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The Highland Hacker

Come with me on a journey. We’re going back, back to a time when real mean rode down real mountains, wearing Joe Brown climbing helmets, their whimpers of fear drowned out by the ineffectual squealing of bendy canti brakes applied to anodised rims.

Yes, it was recently bike project time in the Montgomery Wick household. My sister had asked me to make her a bike out of any old bits I had lying around. Peering into the spares box, I was surprised to find I had all the components I needed except for the cables. Now, I stepped off the upgrade treadmill some time back and only tend to replace bits as they wear out or break. Which means that the old bits in The Box are old. I soon realised that such an exercise in retro chic was going to be wasted as a mere woman’s bike, and thus the Highland Hacker was born.

Why build a Highland Hacker?

There is an honourable tradition of cycling along rough tracks in the Highlands that long predates ‘mountain biking’. Routes can be ancient drove roads, carefully laid stalking singletrack, Land Rover tracks bulldozed in to hydro schemes or 250 year old military roads built by Wade and Napier to help subdue those uppity Scots. Riding them is a lottery – you can never tell from a map if a given route will be rideable. However, if you’ve spent any time in the mountains of Scotland you may have encountered an old rough-stuffer, grizzled geezers with unlikely looking leg muscles often riding the most bizarre machines. One of them might even have been me.

A hack bike built up from old bits makes a lot of sense in this context. They make it easy to access remote hill country that would otherwise require a two or three day walk. You can dump it in the heather and nip up a hill that catches your eye, or leave it in the car for a couple of days while off climbing. If the bike’s not there when you get back, well, it’s not a disaster. And if you do happen to find that perfect bit of singletrack you can always come back later with your ponce’s bike. The hills aren’t going anywhere.

The bike in question has turned out to be an eclectic selection of early 90s bits bolted onto a more recent steel Marin frame. The more observant of you might notice the Selle Italia Turbo saddle, Gorilla Headlock, Suntour cranks, 24-36-48 chainrings and grease-nippled XT rear hub. It goes without saying that shifting duties are ably looked after by a venerable pair of thumbies.

So How Does it Ride?

Like a bag of spanners, to be perfectly honest. The weight and high gear ratios mean it’s never going to be that quick uphill, although it goes like a rocket on the downhills for exactly the same reason…

The non-suspension corrected forks have steepened the frame angles, so the saddle is too far forward relative to the cranks by an inch or two; this also means the reach is a bit on the short side. The rear end also kicks like a mule. It’s a good job the old Turbo saddles are easy on the arse.

The main problem, though, is the cage pedals. I actually have an old set of Powerstraps in The Box, but left them off so I can ride wearing winter mountaineering boots if I want. I’ve been using clipless pedals for nine years – how did I ever ride without them? At first I found my trailing foot kept lifting off the pedal on every upstroke, and on numerous occasions my feet were jarred or rolled forward off the pedals. I have no idea how people ride using platform pedals. I’ll happily ride without suspension, but nothing would induce me to give up the Times on my “proper” bike. You do adjust to the cages, but the lack of efficiency compared to clipless is startling.

The bike is also damned ugly – but then, that doesn’t seem to stop people riding full suspension bikes…

So having said all that, did I enjoy riding it? Damned right – it’s a bike, innit, and cycling through the parts of Scotland where I took these pictures over the last week is always going to be fun. Sometimes you need to look beyond the hardware. My only regret is the frame and forks don’t have the fittings for canti brakes. That’s a shame – I have an old set of SS5 levers and 986s which’d look really good on it…

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