Buying a new titanium mountain bike will run you thousands of dollars, which is why I was shocked to see this one from the ‘90s, a 1998 Litespeed Unicoi, rotting away abandoned on a quiet Brooklyn side street, getting rained and snowed on for two long years. Now that I have it home, here’s what I’m looking at to fix it up.
The first time I saw this bike, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. This is an obscure bike from an era when mountain biking was very experimental. That is, there was going to be all sorts of weird shit on this bike that could be broken with no replacements in sight. Namely, it has a coil spring mounted in side the back of the frame to give about an inch of squish at the top of the rear triangle. it’s a design that only one bike manufacturer still messes around with anymore, and I didn’t want to go down any rabbit holes.
Then I noticed a few weeks ago that someone had tried to steal the bike, taking the rear wheel and trying to burn through the lock. I decided I would try and track down the owner of the bike, and well, things snowballed from there. I ended up liberating the bike myself, and now am exploring all those rabbit holes I thought I’d never dive down.
Thankfully, the soft tail system seems to be working fine, though I was surprised to find that a replacement spring is only a couple bucks from an industrial supply company. And thankfully this is a titanium bike; it doesn’t rust. The frame itself is never going to get worn out from sitting around. What is busted is just about everything else on a bike that can wear out.
The next big, old piece of technology on the bike is the front fork. I checked the serial number and this is a 1997 Marzocchi Bomber Z2. That means it’s a first-year Marzocchi, one step down in travel from the world-changing Bomber Z1.
I can’t really understate the impact of the Bomber on the world of mountain biking. It’s still a legendary fork, and it is what really kickstarted modern fork development.
But that’s the history. The actual fork itself is still interesting, as BikeMag recalls in its ode to the Bomber Z1:
The Z1 was a pure oil and coil affair that boasted a mind-blowing 4 inches of silky suspension. While that doesn’t sound impressive in 2014, remember that this was a solid inch more squish than RockShox’s Judy DH offered at the time. With its massive aluminum crown and 30-millimeter stanchions, the Z1 also dwarfed every other fork on the market. While the mountain-bike industry has since adopted wider stanchions, the crown on the Z1 is still big and chunky by today’s standards—close, in fact, to what you’ll find on today’s burly RockShox Pike.
As for bumps, the Z1 simply devoured them. Marzocchi didn’t set out to build a burly mountain-bike fork. They made a really lightweight motorcycle fork that just happened to fit on mountain bikes.
While this Bomber Z2 has less travel than the Z1 at just 65mm, it does still use the same simple coil-spring design. That means I can rebuild it myself, though I have been warned that it the oil itself is going to smell awful. One buddy has already texted me that he wants to be there when I open up the fork, presumably just to smell how bad it is.
Beyond that, there is a lot that has been neglected on this Unicoi. I am fairly sure that whoever had it last was not the original owner, or anyone who knew what the bike really was.
The crankset is broken — that is, the non-drive-side crank arm has been replaced. It just wasn’t replaced with a matching crank arm to the drive side. The bike has a silver 175mm-long crank arm on the left side, while the black one on the right is 170mm. Someone also put some mismatched city bike pedals on both sides which may or may not be corroded right on. I’m replacing the whole mess.
The shifters also do not match. The left side assembly is likely original, a Deore XT from when integrating the (three-speed front) shifter with the brake lever was pretty techy stuff. The corresponding right-side shifter for these, shifting eight speeds at the back, have become somewhat desirable and people are asking silly money for something so obsolete.
Even the brakes have been mistreated in some way. The pads themselves were missing some concave washers when I found them, so the bike was clearly hastily or carelessly thrown together for the last miles it rode.
This is now the second bike that has come my way for no upfront cost, so it’s been interesting to budget out what it cost to simply replace the parts that can’t be simply cleaned up, greased up, and reassembled. These are the consumables of the bike — parts that just wear out. In my case, thanks to having a spare chain here I’m looking at:
Brake and shifter cables: $35
A new headset (the ball bearings on this bike spilled freely to the floor the moment I dropped down the fork): $60
Since I’m not planning on buying the absolute cheapest cranks, tires, or pedals, I’m expecting this to run me a rather startling $435. Other bikes will run you less. The Fuji I rescued from the neighborhood trash ended up around $200, tires included, for instance, in part because it ate up all the spare cables I had lying around, and that I scored a bargain on a nice $20 crankset for it.
The first thing I need to do is get the bike back on the road as simply as possible, just so it’s out riding, before I start any plans for more, uh, creative options befitting a frame like this.
That means rebuilding the front fork. This isn’t all that bad, as people are still rabid fans of Bombers, and this site that sells new seals for them also keeps the factory rebuild instructions online in English and Italian.
While those Marzocchis are still very comfortable, what they are not is light. It’s a 3.6-pound boat anchor on the front of a bike frame that only weights 3.9 pounds itself. I plan on picking up an alternate carbon rigid fork for it, and shockingly this company still makes them with rim brake mounts for old 26-inch wheels like mine.
I have also already picked up a new rear wheel to replace the one that was stolen, though that has sent me down an unexpected journey on its own.
This accounting is getting a little lengthy, so I will be quick about this wheel drama. I was amazed when I saw someone in Brooklyn was selling a 26-inch wheel laced to a DT Hügi hub, and I immediately went out and bought it. DT Hügi is the predecessor to DT Swiss, and used an earlier version of the star-ratchet system that makes those hubs so infamous (and expensive) today. Getting a DT Hügi is like the bargain way to get yourself a DT Swiss, since everything is basically the same.
Or so I thought!
The fun part about DT hubs is that these are Swiss components, and as befitting a piece of Swiss machinery, they are very simple but very precisely manufactured. DT Swiss hubs actually come apart by hand; they are so finely machined that they simply press fit into place. My DT Hügi is similar, only needing me to pop off a dummy axle spacer on the left (non-drive) side and then unthread the axle spacer on the right (drive) side for everything else to come apart where I can re-grease it.
The first issue was that the left side axle spacer didn’t want to come off. Then I started looking up photos of other DT Hügis and wondered why mine had a big threaded ring on the left side. I was texting a buddy who first realized it. “Yeah that’s some weird tandem hub. The NDS threading is for like a drum brake or something.”
Buying an old tandem hub isn’t really an issue ... except that while I (and the seller) thought this hub was 135mm wide, the standard for mountain bikes of this era, it was actually 140mm wide, an old standard for tandem bicycles. This hub wouldn’t fit my bike frame. I was bummed, because the hub looks perfect, and matches the vibe of the bike. It’s something that’s old but hasn’t totally irrelevant. It’s at least a little bit up to date. It also sounds like a DT hub should. (It’s loud as hell.)
I texted the seller asking if I could return it, and we agreed to meet in the evening. Meanwhile I idly posted about it on a bike forum and before I knew it, another person chimed in to explain that it was only these axle spacers that set the width of these old hubs, and these axle spacers could be replaced. You can see my very-long 29mm spacer above. Not only that, but he has the right-sized one on hand and could make me a matching one on his lathe. I was floored.
But I had also heard that DT Swiss is rather well known for its customer service, and I had idly emailed them, too. Sure enough, they had one of the spare axle spacers I needed lying around, and were happy to UPS it over to me. This hub may see some use yet!
The basic plan will get this bike back on the road, and that’s really all it needs. Unlike some past builds I’ve done, I just want to get this thing to a working baseline before starting to futz with it.
That being said, this bike does happily clear what’s a good gravel bike setup, with 650b wheels and 48mm tires. It would be a nice retirement for a mountain bike; it doesn’t need to be doing cross-country races anymore. It can happily pedal around forest tracks, maybe with some drop handlebars I have lying around. That would be the sensible modern update.
Even more sensible would be to put discs on the bike, but again, I don’t have a strong urge to modify the frame itself. More interesting would be to match a hydraulic disc brake at the front ... with a hydraulic rim brake at the back. But that would be a story for another day.