Everything Old Is New Again (Pt. 2)

Vintage alloy gravel bike: check. But was I really happy?

I was, actually, and the Trailblazer still comes out for the occasional (g)road ride in nicer weather. But with the Kaff gone, I needed something a bit more practical – something with a rack at least, if not mudguards too. In the event, I filled the gap with two bikes: one for the rack, one for the guards, both secondhand, and at a combined price that might otherwise have stretched to a middling hybrid Trek.

This is the first of those bikes, won last year on eBay: a bright red 1999 GT Timberline I landed for all of £57. In hindsight, I can’t believe it was so cheap. Retro MTBs are having a bit of a moment, and I can’t imagine I would have been anywhere near as lucky today.

Red 1999 GT Timberline with 1x10 gearing, BLB Big Smoke bars and Schwalbe Billy Bonkers tyres
The Timberline, after a second round of modest upgrades. (Image by the author.)

I picked up the bike in Sutton Coldfield and rode it back to the train station. Five minutes under the platform lights showed that the red paint was starting to fade, and it showed signs of some ham-fisted touch-ups. On the ride over, the components had given the ’90s game away: 3×8 gears with combined brakes/shifters meant a lot of shifting, while a zero-rise bar and a very long stem gave it a kind of aggressive hybrid riding position. The ancient knobbly tyres were underinflated and buzzy.

All that aside, there were some thoughtful touches on the frame. The fork ends and the cap at the end of the top tube had subtle debossed ”GT” logos. The rear drop outs were minimal and elegant, and not at all like the agricultural examples I’ve see on a lot of more modern bikes. The brakes, too, were fantastic; I’d forgotten how good V-brakes can be when compared to single- or dual-pivot rim brakes or cantis.

Overall, it was perfect for what I wanted to do with it.

To bring the Timberline up to zeitgeist spec, I swapped out the drivetrain for a 1×9 set-up using a pile of old Shimano parts from the shed. I also replaced the unlovely triple crank with a silver number that I’d got free from one local bike shop and an Aliexpress narrow/wide chainring from another. The 38t ring and 36t cassette were just about fine for around-town use, and there was only one really egregious jump between ratios.

At the front, the old stem and bars went in favour of a high-rise BBB stem (to compensate for the short steerer), a set of On-One Mary bars from the parts bin, and £6 Planet X lock-on grips.

The tyres were 2.1″ Schwalbe Billy Bonkers with “classic” sidewalls – a bronze colour, more or less – and wired beads. Less than £40 for the pair. Honestly, any dirt jump tyre would have been fine, but the Schwalbes were cheap and looked good. In the event, they fitted the frame just about perfectly; I could perhaps have squeezed the 2.25″ versions in there, but only just.

To top it off, I bought a £30 Wald basket to sit on an old no-name canti rack (again, shed bounty) and ordered a bag to go in it from a guy on LFGSS for £65. These were the only real extravagances in the build; almost every other part was £20 or less or came straight out of the shed.

And fundamentally, that was it: 3×8 to 1×9; flat bars to swept risers; knobbly to less knobbly tyres; a basket. It already looked better, to my mind, but the ride was different enough to completely change the character of the bike – from aggressive to playful, to the extent that I started taking it out after the kids were off to bed to teach myself how to bunny hop, wheelie and manual. (I still haven’t learned, but that’s my problem and not the bike’s.)

Red 1999 GT Timberline with 1x10 gearing, BLB Big Smoke bars and Schwalbe Billy Bonkers tyres
The Timberline, after a second round of modest upgrades. (Image by the author.)

That was at the end of 2022. Since then, I’ve changed a few things without radically altering how the bike looks or works. I added a DeWidget stem spacer so that I could run a safety strap to the basket. I swapped from the Mary bars to BLB Big Smoke risers and a stubby Mongoose stem to move even it farther onto the BMX spectrum. And I took advantage of Wiggle’s ongoing collapse to snag a 1×10 upgrade (and a massive, hilarious 46t cassette) for less than £50 all in.

Right now, I struggle to pick out any real downsides. The Big Smoke bars could do with a bit of sweep, I suppose, and the Vs are fairly blunt instruments; they stop well but it’s hard to feather the rear brake for a wheelie or a manual. But I nitpick. Like the Trailblazer, this has turned out really well.

Red 1999 GT Timberline with 1x10 gearing, BLB Big Smoke bars and Schwalbe Billy Bonkers tyres
The Timberline, after a second round of modest upgrades. (Image by the author.)

It’s a truism, especially in the #26aintdead / Radavist / Bikepacking.com crowd, that ’90s MTB are still great bikes. But I think it goes farther than that. There was a point in the late ’90s or early 2000s when new-school components crossed over with old-school standards, so that a steel frame like my GT (and my Trailblazer, for that matter) is compatible with luxuries like 2-piece cranks, external dropper posts, and wireless shifting. (Not that I’ve stumped up for any of those things, but you get the point.) That’s changing, of course: for new bikes, 100/135mm QR hub spacing is a rarity, and so, too, are cantis and V-brakes. Even a standard derailleur hanger is no longer a given, what with Shimano’s weird direct mount standard and Sram’s T-type mount. Yet none of these are written in stone yet, and there’s a long tail of mid- to lower-end bikes that will use the old standards well into the future.

What I am saying is this: this is a golden era for restomod bikes. If you can live with rim brakes – and at least some people will gladly pay through the nose for the privilege – right now, you can build a comfortable, reliable and stylish bike for a surprisingly small amount of money.

Component Model Notes
Frame 1999 GT Timberline 18″
Wheels Zac-19 on Shimano Parallax hubs Original wheels.
Tyres Schwalbe Billy Bonkers 26×2.1″
Brakes Promax V-brakes Original brakes. Not sure of the model.
Shifter Shimano M4100 Deore 1×10
Crankset Sunrace 5-arm Square taper. Free from a local bike shop.
Chainring Deckas (?) narrow/wide 38t. Also from a local bike shop; pretty certain it’s a semi-anonymous Aliexpress model.
Rear derailleur Shimano M4120 Deore 10/11 speed, long cage. No clutch, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Cassette Shimano M4100 Deore 10 speed, 11-46. This thing is inherently hilarious.
Bars BLB Big Smoke 25.4mm clamp, 720mm wide, 76mm rise.
Stem Mongoose Stumpie Stem 25.4mm clamp, 45mm length. I think this might have been a BMX stem back in the day.
Seatpost GT 29.8mm. Original seatpost. No dropper, but the QR clamp works just as well.
Saddle WTB Original saddle.