Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thinning the herd and other long terms plans...

I'm almost ten years into my second foray of collecting and restoring vintage mountain bikes and have arrived at a point where I feel like even my modest collection is weighing heavily on my mind. Seeing the fallout of the MOMBAT collection liquidation, and feeling at times burdened with the constant maintenance and upkeep of twenty plus bikes, coupled with the cost of missed opportunities due to the financial investment I have in my collection, has given me pause and caused me to rethink my goals. When I started back into the vintage MTB scene in 2009 I cared much more about simply owning bikes than I did about riding them or documenting their history. Over the past few years though I've felt a shift in that focus and now I much more enjoy getting out and riding and simply just talking to people about them or more recently writing about them. Another factor was our move from SoCal to Maryland last year. In early 2017 I packed all of my bikes and due to multiple moves and a load of new life adventures fewer than a fourth of them have come out of their boxes in the last 16 months... that fact alone made me realize that some of them I don't really miss and could probably live without.

Over the past ten years I've owned some amazing bikes, some moved on but many of them are still with me. I've let go of some bikes that I would have put in the "I'll never sell this" category in the past. So, the idea of reducing the count even further is a hard pill to swallow, but I've come to realize that if I don't I risk the chance of falling out of love with bikes and I feel that at this point in my life it could be quite irreversible and very detrimental to my overall well being.

So, with that in mind I've decided to set some realistic and achievable goals for the 2018-2019 timeframe. I didn't think I could just drop it all, nor do I really want to, but a drastic cut is necessary. While this would be the first calculated and purposeful reduction, it's not the first in general. Getting ready to leave LA (and shortly after arriving in MD) prompted me to sell off a few bikes I wasn't really riding, or in one case that I had a better version of and that I felt would find better homes elsewhere. Among that list were a couple heavy hitters including, 1983 Mantis XCR, 1989 Yeti C-26, 1985 Yeti #1, 1990 Bradbury Manitou, 1986 Yeti FRO, 1989 Yeti Ultimate and a 1990 Fat Chance Yo Eddy.

After these cuts my personal collection numbers about 25 bikes and I've decided that a manageable goal should be 10 or fewer vintage mountain bikes by the end of 2019. With a list that includes a two WTB Phoenixes, a Cunningham, couple Kleins/Merlins/Manitous and a few others notable mentions cutting any single one feels like a daunting challenge. The fact remains that some of these bikes rarely get ridden and simply keeping them around to collect dust doesn't seem like the right approach from my perspective. So, I've set two goals for myself to try and get things under control. The first objective is to get down to ten or fewer personal bikes by the end of 2019. The second is to reduce and focus the work I undertake as Second Spin to five or fewer bikes a year and make sure that they are bikes that offer a unique experience from both the technical execution perspective of a restoration but also gain the opportunity to ride some unique bikes and explore the boundaries of technology in the early days of mountain biking. A third goal is to expand my involvement in the broader mountain bike community via engagements like my new column in Dirt Rag and a few other channels I've been working on including a brand new website aiming to document history of the bike brands I've grown to know and love over the past ten or so years.

In support of the first, and to be honest primary objective I plan on pushing forward to complete remaining personal projects, dust off a bikes I've owned for a while and which haven't seen much use and lastly update reviews on my favorite bikes and see where they all rank and stack. In the near term I'll be redoing photo shoots and ride reviews on a couple bikes which have been a staple of my riding fleet but maybe have received some upgrades or modifications and are due for a refresh or update.

Hopefully many of you will follow along (look for the #ThinningTheHerd hashtag) with me as I try to  manage this process and make some arguably difficult decisions. Personally I'm looking forward to a renewed focus, some introspection and hopefully a lot more free time to engage on new and interesting pursuits related to vintage mountain bikes and their history.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

1989 Grove Innovations Hard Core (#7)

I've been a fan of Grove Innovations since I first discovered mountain bikes back in the 80s.  They were never quite in reach when I wanted one, and by the time I could afford one they were no longer available. Living out west for the past 14 years I was lucky to come across a couple of Groves, but in the end there was only one that mattered, the Hard Core. I've written about my personal Hard Core before, but until recently I had relatively little understanding of its development history. I'm working on a more detailed writeup on that subject, but for now I just want to share this bike as it's one of the more rad Groves I've ever had the pleasure of working on.

Chief among the traits of the Grove brand are the outrageous paint jobs and this bike doesn't disappoint. With its five color neon fade with artfully applied splatter this is a head turner no matter which angle you approach it from. This particular Hard Core is the 7th one built (09/89) and still carries most of the traits of the original prototype. While it has the massive 2" down tube and the segmented fork it still uses a modified rear triangle from an Assault and a normal 12.7" bottom bracket height. The later Hard Cores eventually moved to a 13.5" high bottom bracket and had a unique rear triangles design and a larger down tube. In a way these early Hard Cores were a beefier, more aggressive Assault and not yet the rock garden crushing freeride machines they ultimately evolved into.

The sleeved seat tube cluster is a direct carry over from the Assault and was ultimately replaced with a larger seat tube for the main "production" run of the Hard Core.

I've said before to anyone who'll listed, but in my opinion the build construction on Groves is really amazing. Although the features can appear large and vulgar at a distance, if you look closely you can barely see any evidence of construction, it really does feel like the bikes were welded from the inside out. The subtle details such as the scallops on the fork dropouts or the brazing on the horizontal dropouts of frame are a testament to the skills possessed by the craftsmen who built these bikes.

I always thought the chain stays on this bike looked a bit spindly in contrast to the oversize main triangle, but they give the rear end a degree of compliance that enhances the ride. The rather stiff front end results in very precise steering and a imbues the rider with the confidence to approach most obstacles head on, while the inherent flex of the rear end balances things out and actually makes this a capable cross country bike.

This is one of the stiffest bottom bracket junctions in the industry, absolutely zero flex!

This is one of my favorite parts of the bike, mainly due to the color selection and the transition located right at the brake posts, but also the size and shape of the brake bridge and how it mirrors the chainstay bridge.

I haven't measured them in comparison to the later ones, but the Suntour dropouts on this bike appear thicker and chunkier than the ones used on my 91 HC. Also the brazing on the stays where they join the dropouts are a little less refined than on the later bikes.

This has to be one of my favorite grove paint jobs thus far. I could almost see some green worked in there, but as it stands the transitions are amazing and while it's a cliche it's just damn vibrant.

The only thing I don't like about this bike is its size. If it were only one size larger I would be tearing it up but sadly it's just too small for me. It does offer some excellent inspiration for a paint job for my Assault though. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Mantis Valkyrie EC

Love it or hate it, this frame has loads of character. It wasn't enough for Richard Cunningham and the crew at Mantis to create one of the more unique frame designs of the 80s with the X-frame, but they decided to up the ante by incorporating their elevated chainstay concept and create the Valkyrie.

The Valkyrie or the Valkyrie EC as some refer to it became on the of the more iconic mountain bikes concepts and essentially sparked the elevated chainstay revolution, however brief it may have ended up. The original X frame was first built in 1986/87 and as best as I can surmise 15 or so non-elevated frames were made. Richard put to torch to each one personally, and they were essentially his magnum opus. The elevated Valkyrie came out in 1989 and remained the only steel Mantis available until 1992-93 when Richard sold the company. Although I have not dug too deeply into the build quantiles of the elevated version it seems that many more were made, and I'd put forward a figure of 50 or so frames as a possible build total.

Before I get into it, here are some interesting figures you may want to think about before you really judge the bike. First, an average mountain bike is made of approximately 10 pieces of tubing (HT, ST, DT, TT, stays, BB shell and maybe a brake bridge) - the Valkyrie has 13 plus all the little braze ones. Then there are the sheer number of welded junctions at 28 (not counting the cable guides/stops and the compound joints in a few places) vs the normal 15 or so... all of this means that a lot of work went into this bike!!

I've been working on this bike since around 2014 when I bought the frame on eBay in a rather sorry state. Basically only the frame was salvageable as the rest of the components including key things like the stem and fork were not correct. I was able to source a fork by sacrificing a Mantis XCR which made do with a Rock Shox RS-1. I was lucky to find an original Mantis stem down the road and so the game was on.

For the build I decided to go with a mix of American Classic, Shimano XT and featuring Cook Bros cranks and Grafton Speed Controller brakes. I have never used AC components and have always liked their quality and aesthetics. I always thought that the later elevated Valkyries were ideal candidates for a high end build and so rather than go for the typical heavy on the anodizing Ringle/Grafton build I opted for a more subtle but still somewhat edgy build. About the only thing I didn't use from AC were their quick releases as they were mostly painted black and I was unable to find a nice enough pair that when stripped would polish up nicely. So, that remains as something to correct in the future.

There are so many details to talk about on this bike. Starting with the overall frame construction there are two things that I think people notice first. One is of course the elevated chainstay, which for many people today is quite unique. Those of use who were around in the late 80s and 90s instantly recognize it as a has been design trend, but still interesting. Personally I think the regular X-frame was perfect as it was and I feel that incorporating the EC design into it was the wrong decision. It makes the bike heavier, much much more flexy, prone to failure at the seat tube joint and lastly and maybe most on the nose for me it makes an otherwise gorgeous bike look like something from a sci-fi movie. It just looks a bit too edgy and I think that is in stark contrast to the quality of craftsman ship that went into making it. I don't know, it's just too much for me.

The second major talking point is of course the main triangle with its unique twin lateral cross members. The design concept here was to use smaller diameter and therefore lighter tubing and achieve the same or even greater level of overall frame strength. RC has said in the past that he got this idea after doing some frame strength testing for Gary Fisher and they ended up testing an old Schwinn frame and realized that it was incredibly strong compared to the light weight steel Fisher frames of the time.

This being a late product Valkyrie the ends of the laterals have smooth shaped ends as opposed to the the earlier scalloped ends featured on the early X's. Personally I prefer the older versions (see my old 87 X frame) but whichever one you like either design makes for a wonderfully intricate headtube junction with the downtube.

The Mantis stem is a beautiful design. The ovalized section of the stem creates a strong joint at the quill portion and the fillet brazed junction with the handlebar clamp puts just the right amount of flair in a highly visible and less stressing joint. I really enjoy the mix of TIG and FBd joints on this bike and the thought that went into the choice between outright strength and the aesthetics. The internal brake cable routing is clean and results in a fairly smooth cable action. Under most circumstances I feel that the later Mantis bikes are best served with an aftermarket stem as RC stopped making these stems around 88-89, but I also really like the way it looks on the bike and have seen original elevated Valkyries equipped with the stems so I feel it's the perfect choice for this bike.

A Little more detail of the handlebar clamp transition. The little ridge on the centerline is reminiscent of the filed ridge on the early fillet brazed XCRs.

RC has said before that he left most of his fillets un filed, however this bike shows very smooth welds all around. So, I'm not sure if he changed his tune in later years or if some other welders did the finishing work resulting in the smooth, flowing fillets found on this and some other later Valkyries.

The amount of little guides and cable routing tubes on this bike is borderline funny. In a way they are all interesting little touches that add character. Another way to look at them are fixes required to enable the crazy design of this frame to still support the basic functionality that enables this bike to actually be ridden.

I think it's interesting that RC put all this work into the welds on the frame only to leave the fork with the relatively rough by comparison TIG welds. He did comment that he used TIG welds where they were needed for strength which I recognize the fork crown requires, but he could have put a light fillet over them to let the fork at least match the frame for aesthetics.

The American Classic headset is one of the more unusual designs, echoing some of the early Mavic designs. The headset eschews classic headset wrenches and I must say is somewhat challenging to install if the threads aren't perfect. I still really dig it!

I haven't ridden this bike, but I'd imagine there to be a fair amount of compliance in the BB shell...

One of my favorite viewing angles on this bike (no pun intended)

Fun aside. The decals on this bike are actually chrome inlays that were laid down and painted over and then the masks removed. This specific material was originally used on Merckx frames.

I may be a bit hard on this bike, but it's a degree of criticism usually resulting from a deep appreciation that can only be achieved by investing several years into a project. The elevated chainstay Valkyrie is a close derivative of one of my all time favorite bikes (the X frame) and to top it off I have spent nearly four years restoring it and building it up resulting in very high expectations. For me the first innovation that resulted in the original X/Valkyrie was the one and I would have left it there. In my opinion that added not only character but was practical and resulted in a fabulous ride. The elevated chainstay modification adds pretty much nothing but complexity. I say this largely based on the learned complexity in building this bike and off of input of others who have some serious saddle time in one (ride review on the non elevated Valkyrie here). Though I have to admit I haven't known anyone who's had any significant hours on both, a testament to how rare these bikes are. 

So in the end I think this is a rad bike, a crazy outlandish design, executed with a high degree of craftsmanship and flair. It's a standout design that is sure to get attention anywhere it goes and if you don't demand the world from it can be a capable mountain bike.