The refurb man: Building and riding mountain bikes from the good old days

Mike Wilk is hooked on building and riding bikes that most have forgotten about. Vintage mountain bikes, specifically. Bikes from the sport's early days, when the mountain bike itself was still being defined. There's something wonderful, he says, about going back to a simpler time.

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Mike Wilk is hooked on building and riding bikes that most have forgotten about. Vintage mountain bikes, specifically. Bikes from the sport’s early days, when the mountain bike itself was still being defined. There’s something wonderful, he says, about going back to a simpler time.

For Wilk, the golden era of mountain biking and mountain bike technology was the period of time from 1985 to 1995. This era of experimentation and innovation that profoundly influenced mountain biking informs Wilk’s zeal for restoring vintage mountain bikes.

“I’m going to make sure it’s exactly as I wanted it to look when I was twelve years old, but didn’t have the money,” he says. “If you talk to anybody who’s restoring old bikes or collecting old bikes, 95 percent of them tell you that’s exactly why you do it: because they want the bikes they couldn’t have as kids.”

By the mid-80s, the young sport of mountain biking was in full swing. There were no rules, so engineers tried whatever they could to make bikes ride faster off-road. Innovation occurred at a lightning pace. It seemed like every month there would be a new, groundbreaking technology unveiled in Mountain Bike Action magazine, Wilk tells me as he wrenched on his Yeti SB-66 in his Durango garage. “Basically, they just kept reinventing the wheel.”

Economically, mountain biking was booming. Sponsorship deals flowed from inside and outside of the sport, making race winners well-compensated superstars. Races would even be broadcast on television, a rarity today.

“You can’t go back, right, you can’t go home,” Wilk says of the era. “It’s like that saying, but you can kind of touch it, you know, a little bit. It’s the same reason people collect old cars. You’re able to go back into a time of your life where you didn’t have any responsibility, you didn’t have any stress.”

Wilk estimates that he has restored about 30 vintage bikes. He currently owns 20 bikes; 10 of them are older than Egan Bernal. He tries to keep a couple of the vintage bikes in working condition so he can pull one off the wall and ride it.

Some of his most valuable builds are stored at The Pros Closet, a bike reseller and museum in Boulder, Colorado, but the wall of Wilk’s garage could be a picture in a yet-to-be-written mountain bike history book.

Across from his workbench hangs an early, black-and-white race bike made by Chris Herting. Herting was an early builder for Yeti Cycles and still lives in Durango building custom bike frames as the homegrown operation called 3D Racing. Herting didn’t know who the bike belonged to, but Wilk found it kicking around Durango.

One slot over is a grey-and-green Yeti Ultimate. The Ultimate was one of the first bikes that was designed to be balanced, Wilk says. It went uphill, downhill, and was made to be fun. It features an elevated chainstay to avoid chainsuck and to make the bike feel snappier. “It rides goofy,” Wilk says. “I love it.”

The Yeti Ultimate, center, is one of Wilk’s favorites.

Also featured is a purple Klein bike with an integrated headset, meaning the headset bearings are located inside the head tube, rather than outside as was standard at the time. Back then, the only people who could afford the bike were dentists and doctors, Wilk says. The bike represents the designer’s tenacity to build a bike differently regardless of what was the current trend.

Finally, a lavender Fat Chance sits on the left. It was a bike that rode like a bike should ride, Wilk says. The craftsmanship of the hand-built frame made it a bike that everybody wanted in their quiver.

Wilk’s process for restoring a bike starts with the desire for a particular bike, usually one he saw around the races or in a magazine. Then, he searches for the frame and period-correct parts. Before the popularity of social media, the only way to do this on the internet was to post on bike collector forums and search eBay.

Every morning, Wilk would search for parts using search terms like “vintage” and “retro”. It took him five years to find a Yeti ARC, he says. He has always wanted a vintage Breezer Cloud 9, but has never found one in his size.

Juli Furtado’s Yeti FRO.

One of Wilk’s proudest restorations was a Yeti FRO ridden by Juli Furtado.

Furtado rose to recognition as a mountain bike legend when she won the 1990 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships at Purgatory Resort, a small ski area outside Durango, Colorado. At worlds, she rode the well-known Yeti C-26, which Wilk has also restored. But up until that point, she rode a steel Yeti FRO built by Herting.

Wilk knew that this historic, very rare bike was out in the world somewhere. Through a friend, he heard that a bike shop owned one.

He was able to acquire pictures from the owner, and he was in disbelief when he saw what was stamped into the bottom bracket: “JF”. Not many people would know what those letters meant – not even the bike owner, according to Wilk. The unassuming initials are those of Juli Furtado. It was her race bike.

Initially, the owner of the bike didn’t want to sell it. But months later, Wilk received a message from the owner saying that he would sell it if he met him in Moab in a few days. A stay-at-home dad with an infant, Wilk scrambled to make it to the southern Utah desert town to buy the beat-up bike in a motel parking lot.

Next was the tricky part. If the frame was rare, the parts may have been even rarer. They were some of the very first mountain bike components made by the Italian manufacturer Campagnolo. He was able to secure all of the parts by emailing Italian bike shops and searching eBay.

Wilk focuses on period-correct restorations, unlike some who will put new parts on old bikes. “I want every part to be right for that bike,” he says. “New bikes should ride like new bikes, and old bikes should ride like old bikes, in my opinion.”

Playing with old bikes brings Wilk back to his childhood. He rode and raced throughout his teens during the mid-90s. That’s why he’s attracted to vintage, period-correct racing bikes. Now that he has the income of an adult, he can afford what he gawked at in the catalogs back then.

Wilk grew up in Bennington, New Hampshire, about an hour and a half north of Boston. As a kid, the quickest way to get around town was to go by bike straight through the woods; no trail needed.

In early 1992, Wilk found out about a mountain bike race in the area later that spring. He dropped out of the race before the finish line, but realized a never-before-seen potential for riding bikes off-road. It was called singletrack.

So many people were riding, Wilk says, that the leaves and roots packed into the soil creating a singletrack trail, a new concept to him. The next season, Wilk won a race in the beginner category.

In the early 90’s, Durango was experiencing a whirlwind of mountain bike media attention. Every pro rider lived there, and every aspiring pro rider wanted to move there. Riders like Greg Herbold, Ned Overend, and Myles Rockwell were a part of the generation that put Durango on the map as a mountain bike town. Wilk was admitted to Fort Lewis College, where he raced on the college cycling team from 1998-2002.

As a budding professional racer, he competed at the mountain bike world championships in the under-23 category for the United States national team in 2001. But in spring of 2002, at the collegiate road national championships, Wilk crashed and broke his collarbone when a loose dog unexpectedly ran onto the course.

Wilk says the race was his to lose that day. Everybody knew that he could easily make it onto the podium. The eventual winner, Darby Thomas, earned recognition from that result and is now a professional triathlete. “I just knew this was my moment. The kid who won was from CU [University of Colorado]. We had been crushing him all season. I know if I had gotten to the bottom of that climb I would have won.”

That summer was a tough time for Wilk, and would turn out to be the end of his professional career. He was recovering from the injury and had no motivation to train. One of the largest wildfires in state history was burning on Missionary Ridge, just outside Durango, and the smoke made it even more difficult to train.

After a few years in the workforce investigating defaulted mortgages, Wilk completed his first restoration in 2006. It was an old Pro-Flex mountain bike from the 90s. Coincidentally, the bike was owned by college friend Tom Danielson, a former professional road cyclist buried in doping scandals.

“When I got done, I was kind of bummed,” Wilk says. “I was like ‘damn, this sucks.’ I mean, to be fair, the bike rode like shit. This isn’t any fun to ride, but the fun was in building it.”

Wilk had caught the restoration bug, so he had his childhood bike sent to Colorado so he could work on it.

A 1986 Ross Signature.

Today, people can buy a mountain bike off the shelf for a few thousand dollars, and the bike will perform well. Modern technology can conquer terrain that wasn’t before possible.

People ask Wilk if the old bikes he builds actually work. “Of course they do,” he says. They were designed to ride off-road and not break, and that’s what they do.

Wilk is amazed by the designers and engineers who build these old bikes. They started with nothing and built something that was practical. Today, mountain bikers are spoiled by dropper seat posts, electronic shifting, and modern suspension. But back then, everything was simple. A hardtail frame with a rigid or early suspension fork was all riders had. It worked.

A look at Strava leaderboards for many trails around Durango shows that Wilk is still a fast rider. For many, riding a bike serves as escapism from the real world. Wilk takes his escapism a step further. The build is important, too. Working on old steel frames and oily suspension is just as enjoyable.

“It’s such a disconnect from all the stress of life to go back and restore these old bikes, put parts on them that you lusted after back in the day,” Wilk says. “I love my life, but at the same time to be able to go back – things were so much simpler.”

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