The first time I ever saw this 1998 Litespeed Unicoi abandoned on a quiet Brooklyn side street, I told myself, “I want nothing to do with that thing.” I was afraid it would be a total nightmare to ever fix up, a ticket to project bike hell. It turned out to be one of the easiest bikes I’ve ever put together... with a few caveats.
Even though this bike had been left to get covered in snow, salt, grime, and I’m sure a vigorous amount of dog pee, there was a lot that still worked completely fine (after a very deep cleaning and scrubbing routine for all the parts on it, as well as a nice coat of wax for the frame itself.)
In past blogs, I’ve talked about why I adopted this particular bike as well as everything that was wrong with it. Here, I’ll still run through each sort of section or system of the bike and include what it cost me in time and money and swear words.
From total heap of junk half-scavenged on the sidewalk to a fully-operational bike, this project has run me a somewhat coincidental $888 by my rough budgeting. I did go out of my way to buy some needlessly fancy parts, but I also had some fun stuff lying around in my parts bin that offset some extra bucks here and there. You could very easily trim a couple hundred bucks off this bike with a cheaper wheel, tires, fork, bars, and stem, but I’m very stoked on how this turned out, and I don’t think I’d do anything all that different.
The frame itself is titanium. Like aluminum, it wasn’t going to rust. All it needed was a lot of washing, spraying, and a little coat of turtle wax because I felt like it deserved a treat. The soft tail itself, my most feared component, also has turned out to be maintenance-free.
Inside the frame is a spring providing about an inch of travel and, well, nothing about it seems particularly worn out. It still springs smoothly. If you’re curious what it feels like riding a soft tail, I’ll agree with a forum comment from 2002 saying it feels like riding around on an almost-flat rear tire. It’s squishy! I took it over a few roots and curbs at high speed and was sure I’d given myself a pinch flat, but it was just the rear shock soaking up the bump. I may open the back up to swap in a stiffer spring, but I do not have a great desire to do so.
A couple people encouraged me to switch this bike from 26-inch wheels up to the larger 650b/27.5 size, as high-quality 26-inch parts are getting a little thin on the ground. That’s certainly true, but I was able to find some decent stuff.
I ordered some 26x2.25 dirt jump Michelin Pilot Slope tires from Germany to get me some decent volume without a ton of tread or weight or cost. They were 36 euros each, or about $100 together with shipping. (I spread that over a larger order that included some other interesting parts down the line, at least.) They weigh about 570 grams, which is on the light side, but the rims on this bike are so narrow they only actually measure out to 50mm wide when mounted up. Still, that was relatively headache-free.
More of an adventure was getting this bike a back wheel. Someone had stolen the one on this bike sometime earlier in 2021, so I had to dig up a replacement. I could have gone on Craigslist and picked up something from somebody’s trash pile for $20 or $30, but that didn’t feel right. I went looking for something high quality and, unable to find a Stans 355 locally, jumped at the chance to snatch up a DT Hügi wheel for $150 just a short train ride away. The problem, as I noted in my last update, was that this turned out to be a wheel built for a 140mm-standard tandem frame, and I nearly despaired that I would have to give it up an hunt for another wheel. Luckily, someone at DT Swiss still had some parts that were compatible for this ancient (1995-1997) hub and mailed me a new 135mm-standard end cap to fit it. All I had to do was re-dish the wheel to center it in this mountain bike frame.
A few years ago I would have shaken with fear at having to re-dish a wheel, but having built a complete wheelset last winter, it actually came together in one sitting. I just flipped the bike upside down, put on a podcast, and had it lined up and true’d in no time.
This Litespeed did have its back wheel stolen, so I had to buy a new cassette for it along with the new wheel. Luckily for me, that old Hügi hub was built in the 8-speed era, meaning that it would fit 9- and 10-speed cassettes, and even 11- and 12-speed mountain bike ones, too. For $50, I picked up a 11-40 SunRace cassette, for $20 I got a new chain, and with a derailleur hanger extender a friend gave me, the original 8-speed rear derailleur happily shifted every gear. Derailleur hanger extenders are a fun way of making old derailleurs work on modern wide-range cassettes. While this won’t work as well on a trail as a modern derailleur with a clutch in it to keep the chain from bouncing around, it works well enough for me to get a sense of the bike. It also doesn’t index, so I have to friction shift like I’m riding my ‘70s Schwinn I dragged out of a dumpster in high school. It’s fine.
The other half of the drivetrain equation is the crankset. The one on this Litespeed was a mismatched set of Cannondale and Specialized arms, so I found a nice uniform Shimano set for $50 not too far from me. I took off the inner ring and set it up as a compact double. In the ‘90s, you needed the three chainrings to give you all the gear range you’d need. Now we can make up the difference with wide-range cassettes, so the triple was unnecessary.
The ratios are surprisingly good! It’s 42-34 in the front and 11-40 at the back, so the bike goes real fast and real slow, with a plenty of gears in between. The only annoying thing is that this particular Shimano crank is fairly wide (you can look up its Q factor if you scroll to Shimano M563 LX Hyper-C on this old table), so it is very finnicky in setting up the front derailleur so it has just enough travel to shift down to the middle ring but not enough to drop the chain down onto the non-existent inner ring I’ve removed. There were lots and lots of quarter- and eighth-turns of a screwdriver while test riding this bike.
Also factored in the cost are some $50 Bontrager flat pedals my buddy who actually mountain bikes recommended to me.
I do have some silly plans for different brakes and shifters in the future, but everything that was on this bike works great after a thorough cleaning and re-lubing every pivot point with chain lube. I was even able to repurpose the 7-speed thumb shifters from my 1987 Schwinn Cimarron, which happily shift through all my gears in friction mode.
The brakes themselves are actually somewhat desirable dual-pivot Shimano Deore XT v-brakes, which can go for $80 on their own. I threw some $9 green BMX brake pads on them and they work great with almost no work to set them up at all.
I had some v-brake levers lying around, as well as the grips that were on my Cimarron, still comfy even after — what is this — 35 years. All old bikes should get new cables and housing, just because it’s easy.
Thankfully, nobody stole the seat or post off this bike, possibly because they were so cruddy. A quick clean has revealed a rather cool seat post and a comfy WTB saddle. Eventually this may become a dropper, but not today.
The very kind dude who sold me the cranks asked me if there was anything else the bike needed, and I’m fairly sure I just let out an exasperated sigh for a good minute after that. I told him I did need a new bar and stem, but didn’t think he’d have anything. He wasn’t all that sure either, saying he mostly just had some narrow, old, vintage stuff. Then he came downstairs with these.
These are Moné bars, the darling of a particular Instagram/hype set of the bike world. They’re fillet brazed by a guy living in the Southwest and extremely pretty with the brass gleaming under a clear coat. They are wonderfully wide, extremely comfortable, and charmingly heavy. I threw them on my kitchen scale for fun, and at 2.6 pounds (with the Thomson BMX stem) they are close to what the entire rest of the frame (3.9 pounds) weighs. They are a good half pound heavier than the new fork on the bike.
Swears: 0 (so far)
This Litespeed came with a remarkably old-school Aheadset, which was what the original threadless headsets were called. Sadly, it barfed its bearings off my front porch. I dug up a no-name unit with sealed bearings for $30 and found a cool-looking carbon fork that probably won’t crack and kill me for $180. I am not planning on doing any big jumps on this fork anyway.
I also ordered all the spare parts needed to rebuild the bike’s somewhat-legendary Marzocchi Bomber Z2 suspension fork for about $40. If I ever get the urge to do big jumps on this bike, it’d be on the hewn-from-wrought-iron Bomber.
A good $5 also got me some fun headset spacers to match the World Championship Series colors in the Litespeed crest. It took a minute to figure out why Litespeed has these colors, but I had forgotten that Lance Armstrong’s first big win, the ‘93 WCS, was on a Litespeed!
When I was growing up, there was nothing more lame than the squads of “spandex warriors” on road bikes tearing around my little California town like they were in some grand Lance cosplay. Well, that’ not quite true. Equally lame in my eyes were the spandex-clad mountain bike dorks I’d see on trails in the Coast Range or the Sierras, furiously pedaling just to walking pace. Why didn’t they just go for a hike, I wondered?
Anyway, now, with this Litespeed, I have found the union of both of these incredible dork-doms. In my 30s, well aware that I am lame, I embrace them. This Litespeed is a blast, and I have a lot of riding ahead of me.