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Schwinn High Sierra: 30 Year Old Bike Review

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 a perfect touring bike, commuter bike, or gravel bike. This thing is overbuilt and can take a real beating. Since buying the Schwinn High Sierra, I have converted it into a touring bike and put about 1000 miles on it. This is my review of the 30-year-old Schwinn High Siera.

my Schwinn High Sierra with bikepacking bags mounted
My Schwinn High Sierra with my budget touring setup
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A Bit of Info About the Schwinn High Sierra

The Schwinn High Sierra was produced from around 1984 until around 1996. Most frames were made by Giant in Taiwan and sold under the Schwinn name. The High Sierra was Schwinn’s top-of-the-line mountain bike model from the time it was introduced until 1985 when Schwinn introduced the Cimarron. It remained the second-best model for several years.

The High Sierra features a nice mix of high-end components from Shimano, Suntour, Dia-Compe, and other manufacturers of the day. Build quality is great. The Chromoly steel frame, in particular, is of excellent quality. The bike weighs around 30 lbs.

The High Sierra was one of the first mass-produced mountain bikes on the market. This gives it some appeal to collectors. Depending on where you live, you should be able to find a Schwinn High Sierra in decent condition for $100-$300.

Vintage mountain bikes such as the Schwinn High Sierra are sometimes referred to as all-terrain bikes (ATB) rather than mountain bikes (MTB). During the late 1970s to early 1980s, this style of bike was basically the same as a road bike of the era with a few minor tweaks. The chainstays were lengthened and the bottom bracket was raised. They came with wide, upright handlebars and wide, knobby tires with durable 36 spoke wheels. These bikes ride great both off-road and on-road. They are overbuilt as well. These bikes can take a beating.

These days, many riders customize their High Sierra to fit their needs. Replacement parts are cheap and plentiful for vintage mountain bikes. Some modern parts are compatible as well. With a few tweaks, the Schwinn High Sierra makes an excellent long distance touring bike or commuter bike. Some riders convert these bikes into drop bar gravel bikes. They can handle it all.

Schwinn High Sierra Parts List

Over the years, the components changed a bit. A few parts commonly found on the Schwinn High Sierra include:

  • 4130 Chromoly steel frame and fork
  • Shimano Deore 18 speed drivetrain (MT-60) and shifters
  • Shimano Biopace triple crankset
  • ARAYA 36 hole 26-inch x 1.5 inch aluminum rims
  • Joytech sealed bearing hubs
  • Suntour XC Sport roller-cam brakes and levers

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

Schwinn High Sierra Frame

The best part of the Schwinn High Sierra is the 4130 Chromoly steel frame and fork. The frame was fillet brazed in the front and TIG welded at the back and at the bottom bracket. The steel fork has a unique lugged unicrown design. Evidently, this was done because frame builders at the time didn’t believe that TIG welding was strong enough to hold the fork together. The lugged fork gives the front end a bit of character. The Chromoly steel is of excellent quality.

The Schwinn High Sierra has a long wheelbase. The chainstays measure about 18″. This makes the ride very stable and comfortable. It also moves the rear wheel back. This is great for those who want to mount panniers The likelihood of heel strikes is low. One drawback to the long chainstays is that it makes the bike a bit less nimble. The fork rake adds a bit of natural suspension. The frame geometry is pretty similar to a modern touring bike.

The frame also offers plenty of braze-ons for mounting racks, fenders, water bottle cages, and other accessories. For example, there are two eyelets on both the rear dropouts and ends of the fork blades. This allows you to mount both racks and fenders at the same time. The frame also has a pump peg behind the seat. There are also mid-fork eyelets. These allow for a greater range of front rack options, such as lowrider racks.

These characteristics make the Schwinn High Sierra frameset perfect for touring or commuting. The steel is durable, long-lasting, and comfortable to ride. The braze-ons allow you to customize the bike to fit your needs. You can install whatever accessories you need. The frame also offers good clearance for wide tires. The Schwinn High Sierra can fit 2.2-2.5″ wide knobby tires depending on the brand.

One potential drawback is that the High Sierra requires a JIS headset rather than an ISO headset. The frame has a slightly different headset cup size. The crown race is slightly smaller as well. This isn’t that big of a deal because headsets last so long. JIS headsets are still available. They are just a bit less common than the current ISO standard-sized headsets.

Shimano Deore Groupset With Biopace Crankset

Biopace crankset

The High Sierra came equipped with an 18 speed Shimano Deore drivetrain with a Biopace triple-chainring crankset. The Deore derailleurs and shifters are solid and high-end. At the time, Deore was Shimano’s second-best groupset after XT. The groupset shifts well and feels durable, even though it’s over 30 years old.

One unique feature of the Schwinn High Sierra is the Shimano Biopace crankset. These were released in 1983. They became popular during the early to mid 80s. Biopace was considered a failure and was discontinued in the early 90s.

The interesting thing about Biopace cranksets is that the chainrings are not round. Instead, they are somewhat elliptical. This non-round chainring design was created with the assistance of computers. A label on the side reads ‘computer designed drive system”.

A Shimano Biopace crankset
A Biopace Crankset. Notice how the chainrings aren’t round or truly elliptical.

The elliptical chainrings are designed to make it easier to peddle in a higher gear so you can supply more power to the rear wheel and ride more efficiently. Due to the elliptical shape, the radius of the Biopace chainrings changes as you peddle. This effectively changes the gear ratio as you peddle. When the smaller radius section engages with the chain, pedaling becomes easier.

When riding the High Sierra, the bike becomes easier to pedal when the peddles are horizontal. The Biopace crankset is meant to allow your feet to accelerate through the power stroke when you are pushing down on the pedal. Once you reached the ‘dead zone’ where the peddles are vertical, you would have built up enough momentum in your feet to carry you through the harder part of the stroke. In theory, this makes it easier to pedal through the dead zone.

In my experience, this is helpful while riding in a low gear while climbing steep hills. While peddling at a high cadence on flat surfaces, the constant change of peddling speed feels odd. It’s difficult to maintain a high cadence.

The Biopace crankset seems to work but it feels a bit funny at first. Shimano also claimed that Biopace was easier on the knees than round chainrings. I don’t know if this is the case or not. When my Biopace crankset wears out, I will replace it with a modern round model.

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

Suntour Roller-Cam Brakes

Suntour Roller-Cam brakes. Notice the metal rollers and triangular cam.

The High Sierra came equipped with Suntour XC Sport Roller Cam Brakes. These brakes were licensed to Suntour in 1985. They became common on high-end bikes during the mid to late 80s. Roller cam brakes were designed to reduce brake arm flex to improve braking accuracy and performance. They are a unique piece of vintage cycling gear.

Roller cam brakes work similarly to center pull brakes. The main difference is that roller cam brakes use a triangle-shaped cam instead of a transverse cable. When you squeeze the brake lever, the cam is pulled away from the bike wheel. The rollers, which are mounted on the ends of the brake arms, roll down the sides of the triangular cam, forcing them away from one another. This causes the brake arms to pivot in the center. The brake pads, which are mounted to the opposite side of the brake arms, move together and squeeze the rim to apply braking force.

Roller cam brakes are a controversial piece of equipment. The reason is that they are complicated to set up and adjust. At the same time, they are durable, beautiful, and offer excellent braking performance. Some people love them while others don’t care for them.

My biggest complaint with roller-cam brakes is that they are a real hassle to adjust. It took me over an hour to get the rear brake properly set up after taking it apart, cleaning it, and installing new pads. Suntour released a special tool to help with this job. The tool keeps the calipers properly spaced while you tighten the pad in place. As the pads wear, they hit the rim closer and closer to the tire. If you’re not careful, they can start rubbing on the tire and destroy it. You must adjust your brakes as the pads wear.

roller cam brakes on schwinn high sierra
The Roller Cam brakes on my Schwinn High Sierra. I replaced the pads with Kool Stop pads for extra stopping power.

Another problem is that roller-cams are no longer being manufactured so getting some parts can be a challenge. Luckily, finding replacement pads and levers is not a problem. Roller cam brakes use standard-pull brake levers. These are the same levers that cantilever brakes use. Roller-cam brakes also use the same pads as cantilever brakes. These are available at every bike shop.

The Schwinn High Sierra is not compatible with cantilever brake calipers due to the brake stud location. If you don’t like roller-cam brakes or if you can’t find a replacement part that you need, there is a solution. Roller-cam brakes use the same brake stud as U brakes. They are interchangeable. Many High Sierra owners swap out the roller cam brakes for U brakes.

The best thing I can say about roller-cam brakes is that they perform very well when properly adjusted. They provide excellent stopping power and stay adjusted. I have not had to touch them since installing the new pads. They also feel very robust. I like how the brake lever snaps back when I release it.

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

A Few Tips for Buying a Schwinn High Sierra

When buying a 30 year old bike, chances are there will be a couple of issues. You’ll want to inspect the High Sierra to make sure it’s in decent condition. Start by looking at the frame to make sure it’s not bent, dented, or cracked. Be sure to check for rust. This is the most important component.

You’ll also want to inspect the wheels to make sure they’re in decent condition. Wheels can be expensive to replace. Check to see if they run true. Feel the spoke tension. Look for wear on the rim wall.

It’s also a good idea to inspect the drivetrain components and brakes. Shift through the gears and look at the overall condition of the derailleurs and shifters. Test out the brakes to see how they work.

Wearable parts like the chain, cables, brake pads, tires, tubes, the freewheel, etc. are less important. Most likely some of these will need to be replaced.

Also, consider the price. A Schwinn High Sierra in decent condition can sell for anywhere from $100-$300 depending on the condition and the market. If someone is asking more than that, it’s probably not a very good deal.

For some more tips, check out my guide to buying a used bike. Here, I explain exactly what to look for when inspecting a bike before you buy it.

Schwinn High Sierra Conversion Ideas

The High Sierra isn’t a very good mountain bike, by today’s standards. It doesn’t have any suspension, it’s heavy, and the steering is a bit slow. Most people who buy these bikes don’t use them for mountain biking.

As mentioned earlier, many riders buy vintage mountain bikes such as the Schwinn High Sierra and convert them into something else. For example, the Schwinn High Sierra makes an excellent touring bike, gravel bike, commuter bike, grocery-getter, or poor weather bike.

To make the bike your own, you can install racks for hauling gear. You could install different handlebars or a more comfortable saddle. Some riders even do a drop bar conversion for gravel riding. You can install more narrow or wider tires to suit the terrain you plan to ride. If you like, you can install clipless peddles. If you don’t like the roller-cam brakes, you can easily upgrade to U brakes. It’s easy to customize the High Sierra into your own bike.

My Schwinn High Sierra

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 yet 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 ended up buying it for $120.

I converted my Schwinn High Sierra into a touring bike and took it on my first bike tour. Before the tour, I installed a rear rack, swapped out the 2.5″ mountain bike tires for 1.5″ touring tires, and upgraded the saddle to a more comfortable Brooks B17. I also bought a frame bag and handlebar harness to haul more gear and installed a mirror on the handlebar end.

Before I set off, I performed a bit of maintenance. I replaced the chain and greased the bottom bracket and hubs. I also used a spoke wrench to make some minor tweaks to the wheels to true them up. The bike performed flawlessly. The High Sierra makes an excellent touring bike for those who are on a budget.

Schwinn High Sierra touring bike
My Schwinn High Sierra loaded up with touring gear.

Final Thoughts About the Schwinn High Sierra

Vintage mountain bikes such as the Schwinn High Sierra offer some of the best values in cycling. If you shop around a bit, you can buy one of these bikes for just over $100 in decent condition. If the bike isn’t in perfect condition, replacement parts are affordable and relatively easy to find. It’s easy to customize the bike to make it your own. The High Sierra offers excellent durability and features some high-quality components including a solid drivetrain and nice wheels. Overall, it’s an awesome bike for its age.

Do you ride a Schwinn High Sierra? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Monday 18th of September 2023

Nice article. I bought one of these new for $400 in 1986 or 1987, was stolen in 2009, quickly found a nice used one for $100. The brakes were the biggest downside, IMO. Besides your critiques, they just don't have the braking power of disc brakes and so I was not heartbroken when recently I had to let it go due to an overseas move. I loved it as a commuter-gravel-sport bike. The long wheelbase made it very stable-feeling. Today's mountain bikes feel a bit unstable to me.

Jim C

Wednesday 21st of June 2023

Great article about a classic ride. I bought (and still own) one of the first production models of the High Sierra...brand new from Hillside Schwinn in Broomfield, Colorado. This one was hand built in Chicago and, despite the High Sierra decals, had a Schwinn 'Paramount' badge attached to the head tube. My high sierra came with Suntour components all-around including friction thumb shifters, Dia-Compe cantilever breaks, and what seemed like motorcycle break levers stamped with the Dia-Compe name (still have these). The chrome-steel handlebar had the 'V' weld to the stem making this thing rock solid but heavy. The bike rolled along unchanged through my bachelor years and ended up going to college with two of my kids. It got left out in the rain and snow, and abused over the years. Just this week (June 2023) I completely rebuilt the machine with all new components as just about everything except the frame/fork has been replaced over the years. Sadly, the Paramount badge had been stolen years ago, so the whole frame got fresh paint, a new sealed BB, drop bar stem adapter, gravel handlebars, and ten speed rear hub. Still a sweet ride!!


Monday 11th of July 2022

Wondering if you can provide some advice. I found an '89 High Sierra used for CDN$80, so I picked up for my son who is heading off to university, partly based on your review.

Took it to a local bike shop, and they provided back the following comment:

THis bike has Suntour gears and rear hub - these systems are not available anymore. THis means that when the chain starts skipping, you can't just replace it. It will cost about $440 (shifters, cables, derailleurs, crank, BB, cassette, chain and rear wheel) plus labour - and the chain is very worn now.

I'm having a hard time reconciling what you have said in this article with what the bike shop says.

For now, he will just use the bike at school, so will probably be ok for a while. But since you seems to know these bikes pretty well, I wanted to see what you think.


Grendal Brenner

Monday 26th of September 2022

@Geoff, I just put a new shims on 7 speed chain on my 80’s High Sierra and I’m not having any problems. I like bike shops but some just like to sell the modern bikes to the customers. A chain is not expensive, maybe give it a shot!


Saturday 16th of July 2022

I'd find another bike shop. Sounds like they're trying to rip you off. You can replace the chain with any old 6/7/8 speed chain. It's a standard size. The hub threads are also standard-sized. If the freewheel wears out, you can replace it with a modern 6 speed freewheel from Shimano. Pretty much all of the parts can be replaced with modern versions as they wear out. There is no need to use Suntour parts.

Chas G

Friday 8th of July 2022

I bought my High Siera used… in 1985. I got it to ride with my son that had just picked out a Siera.. one model down. We both still have these special bikes, but his sits in a garage while I ride mine daily. Nearing my 80th birthday, the daily ride is only about 4 miles around the hood but it still climbs the hills and flys back down again. Nearly maintenance free for 38 years, i blew a rear sprocket gear 3 years ago but every thing but the seat and tires remain original. It’s a great bike and shifts better than the grandkids stuff.


Saturday 16th of July 2022

That's great to hear that your High Sierra is still getting use. They're great bikes. It's amazing how little maintenance you've had to do.


Sunday 23rd of January 2022

I bought a Schwinn High Sierra in 1985 and I still have it. It does make a great touring bike with all the braze ons for racks and stuff, and mine has never left Alaska. Plus it looks cool. But the thumb shifters are not my favorite. To change them to something else would require a different bar, and I like the bar.

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