The Simplicity of Vintage Cycles

Vintage Bicycles Done Proper :: Corvallis, Oregon

1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp (Part I)

A lead for an “old bike on the curb” proves once again how one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.

Above is a Twitter post I put out the day I approached the hot mess spilled onto the sidewalk and overflowing into the street. A 1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp. In pieces. Next to a massive piece of cardboard with the words, “FREE” scrawled by multiple passes from a pencil, turned on its side, to make the line thicker and still not nearly adequate for the job. Even though I couldn’t load it up quick enough, there is no sugar coating this bike. Yes, it was free but, nothing good comes easy as this little fighter clearly needed quite a bit of help to get back into a ridable condition.

1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp

1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp

Putting the pieces of the bike back together, shown above, is the package deal received. All for the cost of a walk. Some see well-loved bikes like this as headaches that need to be purged from their spot carved out in the garage, freeing up premium real estate. But if everyone turned their backs on them, then these classics would eventually all end up in the scrap heap. Sure, there are some challenges in this project but they aren’t insurmountable and besides, there is also a lot to love when you look closer. But even before a detailed inspection, I immediately saw the final vision in minds eye and perfect for a specific rider. It happened so quickly that I nearly couldn’t contain myself from getting this back to the shop.

To get any bike ready to begin its restoration journey, everything has to come off. I gladly removed the time trial inspired, Scott aero bars that immediately brought me back to the early 90s and the peak of triathlons. Another component quickly removed was the funky, and collectable, Softride suspension stem which fetched a fair bit on eBay. Funds ready to be reapplied to the project. The remaining pieces, including the Shimano Deore drivetrain, was cleaned and tucked away for another day and another build.

What I noticed, almost immediately upon walking up, was the wheel size. These aren’t 26″, standard mountain bike wheels. They are 24″. And with a diminutive frame size of 40cm (center-to-top), it screams out for an exceedingly small rider. And that is precisely what gave me my inspiration. This bike will be absolutely perfect, in a few more years for my son, who is 5 years old at the time of this post, as he grows bigger, taller and stronger. This fame is right on path to intersect with his growth and his mobility needs at a beautiful crescendo. At least, that’s what I’m banking on. But, I should be honest. It is so much more enjoyable to have a goal and purpose to create something wonderful. And to have him help as my advisor on what he may want, I can see no higher ranking impetus for going all in on the build.

Other lovely elements to this frame is its strong, classic chromoly steel frame, perfect for a boy bashing around town. Also, its versatility. These 80s and 90s mountain, or “all terrain”, bikes are the Swiss Army knife of being malleable, ridable objects. Build them up as a gravel or classic mountain bikes, urban ramblers, school commuters, small camera haulers, winter slop monsters or add stronger racks and make it a simple, grocery-getter constructed for utility. Or bolt on a drop conversion and you have a built-tough touring bike. Whatever one can think up, this bike can almost always be purpose-built to handle it. So it can change as his needs evolve.

Last, notice those chainstays? See how far away they are from the seat tube? Well, they are also nice and wide in between those chainstays allowing them to utterly swallows massive 2+” tires. The stock tires alone were 2.2″. Only now are we starting to really take advantage of those larger sized tires with incredible modern compounds making them lighter, stronger, more resistant to punctures and with superior rolling resistance. Back in 1988, you didn’t have much choice other than big, knobby, aggressive trail tires. Our modern tire renaissance is more than they could have dreamed of back in the day. You can bet I’ll take advantage of that for the final build sheet.

Another delightful historical anomaly this frame comes stock with is the rear brake mounted under the chainstays. At the time, from 1986 to 1988, this was the cat’s meow. It was one of those white-hot fads that numerous manufacturers went all in on, then quickly backed out of, rendering the concept as dated as steel wheels. And neither of those has since returned.
But, I can respect their quirkiness, even if they aren’t the best solution for most riders or terrains. They do clean up the look of the rear triangle and make identifying a date on a vintage mountain bike a breeze because of their incredibly distinct years in production. And there are likely more reasons but I couldn’t imagine them being nearly enough to advocate for bringing the concept back to the mainstream.

So, why did this become standard issue for a handful of years? Mostly because chainstays are stiffer than the seatstays. If one wants snappy, powerful brakes then a stiff mounting place is necessary, otherwise the result is brake lever mushiness—a major buzzkill. Other reasons, though to a lesser extent, was that the cable run was straighter, thus less housing was required. All together these elements theoretically made for better performance… until the brakes got muddy. And since these were sold as mountain bikes, that happened rather quickly, especially if you lived in a wetter climate. This added to the excessive wear of rims with grit and water mixing together, with the caliper mere inches off the ground, having the brakes act as extra aggressive mini sanding blocks each time the brake lever was squeezed.

With this frame’s pros and cons, I ultimately keep coming back to its eventual recipient—my son.
I can’t help but imagine this being his beast mode bomber allowing for cushy, on-street travel or easy curb-crushing to cut through any number of our local parks, scattered around the city. Even though the surfwear fashion style of rippin’ pink and purple, along with (faded) neon yellow script is tops, I can’t promise the frame color will stay the same after I’m through with it due to significant paint damage. What I can see is this one built up with tried and true, low maintenance, yet easily serviceable parts, a dynamo hub for always-on lighting (because kids rarely think, nor care, about that stuff), a 1x setup for just enough gearing range to go off, and on, road along with an ulterior motive of getting him used to shifting. A rack or basket up front for the small carries and of course, oodles of originality to stand out from his buddies modern bruisers.

Sounds like a decent plan on screen, doesn’t it? Now, let’s see how it actually turns out.

© 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.

14 comments on “1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp (Part I)

  1. ryansubike
    January 16, 2023

    Sweet find! nothing better than a classic quality vintage steel bike being used and useful and as you say those 80/90s steel MTBs are a great platform to start with. Have fun with the build!

    • Josh Capps
      January 16, 2023

      Thanks, Ryan.
      I’m convinced these bikes, although plentiful now, will see there day when they become quite a bit more scarce and rocket in value due to their incredible versatility. But for now, enjoy the massive amounts of stock out there! Especially if you find it for free.

  2. Nola Wilken
    January 16, 2023

    Looking forward to this build!

  3. Oldairhead
    January 17, 2023

    Hi Josh,

    I take some interest in this because my first mountain bike was an 87 Rockhopper, purchased in late 86. I still have it! Some other quirkiness to the one I had in addition to the U-brake were the Bio-pace chain rings and the 26 x 1.75 knobbies that it came with. It also had paint matched riser bars and stem, top mount shifters and toe clips! I rode the crap out of it for many years and did some of the hardest rides ever on it! About 10 years ago I revamped it into a nice but non original rebuild. I’m now sorry that I did it like that but there you go. I may try and bring it back to original at some point.

    The “hardest rides ever” reference is from an old organized ride back in the late eighties that I did 5 times, to the summit of White Mtn. Peak in eastern California at 14,252 feet asl. Run by Rick Wheeler in Bishop it started in the town of Laws at 3000 ft, then rode up Silver Canyon and finally to the summit. It was about 33 miles each way. Total climbing equaled about 17,500 feet cumulative. It was a grueling 14 hrs (my best time) and the ride started at 1 am! I’ve never written about it but maybe it will end up on my blog someday if I can find some old pics.

    The old Rockhopper (totally rigid) survived this very demanding ride each time. The U-brake was up to the challenge of down grades of up to 30% but took quite a grip to make them work. That brake needs very large levers on the bars, almost motorcycle sized to function properly. You can’t get enough leverage with shorter levers if you need real stopping power. I still have them in a box and they look ridiculous compared to modern levers.

    I read this article below, some 30 years after I first did the White Mtn Peak ride. These guys started from about 10,000 feet at the end of the paved road which left out some of the harder sections but is still an amazing ride. You might enjoy reading about it.

    Looking forward to seeing what you do with this bike. Cheers


    • Josh Capps
      January 17, 2023

      I absolutely love this story and that you crushed this ride… 5 times! Even with all that “old technology”, you dominated. Another vote for vintage and more proof people really need less than they think.

      You’ve got my full support on a write up on White Mtn. Peak! Those are stories that shouldn’t fade off into history.

  4. tim marris
    January 24, 2023

    Thanks for sharing Josh. I had a later Rockhopper comp with front suspension. My younger son has it now.

    • Josh Capps
      January 24, 2023

      These are perfect, “pass along” bikes that just keep right on living. It is quite a testament to their build quality and materials (ie: Steel)!

      • tim marris
        January 24, 2023

        My Rockhopper has an alloy frame!

      • Josh Capps
        January 24, 2023

        Ha! Looks like I’m eating a little crow, doesn’t it?! 😉

  5. Robbie Menges
    February 12, 2023

    I bought a 1988 I believe specialized rock hopper 18 speed yesterday at a pawn shop and the paint is scratched up but All the components seem to be in good condition, it has the u brake behind the crank, it has Shimano Deore derailleur and front chain guide, rear mounted kick stand and everything is in proper order it appears. I paid $60.00 for it and I was considering a State Fixie special edition.

    • Josh Capps
      February 12, 2023

      I’d say you got a very good deal, Robbie. The Deore line is fairly bulletproof and the bike will be far, far more versatile for you than a fixed, or even single speed, bike. Run some Google image searches to get some ideas on setups that speak to your needs and get some ideas on its capabilities. From there, give it a good cleaning, oil/lubing parts and replacing the consumables (tires, brake pads, chain, cables/housing – if necessary). Then… just ride it. Find what works and what doesn’t simply by using it. Eventually, you’ll have it slightly customized and perfect for your lifestyle.
      It’s going to be an incredible ride when you are done with it!

  6. Stephen
    May 3, 2023

    Same here I found a 1985 specialized hard Rock on the side of the road by the garbage it was a mint condition they had a little rust on it but everything worked on it brand new tires are still original on it

    • Josh Capps
      May 3, 2023

      When I found mind, the total confusion to me as to why anyone would consider something like this trash made me feel like I was genuinely stealing the bike. It is incredible what people will discard only so they can simply be done with an item is bonkers. Yet, in the end, both parties are incredibly happy with the transaction. That said, congratulations on your Hardrock score!

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