Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ultimate vintage MTB shootout Part 2: Mid term progress

I've never written a bike comparison before and for some stupid and diluted reason I thought that taking three similar bikes and comparing them by logging segment times and taking detailed notes would yield a clear winner... yeah right. While I have some interesting data and observations I feel that coming away from this undertaking, as much fun as it is and providing anything more than a subjective opinion will be challenging to say the least. That being said here's where things stand after three rides, one on each bike.

The course:
Living in the mountain bike mecca that is Baltimore, Maryland affords me countless miles of lush singletrack, massive climbs and the kind of techie descents that will throw even the most capable toddler. However, after many hours of riding my local trail systems I've manged to string together a nice ~12.5 mile loop with approximately 1300' of vertical climbing and a pretty good diversity of terrain. It's a loop I now know pretty well and feel that it provides a good setting to evaluate these older bikes. The majority of the course is flowy single track punctuated by a several fast and technical descents with some relatively serious exposure as well as a few punchy and technical climbs. Throw in a sprinkle of rock gardens, stream crossings and some loose climbs and you have a pretty baseline on which to measure most key characteristics of a vintage bike.

Current standings:
Going on nothing but overall course completion time after three runs the Ti Phoenix lies in first place with a time of 1:22:24, in second is the Cunningham with a time of 1:25:56 and pulling up the rear is the steel Phoenix with a time of 1:30:11. Fastest speed honors again go to the Ti Phoenix with a max speed of 30.9 mph (avg 8.5 mph), Cunningham in second with a top speed of 26.8 mph (avg 8.6 mph) and the Phoenix again in third with a top recorded speed of 20.8 mph (avg 8.3 mph).

Black base line : Ti Phoenix
Purple line : Cunningham
Blue line : Steel Phoenix

Ridge to waterbars : 2.3 miles 8% grade on climb in
Steep climb into the main section followed by a mix of rugged XC style climbs and descents, not much time to rest and lots of opportunities to push all of these bikes. There are several rocky sections going uphill and I only cleared them on the Ti Phoenix.

Chuck Norris climb : 0.9 miles 3% grade
Pretty mellow climb close to the start of the ride, mostly smooth single track that's ripe for attack both seated and standing.

Garrett's DH : 0.9 miles -5% grade
Probably the most fun part of the overall loop, fun and twisty downhill with a few chicanes flanked by fallen trees and featuring upturned rocks and boulders. Can get a bit hairy and definitely helped by some front squish.

Garrett's Pass 2.3 miles
This is XC in a nutshell, couple short climbs followed by flats perfect for an all out push and then leading to a wicked DH I separated out above.

As you can see I was actually ahead on the Cunningham during many of the climbing portions of the ride and it was the descents where the Ti Phoenix pulled away. Of course this is where the suspension fork clearly plays and I have to believe that the two bikes would be neck and neck if the Phoenix had a Type 2 fork. Honestly I don't know why the steel Phoenix isn't measuring up. I feel very confident on it, it's a bit more compliant than the Cunningham and the Schwalbe tires are actually a bit beefier than the Onzas on the other two bikes.

Conclusions thus far:
Hard to really come away from this with a single answer, at least so far. At first I really thought I would be the fastest on the steel Phoenix as I could tell that I was pushing the bike about as hard as I could and rode it the most leading up to starting this challenge. There is no denying that the steel Phoenix is a great bike. Like the others it's very stable, tracks predictably, is easy to handle, has quick handling and is comfortable on longer climbs and rides in general. It's a mix of stiffness between the Cunningham and Ti Phoenix and unlike the other two bikes it's the one where I can really feel the grip the best. The Cunningham is by far the stiffest, believe me or not but my hands and body definitely get tired faster and consequently I'm actively hunting for the smoothest line on all terrain which takes away from my down trail attention. It's probably the best bike for climbing out of the bunch, though that could just be the overall fit of the bike resulting in an optimal climbing position. I did observe that I did the least out of the saddle climbing in this bike and in most circumstances could just power through things. It is however the bike I felt the least comfortable descending on, again maybe due to the fact that it's a slightly taller or larger frame than the other two. But I don't feel like I have a good sense for the traction limits and leaning over hard in cornering has resulted in the front wheel washing out at speed on multiple occasions. The Ti Phoenix is probably best described as the most fun of the bunch. It's easily the most compliant bike, both because of the suspension fork, but also the rear end just feels a bit smoother and doesn't get perturbed easily, meaning I'm less worried about rear wheel placement, unlike the other bikes. Like the steel version it's just so damn predictable, probably even more so that the steel version. This is likely why I've been able to push the it harder than the other two on descents. The best thing about it, and this isn't fair to the other bikes, is the drivetrain and brakes. I absolutely love the way this bike performs, the shifting here is the best by far and the combination of Suntour MD front with an 11-28 Shimano rear end makes for very versatile gearing and really the middle ring is about all I ever use (I get into the granny on the other two). Also the brakes on this bike work better than the other two. The Lever Link up front is a veritable anchor and the Toggle Cam in the rear has the full lock point just dialed in perfectly. I feel like I have the best control of the bike when it matters. Oh yeah, the fork doesn't hurt. I've caught myself wondering on several occasions whether I should get a Type 2 fork made for it... would be neat I think, but not sure I'd chose to keep it long term.

So, three more rides on the same loop to get some more data and see if the trends continue or if things shake up. I also have a few things rattling around in my mind in terms of characteristics I want to focus on for the next rides to try and fill out the overall picture a little bit better. I'm going to give each bike a small tune-up to try and ensure a level playing field and take variables out of the equation. Stay tuned for a wrap up in a week or two.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

1989 Grove Innovations Hard Core Prototype

Much like Preston Tucker and the Studebaker brothers, the legacy of Bill Grove and Grove Innovations is at risk of being relegated to a footnote in the annals of mountain bike history. Grove never attained the popularity of brands like Fat Chance, Potts or Ritchey, and for the most part it remained a regional favorite like Ted Wojcik or Off Road Toad. Having grown up in central Pennsylvania, I have always had an affinity for Groves; because of that, I feel a responsibility to cultivate and maintain an appreciation of these bikes and the people who built them, lest they become lost to history and time.

Grove and company had been making bikes and components as a small operation since the early 1980s. By the late ’80s, they were looking to expand the business. Enter Randy Moore. Moore was the owner of the Bicycle Shop, one of the larger bike shops in central PA and Grove’s primary retailer. Around 1989 he acquired a large stake in Grove, taking an active role in running the company and working with the team on developing products. Moore was known as one of the early mountain bike pioneers in PA and was part of the Bomber crew, who… well, let’s just say they took a contact-sports approach to riding bikes in the woods. Wanting a beefier bike, Moore asked Grove to make him a version of the Assault using tandem tubing. Grove delivered this prototype: the Hard Core. According to Moore, the bike never fit him well, so it was passed around the Grove camp, ridden and raced by other folks as part of the Hard Core’s development. Here are a few pics of the bike as it looked when first built, to be honest I'd much rather have the crazy original paintjob, but the orange and black splatter is pretty cool.

As a fan of Groves, I’m particularly interested in seeing how the models evolved and capturing the changes between early prototypes and production bikes. One of my favorite bikes in my stable is the 1991 Hard Core, which by all measures is the production version. While the Hard Core and the Assault look similar at first glance, a closer look reveals some subtle differences. One of the hallmarks of the Hard Core was its 13.5-inch bottom-bracket height, a real boon when trying to clear the countless fallen logs and rock gardens common in central PA.

This is Hard Core #7, aside from the lack of the bash guard and slightly different shaping of the top tube it's essentially the same bike as the original prototype. You can see the original writeup on that bike here.

This is my 1991 Hard Core which in my opinion represents the best iteration of the model (see original writeup here). The high bottom bracket takes a while to get used to as it puts the rider higher up than most bikes, but once get comfortable it's really a fun bike to ride. By contrast, the prototype accomplished the same task with a massive bash guard. Moore, not the most proficient bunny-hopper, wanted a way to smash through obstacles without damaging his chainrings. As far as I can tell, only this Hard Core and a Grove trials bike received such a bash guard.

Another difference between this prototype Hard Core and the original Assault is a smaller seat tube and seat cluster on the Hard Core, which resulted in a flatter and more ovalized top tube at the seat-tube junction. I highlight this because the degree to which the 1.5-inch top tube and the staggering 2-inch down tube were shaped and then seamlessly welded is really a testament to the skills of the craftsmen who built these bikes.

Grove made some straight blade forks before the Hard Core was first created. They had beef dropouts made from what looked almost like solid angle bracket. The fork on this bike is arguably one of the first "production" hard core forks.

Aside from the massive dropouts the rest of the forks remained largely unchanged from the early prototypes to the more refined final version.

Although the early Hard Cores including this prototype used pieces of the Assault rear triangle the seat stays and brake bridge were beefier. So, the bike retained some of the compliance but had a solid braking platform with minimal frame flex.

I've never gotten a straight answer as to why Grove chose to run track dropouts on the Hard Core (and the X) but not on the Assault. I always thought that they felt out of place given the burly frame construction, but perhaps the large weldable surface area was just the ticket in making for a sturdy rear end. I've said it before but the gentle fillet brazed transitions found on all Groves were a nice a touch and were a good indicator of the quality of the whole bike.

Being this is an 80s bike it's gotta have a portage strap, just don't plan on carrying a large water bottle in the seat tube mounted cage if you plan on doing any carrying.

Apparently Randy set out to sell this bike in the late fall, shortly after Grove introduced the Warning Orange paintjob. The new owner (from whom I bought the bike last year) didn't like the crazy neon paintjob and wanted some fresh paint and given the fall season and the new orange color decided on an appropriate paint scheme to go with the time of the year. Hence the black/orange fade with black splatter. While a cool color on its own, I'd rather have the rad original colors still on the bike. C'est la vie...

This bike, and the Hard Core in general, helped pave the way for what would become the freeride concept. At the time it was made, it was radically different from the majority of steel bikes on the market. While not obvious at first glance, the Hard Core is a really fun bike to ride. Though heavy by comparison, you forget about that quickly as the responsive and surprisingly nimble nature puts a smile on your face.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Ultimate vintage MTB shootout Part 1 - The introduction

I've had this idea to write a traditional bike shootout ever since I started this blog, I just never thought I'd lead with three bikes I never even heard of when I got into vintage MTBs. I always figured I'd compare a Klein, Yeti or Fat Chance, but seat time, experience and a bit of fortune has led me in a slightly different direction. 

I've written at length about each of these three bikes before, you can check out the photo galleries and ride reports for each of these if you go back a few posts on my blog, but I recently got the idea that comparing them to each other would make for a good time and a fun read. 

I suppose the big question is why compare three seemingly similar bikes rather than a more diverse representation? Over the past several years I've had the chance to ride a good number of what many would consider great riding vintage mountain bikes. That list includes heavy hitters like a Fat Chance Yo Eddy, Yeti FRO/ARC, Klein Adroit, Bradbury Manitou, Grove Innovations Hard Core and Mantis Valkyrie to name a few. All of these and several others have spent a fair amount of time in my regular rotation until these bikes arrived. I still love the Hard Core and Valkyrie but I tend to reach for one of these three more often. Maybe one day I will do a broader comparison or shootout featuring those or other bikes. While it may be news to some, I and many others consider the Cunningham as one of the best rigid bikes ever made and arguably THE best vintage mountain bike. The Phoenix was meant to be derivative of that design that were available to the public, so it stands to reason that they should also be amazing bikes. So, at the moment the thing I want to investigate is whether WTB improved on the Cunningham design in someway and was there any further improvement in going from steel to Titanium? Each of these bikes has a unique character and disposition on the trail and my experience with them thus far leads me to believe that comparing and contrasting them by riding them on the same trails and capturing not only the objective differences such as segment time or speed etc, but also getting into the more subtle and subjective aspects of how each bike dealt with the terrain should yield a clear winner. Not saying it's going to be easy, but I do think it'll be fun.

Over the next couple weeks I plan to ride each bike twice on a loop I'm very familiar with and one that has a lot of diverse terrain including, punchy climbs, tight and fast single track, couple technical sections and a few longer climbs to boot. I'll log times for each bike and take some notes on how they managed each part of the trail and then report on the results in as concise of a way as I can.

Obviously I'll need to find a way to normalize for the Judy fork on the Ti Phoenix, but other than that the bikes are equipped similarly enough that the comparison should be fair across the board.

1992 Cunningham Racer

Key Specs : Front and rear WTB TCs modified by CC, 118/140 hub spacing, CC made Type 2 fork, oversize FASP, Cunningham stem and 28" Ti bar, blend of Shimano M900 XTR and M735 XT with an 8-spd 12-32 cassette and 26/36/46 front rings on Specialized cranks, Onza Canis 2.25 tires. 

Weight : 24.56 lbs

Quick summary : One of my all time favorite bikes, fits me like a glove and probably the one bike here I have the most hours on. The ride is stiff though comfortable for long hauls, handling is precise and predictable, not as toss-able as the others.

1997 WTB Phoenix Ti (original prototype)

Key Specs : Front WTB LL and rear WTB TCs, 100/140 hub spacing, RS judy fork with speed springs and Risse GEM cartridge, oversize WTB post, WTB stem and 27" Ti bar, blend of Shimano M900 XTR and Suntour XC-PRO with an XT 8-spd 11-28 cassette and 20/32/42 front rings on Suntour MD cranks, Onza Canis 2.25 tires

Weight : 25.73 lbs

Quick summary : My most modern bike, and consistently the one I log my fastest times with regardless of terrain. Extremely compliant frame with probably the most versatile drivetrain combo I've ever assembled. 

1994 WTB Phoenix SE (lightweight prototype)

Key Specs : Front and rear WTB TCs, 100/135 hub spacing, Potts made Type 2 fork (suspension corrected), oversize WTB post, WTB stem and 27" Ti bar, Shimano M900 XTR drivetrain with an 8-spd 12-32 cassette and 26/36/46 front rings, Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.25 tires

Weight : 24.89 lbs

Quick summary : The newest addition to my WTB lineup and my recent go to bike. Not as stiff as the Cunningham, whippy handling that makes for a very easy to throw around bike.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

1982/83 Mantis Sherpa

Richard Cunningham started building bikes in 1981 and officially launched Mantis in 1982 offering two models of bikes; the TIG welded Overland and the fillet brazed Sherpa. Both bikes shared 4130 oversize chromoly tubing and geometry only different in construction techniques. Both bikes were designed with a slight bend towards comfortable touring but accommodating of the idea that sometimes things get hairy. That being said it wasn't until 1983 that Mantis released the XCR which was meant to provide a platform for all out racing while the Sherpa and Overland became the defacto touring bikes. Like the fillet brazed XCR the Overland was only available for the first couple of years with both bikes getting replaced by the composite XCR starting in 1984, but the Sherpa remained in limited production for another couple years. It's hard to know for sure, but my limited serial number log indicates that approximately 20-30 Sherpas may have been made in it's four to five year production run.

I've spent a lot of time recently working on cough-cough, modern bikes and looking at these relatively slack angles and that crazy long rear end feels odd, but for the time this was relatively sporty geometry. The Sherpa and XCR were very similar in both their design and construction, with the Sherpa employing longer (18" vs 17.5") chainstays made out of standard 4130 chrome moly tubing vs smaller Columbus stays on the XCR. Both bikes had approximate 72 degree head and seat tube angles and similar builds including a Mantis stem, bar and seat post. Aside from the name decal you'd be hard pressed to identify the two at a distance. One nice thing about the Sherpas over the XCR is that they came standard in a variety of elegant metallic colors to the base Imron red on the XCR, a color I never really liked.

If you've not seen it before the Mantis three bolt stem can be a bit confusing. It features TIG welded construction on the quill and stem with a removable Aluminum face plate to enable easy bar swaps and provide a cable stop for internal cable routing. A very slick design that's truly one of a kind.

The fork here is the same exact unit used on the XCR and it's as elegant as ever. The bi-plane style of forks are some of the more distinguished hallmarks of early MTBs. Many of the first MTB manufacturers used this design, but few made them as nicely as Richard.

While aesthetically pleasing these forks were not known to last, at least not on the XCRs. One interesting fact about the early Mantis bikes is that the forks and frames wore matching serial numbers, so you would likely know if the fork wasn't original. In this case the numbers match so we can rest assured this fork is original. Odds are anyways that if a fork was replaced it would be done so with a new unicrown model which was the design Mantis moved to on most bikes starting in 1984.

The raised and filed fillet on either end of the top tube is a signature Mantis feature and was only available on the Sherpa and the 1983 XCR. Richard did make a few custom one off bikes and a couple of them were also adorned with these beautifully sculpted transitions.

top tube fillet side

Unlike most modern bikes, unless they are something that came out of NAHBS most modern bikes are all function and offer little in the way of flourishes or what I'd call personal touches. You pick a bike based on technical specs and maybe some degree of brand loyalty, or maybe just go with what's on sale because they are all so damn similar anyways. On these older bikes, and especially something like this Sherpa there is so much to notice, so much to appreciate. So even though I just finished the XCR (which I wrote up here a few weeks ago), I am still quite thrilled to have a chance to work on this bike and take in all of it's finer details.

 seat cluster rear

I like how Richard integrated rack mounts into the seat stays, looks much cleaner than externally brazed on bosses.

One of the main differences I've noticed between this Sherpa and all of the XCRs I've worked on is this above the bottom bracket, Henry James style derailleur cable routing. This was the way the 82 bikes were shown in the Mantis brochure, which is why I initially thought this bike was an 82, however I recently got a hold of the first cut of the 83 catalog which also had this same exact style routing. The later 83 brochures showed the revised style of routing and so I imagine at some point that year Richard switched over. I've seen one other Sherpas with cable stops at the top of the down tube and one just above on the seat tube with a piece of housing connecting them which served as the routing for the front derailleur, with the rear still using the welded on guide. The XCRs had a custom made guide underneath the BB shell.

As I mentioned earlier on the major differences between the Sherpas and XCRs was the heavier duty and longer rear triangle on the Sherpa. The bullet ends on the stays are much more pronounced here and really give the bike a beefier though hardly brutish feel. 

Once again the details in the metalwork on these bikes are simply stunning. This is one of those times I wish I had the space and funds to keep each and every single  bike I come across, sadly this is not the case.

This has become one of my favorite shots to take, I especially love it on Manitous with their dishless rear wheels.

Stem top

Suntour Mountech derailleurs with Shimano Tourney Takagi XT cranks.

The Suntour Mountech rear derailleur is an interesting design with a custom integrated top pulley which sits above the cage pivot mechanism. About all I can regarding this unit is that it does function. Suntour evolved this design eventually including a three pulley system which was poorly received and ultimately the more modern design was introduced with the XC series of Suntour MTB components.

I only rode my 83 XCR a couple of times and as best as I recall I didn't really care for the very upright feel of the bike and definitely didn't feel very confident with the drivetrain and brakes. By most people's standards my most modern bike is quite ancient, however I feel that for most people a good mountain bike from the early to mid 90s is likely to be less of a limiting factor than say fitness or overall skills. However, these early 80s bikes really require you to slow down and ride entirely differently that you would on bikes from the 90s or even late 80s. You have to get your head out of the saddle and plan your shifts and braking points well in advance. Handling is good enough for most trails, but bikes were larger and so you're higher up than you might on a new bike and a big bike is sometimes tough to get around in tight quarter. With all that in mind I quickly realized that this wasn't a bike I would try to ride hard and eventually sold it. I have a feeling the same would be true for this Sherpa. However, I really wish the weather would improve so that I could take the opportunity to take a second try and see how this bike would fare on the most gentle east coast trails where I now live.