Monday, June 24, 2019

Ultimate vintage MTB shootout Part 3: Conclusion

I've been stalling writing this post for a few weeks now. Sure, I've been busy with other stuff, had other deadlines... but in reality I've been trying to find a way to avoid making any conclusions, because in the end these are all bikes I've come to really appreciate and I don't want to say I don't like a bike that pretty much everyone I know who has one raves about and most other people are trying to find one. But before I get to that, indulge me in a little walk down memory lane and a recap of the final standings on my little short course.

I wrapped up my planned set of rides back in early May and on each of the second rides I really tried to make mental notes on how I felt on the bikes so as to come away with more than just raw data. I quickly realized that numbers alone only paint a small sliver of the overall picture and that I'd need something else to backup the conclusion that was rapidly forming in the back of my mind. I rode the bikes in reverse order of how I started, so as to try and normalize improving fitness and trail familiarity to as much of a degree as possible, and so I ended up riding the  Cunningham virtually back to back. I should point out that in the midst of doing this story I started working on another article where I was had my first exposure to modern bikes. My first couple back to back rides on the Marin and ultimately Pivot came around the mid point of this shootout, just as I got to the Cunningham. If you've not ridden a vintage, or even just an innertube equipped bike in a while you're probably not going to get this. But going from a bike with 2.2" tires running at 33-34 psi and then getting on one with 2.6" tires at 22-24 psi is quite revolutionary. However, going back in the other direction can be quite life threatening. Unfortunately I found this out the hard way when I washed out the front wheel on the Cunningham thinking I had a lot more traction than I actually did. That little wipeout kind of shook me and so the first ride out, while good on paper left me thinking the Cunningham wasn't all I remembered it to be. One other thing that I noticed with these three bikes is how easy it was to switch between any of them and the Pivot (which I ended up riding more). Unlike some other bikes in my fleet, like the Merlin and Kleins the WTB bikes never felt awkward or all that antiquated and the general riding position was quite similar to the Pivot. Something to be said about how advanced that geometry was back in its day.

As I said in the earlier parts of this series I've owned the Cunningham the longest (3 years for this one), followed by the Ti Phoenix (2 years) and only just got the steel Phoenix earlier this year. While you might think that this time unfairly skews the review in favor of the first two bikes, I don't think so. I still vividly remember my first ride on the Cunningham and how, well, perfectly suited for me it felt. It was just right from the get go and I never really felt like I had to get used to it,Unlike the previously too large for me Kirby Cunningham or the Potts CCR this bike did it all and did it deftly and without hesitation. The Ti Phoenix felt pretty much the same, but where the Cunningham brought with it a sense of gravity and consequence, the Phoenix was just sheer, unadulterated fun. The bike was just a riot to ride and I felt like I could just push it harder across all terrain. Chock it up to the fork I guess. Well, the steel Phoenix was just sort of in the middle of that. It's a great bike, make no mistake, and while it doesn't have any shortcomings compared to most other bikes in this company it didn't really make a standout impression. It lacks the Cunningham's refinement and isn't as much fun as the its Titanium brother. When I first got on it I loved it, and in a way I wish I hadn't decided to pit it against these other two bikes as in their company it's character is really tested, and in my opinion falls a bit short.

As a quick reminder, this particular steel Phoenix is allegedly a lightweight prototype made of True Temper tubing back in the days when WTB was using Ritchey tubing. I haven't been able to confirm this with any great degree of certainty but based on some background history and a few conversation I've had with the old time WTB crowd the story seems plausible. With that in mind the following conclusion may make more sense. The best way I can describe this bike is that unlike the other two when I push it to my ten tenths I get out of control quicker. It's too whippy, the rear wheel has a hard time holding traction under braking, it gets jostled easier in crud and in rocky terrain. In general it felt a bit harsher than the Cunningham which is a pretty stiff bike. I recall getting a tingling sense in my hands much quicker on the longer descents. As expected the bike was great on climbs and in general it's a solid performer, but just not exceptional, at least in this company. With that I place it squarely in third place.

Now things get difficult. These next two bikes are the ones in my small stable that are virtually always dirty. They're the two that get used the most and are without a doubt my favorite. As far as I'm concerned that's saying a lot. Though I don't have the collection I used to and it's far smaller than some people I know I've whittled it down based on bikes I like to ride. A few notable cuts include a Fat Chance Yo Eddy, Yeti FRO, Merlin XLM, Potts CCR and a Klein Adroit, that gives you a sense of the company these bikes keep. I place these two in the company of bikes like the Bradbury Manitou, Mantis Valkyrie and the Yeti ARC, which are some of my earlier bikes and among my all time favorites for some time now. Another notable mention is my 88 Merlin, but lately it has been feeling a bit antiquated and has not been getting a lot of use. Recently I've been riding my Grove Hard Core a lot and that bike is quickly creeping up in the top tier list, as it is perfectly suited to my local trails and a lot of fun. I tend to prefer bikes with more aggressive geometry and ones that feel quite stiff and planted. I am not a huge fan of thin tubed steel, relaxed geometry designs or bikes that favor lightness above all else. With all that in mind it should come as no surprise that the Cunningham and Phoenix line are up at the top of a very short list.

Let's start with the Cunningham. I feel that if I were fortunate to have Charlie build a bike for me back in 1992, this is essentially the bike I would have gotten. Maybe the stem would have been a touch shorter and a couple degrees steeper, but other than that it fits me perfectly. That there is a huge stroke of luck in an of itself. Beyond that though the bike can be best described as an extension of my body while out on the trail. It's effortless to maneuver around the most technical sections, it's predictable and stable at speed, it's planted on the steepest and loosest of climbs and the design has just enough compliance to make it comfortable on epic days. I've done five to six mile, three thousand foot climbs on it and descended thirteen miles of rocky single track on it and always enjoyed that. That being said, it's a fully rigid vintage bike, and as such is punishing. In comparison to other Aluminum bikes of the era it is a surprisingly more forgiving, but in the end I wouldn't exactly call it compliant. Lastly, it's the kind of bike that for better or worse, everytime you ride it feels like a special occasion. It's a masterpiece to behold and is more, much much more than the sum of its parts. This bike has loads of character and you just can't help but appreciate that. Now, none of that warm fuzzy stuff directly translates to speed or ability to smash through a gnarly section of east coast roots and rocks. This is where, in the world of vintage mountain bikes a bike like the Ti Phoenix distinguishes itself.

The Ti Phoenix takes all of the Cunningham's best traits and executes them in what I consider to be a superior form factor and augments it with some advanced kit in the form of better gearing and suspension. Right from the get go this was a bike that I just wanted more and more of. It never had the special "je ne sais quoi" that the Cuningham did and in general it felt more like a production bike but that didn't stop me from having the most fun on it I had on any of my bikes. While the Rock Shox Judy isn't a standout among suspension forks, the combination of a compliant frame and the fork made for a bike that was not only fun on all of the trails I would typically ride, but more importantly made trails I would avoid on my other bikes because they were too gnarly completely doable and down right a blast. Now, I'm sure some of you are saying if you want suspension get a modern bike, this is really a stupid comparison. I see that point and agree that I'm crossing over some significant boundaries here and am possibly squarely in apple and orange territory. I would say this though, aside from the Judy fork these bike are built with virtually the same period correct kit, and aside from the XC-PRO MD gearing and rapid fire shifters the two bikes have more or less the same. I've tried to imagine the Phoenix with a Type 2 fork on, and can't deny that swapping that in would wipe a bit of that smile off of my face, but I'm not sure all of it.

So, what does it all boil down to? Both are amazing examples of golden age mountain bikes and both still hold up today. If these were girlfriends the Cunningham would be the one that always has your back and you take home to meet the parents while the Phoenix would be the wild one one that you'd take on an all night bender to that crazy club you heard about. The bikes really do have different personalities, the Cunningham is rugged yet sophisticated and makes you want to explore while the Phoenix is aggressive and technical and encourages you to ride fast and push the envelope. I think in the end the Cunningham is the bike I will grow old with, but for now I believe, nay hope I still have a few wild nights left in me and so the Phoenix is the bike I chose to have fun with while I still can.


  1. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the proportions on the Cunningham are just sublime.

  2. Thank you for that extraordinary comparison. I love to read your storys.
    Greets from, bavaria, germany. Marcus

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