The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles

Vintage Bicycles Done Proper :: Corvallis, Oregon

1987 Schwinn High Sierra

Some bikes are worth painstaking restoration. Repainting. Color matching. Period components. Some bikes are worth getting on the road to do their job.


1987 Schwinn High Sierra

Perhaps one of the most undervalued and overlooked vintage genres seems to be the era of the all-terrain bicycle (ATB), or mountain bicycle (MTB). Late 1970s and early 1980s models were mostly just altered or retrofitted versions of conventional bikes with a few small tweaks such as longer chainstays, wide upright handlebars and high bottom brackets. This made them better suited for off-road use but also set them up to be incredibly suitable for all-around riding, trailer pulling or modified into burley, long-distance rigs with drop bar conversions.

Not only are these rigs built to work but they are astonishingly inexpensive compared to their road bike equivalents of the same vintage. Along with a reasonable price tag, a number of highly respected manufacturers got into the game. Shogun, Panasonic, Specialized, Peugeot, Miyata and Univega to name a few. They produced scores of high quality frames with excellent components, such as Shimano Deore and SunTour XC. Those components we now realize were stable, reliable and have passed the test of time to be considered legendary equipment.

My goal for this High Sierra was a neighborhood runner. An urban rambler.
Something I could use to ride comfortably and upright to the grocery store, pick up a few items then take a detour home going through the nearby park then maybe even a short cut through the rock-rutted, hard-packed dirt ally that would chew up most 700c tires. ATBs from the 80s are supurb for this exact purpose.

The most questionable piece of equipment on the High Sierra are the controversial SunTour roller cam brakes. These brakes are built tough and look the part. I took the liberty of filling in the drilled areas with black paint but even without it, these are simply wonderful looking brakes.

After roller cam brakes were released for mainstream production, they received poor reviews due to their complicated setup. Since the posts on the High Sierra frame will not accept traditional cantilever brakes, I looked past the slightly daunting and rumored, involved setup and decided to give them a shot. Even with a special SunTour tool to help align and keep the calipers perfectly spaced (which the tool ended up being more trouble than it was worth), it still took me an hour on the first caliper alone. Although, I found that when roller cams are set up properly, these are exceptional brakes. They are strong and controllable and have a firm pull and satisfying snap when you release them. With Kool Stop pads installed, these have been a delight to operate. To give advice for those looking for it in the future, be patient when you tune your first set. The second caliper goes much faster once you figure out the adjustment nuances.

ATBs have been in production for decades and have clearly evolved into their own separate category. What surprises me most is how these bicycles are not more coveted. Perhaps this write-up is the injection for what the genre needs to expose how incredibly versatile these vintage ATB/MTB frames are. My hope is that others realize the potential, value and plentiful nature of this golden era of bicycle and snatch them up to use as their own neighborhood rambler, trailer-toting grocery getter or rock-solid touring rig. These fantastic frames deserve the respect and chance to perform their hardworking purpose.

Color: Corvette Yellow
Frame Size: 58cm (C-T) seat post & 60cm (C-C) top tube
Frame/Drop-outs: Tri-Oval (Triple butted), Tri-Caliber 4130 Chrome-Moly; Suntour
Fork: 4130 Chrome-Moly steel
Bars: Nitto Bullmoose B90 with integrated stem
Bar Grips: Ritchey; Black
Headset: Tange Levin
Saddle: Brooks Cambium C17; Black
Seat Post: Sakae; Fluted
Shimano FC-B124; Sugino 46/36/26; 175mm
Front Derailleur: Shimano Deore
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore
Shifting: IRD XC-Pro; Thumbshifters
Brake Levers: Dia-Compe
Brake Calipers: SunTour XC Sport Roller Cam; Kool Stop pads
Cable and Housing: Jagwire L3; Black
Freewheel: 9-Speed Shimano (11/13/15/17/20/23/26/30/34)
Shimano Deore LX; Parallax 110
Wheels: Sun CR18; 26″; 32 hole; Shimano skewers
Tires: Soma New Express; Skinwall; 26″ x 1.75″
Pedals: Velo Orange Grand Cru Sabot
Special Features: Double eyelets front/rear; Two bottle mounts; Brazed-on mounts for front/rear rack; Pump peg

To further the utilitarian nature of the High Sierra, I felt it necessary to show its evolution into the all-around bike I had imagined. Added are SKS Commuter II fenders, a Soma Deluxe Porteur rack and an Inside Line Equipment (ILE) Porteur waxed cotton canvas rack bag.

The Soma rack is built like a tank but not bulky or heavy due to it’s CroMo construction. It is wide enough for a large cycling bag, a few pizzas or, as the Soma site states, “a box full of kittens.” As I hope you can see, it fits wonderfully on a frame built for 26” wheels.

The ILE Porteur bag is big. No doubt about it. According to ILE, it straps down securely to hold up to 42 liters. That means a cavernous opening with the potential for mass quantities of groceries or beers or… kittens. Its build is sturdy and unforgiving when it comes to the elements. “Don’t wash it, just hose it off” states the tag. This is a product, much like the ATB frames of the 80s, meant to be used, not sit on a shelf.

© Josh Capps and The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Josh Capps and The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

13 comments on “1987 Schwinn High Sierra

  1. Nola Wilken
    January 3, 2017

    What a nice build. My Panasonic would like to meet your Schwinn! I have actually been eyeing a chrome Ross Mt Whitney, another Sleeper ATB. I will be curious how you like the handling with the front end load. Quite handsome, Josh. These mountain bikes from the 80s really are versatile.

    • Josh C.
      January 3, 2017

      Thank you for the kind words, Nola.
      Panasonic made some incredible ATBs and yours is absolutely no exception. That color too! It’s electric!

      I was excited to post this build as I wanted to be yet another voice that trumpets the massive potential and incredible value these bikes have. And with scores of them available for sale at more than reasonable prices, there really is no reason not to have one… or three or four! 😉

  2. adventurepdx
    January 4, 2017

    Welcome to the cult of the vintage mountain bike! But don’t speak too highly of them, remember, we want to keep the prices low! 😉

    One question: I couldn’t tell, but is the top and down tubes fillet brazed to the head tube? I know that some of the nicer Schwinn mountain bikes of that era had that feature.

    Also, to nitpick a little, the first true production MTB, the Specialized Stumpjumper, did not come out until 1982. Before that it was either klunkers (cruisers converted to trail use) or small batch handbuilt bikes like Breezers and Ritchey built MountainBikes. The chance of randomly running into a true mountain bike from the late 70’s is pretty rare.

    • Josh C.
      January 4, 2017

      I’m with you. I hold a lot of information close to my chest so availability doesn’t disappear and/or prices don’t rocket due others knowing. But, when I created this post, I realized that my site wouldn’t likely make even a blip for rising prices or demand for vintage ATBs, which is why I touted them so highly and let the cat out of the bag. Usually, I’d let a user read between the lines but there are simply SO MANY of these vintage machines ready to be rescued from the death rattles they currently are exhaling that I feel it is my duty to at least try to get the word out.

      Regarding the frame, you have a keen eye. The top/down portion of the head tube is fillet brazed. The bottom bracket and seat tube connections are roughly butted and the lugged unicrown fork is TIG welded. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of glory and ghastly in terms of how the bike was brazed/joined together.

  3. ryansubike
    February 25, 2017

    Great Build! On my “some-day” wish list is to find a lugged MTB frame to build up -just you did -as an errand runner. I like that ILE bag . The whole set up looks as fun as ..well a box of kittens.

    • Josh C.
      February 25, 2017

      The beauty of these 80s MTB frames was their high demand when they debuted. They were the hot new thing. The market was flooded with well built frames mated with excellent components. To this day, they are still plentiful in most US cities Craigslist ads, inexpensive and highly underrated, which allows them to go under the radar.

      It took me a bit of time to get the High Sierra back in shape but as I worked on it, I knew that when I posted, I wanted to tout these vintage MTB frames from the rooftops as it has long been a known secret within the Classic and Vintage community. I’ll get sneers from my vintage brethren but we all know it’s truth and honestly, there are so many out there, those reading my post and discovering the “secret” themselves won’t do much damage to the C&V community actively scooping up what they can.

      So, to you, Ryan, my advice is to scrape up $100 and watch your local Craigslist bicycle ads. A gem, in likely nearly new condition, will come up and you can strike.

  4. dickeysezso
    May 11, 2017

    I have an ’88 Schwinn Sierra that I use as my main MTB and around-town bike. It kind of got me obsessed with old Schwinns. I saw another Sierra (1985) on craigslist recently, and I had to have it. Not sure how to post photos on here, but here’s some links to my Instagram. Great blog, btw!

    1985 Sierra:

    1988 Sierra:

    • Josh C.
      May 11, 2017

      Those are two fantastic looking Sierra’s. I’m especially impressed with the ’88. The color scheme is incredible and the modern setup looks like a delight to blast around town on.

      Thank you so much for sharing your steeds!

  5. Brock
    January 6, 2018

    Nice job on the “restoration.” I really like the modern bull-moose you installed. Even though the original build didn’t have bull-moose bars, it should have!

    I recently (3 yrs. ago) bought the same bike. I got it off a tweaker for $40 in almost original condition. Sadly the crank and rear derailleur had been replaced with modern stuff. The bike caught my eye because I worked in a Schwinn shop in 1987 and purchased the 1988 version of this bike, which is almost a totally different bike except for the frame and fork…but they look similar.

    Regarding the brakes, I have found roller-cams a joy to own and use. I heard they were a bit of a pain to set up, and that’s mostly true, but once complete they are brutally powerful for a rim brake. And yes, that snap upon release is nice.

    Your frame is in excellent condition. Did you replace the decals? Mine are not as nice and have been looking for a replacement source.

    • Josh C.
      January 6, 2018

      Thanks for the comments, Brock. Nice work scoring an ’88, which, as you pointed out, was a bit different. It’s good to know these survivors keep rolling along!

      I’m still enjoying my roller-cam brakes although both have some cable stretch in them now that I’ve ridden the bike quite a bit over the summer and fall.

      As for decals, mine came the way it currently is. I suppose I got lucky in that regard. Decals may be a bit tough to find other than NOS. None of my decal vendors have this Schwinn model. However, I have had some luck with Velocals in the past for custom art although I know they have stepped back a bit in terms of custom products. However, if you look on eBay, there are currently a few NOS sets available. Although, they may not be the right decal year or color you want. I suppose it depends a little on how accurate you want your decals. If you do find anyone custom making them, please let me know! I am always on the hunt for decal vendors.

      • Brock
        January 6, 2018

        Just to clarify, I currently own the 1987…the same version you wrote about. Way back when in 1987 I bought the 1988 version brand new at the shop (they came out before 1988 just like cars do.) I actually like the 1987 with roller-cams better than my original bike.

        I’ll let you know if I find the decals. The bike looks pretty good now and is not so pristine that I wouldn’t want to ride it, so I’ll likely leave it alone.


  6. Pingback: Cycling in Print :: Schwinn All Terrain Bicycles, 1985 | The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles

  7. Josh Capps
    July 8, 2022

    Bravo, Jim! Please share some images when you finish customizing it to suit your needs.

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