering the stability of a gravel bike, with the load-carrying capacity of a touring bike. However, the bike, as pictured, is about 35 pounds (15.8 kg)…it’s really heavy. Too heavy to have a good time going up the trail. There were several washouts and debris flows over which I had to shoulder this beast. Once at the top, though, it looked great. So why do it? Research.

Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra at the beginning of the ride.
Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra near the beginning of the ride.

Research, Dear Reader, sounds like an excuse. But it is actually a reason. Not a great reason, but there it is.

Being without a purpose-built mountain bike, I thought it might be a good idea to test out the Sutra on a surface other than asphalt or gravel. The handling and the tire choice were my main focus here. Touring and adventure bikes are usually seen as the best option for an all-in-one bike. However, like a fancy SUV, just because it looks capable, doesn’t mean that it is. I have done quite a bit of touring in my life, and I can tell you that the Kona Sutra is perfect for that. Asphalt and gravel…no problem. Beyond that, I wanted to know what the limitations were for this particular build. Thus, like a Patagonia-Lululemon-wearing-Montecito mom about to drive her G-wagon in the dirt, so did I set out to get some scratches on my exterior.

The wheels of my Sutra are shod with WTB Byway 650b road plus tires. I often get some questions about the capability of these tires from other gravel or adventure cyclists. Some of them want a tire with a little more bite than the WTB Horizons, but not as knobby as the Sendero. I usually recommend running the Teravail Cannonball if they want a little more tread. These seem to be a good go-between. But since I get the Byway question most often, I decided to take my life in my hands and push them to their limits. I had them on there anyway, so there’s that.

What I found after riding the Romero Canyon fire road and singletrack, is that that the WTB Byway is barely capable of handling loose, rocky trail conditions. Loose dirt about half an inch deep was also a problem. There just isn’t enough bite, especially going uphill. Even with decent bike-handling skills, and tire pressure at 20 psi, the tires slid out from under me way too often. Turns out, there is a reason why knobby tires exist: to make trail riding way less scary.

Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

The Kona Sutra itself, despite the tires and the overall weight, handled well. There were some slight mishaps involving the too-low-for-this-use bottom bracket and the toeverlap. These problems became more manageable once I slowed down a little and found the right lines. Once on level ground, or even going downhill, the bike seemed to roll over almost everything. There were sections that were rutted and filled with cobble-sized rocks that seemed to pose little problems. Did I get some air on the way down? Why yes…yes I did.

I’m sure that without the Swift Zeitgeist saddlebag and the brass Honjo fenders to weigh me down, I would have had a lot easier time getting to the top of the trail. Again, I was trying to see if I could make it to the top, not how fast or how easily. Imagine those guys who go out with their 4×4 Jeeps, attempting to traverse huge gaps and rocks, just to see if they can. They stop often, look at where they are stuck, etc. That’s what this was like, except I didn’t have a spotter with me. I just went for it and made it from the trailhead all the way to East Camino Cielo. Slowly. It took me about four hours (with rest stops and photos). There were a lot of other bikers who passed me on the way up and asked me how it was going when they were on the way back down.

Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

I would have been happier on a bike with suspension and a dropper post. But I don’t have one of those. I’m not that type of guy. This fact became obvious as my back and knees began to hurt from all the rigid-bike-on-a-trail-Spanish-Inquisition torture. It was even more apparent when one group of bikers passed me by, and one of them said to the rest of his buddies, “those are the tires that are leaving those smooth-ass tracks! Crazy!”

My nonconformist cycling style leaves little room for caring. Here is a summary of my research. Drink it in:

  1. Road plus tires like the WTB Byway are not recommended for riding singletrack, loose-rock, and loose dirt trails…on purpose. They can be forced to work if you find yourself there by accident. I highly recommend the WTB Sendero, or Teravail Rutland tires, set up tubeless, inflated to around 20 psi for this kind of trail work.
  2. The Kona Sutra is a seriously rugged bike. Geometry and handling on trails are exceptional. Just go slower than you would on a mountain bike and you will do fine.
  3. Having the right gear ratio is tantamount. The base model Sutra comes with a touring-traditional triple chainring, that would work well. The LTD model comes with a single chainring…having at least a 42-tooth cog in the rear is a must. Anything less would be difficult.
  4. Honjo fenders from Simworks are well-built and can handle this type of riding without rattling. This is only if they are properly installed with more robust M4 bolts and nylon locknuts. The OEM fasteners are not strong enough. Drill bigger holes.
  5. With the lower bottom bracket, using platform pedals, for me, was a must. I had to get off the bike too often to make clipless pedals work.

To sum up: for all the Kona Sutra owners out there, you have an awesome bike. Push it to its limits. Just be sure to use the right tires for the terrain and be safe.

Kona Sutra Redux: A New Build

Effy and her Kona Sutra
Effy and her Kona Sutra

[For more images, please see the gallery at the end of the article]

The legend of the Kona Sutra is that it is a great platform upon which can be built many different types of bicycles: touring, gravel, adventure, or even a rigid mountain bike. It has been my favorite for quite some time. It offers plenty of tire clearance (Max. 29 x 2.25 / 650b x 2.6), compact geometry that allows for more maneuverability, and excellent Chromoly steel construction. For those looking to build a bike that meets their exact needs or satisfy a few at once, this is a great option.

Due to the warm reception of my Kona Sutra Dream Build that I completed last year, I had a request to customize another one. Of course, I jumped at the chance: who wouldn’t want to give back to the community an opportunity to ride an amazing bike? It has been almost two years since I built my Sutra, and I have gained quite a bit more bike-building experience during that time. I was eager to put this new knowledge to the test on this new bike.

I was asked to do a similar build to mine, except different. Effy wasn’t very specific about the nature of the build, only that she wanted the same Simworks accessories: Honjo Fenders, Rhonda stem, and Beatnik seat post. Getting the bike to look good was not a problem. That left me to change up the drive train and the wheels.

DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.
DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.

I started, as I am wont to do, with a custom wheel build. I used what I believe are some of the best hubs for this type of bike: the venerable DT Swiss 350. These hubs are remarkable. They are sturdy, easy to service, and the star ratchet is upgradeable for better engagement on the dirt. I laced them to 32-hole WTB i29 ASYM rims. They are a reasonable price and quite reliable. Effy is not super tall, so she agreed to lower the whole bike by using 650b wheels instead of 700c. This has the advantage of bringing the bottom bracket down for a little bit more stability. She also liked the gum wall look of the WTB Byway 650b x 47 tires.

Effy Sutra derailleur detail
SRAM Apex derailleur detail

The drivetrain, like mine, would be a 38-tooth single-front chainring with an 11-speed, 11- to 42-tooth rear cassette. Having had this ratio on my own Sutra for a while now, I have found that it is perfect for city commuting and light adventure and gravel riding. There is plenty of bottom end for climbing. Since no one will be racing these bikes in stages, the top end is just high enough for those early morning Cat-6 commuter showdowns. The major difference between Effy’s and my drivetrain would be hers is mostly SRAM.

When I was first working on my build, the SRAM Apex was not available, and SRAM Force 1 was way too expensive. In order to have STI shifters and an XT derailleur, I had to add a pull adjuster in order to make the system work. Not so for Effy’s bike. The Apex was a nice, cost-effective solution that achieves the same result. No pull adjusters needed! I did, however, stay with the Shimano XT crankset and Wolftooth chainring as I like the look better than the Apex cranks.

Effy's Sutra in its resting place.
Effy’s Sutra in its resting place.

Like my Sutra, I chose the Simworks by Honjo Turtle 58 fenders in black. These fenders do not come pre-drilled, allowing for an exact fit on whatever bike they are installed. With all the other black parts on this build, I thought it would be a nicer look than the brass ones I used on my own bike. After these were drilled and fitted, I wrapped the bars in Brooks leather bar tape to match the B17 saddle that came with the bike.

Effy riding her new Kona Sutra
Effy riding her new Kona Sutra

Effy was pleased with the final product. The fit was right and the bike looks great. The possibilities that this bike offers are, for Effy, unlimited. Sure, she is not going to blaze down singletrack trails. But if she finds herself on gravel, fire roads, or tarmac, she will be able to ride comfortably. Hopefully she will get a lot of good years out of it. Please check out the gallery below for more shots of this awesome build.