Photos: John Watson
The WTB Phoenix is widely considered among the best hardtail mountain bikes made. Launched in 1992 in limited quantities, each frame was handmade by Steve Potts. The design and geometry represented the collective experience of Charlie Cunningham, Steve Potts and Mark Slate — the WTB founders. During the nearly 10 year production run, the frame design received tweaks, notably a suspension corrected option, but remained substantially similar.
This bike is deeply connected to mountain bike history. All three members of the design team have been inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, as has the bikes original owner, Jacquie Phelan.
While the bike’s name was inspired by the Phoenix Lake Loop in Fairfax, California, the older mythological inspiration is also apt. The phoenix was a bird that cyclically regenerates, that is, it would be consumed by flames and that be reborn from its ashes. This bike embodies that cycle of regeneration as it relates to the bicycle world - in general and in the specific case of WTB.
The bike was originally painted iridescent white with pearl sheen. As an early Phoenix it was not suspension corrected and came with the Steve Potts Type II fork. At that time, Jacquie was sponsored by Rock Shox, and her contract stipulated that she use their product at least 80% of the time. Soon after taking delivery of her Phoenix, but before replacing the fork with her sponsored Rock Shox, she was featured in Outside Magazine for a feature story about her work creating WOMBATS - a woman-centric mountain bike group and community. Unfortunately, when Paul Turner saw all that magazine coverage not showcasing his fork, Jacquie’s sponsorship disappeared.
Jacquie soon had the bike repainted Pepto-pink and mainly used it as a beater. She certainly never raced it in those years.
In 2002, the cycle of the phoenix was ravaging the world of mountain bikes. The pressures of turning garage-scale operations into scalable global businesses were ravaging the many small-scale US mountain bike companies. It was a time of consolidation and shutdown. WTB was not to be spared.
The original partnership that founded WTB dissolved in 2002 with Charlie Cunningham (Jacquie’s husband) and Steve Potts leaving the company they had founded. The details of the break-up have never been made public but it was rumored to have been acrimonious. The scars of the split are visible on this Phoenix where all WTB branding has been redacted with paint and tape. Across the industry local craftsman-made products were giving way to the scale and cost pressures of overseas production. The phoenix cycle.
2002 was also the year that Jacquie reconnected with racing - a phoenix rebirth. Now, to be clear, Jacquie never retired from racing. When anyone asks her about retirement, she insists that, if invited, she’d gladly race anywhere in the world. So, when the Single Speed World Championship (SSWC) was held in Downieville, CA, racing returned to Jacquie’s life.
While she didn’t race that year, a pair of Scotsmen, who had traveled the US to race, connected with Jacquie and Charlie while in California. They stayed in contact with Jacquie and a few years later let her know that the SSWC would be back in the United States for 2005. Jacquie was enthusiastic to join them, this time as a participant. She borrowed a bike from Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Cycles (himself an early member of the off-road single speed racing community) and she was hooked.
Unlike other disciplines, the SSWC has sought to maintain an outlaw, non-corporate atmosphere. The first “official” SSWC was held in 1999 and around 260 riders showed up. Winners at the SSWC don’t get to wear the rainbow bands as the SSWC is not sanctioned by any governing body. They are however required to get a tattoo memorializing their achievement.
After her initiation in 2005, Jacquie worked to ensure she could join and compete in as many of the SSWC as she could. Jacquie’s beater Phoenix was to become her SSWC race machine. Charlie Cunningham went end to end on the bike, seeking to optimize it as a single-speed racing bike for Jacquie. To minimize the Q-factor he shaved the backs of the crank arms to allow the shortest possible bottom bracket spindle. He worked with Jacquie to get her gear ratio and chainline just right to ensure a smooth and efficient drivetrain. The Phoenix frame provided the perfect bones for this rebirth.
Jacquie famously rode the Pepto Phoenix at the 2008 SSWC in Napa. She jealously sought to protect the continued innocence of the SSWC by advocating against big companies being involved - and in particular confirming that there wouldn’t be a WTB tent. Further, pursuant to her cycling philosophy which she calls her ‘velosofy,’ she chose to wear a Harris tweed men’s jacket, a tie from 1975, Oxford button-down shirt, vest, and trousers. The message was to beware the suits who are coming for us!
As a postscript — the event provided an opportunity for Charlie to re-connect with building frames. After the races, the crowd was silenced and asked who completed the race on the oldest bike. It turns out that it was Jacquie’ 1993 Phoenix! As a prize, Jacquie received a coupon for a custom built singlespeed bike by Mike DeSalvo. Charlie was eager to learn more about 29ers and asked Mike DeSalvo if he could design the frame himself. DeSalvo graciously agreed and before long Jacquie was in possession of a truly beautiful moss-green steel machine. This bike inspired Charlie into building a run of Cunninghams in 2011, nearly 20 years after his last run of bikes.
Frame: TIG-welded Custom Ritchey Logic Prestige Chromoly
Fork: Steve Potts Type II
Stem: Charlie Cunningham Gooseneck
Handlebars: Charlie Cunningham bent Cinelli
Grips: Grab-On under tape
Headset: WTB Chris King
Front Derailleur: N/A
Rear Derailleur: N/A
Brake Levers: Dia Compe Red Dot Cunningham modified with Charlie Cunningham inline barrel adjusters
Front Brake: WTB Rollercam with Charlie Cunningham modifications
Rear Brake: WTB Rollercam with Charlie Cunningham modifications
Crankset: XC Pro MD with Charlie Cunningham Modifications
Bottom Bracket: Press fit with Grease Guard
Rear Tire: WTB Velociraptor
Front Tire: WTB Velociraptor
Wheelset: Ritchey Vantage Comp rims with WTB Grease Guard Hubs and Charlie Cunningham Slo Releases
Seatpost: Charlie Cunningham Fixed Angle Seatpost (FASP)
Saddle: WTB SST
Cogs: White Industry
Seat Quick Release: Charlie Cunningham
Pedals: XTR SPD
Bottle Cage: WTB Blackburn B-52