Saturday, January 26, 2019

1987/88 Merlin Titanium w/ dirtdrops

I've been a big fan of Merlins for a while now and have settled around late 80s, early 90s evolution as the ideal mix of refined construction, classic style and off road handling characteristics. That being said, the earlier bikes are somewhat more unique and interesting. There are fewer of the early frames around and so getting a hold of one is a bit more challenging, relatively speaking. I've wanted to build one for a while, but am not really willing to pony up for one given I don't think it would be different enough or better than my 1989 Merlin. As luck would it have it a friend of mine wanted to do a Merlin build around this frame using another Merlin as a parts donor bike and asked me to do the restoration, works for me!

At first glance it's pretty hard to tell the different evolutions of these bikes apart. A closer look reveals a few details. Probably the most obvious thing is the weld quality. Merlins are historically known for their flawless welds, which is definitely true for the later bikes. Well, those welders had to learn and it seems obvious that the learning came over the course of building many hundreds of bikes, like this one. This is frame #190, placing it somewhere in 87/88 and representing something like the 3rd iteration of the design. The welds here are chunky and rough compared to my bike (#1849) but much nicer than some of the earlier one like #50 and #80, so clear signs of improvement.

Unlike some of the previous iterations this frame no longer uses swaged head tubes and bottom brackets shells, it seems that Merlin was able to get larger diameter tubing suitable for those applications. A few other minor details include one piece cable guides routing all cables on the down tube and a seat stay mounted roller cam brake. Apart from that you have to really be anal retentive to notice little details like the slightly abrupt end of the seat tube and stick on one piece decals rather than transfer style decals used on later frames.

The build is a nice a mix of Wilderness Trail bikes and Shimano XT with a Steve Potts LD stem supporting WTB/Specialized RM-2 dirt drop bars. The fork is a bit of a mystery. It looks like someone just sort of made it. The dropouts are welded into the open ends of the blades without any sort of caps or ends, the welds are rough and the general finish looks rattle can.

The WTB fixed angle seat post is one of the more unique features of this bike and remains the elusive missing piece for my personal Merlin. Sadly these are hard to find in general, and most of the ones I've seen have been rather short.

Man I want that post, only in black!

I have yet to build a personal dirt drop mountain bike and this Merlin is certainly a tease, it's a shame it's a bit too small for me as I'd love to give it a try on the trails.

Clean and simple XT, in my humble opinion there is nothing better on a Merlin.

I've discussed this before in other Merlin writeups, but here it is again. The 30mm Merlin BB shell is the Achilles heel of this frame design. Not only does it make for a flexy junction, but it relies on relatively small bearings which wear quickly. They addressed this later on by integrating WTB's grease guard system, but it was still suboptimal in my opinion.

It should come as no surprise that a dirt drop Merlin would come from PCC. The original bike didn't have all of the WTB equipment aside from the rear brake, but it provided a great foundation for the final build.

I mentioned the seat tube finish earlier. What I'm primarily referring to is the sharp cut on the top and the slightly longer length above the top tube. Later bikes had a bevel on the outside of the end and the stub above the top tube was shorter. The seat binder was also a bit more refined knocking down some of the sharp edges seen on this frame.

Nothing better than a Potts made LD stem if you want to run dirt drops. When it comes to vintage bikes involving these sort of builds it's really tough to cut corners. In this case all the parts sort of fell together and everything more or less worked right off the bat. The only thing I left alone was the 8-spd rear shifter. The previous owner had upgraded the bike over the years including a modern 8-spd drivetrain including the barcons. Rather than swapping them out, I chose to put them into friction mode and all is well.

All in all this bike holds a certain allure for me. Quantitatively I know it won't be better than my Merlin, it won't be lighter or faster or any of those things and yet it's more unique and quirky which keeps me thinking it would be cool to have one. This is the slippery slope many collectors face and eventually have to reconcile. Sure, with enough money and space you can have one of each iteration or color or whatever, but personally I struggle justifying allocating my limited relatively limited resources to pursue collecting subtle variations of each make and model. I suppose my goal is to identify the bikes I like and and then find the best possible version of each one and then hang onto that bike! All the better if along the way I get to check out the competition on someone else's dime!!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

1989 Bradbury Manitou

I've gone on a bit of a Manitou bender in recent months finishing four of these amazing bikes. It still just boggles my mind how long I searched and waited to get my first Manitou only to now have four sitting here all built up. It's really funny how things work out.

The particular frame in this post (first on the left) came from Doug Bradbury and was one of the frames sitting around his garage after he moved to Crested Butte. The frame is what I'd call and early-mid version of Doug's evolution featuring horizontal rear entry drop outs, box section chainstays, large gussets, externally butted down tube, pressed in bottom bracket and a necked down seat tube. Though Manitous famously lack serial numbers those design details combined with a few date verified entries in the build log book place this bike squarely in 1989. Below are a few photos of the frame as I got it from Doug, as you can see it was in pretty rough shape with a lot of oxidization all over the frame. Another notable 'feature' of this frame is the sleeve on the seat tube. As Doug was experimenting with larger diameter tubing for his bikes he wanted ran into a lack of oversize seat posts. This mandated that the upper portion of the seat tube used small diameter tubing and there had to be a transition between the large and small tubing sections (as seen on another Manitou here). Initially the junction was down low on the seat tube and over time moved up until sometime in late 89, early 90 the entire length of the seat tube was 1 3/8 with only a small section above the seat tube necked down. This design proved to be problematic and of the three frames like this I've had all three were cracked at the junction. This particular frame must cracked a long time ago as Doug did the repair himself with a a large sleeve over the junction and the sleeve had about as much patina as the rest of the frame. This leads me to believe that the frame got a lot of use after the repair and so the quality of the repair is pretty good.

Heavy levels of oxidation and wear were all over the frame, but particularly bad on the BB junction. This early frame used box section tubing over the entire length of chainstay unlike the later bikes which used 1/4" plates at the BB junction. I've always liked this design for the amount of work it must have taken to build. The later design was simpler to manufacture and offered more tire clearance, but I feel this version is a bit cooler and more desirable.

The pressed in bottom bracket on this frame is also a short lived feature of early Manitous. As Doug started experimenting with wide hubs (think boost) he needed a longer bottom bracket shell and spindle to accommodate the chain line. Nobody made wide bottom brackets suitable for mountain bikes at that time so Doug did what many other builders did back then and used pressed in bearings and and a long (145mm) tandem bottom bracket spindle. Some of his early bikes even utilized grease guard style bearings, like the ones used on Cunningham and Potts bikes of the era.

The restoration of the frame involved mutliple levels of both mechanical and manual sanding and polishing over many many hours, but in the end I think the results speak for themselves.

I initially built this bike with a rigid fork, but kind of liked the look of the first generation Bradbury fork and happened to have a clean example with wide spacing which I think looks great on this frame. As I mentioned earlier when I got the frame from Doug is bare, without any parts. I was lucky enough to get a cache of old wheels and hubs from Doug but only a few complete stems which I have long since used up. Given I had a few more frames to complete I decided to make some replica stems and that's what you can see on this bike. The stem is virtually identical to the originals made by Doug and I kept the cable guide allowing me to use either a rigid or suspension fork.

While the fork was in great cosmetic condition the elastomers had long since given up the ghost. I rebuild them using new elastomers from which work nicely and are the only way to revive these iconic forks. I really like these forks, they don't do much for big bumps and they don't offer a lot of rebound but they just make things fun. In my opinion they look cool, much better than an RS-1 and they are very reliable. So, while it's undeniable that an RS-1 was a more complicated and probably high performance fork, I for one have never been impressed with one and they were rather unreliable often times blowing seals on long rides leaving you with a sloppy sack of oil for a front fork. That being said, I kind of feel like I should at some point do another RS-1 build, too bad I sold all my forks.

The front hub on this bike measures 115mm and was custom made by Doug. There were several variants of these hubs over the years. Early on Doug modified hi-e hubs with wider center bodies and longer spindles. Later on he started making his own hubs modeled after Bullseyes, again with wider centers and longer spindles. This enabled him to build stronger wheels to the point that a 28h front wheel was effectively as strong as a 32h or even 36h version.

Having just recently completed the gray 1990 DBM with front and rear IRD Switchback brakes I feel like I could throw and IRD brake on the front here, but I'm not sure it would be right on an 89, I think those came out a bit later. Still, the XT brakes while very functional lack a little bit of wow factor leaving some opportunity for future upgrades. I only had some Grafton brakes around and given the U-Brake on the rear I'd have to break up a pair of them and I just didn't want to do that.

The drivetrain is very basic 18 speed Shimano M730 XT, with Dia Compe brake levers which Doug seemed to like given how many pairs he had lying around and on bikes. The only thing I've been considering changing are the cranks as or maybe just swapping the chainrings for black ones, bike needs a bit more contrast, too much silver.

I was just thinking that in reality I don't actually know if the frame is cracked under this sleeve, for all I know Doug did it as a preventative measure. Probably not, but still a fun thought exercise. Time to hunt for a boroscope.

The rear IRD progressive brake features a custom made stiffener brace made by Doug for his bikes.

Rear hub is also a custom made boosted take on a classic Bullseye design. Measuring at 145mm the rear wheel was effectively dishless, again making for a stronger and stiffer platform. One of the traits DBMs have on the trail is what I affectionately dub their crudbuster capability. Much like a nice pair of fat skis busting through some crud a Manitou is rarely perturbed by trail conditions. A lot of this sort of thing comes down to rider skills, but normalizing around my riding style I've come away appreciating the Manitou's prowess and removing rather than adding risk attributed to technical trail riding from the equation. It probably boils down to knowing that if I point the bike there through that patch of rocks I'll come out the other side pointing the same direction rather than getting knocked off course or having to manage the traverse however brief it may be. Just my $0.02...

Th photo above and below show my favorite bit on this bike. I can still vividly remember the layers of oxidation I had to remove and the polishing approach that cleaned the tubes while trying to preserve the details of the welds... This was quite a challenge but it feels great to have the frame look this good in the end.

This little cable run is just fun, I don't know I love these little not well thought out add ons on these bikes. The cable routing on the early Manitous is all over the place, however by mid 1990 Doug had moved pretty much everything to the top tube and thee housing runs were cleaner and more direct.

I'm sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but these bikes just look the part of a race bike. In the end that's kind of what I love most about this era of mountain bikes. If it looks fast standing still it's likely to be fun off road and nothing rings truer here. This bike, with its giant repair and all is still so freaking amazing. Take one part rugged trials bike, tack on some forward thinking technology and wrap it in a handmade package and you have what in my mind represents the reason why I am so passionate about vintage mountain bikes. No fancy paintjobs, no crazy loud anodized parts just subtle performance for people who want to ride and explore. Period, end of story.

Friday, January 18, 2019

1983 Mantis XCR

We've all had those projects that take a long time to finally track down or proverbially 'land', or ones that sit there languishing for ages while you find that missing piece or maybe there is a major repair that takes a while to complete to your degree of satisfaction. Well, for me this Mantis was all those rolled into one hot mess. I was looking back at the date on the original photos I had of this bike and was shocked to see they were from March of 2013. Then I remember that getting the bike took a while and a quick search of my emails revealed that Richard Cunningham first emailed me about the bike back in the summer of 2012. Had I known what I would be getting into with that bike when I first got it, and that I'd find two others in much better shape I may have passed on it. But now seeing it all done and looking amazing, I'm kinda glad I stuck with it. After all it adversity builds character or something...

The bike had an interesting history. As I mentioned it was RC who scored me the lead. The current owner said he purchased the bike from the original owner a long time ago, perhaps in the late 80s. At the time the bike had been painted in a wild neon multicolored tape peel style paint job, the remnants of which were still present on the fork steerer when I got it. He rode the bike for a while until it was apparently stolen as retribution for some sort of drug deal or something like that. Fast forward a few year and the guy was visiting some of his old, ummmm.... friends? in Mexico and saw the bike there and apparently stole it back. He then stripped the cool old paint and painted it Chevy engine blue to hide the brand and details. I don't know how much of that story to believe but it sounded interesting at the time. He held onto the bike for a few more years replacing worn parts and making some questionable upgrades, but at some point the bike went into storage and sat around for a few years. When he decided to sell it he reached out to RC looking for some guidance on value and RC sent him in my direction. After a few months of negotiation we agreed on a price and I took it home. At the time it was the first fillet brazed XCR to surface and so naturally I was quite happy, that is until I started digging into it a bit.

I'll spare you guys some of the technical details as I've discussed them before in the post for another XCR I restored a few years back, so feel free to check that post here. I have since found a good scan of the original XCR one page flyer and have included it in this post in case anyone wants a bit more info on the bike. I'll try to focus this post more on the actual restoration of the bike and some pics of the finished product.

Here are a few pics of how I originally found the bike. As you can see not only is the bike in rough shape with damage to the seat binder but also a majority of the parts are missing. Luckily the fork was there, though it was not without issues. More on that later.

I saw the damage to the QR binder right away but it was just the tip of the iceberg. Further inspection revealed small cracks in the seat tube and some buried damage in the seat cluster. In addition the rear brake cable routing was converted from full length housing to a more modern cable stop design.

I'm not sure why someone would try to cut off the QR, perhaps the original assembly that was housed inside the binder and was somewhat unique to this frame was missing and someone assumed they had to remove the binder and get a collar. In the end it seems that they opted to install a traditional QR instead. None of that mattered as the seatpost used was undersized and so the whole area was pretty rough and it was immediately obvious a new binder assembly would be needed.

Being that RC got me into this mess I reached out and asked if he'd come over and check it out and maybe help me with some repairs. A short while later he paid a visit and we chatted all things Mantis, which was pretty cool. Side note, among all the people responsible for the early days of mountain biking RC is a class act. Talking to him is never feels like one sided conversation where either I ask a lot of questions or he waxes on poetic about the impact he made to this and that. It always pleasant and informative without being overbearing or holier than thou. Anyways, moving on. RC agreed to repair the frame and I sent it to him a few months later. Well, as things go RC moved from LA to SD and didn't have easy access to his airplane shop and wasn't really able to make any progress on the frame, damn! Prior to sending the frame to RC I reached to Ken Beach (henceforth refereed to as KB) to make a new seat binder assembly. KB did a killer job on that even providing a Suntour QR cam fully assembled into the new binder, which was actually a left over original Mantis inventory.

In case you haven't heard of him, KB was the founder of Gecko cycles and got his start at Mantis and had a few spare parts from those early days. He put together a new binder bolt which I had provided to RC along with the frame. RC recommended I reach out to KB about the repair saying that he would probably do an even better job.

Ken didn't disappoint, the finished product speaks for itself though. Although I only snapped pics of the seat cluster repair, he also properly repaired a previously damaged rear brake post and reinstalled the proper cable guides for the rear brake. In addition I managed to talk him into making some replica stems, bars and another fork for some other projects I had in work. Naturally while looking over the original fork from this frame (frame and fork have matching serial numbers naturally) he found a crack and ended up needing to replace one of the blades.

The stems with triangular face plates were the original Mantis design and were later replaced by the more traditional clamp style with fillet brazing at the clamp. The early style stems called the S-1 were painted silver while the later stems were chromed. The bars are straight gauge 6061T6 Aluminum with 0.120 wall thickness and Ken made some perfect full length replicas in a couple of bend options.

The remaining parts were the custom seatpost, modified Campagnolo cranks and Campagnolo quick release adapted to work in the seat binder bolt. I managed to find an authentic mantis post (check pic in the final gallery below) so luckily I didn't need a replica post for this XCR. KB provided a Suntour lever which worked perfectly, but all the wheel QRs would be Campy and so like the original equipement I wanted a matching Campy QR for the seat post. Getting that done actually required sacrificing parts from three complete QR / binder bolt assemblies. The QR arm from a wheel QR, the larger diameter rod from a Suntour seat QR and the female end of a campagnolo seat binder bolt, plus a spring from a Shimano XT seat QR.

The cranks are normal Campy Record road cranks with a 130mm BCD which RC had originally modified to accept a 74mm BCD granny gear. I found a couple sets of cranks and had them polished and reanodized and then with some big help from Tashi over at the Vintage Mountain Bike Workshop had the drive side arm match drilled to accept a granny gear. Fun fact, the bolts used to mount the granny gear are the male half of a Sugino seat binder bolt. Campy made actual adapters like these but they were very expensive back then, and silly money now. So, both RC and I opted for the budget version.

After assembling these I realized that RC seemed to have actually used Campy track cranks and not doubles, so I shaved off the inner chainring stops and added a countersink for the chainring bolt to prevent anything from snagging the chain while shifting. In the one of these cranksets took probably 15 hours of work to complete, small price to pay for perfection. Each crank would be mounted with a Campy alloy bolt and covered with a Campy cap.

Once all of the parts were made and the frame repairs were complete all that remained to get the decals and get the frame, fork and stem painted. For this project I decided to go with the legendary Joe Bell and unlike all the other XCRs I've seen which were painted red we decided on a custom metallic baby blue. I think the end result speaks for itself...

The drivetrain on this bike is comprised of Suntour Mountech derailleurs, Phil Wood hubs with a 6-spd Shimano 600EX freewheel and Suntour power shifters. The front gear chainrings are 28/42 and the rear spread is 13/34, making for a fairly usable 2x drivetrain, that is if you're fit.

The raised fillets are a trademark of these early Mantis bikes, they are very distinct and unlike any mountain bike of the time.

The headset is a Specialized alloy which was one of the nicer mountain bike headsets on the market in those days and a great alternative to using road headsets.

Tell me that's not one of the sexiest fork dropouts you've ever seen. 

Here's a good shot of the Mantis seat post. Because long seat posts were not common back in the early days of mountain biking many builders resorted to making their own. In this case RC made a custom Aluminum shaft and then cut off the head off of a Shimano DX BMX seatpost (which back then were cheap and plentiful) and pressed it into the shaft and then swaged the shaft down to secure the head in place. The seat is a Selle San Marco Anatomica and I managed to find on in Hungary, thanks eBay!

The seat cluster is easily my favorite part of this bike. Not only does it function really well with easy open/close action the final integration looks amazing, nearly organic. 

Once again, I am simply floored at the work KB did on this bike. I've had a couple other early Mantis frames in the shop since this bike and you can't tell that this frame was repaired. It's really great to have access to all these great craftsmen who not only were there originally but are still involved in the industry and willing to lend their skills to keep these machines alive!

Brakes are refinished Shimano M700 Deerhead units which fully refinished right down to the toe adjusters! Tires are IRC X1 in 1.75 width, which match the sport demeanor of a race bike.

From what I heard from ex Mantis racers and riders these bi-plane forks were not the strongest, but they sure look amazing.

One last little tid bit and one of the more challenging parts to find for this bike were the Durex Ambrosio rims. These were some of the earliest purpose built lightweight mountain bike rims and were specified on only a few high end bikes. While light and fairly durable the rim walls were not rolled and so tire beads would easily pop out of the rims, or so I've been told.

I really can't believe that this bike is finally done. Looking at it sitting here I can't help but feel a strong sense of both relief that it actually came together but also accomplishment that I managed to get it together despite all the frame issues and the seemingly never ending hunts for the rare and obscure parts needed to complete the build. With any luck I'm hoping to get this bike a spot at the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Fairfax, which I think would be a fitting end for a rare and beautiful machine like this one.