There are plenty of abandoned bikes here in New York City, pandemic bike boom or no. Most of them sit and rust away to nothing, but one was doomed to a Promethean fate. It couldn’t rust, and that was what shocked me seeing it chained to a pole, forgotten.
This was a weird bike. A rare bike. A valuable bike! I saw it first in March of 2021, already a year into its abandonment, as I later found out. All I could read was the cracked yellow logo emblazoned on the side and that was enough for me to know something was up: Litespeed.
Litespeed is one of the more interesting American bike companies. It started as a family-run machine shop that tried its hand at making a bike in the mid-1980s. If it was making a bike, why not use some of the titanium it had lying around? From mountain bike history repository MOMBAT:
Long before Litespeed was a bicycle company, it was functioning as a high end custom machine shop specializing in exotic metals. What was then called Southeast Machine created anything from items as simple as nuts and bolts for local companies to items as exotic as underground tanks for liquid gun powder for government agencies, and pretty much anything in between. Southeast Machine was a family run business, and in addition to mom and dad, 3 sons and a daughter were also part of the company. The elder sons were fairly active runners. When the oldest son suffered a running injury, he was told that he needed to ride bikes instead. As that son went to a local bike shop he found himself not too impressed with the selection and thought that he might be able to build a bike from the titanium material they had in the shop.
The family ended up with one of the very first titanium bikes, and that one bike eventually grew into a fully-fledged company, factory in Chattanooga and all. Eventually it was bought out, but the family keeps the original tradition running as Lynskey.
If you run into a Litespeed, if you ever run into one at all, you’ll probably encounter one of their ultra-light, ultra-expensive road racing and triathlon bikes. Lance Armstrong kinds of bikes.
Litespeed also built mountain bikes, and one of the weirder digressions it took in that more experimental genre of bikes was the softail. It’s something in between an overly-complicated full suspension bike and a purposely-simple hardtail. In the case of this particular Litespeed softail, this 1998 Unicoi, what you get is a hidden spring tucked into the top of the rear triangle of the frame that has an inch of travel. There is no other pivot point; the titanium frame itself flexes enough to work with it.
Not a lot of people go for a softail. Typically, if you want a bike that’s totally capable at soaking up rocks, roots, and jumps, you get a full suspension bike and call it a day. If you are someone who wants a light mountain bike, a simple mountain bike, something easy to own and operate, you just get a hardtail and call it a day. A softail offers hardly any more capability than a hardtail, but adds complexity, anathema to the whole hardtail mission. The softail ends up an awkward middle ground, and, well, I’m getting sidetracked. It’s a weird and boutique bike from the golden age of weird mountain bike crap! It’s a bike that sits in a garage, not one that gets left to rot on a street sign.
Again, I saw it first back in March, and every few months while riding around its neighborhood, I would check up on it. Yep, still there. Nah, not moved at all.
Things changed a couple weeks back when I rode by to find that someone had stolen the rear wheel off it and tried to burn through the lock. This wasn’t a bike that someone happened to park on the street. This was a bike that was abandoned and was in the process of being stolen.
I didn’t want to take the bike if there was still an owner who cared for it, so I left a note on it. I hoped some old head in the neighborhood would call me, tell me about buying the bike in the ‘90s and loving it, but unable to bring it back to life. That I could have the bike and fix it up for them. No response for weeks.
I tried to get a hold of the people in the house it was left in front of, but it was always empty. I looked up the address and found that it’s a Catholic house for Brooklyn College nearby. Eventually I lucked out and swung by when someone was home. I knocked on the door, and the caretakers came out to talk.
“Take the bike,” they said. “It’s been there for two years.”
The people running the house actually saw it get abandoned there, and the people never returned. They left it in a sorry state. The crank arms didn’t match, neither did the shifters, neither did the pedals. The chain was rusted stiff, and the rear derailleur was missing a retaining pin. Whoever had this bike last didn’t take good care of it. I would, though, I swore.
The next morning, I rode my bike to Home Depot, went directly to the specially-labeled “crime” aisle and rented a set of 36-inch bolt cutters. I strapped them to my bike and rode out to the sad Litespeed.
The bolt cutters didn’t make more than a few toothmarks on the lock, and this was sadly not one of the locks you can just pick with a Bic pen, as a guy passing by walking his dog wondered. I had to borrow a ladder from the house, take off the street sign above, and lift the bike clear over the pole.
Only when I got home did I have the time to file the lock off, sawing away like the world’s worst lumberjack.
Honestly, for doing a sanctioned bike theft, cutting the lock with the bolt cutters felt only barely “I’m doing crime here.” People were happy to chat with me as they walked by. I wasn’t worried, and the people in the house had given me their number to call to vouch for me if need be. Actually standing on a ladder, unbolting a street sign off a pole is what felt very “please arrest me.” I took it off and put it back on with as much haste as I could manage while still trying to look nonchalant.
It’s a funky bike. The frame is light, just 3.9 pounds according to the catalog. It will take some time to get it clean, stripped all the way down, and built back up again, but I think it should end up a fun rig for some touring or light mountain biking. This guy’s build of one is maybe my ideal, but a part of me really wants to put an LD stem on it and go for a mock-Cunningham drop bar.
What’s nice is that the bike clears a 650bx48 tire and the brakes reach the rim, too. This might make a fun 26 to 650b conversion.
Either way, I’m happy that this bike is getting back on the road. If the city had gotten hold of it, through its derelict bike removal program, it would have ended up disposed and recycled. Trashed. A bike this weird deserves better.