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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

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 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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CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

Thursday 26th of August 2021

I’m an original owner of a Schwinn Sierra …in black chrome. I bought it when stationed in Norfolk VA to commute back and forth to the ship (in port) and to carry on the ship all over the world (when underway). Having always had road bikes, I liked the bike’s simplicity, strength—and the fact that I could ride roads, trails and crappy goat paths in the Mid East! After my active Navy service, I became a federal wildlife officer….so it became my “ride” in South Georgia while at FLETC, and even used it as a back country patrol bike at National Wildlife Refuges (before the USFWS would buy us LE patrol Trek bikes). Retired from both careers now, I recently overhauled the bike, and use it as a hybrid commuter-rail trail ride….only fully replacing the seat, that “y” handlebars, the grips, the cables and the tires. The black chrome finish? Aside from some minor battle scars, waxes up as if brand new, and it is a testimony to the kind of company schwinn once was. And even though a bit heavy—- 37 years later —- brings smiles with the miles!

JV

Friday 13th of August 2021

Still have mine bought it back in 91 a friend worked at a bike shop so it was well maintained. Ridden occasionally the first few years but not much. It has been in my garage or house since then with a tune up done every 5-6 years. Still rides great when I take it out but need to get the shifter adjusted

wheretheroadforks

Friday 27th of August 2021

Sounds like you maintain it well. It should last pretty much forever.

Jp

Saturday 6th of February 2021

I got mine off Craigslist for $30. It has all the original parts and I did my best to clean and restore everything. I didn't mess around with the frame's original paint which is the chrome ash gray although it has a lot of chips and scratches. After giving it a lot of TLC, now it rides like a dream.

wheretheroadforks

Wednesday 10th of February 2021

$30 is a great deal. Mine has some chips and scratches too. I don't mind. It makes the bike less desirable to thieves.

Les

Sunday 26th of April 2020

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

wheretheroadforks

Tuesday 28th of April 2020

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.

Steve

Sunday 17th of November 2019

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.

wheretheroadforks

Monday 18th of November 2019

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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