We’re currently riding a category-busting high-end carbon drop bar bike with fat tires and a 40mm travel suspension fork and are having a blast. Yet we’re fully aware that this bike is certainly not the first time the combo has used. Some may remember when John Tomac famously rode Yeti C-26 and Raleigh Signature frames with drop bars and early Manitou forks to major mountain bike victories in 1990 and 1991, a good 26 years before Craig Richey raced his Fox AX fork to third in the cyclocross race at Sea Otter.
Today, for Throwback Thursday, thanks to Eric Rumpf’s amazing mountain bike collection and second TBT contribution (see his Jelly Bean drop bar Salsa Ala Carte here), we’ve got an in-depth look at nearly the exact setup that the 1991 UCI XC MTB World Champion and World Cup winner piloted at the beginning of the season and raced to victory at the Manosque World Cup in France.
by Eric Rumpf
Within the vintage mountain bike community, there are unicorn bikes. The definition of a unicorn bike varies from person to person, but there are some so rare and so wildly identifiable they almost always evoke a form of nostalgia from anyone who was riding or racing in the late 80s to early 90s. Today we’re taking a look at a two-wheel drop bar unicorn.
An International Unicorn Hunt
As a young teen, the cast of characters on the NORBA circuit were my idols, while their bikes were my infatuations. Ned Overend and his Stumpjumper Epic Ultimate, Tomas Frischknecht and his Ritchey P-Team, but the ultimate pairing for me was John Tomac and his titanium/carbon Raleigh.
In 1991, the Raleigh Signature’s MSRP was $6,000 ($10,826 today). While it was technically something offered to the public, it was so rare and expensive, it was really only seen in magazines by most of us.
As I began seeking out and collecting older mountain bikes in the early 2000s, I was fulfilling childhood dreams of riding the greatest mountain bikes I could only have dreamed of owning as a kid. One by one the bikes from the magazines jumped off the pages. They became real experiences (for better or worse). So why not set the bar as high as it can go? Track down the unobtainable. This would mark, in earnest, the start of a 15-year-long search.
I’ve learned as much as I can about the ti/carbon Raleigh Signature over the years. I’ve pined over photos of Tomac’s race bikes and missed a few opportunities to own one myself. The first version of the bike was made with a Merlin Metalworks titanium head tube and rear triangle. Rumors were that only nine were ever made. A source who was involved with the bikes at the time said no more than 12 were made. Surprisingly, I’ve accounted for all 12 Merlin made Ti/Carbon Raleigh Signature bikes, though recently a 13th was discovered.
It’s possible that there are more out there and I’d love to know about them. By my count, six bikes were for Tomac and one for a teammate. This left six Merlin-made Raleigh bikes sold to the public before moving over to the more common Litespeed titanium version (of which approximately 60 were made).
I have social media to thank for tipping me off to the existence of this bike. It was listed for sale in an unlikely location: Indonesia. The obscure listing and location may have kept it from selling instantly. I have a friend who had points of contact in Indonesia and I called in the biggest favor ever in asking him to help me procure the bike. It was a months-long process with lots of hand wringing with the possibility of the deal falling through always stressing me out. In the end, I have an even bigger thanks and a debt of gratitude to my friend for helping me fulfill the ultimate childhood dream. The deal closed and one of the most desirable, rare bikes ever made was on its way to me.
Rebuilding Memories, Part by Part
The bike arrived safely in the U.S. and overall was in excellent shape. It was nearly all original right down to the cables and housing, with the only out-of-place changes being the saddle and wheelset (Tioga Disk Drives aren’t known for their long term durability). While it was somewhat dirty, it looked to have seen minimal use with the only real cosmetic damage being the decals on the top tube, presumably from years being hung on a wall rack. Regardless, after showing it off at Keyesville last year, I started the tear down for the clean and rebuild.
I decided that I wanted to rebuild the bike to mirror Tomac’s earliest race setup with Raleigh. Many are familiar with Tomac’s iconic showing at the 1990 Worlds on a drop bar Yeti C-26. When Tomac signed on with Raleigh for 1991, the first two races of that season were also on a drop bar bike, this time with the Ti/Carbon Raleigh Signature. There aren’t a lot of photos out there of the bike set up this way, but enough for me to make a pretty accurate run at getting the details right.
With only 13 Ti/Carbon Raleigh Signatures made with the Merlin lugs, these are exceedingly rare. Especially since six of those went to Tomac. Most people are familiar with John's iconic drop bar equipped Yeti C-26, but when he signed on with Raleigh for the 1991 season, the first two races of that year were also run with drops. Aside from the decaling that is unique to John's personal bikes, this Raleigh is nearly identical to his early 91 season drop bar racer. #vintagemountainbike #vintagemtb #johntomac #tomacraleigh #ivmtb #ridevintagemtb #raleighbicycles
There are still minor details to flush out, but I feel the end result makes this bike unique among its equally-rare siblings.
When asked about the drop bar set up on his mountain bike, Tomac has said that it was done to more closely mirror his position on a road bike as he was pulling double duty with a road career on the 7-11/Motorola road team at the time.
He’s also said that it was entirely sketchy to ride aggressively off road with it. I’m a big fan of Marin-style off-road drop bar bikes. A properly set up drop bar bike handles brilliantly. I can say with reasonable certainty that anyone who mimics the Tomac drop bar mountain bikes is going to get an inaccurate impression of riding drops off road. It is sketchy. It is long, low, narrow and a handful to ride in this configuration—a true testament to just how skillful a rider John Tomac was.
At some point, I’ll go back to the traditional flat bar setup, as the bike, even with all of its lore and hype, is actually a very enjoyable vintage mountain bike to ride.
See the full, detailed photo gallery below the specs. Know about more of these Merlin-based Raleigh Signature bikes in existence, or have more history to contribute? Drop a comment below or message Eric Rumpf on Instagram.
Eric Rumpf’s 1991 John Tomac Titanium/Carbon Raleigh Signature Specs:
Frame: Raleigh John Tomac Signature (C-9 Carbon/Merlin Titanium) 1 of estimated 13
Fork: 2nd Gen Doug Bradbury Manitou
Rims: Sun Chinook Hard Anodized
Hubs: Shimano M730 XT front/ Shimano M732 XT rear w/ Tioga Tension Disk
Quick Release: Shimano XT
Tires: Tioga Trail Dawg front/Tioga Mud Dawg rear, 26×1.95
Pedals: Shimano XT M737
Crank: Shimano M730 XT
Chain: Shimano HG
Cassette: Shimano HG90 XT 12-28, 8-speeds
Bottom Bracket: Press Fit
Front Derailleur: Shimano M735 XT
Rear Derailleur: Shimano M735 XT Short Cage
Shifters: Dura Ace 7400 STI rear, BS64 Barcon front
Handlebars: TTT (25.4 clamp, logos wiped)
Grips: Off The Front “Hammerhead”
Brake set: Shimano M734 XT
Left brake lever: Shimano Dura Ace BL-7402
Saddle: Selle Italia Flite Ti, Dark Grey
Seat Post: Tioga Carbo
Paint: Natural Carbon
Serial #: 4455
Place of Origin: Kent, WA
Weight: 26.5 lbs
Eric Rumpf’s 1991 John Tomac Titanium/Carbon Raleigh Signature Photo Gallery: