The retro market is booming as riders seek to recreate the dream machines of their youth; mbr pays homage to some iconic designs and wonders what future collectors will warm to
Saddleback, distributor of Enve, Troy Lee and plenty more, has built up a stunning collection of bikes stretching back 30 years. You won’t find these rigs for sale on any website or in any bike shop, they’re retro treasures, the best mountain bikes of their era, that draw a line back through our sport’s history. Join us for a virtual tour through this incredible museum of exotic hardware.
Mountain bikes are, objectively, better than ever. More capable, more refined and – regardless of what you may have heard – better value than ever. The golden age of mountain biking is right here, right now and it will be even brighter tomorrow – pandemic shortages notwithstanding. For some riders, living in the golden age is all well and good, but they can’t help but gaze fondly through the lenses of their purple-tinted Oakley M Frames at the bikes of yesteryear.
Mountain biking is a relatively new sport, so even some of the earliest bikes are only 40 years old. Needless to say, there’s been a lot of change in those four decades. Even for those with no interest in nostalgia it’s worth taking a look back through the evolution of the mountain bike to see just how far we’ve come. Seeing the ideas that worked and were refined, and those that didn’t and weren’t, helps with understanding why bikes are the way they are now.
But for those who were there (man), who owned, rode, ogled and coveted these early bikes, there’s much more than a detached appreciation to tracing the lineage of the mountain bike. These bikes represent dreams and aspiration, heroic exploits, milestones and high points. They are the bikes that helped define mountain biking and owning one is to be a custodian of a tangible part of the sport’s history.
Bristol-based distributor Saddleback deals with prestigious brands such as Troy Lee Designs, Chris King, Moots and ENVE. Its showroom and warehouse is full of some of the latest and greatest products, but amongst all the cutting-edge gear are some key pieces of mountain biking’s past. Walk through the offices and storerooms and you’ll find examples of early to mid 90’s Cannondale, Marin and GT full-suspension bikes rubbing bar ends with exotica from Fat Chance, Klein and Yeti. This might be, quite accidentally, one of the most eclectic collections of vintage mountain bikes in the UK.
The making of a classic
Rich Mardle, Saddleback’s brand director, is one of the custodians of what he jokingly refers to as “the rusty gems”. He explains that about four years ago, over some post-work drinks with colleagues, conversation turned to the bikes they used to own, the bikes they aspired to own and the ones that got away. It wasn’t long before the bikes that had cropped up in conversation started appearing at the office. A core of nine people in the office started accumulating the bikes of their dreams, and it was safe to say they had more than one dream bike each. At most places of work, if whole areas of the warehouse were becoming an impromptu museum, the boss would be having a word. Not here. Saddleback’s owner Andy Wigmore has, what some might call, an obsession with bikes of a certain vintage (Klein, pre-Trek era in particular) with a barn full of bikes at home and the overspill kept at work. This is a place that is staffed with proper bike nuts. It might even be company policy.
It’s not just vintage bikes that have started to fill up the mezzanines and corners of the warehouse. Forks, frames, helmets, shoes, jerseys and all manner of classic memorabilia can be found wherever you look. There’s talk of making a purpose-built exhibition to house the ever-growing collection, which could potentially dwarf the new product showroom. It would certainly be an impressive display, one with communal curation.
A collection is usually a very personal thing. For some, a collection has to be focused and specific, additions to it will have to meet certain criteria to make the cut. For others, a more broad and deep scattergun approach works. Rich says he is more of the latter, acquiring bikes that interest him for all kinds of reasons. Each brand has a highlight, some have a few, these are the bikes that hold the greatest appeal to him. What Rich and most collectors agree on is that there needs to be an emotional connection to the bikes. Whether that’s down to the brand, the era, the people associated with it – you need to actually like the bikes on some level, otherwise you’re not collecting, you’re hoarding.
Even what were in their day quite humdrum bikes can now be looked upon with the golden glow that comes with classic status, but the bikes that are seen as iconic arguably always were so. Racing has defined not only the sport’s moments and characters but also its bikes, so it’s no surprise that some of the most coveted bikes are those that have racing pedigree. Brands such as Intense and Yeti have always been at the forefront of racing and as such often at the cutting-edge of the sport. Partnering with racers like Shaun Palmer in Intense’s case, or John Tomac in Yeti’s, further cemented a certain mystique that even now gets those of us of a certain age misty eyed. But things move on. While older riders see iconic bikes through the prism of nostalgia, younger riders just see a bunch of old bikes and associate those brands with athletes like Aaron Gwin and Richie Rude. Glory might be forever, but classic status is a moving target.
Where a new bike becomes an out-of-date bike and then transitions to a classic bike is very much up for debate. To some degree it’s dependent on the age, experience and predilections of the beholder. Some collectors won’t entertain anything with V-brakes, others have a definite cut-off date – arbitrary or not. Within those limitations there are also ‘rules’ with varying degrees of flexibility. Some will argue a bike needs to be 100 per cent period correct, with the components it rolled off the production line with and the original paintwork in mint condition. Others are happy with a few scuffs and scratches and will give it a respray if needed, and as long as components are right to within a year or two they are fair game. In other words there’s a lot of differing opinions on what makes a true classic bike. A few fanatics aside, most agree that whatever makes you happy is the best policy. It’s a personal collection, after all.
The hunt for the next addition to the collection is as much a part of the retro bike fun as the riding, or more likely polishing. Because let’s face it, a lot of these bikes don’t actually ride that well. Short, flexy frames with long stems and narrow bars, hard and narrow tyres, temperature-dependent suspension and hopeless brakes – riding one is fun, but in a very specific way. They do give an opportunity to revel in how far we’ve come as a sport and give further kudos to those who raced them back in the day. In truth though, even the new breed of gravel bikes would see off most of these mountain bikes of old, so it’s no surprise most end up as garage queens.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It’s expensive, too. With lockdown keeping everyone at home and looking for something to do, plenty of us have been taking a ride down memory lane and searching for retro bikes to tinker with. As such, prices have gone sky high. Rich reckons the price of some classics has doubled in the last 18 months. The desirable bikes in mint condition are owned by people who know what they are worth and the best hope for a bargain is finding someone who just sees an old bike cluttering up their garage rather than a vintage bike that belongs in a museum. If classic motoring has barn finds, maybe mountain biking has shed finds.
Of course, the problem with old bikes is that, in general, they need old parts, and to be period perfect they need the correct old components. Tyres split and crack, seals and foam grips degrade, and in a lot of cases there aren’t any replacements, or if there are, then the value of them is well known and controlled. Fellow collectors are often willing to help out, and even within Saddleback there’s an internal market for selling and swapping parts to help bring
a bike together. There are online forums and marketplaces dedicated to retro bike parts as well as the usual suspects like eBay and Facebook Marketplace, but the UK sites have been well picked through and the best results come from looking in the US and Europe.
So with prices going up, at least for now, would Rich cash-in on his collection? While there might be some scope for thinning the herd, Rich is pragmatic about the fact that he’s unlikely to get back what he’s spent, especially after factoring in all the time spent trawling for parts and putting them together. They are worth more to him in sentimental value than anything financial. Depressingly, to make any money from them would involve splitting the bikes down into individual components and selling them that way, which would feel wrong after putting so much effort into building them.
This does beg the question, what are the future classics that we’ll be fondly reminiscing about in 20 years’ time? In the past, racers would often compete in both XC and DH on the same bike (save for, perhaps, a dinner-plate chainring). This meant the winning bikes were seen as the best of breed and the definition of a great mountain bike. Mountain biking is now a larger sport with more disciplines, niches and subsets. Each has its own defining bikes and moments, so it’s harder to point to one bike that defines mountain biking as a whole now.
Back to the future
Some things don’t change and Rich reckons a bike with the kudos that comes from a racing background will be a safe bet as a classic. Actual race bikes will always have an aura about them, especially if they’ve been campaigned successfully, and limited-edition race replicas hold much appeal. In terms of widely available bikes, contenders might include Commençal’s Supreme DH, the downhill race bike du jour, and Trek’s Supercaliber XC race bike, with its Olympic and World Championship gold medal status and funky shock positioning. Enduro has been the buzz word and discipline of the last decade, so arguably the bikes that represent the now are those that capture that zeitgeist, bikes like the Specialized Enduro, Nukeproof Mega and Santa Cruz Nomad. Each a lineage long enough to make the start of what can only be a growing collection.
Outside of racing, future classics can maybe be found in Mondraker’s recent past – its Forward Geometry concept is credited with pushing the industry-wide adoption of longer, lower, slacker geometry. Hope’s first bike, the HB160, with its custom made components and made-in-the-UK pedigree will surely make the retro grade – especially if specced with anodized purple bits. With more and more bikes sharing a similar silhouette, the ones that stand out from the crowd are more likely to be the ones that are remembered. History certainly points to the slightly leftfield bikes being the ones that attain true classic status.
There are questions as to whether anything with a motor will achieve classic bike status. Will e-bikes be viewed in the same way as air fryers and soda streams – appliances that have had their day – or collected in the same way as the first personal computers? Only time will tell.
The thing about history is that more of it keeps being made every day. Looking back at where we’ve come from every now and again is a worthwhile exercise to appreciate where we are now and where we might be in the future. Wheel sizes may come and go, but the march of progress is unstoppable and undeniable. Your next bike will be better than your current bike, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any space for the bikes we’ve previously loved – either in the sport or in the shed. Pick the right one and you might even have a future classic on your hands.