Thursday, August 1, 2019

Fat Chance Team Comp

I've had a somewhat strained relationship with Fat Chance bikes over years. The first few Fats I restored all suffered some damage during shipping, mechanical faults while riding out to do photo shoots or the like. Fearing an imminent curse, I put my personal Fat projects on hold. A couple years later I did finally complete a nice 1990 Yo Eddy (see link here) which I rode for a while living back in California. Ultimately it wasn't a bike I reached for above other steel bikes in the quiver and it was relegated to loaner status, and ultimately I ended up selling it back in 2017. I still have a Wicked I use as a commuter and for that purpose it's really a great fit, however I don't think I would like it as much a dedicated mountain bike. Since then I haven't had the opportunity to work on any of the famous New England made whips. I did hold onto a Team Comp frame for a long time but finally decided to throw in the towel earlier this year when I realized it would be another couple of years until I would get around to it. I'm still hanging onto a couple suspension correct BOI forks in hopes of someday finding a late model (1999-2000) Yo frame or an early Fat Titanium to marry them to. I really liked the idea of the Team Comp and was a bit remorseful about selling it, and so when a good friend offered to loan me his bike for a while I jumped at the opportunity

For those of you unfamiliar with Fat Chance, you’d be hard pressed to throw a rock into the showroom at NAHBS without hitting a bike whose lineage can’t be traced back to Fat Chance. Chris Chance and his newly born-again Fat City Cycles brand are hailed by many as not only responsible for some of the best riding, and most desirable vintage mountain and road bikes, but have directly or indirectly inspired dozens of others to start out on their own, many of who still churn out some of the best bikes in the world. As kid I wasn't a huge fan of Fat, chalk it up to the fact that they were not very common in central PA or that they didn't have a huge presence in the then burgeoning racing scene. Either way I didn't have a chance to experience them in my formative years and so the bikes don't resonate as much with me today. That being said I've come to appreciate the craftsmanship and the point of view that Chris brought to the scene with his brand and how it served as a counterpoint to the then dominating NorCal way of doing things.

With models like the Wicked, Yo Eddy, Slim Chance or Fuckn Fat Chance, and a myriad of vibrant paint jobs featuring wild geometric patterns and multi color transitions, Fat Chance was not your average bike manufacturer. Though committed to quality and performance the brand was always out on the fringe of the fledgling sport of mountain biking and did their best to stave off the mainstream trends.

The Yo Eddy and Wicked are perhaps the best known Fats these days and collectors often times have multiples of each bike in various paint schemes, just because you know… why not? However, if you want one of the coolest and rarest Fats, look no further than the Team Comp. Made only for a short time in the mid to late 80s and in small quantities the TC stands out among an already pretty sweet lineup. Probably best described as a cross between a Wicked and Yo Eddy the TC was Fat Chance’s top of the line race bike prior to introducing the Yo Eddy.  The frame borrowed the Wicked’s geometry (71/72 angles, 17 1/8” stays) but used Tange Prestige tubing on the main triangle and fork vs the True Temper 4130 chromoly on the Wicked. This particular frame has the optional roller cam mounts and GP Wilson forged dropouts on both the frame and the optional box crown fork.

I just love this derailleur. Seriously, if I could find one and some cranks I'd run them on my Wicked in a heartbeat... just about the damn coolest derailleur ever made!

I have yet to actually get this bike dirty, but I've heard it is a lively ride with a fair bit of compliance. I plan to pull of the NOS Ground Controls soon and get it out on some local trails soon, so check back for that ride review. The thing that I want to talk about right now is the drivetrain. There isn’t a rarer or more odd set of components than Mavic’s short lived Dakar off road group. Most know Mavic for their rims, wheels or hubs but very few people know that they made drivetrain components.

At best these parts had the same success in the mountain bike market as Renault did in the US automotive market, ok maybe not that bad. Their main claim to fame was getting spec’d onto Greg Lemond’s mountain bikes in the early 90s. I’ve always liked Mavic hubs and bottom brackets, they had some of the smoothest and reliable sealed bearings available back then. The headsets were nice as you could in theory tighten them on the trail with just an allen wrench, which was a nice feature. The main marketing angle for their components was the fully serviceable design. Mavic had always done this on their road bike components and I guess they had hoped that this would play well in the rugged and dirty world of mountain biking. Another interesting part was the virtually infinitely adjustable, under bar wishbone shifters. You could adjust the location and range of motion of the paddles to suit your specific needs. In practice this was actually quite difficult to setup and not so much a feature. Mavic never offered brakes or levers (cassette hubs and cassettes did come out later) so this bike has Shimano brake levers and WTB roller cam brakes. In the end these parts proved too heavy and couldn’t compete with Shimano and Suntour in terms of performance and usability. After maybe two years Mavic dropped the drivetrain and focused on rims and wheels, probably for the best.

Unlike similar options from Stronglight which used needle bearings Mavic used traditional ball bearings housed in plastic races. Though not as smooth as their hubs or bottom brackets the Mavic headsets were known to be reliable, and quite striking to behold.

Mavic cranks were made out of forged Aluminum and boasted one of the lowest Q factors on the market. Aside from the Lemond bikes there were notably featured (alung with Mavic hubs and BB) on the eclectic Bridgestone MB-Zip, the brainchild of Rivendell's Grant Petersen.

The Fat Chance box crown fork is one of the more classic designs from the 80s. Though not known for their strength and reliability they were touted as having a very pleasant ride and are sure easy on the eyes, especially when combined with a WTB roller cam!

The cockpit on this particular bike features a Salsa Moto stem and an early Fat Chance Titanium handlebar. Unlike today's bar which have smooth, crease free bends these early bars are quite rough in their execution.

The Mavic front derailleur came in one size only and used a series of shims to accommodate smaller seat tube diameters. God help you if you lose those shims...

Although this particular bike has a integrated bottom bracket Mavic did make their own unit which was equal in quality to the hubs. Most notably their design accommodated bikes with stripped out BB shells as it would slide in and was secured with threaded on external shells. This required that the edges of the BB shell get chamfered to ensure a proper fit, a small price to pay to keep a bike out of the scrap pile.

Bikes like this Team Comp may not have been ground breaking or innovative in any particular way but it perfectly summarizes what’s so great about this era. Builders and manufacturers pushing forward with materials, construction, geometry and components, in some cases resulting in a winning mix and other times in historical footnotes. I’d like to think this bike is more than a footnote, but rather an entertaining chapter.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Ultimate vintage MTB shootout Part 3: Conclusion

I've been stalling writing this post for a few weeks now. Sure, I've been busy with other stuff, had other deadlines... but in reality I've been trying to find a way to avoid making any conclusions, because in the end these are all bikes I've come to really appreciate and I don't want to say I don't like a bike that pretty much everyone I know who has one raves about and most other people are trying to find one. But before I get to that, indulge me in a little walk down memory lane and a recap of the final standings on my little short course.

I wrapped up my planned set of rides back in early May and on each of the second rides I really tried to make mental notes on how I felt on the bikes so as to come away with more than just raw data. I quickly realized that numbers alone only paint a small sliver of the overall picture and that I'd need something else to backup the conclusion that was rapidly forming in the back of my mind. I rode the bikes in reverse order of how I started, so as to try and normalize improving fitness and trail familiarity to as much of a degree as possible, and so I ended up riding the  Cunningham virtually back to back. I should point out that in the midst of doing this story I started working on another article where I was had my first exposure to modern bikes. My first couple back to back rides on the Marin and ultimately Pivot came around the mid point of this shootout, just as I got to the Cunningham. If you've not ridden a vintage, or even just an innertube equipped bike in a while you're probably not going to get this. But going from a bike with 2.2" tires running at 33-34 psi and then getting on one with 2.6" tires at 22-24 psi is quite revolutionary. However, going back in the other direction can be quite life threatening. Unfortunately I found this out the hard way when I washed out the front wheel on the Cunningham thinking I had a lot more traction than I actually did. That little wipeout kind of shook me and so the first ride out, while good on paper left me thinking the Cunningham wasn't all I remembered it to be. One other thing that I noticed with these three bikes is how easy it was to switch between any of them and the Pivot (which I ended up riding more). Unlike some other bikes in my fleet, like the Merlin and Kleins the WTB bikes never felt awkward or all that antiquated and the general riding position was quite similar to the Pivot. Something to be said about how advanced that geometry was back in its day.

As I said in the earlier parts of this series I've owned the Cunningham the longest (3 years for this one), followed by the Ti Phoenix (2 years) and only just got the steel Phoenix earlier this year. While you might think that this time unfairly skews the review in favor of the first two bikes, I don't think so. I still vividly remember my first ride on the Cunningham and how, well, perfectly suited for me it felt. It was just right from the get go and I never really felt like I had to get used to it,Unlike the previously too large for me Kirby Cunningham or the Potts CCR this bike did it all and did it deftly and without hesitation. The Ti Phoenix felt pretty much the same, but where the Cunningham brought with it a sense of gravity and consequence, the Phoenix was just sheer, unadulterated fun. The bike was just a riot to ride and I felt like I could just push it harder across all terrain. Chock it up to the fork I guess. Well, the steel Phoenix was just sort of in the middle of that. It's a great bike, make no mistake, and while it doesn't have any shortcomings compared to most other bikes in this company it didn't really make a standout impression. It lacks the Cunningham's refinement and isn't as much fun as the its Titanium brother. When I first got on it I loved it, and in a way I wish I hadn't decided to pit it against these other two bikes as in their company it's character is really tested, and in my opinion falls a bit short.

As a quick reminder, this particular steel Phoenix is allegedly a lightweight prototype made of True Temper tubing back in the days when WTB was using Ritchey tubing. I haven't been able to confirm this with any great degree of certainty but based on some background history and a few conversation I've had with the old time WTB crowd the story seems plausible. With that in mind the following conclusion may make more sense. The best way I can describe this bike is that unlike the other two when I push it to my ten tenths I get out of control quicker. It's too whippy, the rear wheel has a hard time holding traction under braking, it gets jostled easier in crud and in rocky terrain. In general it felt a bit harsher than the Cunningham which is a pretty stiff bike. I recall getting a tingling sense in my hands much quicker on the longer descents. As expected the bike was great on climbs and in general it's a solid performer, but just not exceptional, at least in this company. With that I place it squarely in third place.

Now things get difficult. These next two bikes are the ones in my small stable that are virtually always dirty. They're the two that get used the most and are without a doubt my favorite. As far as I'm concerned that's saying a lot. Though I don't have the collection I used to and it's far smaller than some people I know I've whittled it down based on bikes I like to ride. A few notable cuts include a Fat Chance Yo Eddy, Yeti FRO, Merlin XLM, Potts CCR and a Klein Adroit, that gives you a sense of the company these bikes keep. I place these two in the company of bikes like the Bradbury Manitou, Mantis Valkyrie and the Yeti ARC, which are some of my earlier bikes and among my all time favorites for some time now. Another notable mention is my 88 Merlin, but lately it has been feeling a bit antiquated and has not been getting a lot of use. Recently I've been riding my Grove Hard Core a lot and that bike is quickly creeping up in the top tier list, as it is perfectly suited to my local trails and a lot of fun. I tend to prefer bikes with more aggressive geometry and ones that feel quite stiff and planted. I am not a huge fan of thin tubed steel, relaxed geometry designs or bikes that favor lightness above all else. With all that in mind it should come as no surprise that the Cunningham and Phoenix line are up at the top of a very short list.

Let's start with the Cunningham. I feel that if I were fortunate to have Charlie build a bike for me back in 1992, this is essentially the bike I would have gotten. Maybe the stem would have been a touch shorter and a couple degrees steeper, but other than that it fits me perfectly. That there is a huge stroke of luck in an of itself. Beyond that though the bike can be best described as an extension of my body while out on the trail. It's effortless to maneuver around the most technical sections, it's predictable and stable at speed, it's planted on the steepest and loosest of climbs and the design has just enough compliance to make it comfortable on epic days. I've done five to six mile, three thousand foot climbs on it and descended thirteen miles of rocky single track on it and always enjoyed that. That being said, it's a fully rigid vintage bike, and as such is punishing. In comparison to other Aluminum bikes of the era it is a surprisingly more forgiving, but in the end I wouldn't exactly call it compliant. Lastly, it's the kind of bike that for better or worse, everytime you ride it feels like a special occasion. It's a masterpiece to behold and is more, much much more than the sum of its parts. This bike has loads of character and you just can't help but appreciate that. Now, none of that warm fuzzy stuff directly translates to speed or ability to smash through a gnarly section of east coast roots and rocks. This is where, in the world of vintage mountain bikes a bike like the Ti Phoenix distinguishes itself.

The Ti Phoenix takes all of the Cunningham's best traits and executes them in what I consider to be a superior form factor and augments it with some advanced kit in the form of better gearing and suspension. Right from the get go this was a bike that I just wanted more and more of. It never had the special "je ne sais quoi" that the Cuningham did and in general it felt more like a production bike but that didn't stop me from having the most fun on it I had on any of my bikes. While the Rock Shox Judy isn't a standout among suspension forks, the combination of a compliant frame and the fork made for a bike that was not only fun on all of the trails I would typically ride, but more importantly made trails I would avoid on my other bikes because they were too gnarly completely doable and down right a blast. Now, I'm sure some of you are saying if you want suspension get a modern bike, this is really a stupid comparison. I see that point and agree that I'm crossing over some significant boundaries here and am possibly squarely in apple and orange territory. I would say this though, aside from the Judy fork these bike are built with virtually the same period correct kit, and aside from the XC-PRO MD gearing and rapid fire shifters the two bikes have more or less the same. I've tried to imagine the Phoenix with a Type 2 fork on, and can't deny that swapping that in would wipe a bit of that smile off of my face, but I'm not sure all of it.

So, what does it all boil down to? Both are amazing examples of golden age mountain bikes and both still hold up today. If these were girlfriends the Cunningham would be the one that always has your back and you take home to meet the parents while the Phoenix would be the wild one one that you'd take on an all night bender to that crazy club you heard about. The bikes really do have different personalities, the Cunningham is rugged yet sophisticated and makes you want to explore while the Phoenix is aggressive and technical and encourages you to ride fast and push the envelope. I think in the end the Cunningham is the bike I will grow old with, but for now I believe, nay hope I still have a few wild nights left in me and so the Phoenix is the bike I chose to have fun with while I still can.

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.