My bike hates me. I bought it, a 1987 Schwinn Cimarron, with the intention of replacing all of its surely crusty, busted, hopelessly obsolete parts with new ones. Once I started riding it, the bike made it clear it had other plans.
It’s going to be difficult for me to explain precisely how pointless, needlessly difficult and painfully costly this newest project will be. I’ll try my best.
I bought my Schwinn Cimarron for $150, which was kind of like the old mountain bike equivalent of buying a Bentley on Craigslist. The Cimarron was Schwinn’s top-of-the-line all-terrain bike when it was introduced, and that should be ringing at least one alarm bell in your head already.
The first is that buying what once was an expensive vehicle for a fraction of what it cost new means that, well, you’re probably getting it in awful condition. The Cimarron went for $600, which was equivalent to about $1,400 when the model first hit the market in 1985. No great surprise that the frame snapped on my first real ride, and I saw rust where it broke.
To a frame shop it has gone.
The second is not exactly bad for me, but slightly inconvenient. You see, I bought this bike as a project. I wanted to replace broken old parts and learn about repairing bikes along the way. The problem is that almost everything on this bike is supremely indestructible, high-quality and wonderful to use.
Everything I thought I’d need to replace, well, doesn’t need replacing. The dorky riser handlebars are comfier than anything new I could get my hands on. The six-speed cassette (half as many gears as you find on most modern gravel and mountain bikes now) happily chews up all the terrain I ever ride. Even the completely obsolete ovoid BioPace crankset is fine and smooth. These were high-quality, made-in-Japan parts from Nitto and Shimano. Products of a booming economy, they were built to last, and three-and-a-half decades later, they still do.
I know. It sucks! I have no good reason to change out the stuff on the bike for something new.
Of course I’m doing that anyway.
My new project is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and this bike should be the perfect opportunity for it. I’m going to build a set of wheels.
To build a set of wheels, you need rims, hubs, and you just need to lace those together in a specific pattern with spokes, tightened against the rim with what are called nipples.
Me being me, I went out of my way to find weird parts, the first of which being the rims. It’s not particularly hard to find high-quality lightweight rims for mountain bikes now, but with everyone having (wisely) switched over to disc brakes, it’s hard to find a good, modern rim that works with old rim brakes like mine. Lucky for me, a pair of Stans ZTR 355s turned up on my local Craigslist, and I made a move.
A few days later, I drove out of state to snag up a set of 1990s Shimano XTR hubs. These are somewhat sought-after, part of the batch of components that sounded a death knell for boutique manufacturers in this category: the Shimano M950 group.
Here’s a nice summary of the stuff in Bike Mag, as part of a larger story on how the last really complicated small-batch American-made bike part, the Paul Components “Powerglide” derailleur, got knocked out by M950:
The Powerglide was unbeatable.
Or it was until Shimano debuted its second-generation XTR, the M950, the following year. Steve Boehmke, Shimano’s mountain bike product manager at the time, had a big hand in shaping that group. “I wouldn’t say that companies like Paul had Shimano on the ropes back then,” says Boehmke, “but Shimano definitely felt like something had to be done about the situation.”
That something came in the form of a sleek component group that seemed to lift an angry middle finger at the entire CNC revolution. No, you couldn’t rebuild this XTR. And it didn’t come in any color other than dull grey. XTR, however, was so light, so precise and so overwhelmingly… awesome… that it simply crushed the anodized movement. As cool as it was to rebuild a derailleur, most riders preferred to bolt one on that never required rebuilding. Within two years, many of the small companies that made their bones with CNC’d ano components had gone belly up.
Shimano boasted about their heavy-duty design combined with lightweight components, including titanium axles. Titanium. The cool metal. These are about as light and as strong as mainstream hubs got, and for $130, they were mine. The guy I bought them from even tossed in a set of matching XTR v brakes. A real score.
Are these new hubs necessary? Of course not! Shimano M950 hubs were top-tier items in the mid-’90s, but the hubs that came with my bike were also the top-of-the-line mountain bike hubs from Shimano when they were new a decade earlier. They’re coded as part of the Shimano M730 group, and they too are still desirable hubs. A set of M730 hubs can go for over $100 in good condition. “Absolutely bombproof” is how Bike Recyclery describes them and notes that they’re good-looking as well as strong. Mountain bike hubs still looked somewhat elegant in the ’80s, or at least not all that different from road bike hubs. More simply: They’re thin and shiny.
The only practical difference is that the M950 hubs are compatible with modern cassettes, with 135mm spacing at the rear. The M730 hubs are spaced to 130mm at the back and are only compatible with cassettes from the ‘80s. That would be a problem if I didn’t already have an ’80s cassette mounted to what I’ve already got. And it’s not broken. And it rides perfectly fine.
The worst part about it all is that for all of their titanium construction, the ’90s hubs aren’t that much lighter than the ’80s ones. And the same is true of the Stans ZTR 355s. They weigh almost exactly the same as the ancient Araya RM-20s that came on the Cimarron in the first place. There’s not much more than 100 grams between them. My tires weigh more than a pound each. I’m not sure I’m going to be making particularly noticeable gains anywhere.
This whole exercise is pointless. Every single dollar I am spending on it is needless.
And I’m still excited about it. I’ve wanted to build my own wheelset forever, maybe because it’s an arduous process, full of the stuff that I feel least comfortable about working on bikes.
You don’t just bolt different pieces together. You need to tune every spoke, eyeballing the wheel with each minor adjustment to make the wheel perfectly round and perfectly true side-to-side. It’s not that there’s a straightforward right way to assemble something, it’s that you need to tweak and feel and tension things.
This bike may not want me to work on it, but I’m stubborn. I’ll learn something about bike repair, whether it likes it or not.