30 Year Old Bike Review: The Schwinn High Sierra

by wheretheroadforks

The Schwinn High Sierra was a top of the line mountain bike back in its day. Today, if you can find one, it makes for the perfect touring, commuter, or around town bike. This thing is overbuilt and can take a real beating. Since buying the High Sierra, I have converted it into a touring bike and put about 400 miles on it so I thought I’d write a little review even though the bike is over 30 years old.

Parts List

  • 4130 Chromoly steel frame
  • Shimano Deore 18 speed drivetrain
  • Shimano Biopace triple crankset
  • ARAYA 36 hole 26-inch wheels
  • Sunrace thumb shifters
  • Suntour roller-cam brakes

Schwinn High Sierra with my budget touring setup

The Schwinn High Sierra is a classic 80s mountain bike with a few unique features including some that are no longer in use on modern bikes. Here are my thoughts on a few:

Biopace Crankset

This bike came equipped with an 18 speed Shimano Deore drivetrain with a Biopace crankset. The Deore stuff is solid, mid-level gear that works well and is very durable. I wasn’t sure about the Biopace feature at first but it has grown on me quite a bit. Biopace means that the chainrings are not completely round. They are slightly elliptical. This became popular during the mid-80s to mid-90s.

The idea with the elliptical gears was that there would be less resistance during the hardest part of each pedal stroke. This area is known as the ‘dead zone.’ It occurs where the crank arms are about vertical. Biopace is meant to allow your feet to accelerate through the power stroke when you are pushing down on the pedal. In theory, this makes it easier to pedal through the ‘dead zone.’ This is helpful when climbing. You don’t really feel it when cruising on flat surfaces.

Overall, it seems to work but it feels a bit funny at first. Now, I actually kind of like the feature although I’m sure it was discontinued for a reason. Shimano claimed that Biopace was easier on the knees than round chainrings. When the current crankset wears out, I will probably replace it with a modern round model.

For a bit more info on Biopace, check out my guide: Oval Vs Round Chainrings

Shimano Biopace crankeset

Biopace crankset

Suntour Roller-Cam Brakes

The only thing I don’t like about this bike is the roller-cam brakes. They are a real hassle to adjust. It took me over an hour to get the rear brake properly set up after cleaning it and installing new pads. I believe a special tool exists to do this job but I don’t know if it would help much. Another problem is that roller-cams are no longer being manufactured so getting parts may be a challenge. They do use the same pads as cantilevers so finding replacements is not a problem.

The one good thing I can say about roller-cam brakes is that once properly adjusted, they work very well. They stop the bike better than cantilevers and stay adjusted. I have not had to touch them since installing the new pads. I believe U-brakes are compatible with the bike so that may be a future upgrade.

For more info, check out my guide to roller cam brakes. 

Suntour Roller-Cam brakes

Schwinn High Sierra Frame

The best part of the High Sierra, by far, is the 4130 Chromoly steel frame. It has a long geometry which makes the ride very stable and comfortable. The fork rake adds a nice natural suspension. These characteristics make for a perfect touring or commuting frame to customize to fit your needs. Braze-ons on the rear and fork allow for a rack to be installed.

Final Thoughts

I had been shopping around for an old steel 26-inch mountain bike to convert into a touring bike when this Schwinn High Sierra popped up on Craigslist nearby. I didn’t know anything about the High Sierra as I wasn’t even born when it came out. It fit all my criteria so I took a little drive to check it out. The bike looked like it had been sitting around unused for quite a while but was in excellent condition for its age. I bought it for $150. I am very happy with my purchase.

 

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6 comments

Steve November 17, 2019 - 5:56 am

Thank you for your review! I was searching to see if anyone had this perspective, and found your essay. That bicycles of the 80’s were superior for tour/transport because they were practical and economical. Compare this model which included wide range gearing, braze on for bottles, racks and fenders, to more single purpose modern bikes. This was a burly “go anywhere” bike and I owned several. Thirty years gone, they are hard to find. New frames like this are available now, and are expensive, such as those from Surly. Today I picked up a 89 Diamondback Sorrento, to use for commuting. Back then frames were sized like road bikes, the Sorrento a 23″ cro-mo beefy frame with horizontal dropouts so it can be set for commuting in the rain with single speed and fenders. The last of its kind. There are few modern options available now, unless going 700C fixie style. Those wheels are not as strong, the frames are too light for the curb hopping, no high power brakes for commuting that happens in the city. As I recall this High Sierra frame is fillet brazed, with the chrome paint it looks really neat too. I rode several generations of HIgh Sierra, from the first in 1986. That model had features desirable now: support for large tires, wide handlebars, slack angles. Then light weight became the selling point and it became less practical. Funny because if you’re not racing, the weight hardly matters, durability is much more important. But I would ride and race the early High Sierra (I won several Park Pre XC beginner races in So Cal on it, sometimes with drop bars! As it wore out it would become the commuter and I’d get another.

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wheretheroadforks November 18, 2019 - 10:20 pm

I think these old steel mountain bikes offer some of the best value in cycling. Before buying the High Sierra, I was considering buying one of the Surly like you mentioned. The geometry seemed pretty similar and the bike looked beautiful but it cost like 8 times what I paid for the High Sierra.

That’s awesome that you used to race these bikes. I believe the High Sierra was a pretty high-end bike in its day.

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Ernie C. July 24, 2020 - 9:46 pm

I stumbled across this review and great comment from Steve while searching for info on the Schwinn High Sierra. I bought one new in 1986 and its been stored in my basement unused for the past 25 yeas, I think it cost $400 ~ ish in 86, and found an article that showed the 1985 High Sierra had a MSRP of $375. I rode mine on rough woodland trails, boardwalks at the beach, smooth paths on former rail road beds and took it to Europe in 89 when I was sailing as 2nd engineer on a container ship. Rode it around Rotterdam Holland and Algeciras Spain but the best ride was in New Jersey after getting paid off to go home. I didn’t have to wait for a bus to go the 3 miles from the pier to my truck in the employee parking lot. It is a great riding bike, sucks I chose to leave it parked but where I teach a ride like that tends to get absconded by students running late for class across campus. So I built a POS big front tire rat bike out of salved dumpster parts so nobody wants to ride it. The frame is a step thru 24 in bike painted flat black that used to have a flower basket on the handle bars, with a front fork & rim from a 26 inch Cruiser. Handle bars are now ape hangers and the seat is an old dual spring type with rusty springs that have seen better days. I chopped the front fender and used the cutting for a bobbed rear fender.

Again, the article was a great read!

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wheretheroadforks July 26, 2020 - 5:24 pm

Thanks for reading! Great memories about your old High Sierra. They’re still great bikes. Maybe one day you’ll get the Schwinn out of the basement and ride it again. Sounds like you built up an interesting bike for riding on campus though.

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Les April 26, 2020 - 4:58 pm

I have one of these bikes as you described and am wondering what it might be worth on the market. Most of what was mentioned this bike has. Some guidance about selling this bike would be helpful
Thanks
Les

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wheretheroadforks April 28, 2020 - 2:28 pm

The value will depend on where you’re located and the condition of the bike. I think around $100-$150 would be a fair price.

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