1981 Stumpjumper Trail Trial: 26ers Not Dead

[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).

<rant>
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.
</rant>

Author gets metal with 1981 Stumpumper

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.

CLIMBING

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.

1981 Stumpjumper side view

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.

DESCENDING

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!

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.