Wednesday, September 12, 2018

1997 WTB Titanium Phoenix Prototype

If you've been following my posts over the past couple of years you've undoubtedly seen this bike make a couple appearances. This was one of the few bikes I owned where I skipped all of the fancy photo shoots with vintage tires and went straight for the dirt (see first post here). This was always going to be a rider, and while it's no slouch when it comes to rarity and cool factor, it doesn't necessarily wow at first glance. Now as I attempt to narrow my collection and spend more time  riding, I am making my way through my stable and making some hard decisions about what to keep and what to pass on. People collect bikes for a multitude of reasons, but at the top of my evaluation criteria is how a bike rides. I've had this bike for about 18 months now and have put significant miles on it and I've gotten to know it pretty well and feel that it's a good time to clean it up and give it a proper photo shoot and establish its place in the lineup.


In the way of background this bike is the prototype Titanium Phoenix built by Steve Potts for Mark Slate in or around 1997. The eventual Ti Phoenix came out officially in 1998 as a production model along the the steel Phoenix. Although not a mainstream bike by any means the original Phoenix was already regarded as an all around great bike and so the development of a Titanium variant seemed like a natural step to take. Because, you know... everything is better in Titanium!!



The seat tube cluster is another unique feature of this frame. The production Ti Phoenix had an oversize 1.5" seat tube which necessitated the use a bottom bracket mounted, e-type front derailleur. This particular frame, has a 1 3/8" seat tube which enables the use of a more traditional 34.9/35.0 clamp on front derailleur. To reinforce the seat tube at the seat cluster is reinforced with a thicker wall sleeve which is then welded to the rest of the seat tube, hence the visible bead just below the seat cluster.Rounding out the details on geometry, the bike sports a 71 degree head tube, 72 degree seat tube, 16.0" chainstays, 42.5" wheelbase, 2.8" of trail. This makes for a bike that is capable in tight and technical trail riding, stable on fast and sweeping fire roads and a very adapt climber.


Early builders of Titanium bikes suffered from a lack of material availability. By the mid 90s however Titanium was becoming more mainstream and a multiple manufacturers were supplying the industry with a greater diversity of tubing sizes as well offering to make custom tubing. This transition enabled companies to essentially build oversized tubing Titanium bikes, which in turn resulted in lighter and stiffer frames with a previously unattainable degree of performance. Unlike Merlin which had been building Titanium bikes since the mid 80s and was now exploring ultra light tubing, WTBs first and only foray into Ti focused more the overall result as a system rather than pushing the limits of any one design dimension. So, while my 21.5" Merlin XLM weighs in at around 22.4 lbs the 19.5" Ti Phoenix tips the scales at 25.8 lbs, with 0.6 lbs of that difference attributed to the frame. However, for whatever reason that weight completely disappears underneath you when riding the Phoenix and in some ways I feel like the weight may work for my riding style. What I mean is the XLM while super light, nimble and quick to accelerate feels like it bounces off of obstacles (see my Adroit review for a similar feel) and is easily thrown off course, while the Phoenix is very planted and sure footed. It has better traction, handles technical sections much better and never really feels heavy.


The custom, hooded dropouts are quite trick and work really well. I actually really like the way the stays are welded right to the dropout dome which I think creates a strong junction.


When you look at a Phoenix, either a steel or Ti one you get a sense of a minimalist design. Sure, a lot of design effort went into the bike, and the craftsmanship quality is excellent, but it looks spartan and bare next to many contemporary bikes. This design aesthetic reflects the overall style of WTB and its founders. Unlike the vast majority of the then flourishing mountain bike cottage industry WTB always created subtle yet effective products. They never bought into the anodize craze, never made white tires and aside from an occasional flashy paint job pretty much stuck to the basics; making good looking stuff that worked in the real world. This is perhaps why their bikes and components are among the most desirable vintage MTB gear out there.


The pressed in bottom bracket distinguishes this Phoenix from production bikes, but it's somewhat limiting in the way of drive train options. Luckily it came with a spindle length that supports running Suntour Micro Drive cranks which when coupled with an 8-spd 11-28 M737 rear cluster actually makes for a really usable gear combination. I've thought about going up to 32 rear cassette, but so far I've not felt like there was a situation where I couldn't push the granny.



The Ti Phoenix carries over the 140mm rear spacing which allows for a reduced dish wheel, making for a stronger and stiffer rear end. This feature was a carry over from Cunninghams and became standard on the steel Phoenix starting in 1996.


To accommodate the wide spacing a custom WTB New Paradigm rear hub with a wider axle was used. I've had to shim the hub to dial the play out of the axle, but aside from that it's working out pretty well. I feel like this hub is one of the weaker products to come out of WTB and if I weren't such a stickler for a correct build theme I'd swap it out for a Chris King in a heartbeat, who knows I may yet do it.



There weren't too many companies making oversized 31.8mm seatposts so since the introduction of the Phoenix in 1993 WTB made their own posts available. Essentially a Suntour XC/XC-Pro seatpost head cut off, sleeved, press fit into a custom made 1.25" Aluminum tube and pinned in place.



While not as fancy as the early hand made quill version of the Powerband stems the later threadless models were still pretty fetching.


Unlike the later versions of this stem which feature the cheaper looking, flat clamp bands this particular version has the machined, beveled clamps found on the quill stems. I've seen this on some of the earlier releases of this stem, but it's hard to say how long WTB sold them in this configuration. By 1997 both the quill and ahead version had the ugly flat clamps, and eventually they used a normal pinch bolt clamp like most other manufacturers.



Perhaps the crown jewel of this bike is the WTB Speedmaster Lever Link brake. This design marks the final evolution of the Speedmaster brake and while it's a bit finicky to setup it's such a great brake to use on the trail. The Lever Link (along with the Saber cam, which this particular brake once used as evidenced by the hole on the NDS arm) were WTBs answer for suspension forks which would not support the traditional Roller or Toggle cam versions. The designs were complicated and came a bit too late and never caught on. Consequently they are some of the rarest brakes ever made which is a shame as they really are pretty amazing!


The rear brake is a Toggle cam version of the Speedmaster and while the came had to be modified to support the cable routing the setup is fairly standard. The Toggle Cam or TC as it's commonly known is truly one of the best brakes on the market. The excellent lever feel, the ability to adjust brake reach for worn out pads and the solid


I had to adjust the shape of the cam plate, not the actual profile of the cam to ensure cable routing was smooth and linear.


One of the best rear ends in the business



I really can't stress enough how great this brake is. If you get a chance to ride a bike equipped with one do it. They are really one of my favorite brakes out there.


Ovalized chainstays are a cool feature, too bad tire clearance is tight and this 2.25 is about the largest tire the rear end can accommodate.


If this bike really is the prototype Ti Phoenix, it would also make it the first Titanium bike made by Steve Potts! That's a cool bit...


The lack of a serial number lends credibility to the prototype story.





As I said in the beginning, WTB took an awesome bike and made it amazing! The combination of Cunningham geometry, Titanium tubing and Speedmaster brakes results in a bike that is at home in virtually any terrain. I've ridden this bike on varied terrain on both coasts and through it all it's one of my favorite bikes. I've done long 9 mile 4000' climbs, I've descended on fast and technical terrain, conquered short, wet and punchy climbs and through it all the bike makes it all effortless. I've read a description of the Phoenix on someone else's blog (can't recall who) when I was first researching the bike and they said that "the wining quality of the Phoenix was that it appears to disappear beneath you"- I wish I'd come up with that, but it's completely true. Perhaps the only bike I like to ride more than this is my Cunningham. So, while the fact that this bike is a solid, no doubt, keeper it does set a very high bar for the steel Phoenix I'm building and frankly I'm not sure my stable has room for two. Perhaps a shootout between the two bikes will be a good way to settle it.

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