Monday, November 12, 2018

1987 Steve Potts Deluxe

Unless you've been living in an ice cave or under a rock there is a very good chance that if you're into mountain bikes you've heard of Steve Potts. Steve is among the few of the early mountain bike pioneers who never stopped building and will still deliver you an amazing mountain bike to this day. This 1987 Deluxe is an amazing example of Steve's fillet brazing and one of the nicer fades I've seen on his bikes. All in all it's a really sublime bike with flowing and graceful lines, a true work of art that looks equally good in a gallery and on the trail, as long as it's a mellow trail!

The matching Potts stem is one of the nicest steel stems ever made. These stems fit over a brazed on stub on the fork steerer so the end result is sort of a hybrid threaded / threadless setup.

One of the cooler pieces on this bike is the Fixed Angle Seat Post (FASP) which was a custom option on WTB related bikes. Commonly found on Cunninghams it's a far less common sight on other bikes as it was custom made for each frame to match it's geometry exactly, as you couldn't adjust the angle of the seat once it was made.

A fillet brazed Type 2 forks fitted with a WTB Speedmaster Roller Cam brake rounds out the front end.

I really love this paintjob, it reminds me of classic American cars with the long, drawn out pool cue style fade. The choice of white, blue and gray gives the effect a degree of subtlety while still really standing out.

For some reason the combination of the slim tubing, narrow tires and lack of a seat stay mounted brake doesn't really look good on this bike. Maybe it's the extra large frame that results in the extra length of seat stays above the tire line, but it's just a bit drawn out for my taste.

Wide spacing with a huge bail out rear gear. Good odds the freewheel was custom built to achieve the spread, especially given the attention to detail on the rest of the build and the shop that originally sold the bike.

This bike has stays for days!

The detail of the fillet brazed Type 2 crown is really amazing, really one of the nicest fork designs ever made. Not the lightest, especially in full bling mode, but it simply oozes style.

I find it sort of funny that a bike with so much attention to detail just runs the cables directly over the BB shell. I never really understood this. Not only does it result in excess friction but every shift and brake actuation wears away at the frame. At least CC added a plate to his bikes...

Now, where can I find some 30 year old electrical tape to seal up that grease port???

In the end bikes like these are just a bit too elegant for my taste. I love looking at them, studying the details, and I suppose it would be fun to ride on a smooth fire road on a cool crisp fall day wearing old hiking boots, jeans, flannel shirt and a bandana. However once the looking and admiring is done my cup runs fulls. If I can't find constant joy in exploring a new trail or just having fun ride without worrying about damaging the bike then my interest is diminished. That being said this is a refined bike for a connoisseur to appreciate and take out on nice, leisurely days to hang out at a get together and discuss with other like minded folks, which is something I just don't do that often.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

1996 Merlin XLM

I fell in love with Titanium when I got my first Merlin, coincidentally that's also when I fell in love with Merlins. My first Merlin is an 88/89 and though not the earliest Ti bike it's hardly the pinnacle of sophistication as far material and frame design. By the time the mid 90s rolled around Titanium had been fully embraced by the bicycle manufacturers with no fewer than 15 offering Titanium models. In response to the increased adoption of Titanium alloys by the bicycle industry the metal manufacturers began offering custom drawn tubing to meet the individual demands of the manufacturers. Merlin being the first adopter and one of the largest builder of Titanium bikes was definitely pushing the envelope of ultra light frame construction.

The XLM (Extralite Mountain) was first introduced in 1995 and was meant to be the most advanced and lightweight Titanium mountain bike Merlin could make. As such the tubing was custom drawn and unlike other Merlin models is double butted on most sections. Merlin first introduced the ultralight concept with the Extralight road bike in 1993 and transferred their experience from building ultra light yet stiff frames to mountain bikes. The result was a sub 3 pound rocket ship designed to work with the latest mountain bike suspension forks and components on the market.

I set out to build this as an aggressive XC bike and wanted it to be something I could ride and be about as modern as a vintage MTB could be. With that in mind I decided to try a somewhat more modern suspension fork over the recommended Judy (more on that later) and breaking with tradition opted for Shimano's M950 grouppo. While I didn't intentionally set out to make an ultra light bike, I ended up using an all Titanium cockpit with Seven Cycles stem and bar and a Syncros Ti post. With all that thrown together the XLM tips the scales at 21.38 lbs with modern 2.25 tires to boot. In comparison, my rigid 1988 Merlin is around 24.7lbs and the 97 Titanium Phoenix with a Judy SL is around 24.2 lbs.

Though not really period correct the Seven Cycles bar and stem work really well and from a lineage perspective are well suited for a Merlin. An Ibis Titanium bar and stem would be more appropriate but I wanted to get this thing built and ridden and wasn't too concerned about making a 100% period correct bike. Given I'm not too inclined to build very colorful bikes and prefer a clean and subtle build most of my Titanium bikes end up looking rather stark. I find that a little dab of color is often needed and like to use different color headset caps, here I ended up going with blue after trying out green and mango. It's not much, but just a little pop of color to offset the otherwise spartan build.

While I am of the opinion that arrival of the M950 grouppo heralded the end of the vintage mountain bike era I must admit that it was some really good kit. Even by modern standards, at least to the limited extent I have experience with actual modern stuff the M950 group stacks pretty well, brakes aside obviously.

I absolutely love Shimano's M900 XTR group, I run it on most of my personal bikes and have always felt it was a remarkable product. I have to admit that Shimano crushed it with the M950 and the overall performance is far better. Shifting is crisp, precise and by comparison effortless. With M900 and most of the groups before it you really had to plan your shifts a few moments early, with M950 that's mostly gone. You can have virtually any gear on demand anytime. While still relatively easy to find today, I predict that in a few years time M950 will be highly sought after and aside from just normal attrition will become as scarce and expensive as M900 is today.

I mentioned the brakes earlier, and of course while not nearly as good as modern disc brakes the introduction of V brakes, which again were a first with the M950 group really drove the nail into the coffin of many of the cottage industry brands making fancy cantilever brakes. I should point out that linear pull brakes had been around for a long time before Shimano made the V brakes, but none were executed as well from a setup and usability perspective as the M950 XTR Vees. I will point out that the pads were a weak point and were loud and chattery. One of the first things I did was change them out for Kool Stops which further improved the performance of these otherwise great brakes. Love it or hate it, the carbon booster is period correct and functional. The XLM is not the flexiest frame, but with the booster in place the rear brakes feel very solid and responsive.

I really like the detail of the seat post collar. The whole design is quite functional and clean. Obviously the larger diameter seat tube would have necessitated a larger diameter seat post, which while increasingly common by the mid 90s was still not as easy to source as a 27.2. So Merlin added an insert to the seat tube effectively shimming it down to 27.2 and then wrapped in a custom seat collar that evenly distributed the clamping force over a larger area. Nicely done boys!

I love the sculpted cable stop for the front derailleur, it's about as minimalist as you can get and a testament to both the craftsmanship and dedication to weight savings Merlin poured into the XLM. All of the stops on this frame seem smaller than other frames, at least the frames I have seen.

Though not rare, the classic 5 bolt spider was a less common option for the new M950 group which was I believe the first to introduce the 4x100 BCD standard which is still dominant today.

It's really amazing to see how far Merlin and the Titanium suppliers progressed in a relatively short amount of time. At the onset of the Titanium bike tubing was so simple, sizes were limited and the builders were still learning how to work with it. Therefore the designs were simple, if not crude. Most notable was the rear triangle. The early bikes had a very simple form enabling the stays to route from the seat tube / bottom bracket to the rear dropouts. Little allowance was given for tire clearance and the end result was not as stiff as it could have been. Fast forward a few years and the rear triangle is a compound shape made of double butted tubing with multiple bends and curves resulting in a beautiful and functional design enabling the use of larger tires and a very laterally stiff yet still compliant rear end.

Not exactly sure why Merlin decided to add rack mounts to this frame, maybe the dropouts were common with the other bikes or maybe they considered that hole added weight savings.

So, what the verdict??? Well, the ride is pretty good. The bike is light, responsive and very predictable. Now, you take any older bike and put on a relatively modern fork and modern large volume tires on it and it's immediately transformed. So, it's hard to say what is really in play here but while going out on some of my favorite local trails the Merlin felt at home in most terrains. Despite its relatively large size the handling is quick and the bike feels agile. Being taller I often opt for a larger sized frame (20" in classic terms) and I feel like often times those larger frames feel a bit sluggish and are not easy to throw around by adjusting my CG, this is less of an issue here. I was trying to think back to my days on Newsboy and see how the XLM compared to it. I remember being wholly unimpressed with the Newsboy, and aside from a sort of unremarkable feel I remember thinking it was a bit of a gate in anything technical (both were 20.5" frames). So, there's that. In terms of comparisons I feel that the XLM is really most like my 94 Klein Adroit. Now, while the Adroit is rigid both bikes are very light and made of just about the thinnest, largest diameter tubing available. In my opinion while that makes the for the lightest and stiffest bike possible, it really makes the bike feel kind of dead or well, hollow. I found that it was sort of bouncy and unlike say the Cunningham or Ti Phoenix it got perturbed rather easily. All that means is that I can't lose sight of my line or track, especially when going through technical sections. This is further exaggerated by fatigue, especially on longer rides and result in a loss of confidence or more frequent offs. The other issue I have, and this is less the bike rather than my build decision is the way it feels with the 80mm SID. The XLM was designed around a Rock Shox Judy and the frame was corrected to support a fork of that travel range. As I mentioned I went with an 80mm SID thinking it should be ok, but that 17mm ended up making more of an impact than I imagined. So, while I appreciate it on technical flat and downhill sections, steep and punchy climbs cause the front wheel to lift and clearing obstacles is also more challenging than on some of my other bikes. In the end I'd probably chose to go back to a Judy or try to limit the travel on the SID and drop the front end down a little bit.

I'll try to get a couple more rides in on this bike this season, but I can't really see keeping it long term. The Ti Phoenix while a couple pounds heavier and running less advanced drivetrain is just a ton more fun than this bike. I can't imagine that swapping in a lower travel fork on the XLM will all of a sudden bridge that gap. So, for now as far as thinning the heard is concerned this bike is a goner!