The full article: "Inside The Pro's Closet" can be found in the July 2017 edition of Road Bike Action Magazine
"Like a lot of riders who started in the early aughts, my first road bike was aluminum. A budget clunker that made a sort of dull, hollow “ting” like a soda can when you tapped on it. It dented about as easily as a soda can, and rode like one too. Though I’ve long since moved on from that bike, I still look back on it with ample fondness. For me, it represented a turning point. It was when I ceased to just be a person, and I became something greater: a cyclist. That bike helped me mold my sad, flabby body into something with purpose and drive. It took me on poorly planned backroad adventures that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It instilled in me an appreciation of the outdoors and the beauty of nature that I never imagined I would have. Without that cheap aluminum bike, I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I love.
Here within The Pro’s Closet museum I see plenty of stunning and fascinating bikes. But there is a small collection that always stood out to me because they seemed to lack any flash. A cluster of modest, raw aluminum frames adrift in a sea of steel. These are the Cunningham mountain bikes. Charlie Cunningham of Fairfax, California is one of the early mountain bike pioneers, a builder and inventor whose impact on cycling has been undeniably important, but who remains relatively unknown to the regular cycling community. His material of choice was aluminum. And they weren’t anything like my old aluminum junker. While everyone else was still building bikes north of 30lbs, he built sub-25lb mountain bikes that were strong and rode well. Many of his contributions to the evolution of cycling, like compact frame geometry and sloping top tubes, wider rear hub spacing with zero-dish rear wheels, narrower Q-factors, and even 1x drivetrains are found on modern bikes today. His development of welded and heat treated aluminum frames (along with contemporaries like Klein) helped prepare the market for larger brands like Cannondale to later bring aluminum to the forefront of cycling technology.
Of course, Cunningham didn’t just arrive at such innovations in a single build. It was the result of constant experimentation and tinkering, and countless successes and failures. This is perhaps why his custom Alan Competizione road bike is, to me, one of his most interesting pieces. He bought it before he began building his prototype mountain bikes and modified it extensively with many custom fabricated parts. It was the last in a series of road bikes Cunningham modified as part of a sort of informal education into the capabilities and limits of bikes and their components. It’s a weight weenie build to the highest degree, weighing in at a paltry 16.6 pounds with pedals. It’s a featherweight for the time and lighter than many modern mid-range carbon road bikes. Looking at the bike in all its raw, promethean glory you can’t help but see small pieces of brilliance that are the hallmark of Cunningham’s innovative spirit. It was the launch pad for Cuningham’s entry into frame building and more involved designs.
Alan Bicycles, an Italian company, was the first to bring an all aluminum frameset made from aerospace grade aluminum to the US. This 1974 Competizione is built using a method known as “screwed and glued,” which relied on mechanical joints instead of welds. These frames used straight-gauge aluminum tubes threaded into lugs and bonded with an epoxy. Looking at the rear triangle you can see that the seat stays, rear brake bridge, and the support bridge between the chainstays are all also joined to the frame with bolts rather than welded. Aluminum frames of this design are only marginally lighter than steel frames because the tube walls are still quite thick. Along with Vitus, who made similar frames, screwed and glued framesets like the Alan represented the prototypical aluminum bike of the 70s and 80s. Aluminum had yet to gain its 90s reputation for stiffness, and such frames were nearly as comfortable as steel frames and actually quite flexy, making them poor sprinters and scary descenders.
After purchasing the bike in the 70s, Cunningham slowly made modifications over the years to try and extract as much weight from the bike as possible. One of the most radical modifications was the removal of the front derailleur and small chainring. Cunningham was experimenting with a 1x drivetrain, a setup now ubiquitous in mountain biking and growing more popular in cyclocross and gravel riding. Cunningham was a skinny guy who liked to mash, but still, with a small five speed freewheel the gearing was likely fairly stiff for local California hills. He would continue to use 1x drivetrains in future mountain bike builds and actually custom fabricated wider range freewheels by mixing together cogs from various disassembled clusters. With clutched derailleurs and narrow-wide chainrings still several decades away, chain retention was managed by what he called the “re-railleur,” a simple chainguide made of bent titanium sheet metal attached where the front derailleur would be.
Titanium, aircraft grade aluminum, and magnesium are used extensively throughout the bike to shed as much weight as possible, and many parts were fabricated by Cunningham himself. The original Campy steel bottom bracket lockring is replaced with a custom round aluminum ring that required channel locks to screw on and the spindle is a custom titanium one. Much of the hardware on the drivetrain such as the chainring bolts and the bolts in the SunTour rear derailleur have been replaced with custom aircraft aluminum hardware. At the time Cunningham lived near an aircraft salvage yard where he would acquire materials and almost all the original steel hardware on the bike has been replaced with similar lightweight alternatives. He went so far as to grind down the excess material on the rear derailleur bolts and hollow out the pulley bolts to save a few extra grams.
The stem is an extremely exotic, custom made magnesium piece, as is the saddle rail clamp for the fixed angle seatpost. He would later continue to use this same fixed angle seatpost design on bikes he built himself. The headset is an extremely lightweight Nylfor Nylon headset. Because ball bearings tended to heavily pit the nylon cups after extended use, Cunningham made a custom magnesium lower cup for the headset to increase durability. The tolerances of the cup with the front brake are very close and it actually protrudes just enough that it prevents the front brake from being removed without dropping the fork out of the headtube.
The part of the build that probably stands out the most is Cunningham’s unconventional cabling. All of the cable housing is stripped of its rubber jacketing, and any traditional cable guide clamps are done away with entirely. The Campagnolo rear shifter is cleverly integrated into the end of the handlebar and the cable is routed to take the straightest and shortest path it can to the rear derailleur. The only cable guide is a simple tube of rolled sheet metal wired to the seat tube. Cunningham drilled into the lug at the top tube seat tube junction to use it as an integrated cable guide for the rear brake. Whether any of this extreme routing was beneficial to shifter or brake function is a bit questionable, but it’s indicative of Cunningham’s out of the box thinking and his near obsessive attention to detail in the pursuit of saving weight.
The wheels were both originally Hi-E hubs and rims (the rear rim has been replaced due to damage). They were handmade by Harlan Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee and like most Hi-E parts, were extremely light. Keen observers will note the lack of exposed spoke nipples, which are actually hidden inside the rim and require removal of the tubular tire to true the wheel. The ultra light aluminum skewers are a simple screw type with no cam and originally had a short rod on one of the heads for tightening and loosening. For a cleaner look, Cunningham removed this and instead hid a simple tool in the left barend designed to fit into the skewer.
His final bit of weight saving geekery involved replacing the steel rails of the Unicanitor saddle with custom made aluminum ones. These had to attached to the front of the saddle with a pair of set screws screwed into the shell of the saddle, with has no cover on the bare plastic shell. The bar tape is minimally applied and still original from when Cunningham owned the bike.
The pedals are Zeus Titanium pedals that Cunningham modified to suit his riding preferences. Because Cunningham didn’t ride with cleats he used additional aluminum sheet metal to create a smooth flat platform for his riding shoe to slide over. This platform also extended back behind the pedal to create an improved “toe-flip” to make getting into the pedals easier. To keep adequate power transfer and foot retention with this setup Cunningham added a second toe strap, held in position with aircraft safety wire. With the straps kept fairly tight, he would also apply graphite to the inside of the toe clip and straps to make entry easier.
The bike represented for Cunningham an experiment into how light a bicycle could be made with the technology of the time, while still being rideable. It helped him define what was potentially too light and influenced the design of the lightweight mountain bike frames he would later build. To avoid the strength and stiffness issues of these early generation of aluminum bikes, he chose to use oversized, thin-wall aluminum tubing that was welded and heat treated. He developed a great understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of aluminum compared to steel and titanium and mastered his process of holding and bending frames at a uniform low heat for long durations followed by a fast quench. This created lightweight frames that were straight and strong, which could spring back to their original shape after a large load or impact was applied. He understood early on the need for vertical compliance for comfort and lateral stiffness for efficiency and would tune for it with geometry. Without his pioneering work with aluminum, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have the exceptional riding modern aluminum frames we have today.
Cunningham sold the Alan Competizione in 1981 to help fund the purchase of a welder for a production run of his own frames. The bike was then lost to history for the next 30 years. It was uncovered again through a serendipitous Craigslist ad in the Bay Area. The original buyer of the bike was selling vintage cycling magazines and revealed that he also happened to have Cunningham’s old bike in his basement. It was purchased and meticulously restored by Vintage Mountain Bike Workshop (http://www.
Since the ‘74 Alan, Charlie Cunningham went on to successfully run Cunningham Bikes, and also co-found Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB). He is also an inductee in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. In the years after he left frame building and WTB, he’s continued inventing and working on environmental sustainability projects. Many of his bikes have stood the test of time exceptionally well, with many still in perfectly rideable condition. I adore every one of these bikes. There’s one hanging above the stairs in our warehouse. I look at it and sometimes wonder how he’s doing. Cunningham fell off his bike in 2015, sustaining severe injuries and head trauma. But he’s getting better, and his wife, fellow Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Jacquie Phelan, regularly provides updates on his recovery and rehabilitation on his GoFundMe page. It sounds like he’s been able to get on a bike, a tandem with Jacquie, but it’s still riding, which is good news.
In the end, his robust aluminum frames will probably outlast us all. And I hope his custom Alan stays next them. It’s a bike whose value is difficult to pin down. Because it’s not just an Alan, it’s something more. Though Cunningham didn’t build the frame, like an artist’s early sketches, it represents him and his progression as a builder. I feel I can look at this bike, and imagine the point where it all changed. In the same way I can look back at my first bike as a landmark in my life, this ‘74 Alan represents, for me, the moment Cunningham went from Charlie, the guy experimenting in his garage, to Charlie of Cunningham Bikes, the innovator. It’s where we see the exceptional talent and ingenuity inside him begin to really take shape in the form of components and design. The bike becomes a physical manifestation of the mind, one that helped move cycling technology forward, and ultimately changed it for the better." -Bruce Lin