Friday, January 4, 2019

1994 WTB Phoenix SE

It's strange, I feel like I've known this bike for a long time and at the same time it feels completely foreign to me. Allow me to elaborate. The WTB Phoenix was designed to essentially be a poor man's Cunningham made in slightly higher volumes and more broadly available. While it's far from a common bike these days, they can still be found with relative ease, at least when compared to a Cunningham. Being fortunate enough to own a Cunningham and a Titanium Phoenix I feel like I should have a good sense of what to expect from this bike, and yet I'm feeling unsure. I've wanted a steel Phoenix for some time and I've seen very few in my size and even fewer available for sale. So when an opportunity came up to trade a Manitou for this bike I jumped on it and started what would become a two year restoration.

Being a relative newcomer to the Marin MTB culture I am far from an expert on these bikes, but I'll do my best to describe the Phoenix, its background, production characteristics and variations and hopefully some nice knowledgeable people will politely chime in and offer corrections. A bit of history then. Everyone knows the story of WTB. Charlie, Steve and Mark got their start in the early 80s making mountain bike components and in many ways revolutionized the mountain bike industry with their innovations. Steve and Charlie continued to make bikes on their own throughout that time with Steve building to this day, but for the first decade of WTB's existence they didn't make a bike. Then in 1992 they released the Phoenix. A limited production, hand-made steel frame based on the design of the Cunningham racer but executed using oversize Ritchey Logic Prestige tubing and welded by none other than Steve Potts.

The initial bikes were offered with 1" head tubes, standard 135mm rear spacing, were not corrected for suspension and could be ordered with mounts for regular brakes or as an SE model could have mounts for roller cam brakes (seat stay or chainstay). The fork was a Potts Type 2 and would match the brake choice on the frame. These earliest Phoenix SEs are now the most sought out by collectors. Later on as suspension started catching on you could get a regular or SE version of the frame with geometry corrected for a suspension fork. Over time the headtube was increased to 1 1/8", rear spacing boosted to 140mm and suspension corrected frames became the norm. This particular bike is a 1994 SE model (serial 94305) and was originally built around a suspension fork and therefore has the corrected geometry.

However this is no ordinary Phoenix. It was previously a part of the MOMBAT collection (see archived link here) and Jeff obtained it from a former WTB employee. The story goes that this was a prototype or development frame made from lighter tubing (perhaps True Temper) and featured some unique design features and component selections. While there really is no way to prove this story one way or another, here are a few things to consider. While WTB started with Ritchey tubing in 1991, according to their literature by 1995 they had moved to True Temper. So, the idea that sometime prior to 1994 they would begin experimenting with True Temper tubing seems to make sense. I also recall reading that Charlie's own Phoenix was made with True Temper, so perhaps this was something they were messing around with and made available internally. Second, aside from Charlie's own Phoenix and my Titanium prototype I've not seen another one with a Cunningham/Potts style pressed in bottom bracket. As far as I can tell all of the Phoenix frame had a threaded BB shell and I've not been able to find any documentation that would indicate it was an option.

The rest of the frame is pretty standard and from a few feet away you couldn't tell the difference between another one. Then there is the matter of the components. The most striking and unique bit is the front Saber Cam version of the SpeedMaster brake. WTB wanted to adapt the roller cam brake to work with suspension and they experimented with a couple designs including the Lever Link (which you can see on my Ti Phoenix here) and the Saber Cam. I'll get into this brake more later, but suffice it to say it was a flawed design and was never offered for sale to the public. The rest of the components are more or less standard WTB fare, except some have unique colors which weren't standard or common. The grips are clear which was an an option you could get, but very rare. The front hub is an odd off-white anodize which wasn't common, silver and black were. The rear brake and hub are a version of gunmetal but are much more blueish in hue than other gunmetal parts I've seen. This could easily have been a trial batch or perhaps just a weird artifact of aging. The rear brake also has extra holes for pulley and post mounting, further evidence of experimentation which is on the one hand was not uncommon in general in those days, but also something you'd expect to see on a factory/employee test bike. I think that about covers it. For this build I tried to preserve the original part selection with the exception of the Judy fork which I swapped in favor of a suspension corrected Type 2 fork and new WTB grips as the old clear ones were rather worn. I kept the Saber Cam brake for photos but after a few spins around the block decided that it will go in favor of a Toggle Cam. On to the photos!!

The WTB Edge

As was the custom in those early days (and remains now) many bike manufacturers were vertically integrated and provided their own brand of components to outfit their bikes. While the same is true here, WTB started the other way around making components first and then created a bike on which to hang all those bespoke components on. In fact the only non WTB made or designed components on this bike are the Shimano XTR drivetrain and Salsa QRs. Literally everything else on this bike has either a WTB stamp or was designed by one of its founders.

The fork is a Potts Type 2 which was made specifically recently by Steve for this project. Following some good advice I asked Steve to use some NOS Shimano Dura Ace dropouts instead of the modern PMW units he uses for his current builds. This made the fork look and feel much more like the proper vintage one and doesn't stand out as a newly made fork might on an older bike.

I decided to repaint the bike as the old paint job had some significant corrosion and spidering underneath as well as some serious wear. For this purpose I decided to send the bike back to Rick at D&D who originally painted the bike and he was able to replicate the same exact color. So, while it's not the original paint, it's the same paint done by the same guy. For the fork I decided to add some flair and go two tone. Unlike a Potts LE of the time the Phoenix was seen as more of a workhorse bike and so the typical paint jobs were a single color, but I felt that a little flair here was ok. The fork has a longer A2C to account for the corrected fork geometry and Steve was able to get that done really well and extend the crown down a bit to ensure that the brake bosses sat safely on the reinforced part of the fork.

While I was originally going to start the bike with a dirt drop setup I was running into some issues adapting the M900 XTR STIs to the DKG designed Shiftease adapter plates and decided to punt on that setup for now in favor of the more classic WTB PowerBand stem and Titanium flat bar. I have a custom made and painted to match Potts LD stem with a WTB/Specialized RM2 bar and will eventually set that up to see how it performs off road.

This stem design is one of the more unique designs of the time and gets a lot of looks / comments. This particular stem is a steel version, but WTB did make a small number of Titanium stems. I would pay dearly for one of those!! I actually had to have replica bar clamps made for this stem as I got it with the original clamps missing. 

Rounding out the front end is a WTB / Chris King Grease Guard headset in very shiny silver. The bike originally came with a black WTB/CK which had a threadless top cap adapted to fit the old style cups. Given I wanted to use the PowerBeam stem I opted to have a threaded fork made and happened to have a nice silver WTB/CK stashed away which I think looks better than black on this frame.

The Phoenix was designed with massively sloping top tube and consequently required an extra long seatpost. In order to do that WTB had use a large diameter post which was not readily available back then. Their answer was to fabricate a whopping 31.8mm post by using the head off of a Suntour post pressed in and pinned into a custom shaft that is approximately 500mm long. A WTB Fixed Angle Seat Post would be cooler, but is impossible to find for all intents and purposes. 

The post is further adorned by the WTB / Specialized Team saddle with Titanium rails. WTB and Specialized had a close product development relationship and this collaboration extended to virtually all aspects of the Specialized catalog including this seat. WTB would eventually go on to manufacture their own line of seats including the wonderful SST, but for this project I decided to go with the co-branded Specialized model.

Moving on with the list of WTB components are the SpeedMaster brakes, with a Toggle Cam in the rear and the aforementioned Saber Cam up front. As I mentioned earlier I opted to stick with the original mismatched colors for the hubs and rear brake. On the off chance this irks me in the long run I built up a spare set of silver WTB Momentum hubs and have a spare WTB TC in silver to swap in for the rear. But, for now this setup is working for me and preserves the quirky nature of the bike.

The Toggle Cam is easily one of if not my absolute favorite rim brake. It feels more positive than the Roller Cam, isn't as prone to dirt and grit mucking up the rollers and offers easy adjustability for pad wear without having to mess with the cable. Getting the cable routing on the Phoenix just right takes a bit of work, in fact after I took these photos I fiddled with it some more and ended up moving the cable to the top of the cam plate and dialed in the brake lever micro adjustment screws to take up some of the slack on the rear brake cable. The lever feel and pad engagement feels spot on and I can't wait to try it on the trails!

The Saber Cam is another story though. While it's neat to have every type of SpeedMaster brake in my lineup I don't see this thing really working out. The flaw with this design is that the cable pull on the brake arm and the action of the cam are opposing each other. So, as you apply the brake it actually pulls the arm away from the rim until the cam engages and pushes it back. This hardly seems efficient and while the brakes do work, I don't really feel like messing with the system in practice. The actual Saber Cam on this bike looks like it was some sort of prototype, either that or heavily modified from its original form. The arms also look unfinished or something as they lack the smoothness of production units. The brake feel is fine and if you didn't look closely at the way it operates you might assume it's all well and good, but unfortunately I feel like this particular concept is best placed in the cabinet of curiosities or used as a conversation starter.

Rounding out the complement of WTB components are the New Paradigm hubs laced to Power Beam rims and clad with Specialized Ground Control Extreme tires in a whopping 2.5". The Phoenix along with the some of the later Cunninghams were all designed to fit these new large volume tires. For whatever reason removing these on my Cunningham is fairly trivial whereas here it's quite a chore. This Phoenix has standard 135mm rear spacing, but by 1995 WTB adapted the Charlie Cunningham 140mm spacing standard. It would have been neat if this frame had the wider rear spacing, but I'll have to make do with 135.

Gunmetal WTB components are some of the rarest out there and while gunmetal brakes and classic hubs can be found, I've yet to see another gunmetal New Paradigm rear hub.

Like I said the Shimano M900 drivetrain are the only non WTB related components. I originally wanted to do a Suntour XC-Pro build but given the New Paradigm cassette hub and my desire to have a dirt drop option getting the Suntour kit to work well would have been a challenge and I'm a total sucker for M900 XTR. It's tried and true and as far as vintage MTB components go it's the best stuff out there. Suntour would have been a bit more in keeping with a WTB inspired theme as the two companies collaborated a lot, but I just couldn't see an a way to have a very usable bike. Maybe if I ever find a way to modify a New Paradigm rear hub, or switch to classic with a Suntour freewheel I'll consider converting, but I doubt it.

All in all I think this bike came out really really great. There may be a few tweaks and some fiddling left to do to get it dialed in, and there is still the whole matter of the dirt drop cockpit but at this point all I need is a break in the weather and some time to hit the trails. I'm really looking forward to doing a ride review and am trying to keep my expectations in check, which is hard given all the hype about this bike and my experience with its kin. Stay tuned for an in depth ride review in the coming months!


  1. here's mine:

    1. That's very cool. I especially dig the stem, I've not seen one like that before

  2. I was wonderig if the metal cam followers a reproduction. Are the rear brake arms shorter than usual? Very cool bike.