Vintage Bicycles: 1983 Steve Potts MTB – What Are Dirt Drops?

Dirt drops are mentioned periodically here on The Radavist, usually in the context of a modern hardtail, rigid mountain bike, or adventure touring bike. But where did this terminology come from, and how are vintage dirt drops wildly different from what we have today? Using his 1983 Steve Potts as a platform for discussion, John unfurled the unique history behind this bike and looked at a proper 1980s dirt drop setup. Let’s check it out.

An Ergonomics Argument

In Mike Varley’s 1991 “Dropping In” article we posted yesterday, he argued that dirt drops offer superior handling and ergonomics off-road compared to flat bars. In short, when your hands are in a dirt drop, they are bent at 45º, versus 0º on a flat bar or 90º on road bike drops.

This 45º position tucks your elbows inward slightly from the flat bar position, putting less strain on your wrist, as your arms act as shock absorbers. Try this sitting at your desk right now by rotating your hands from flat to 45º to 90º and notice where you feel the strain.

As Mike stated in “Dropping In”:

“With your hands in the drops, the stress is taken off the carpal bones. This is achieved by allowing your elbows and forearms to act as shock absorbers, whereas the shocks on a flat bar are your wrists.”

During an in-person discussion Mike and I had in 2023 when I swung by for a visit and shot his Cunningham road bike, we discussed how this optimizes shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands for off-road impacts. He mentioned how your hands are more secure when locked into the dirt drop riding position versus on a flat bar, too.

The main difference between proper dirt drops on a mountain bike and drop bars on a road bike is that dirt drops are ridden high up, in line with the rider’s saddle, putting the rider’s hands in the same position as when they’re on flat bars. With road drops, they are setup with more saddle-to-bar drop for “aero” riding. On a dirt drop mountain bike, you are still riding upright like a mountain bike, just in the drops.

The idea of the classic dirt drop was to always be in the drops. Aside from longer climbs, riders would remain in the drops at all times, only momentarily resting their hands on the tops of the bars. In fact, it’s not ideal – or at least very uncomfortable – to put your hands on the hoods of a classic dirt drop setup and ride.

This is a key differentiator between how people ride dirt drops in today’s context. On modern gravel bikes, which are just road bikes, riders spend most of their time on the hoods and flats of the bars, descending in the drops. On a proper drop bar mountain bike, your ideal riding position is riding in the drops most of the time.

The early dirt drops were hand-flared aluminum Cinelli Criterium or Campione Del Mondo racing bars, but later, WTB made the RM-2 with Specialized, pictured above, along with many other versions of the dirt drop. The RM-2 shape was most appropriate for a rider of my size and shoulder width.

Getting the Bars High

To get the bars high enough to mimic the riding position of flat bars, these early bikes with level top tubes needed very high-rise stems. Scot Nicol from Ibis Cycles was the first to make the “limp dick” stem, or LD stem. He was working with Cunningham and Potts at the time. In his early days with WTB, he was Charlie’s “gofor” – Charlie didn’t want to drive a car, ever, so Scot was picking up roller cam brakes from Richmond, California, dropping off frames to get painted, and running other sorts of “shop help” errands.

Scot’s 1982 Ibis, documented in our “Bicycle Taxonomy” Reportage…

When Scot founded Ibis Cycles in 1981, he began building bikes akin to what his mentors were making but with his own spin. When the dirt drop fad set in Scot began tinkering with the high-rise LD stems, making what is said to be the first. From there, Cunningham and Potts adopted the design for their bikes.

Ross Shafer’s 1984 Dirt Drop Salsa and prototype Salsa Stems (photo credit Tasshi Dennis)

These stems brought the bars to the ideal height and could be easily bent to fit a rider’s particular riding position. Later, in 1984, Ross Shafer launched Salsa Cycles with its iconic high-rise quill stems. You can read all about the history of Salsa from Ross’ good friend Tasshi Denis here: Vintage Bicycles: Ross Shafer’s 1984 Salsa Cycles Custom

Same Chassis, Different Cockpits

What was unique about the early 1980s mountain bikes was that the top tubes were flat, and the head tubes were tall due to the lack of long seat posts. Most builders were using Sakae, Campagnolo, and other road bike seat posts, which topped out around 220 mm in total length. This meant the top tubes were high, and the bikes were fitted with a “grip” seatpost.

Breezer Series I

The bikes from the early 1980s are visual perfection: 26″ wheels with fat tires, a grip of seatpost, slack angles, (sometimes) custom stems, built with a mix of global components. The above Breezer Series I epitomizes the look and feel of some of the first mountain bikes in California.

Me aboard the 1983 Potts – arguably a little too scrunched up!

When the LD stem was developed, it was easy to raise the dirt drops to the same “off-road” riding position flat bars offered while increasing ergonomics and control. You could own one frame and swap out the cockpit depending on your riding style, race, or event you’d be attending, or, yeah, take it on a mountain bike tour.

Not to mention a huge weight savings! As Mike mentioned in “Dropping In,” a dirt drop setup weighed a full pound less than a flat bar setup.

What’s interesting to me is that the dirt drop fad exploded in the 1990s with riders like Tomac and Jacquie Phelan winning professional mountain bike races, but it soon died off in the pro cycling limelight, only to be relegated to subcultures and small-time builders.

Jacquie’s singlespeed Phoenix and Noah Gellner’s 1983 replica of Jacquie’s “Otto” bike

Are these “dirt drop” mountain bikes the original “gravel bikes?” I’d say so. Especially considering that many of the first “races” they were ridden in were primarily dirt road and double track races. Tomac and Phelan sent shockwaves, racing dirt drops on the most technical races of the era and winning.

Jacquie elevated the show with unbeatable style!

This begs the question: why did dirt drop racing die off shortly after? Was it suspension? Or the heavy moto influence? Or did it simply lie in chrysalis, later to evolve into “gravel racing?”

This 1983 Steve Potts

I bought this 1983 Steve Potts from Monkey Wrench Cycles‘ Mark Janike’s SocketSales, the venue he uses to sell bikes from his extensive collection. I’d long wanted a Steve Potts; a vintage one was high on my list. Steve is one of the California builders I have a long held respect for and to me, his vintage bikes epitomized the innovation present in the early 1980s in the Bay Area.

I acquired a lower-rise stem in 2022 and had it finished to match the frame’s paint before swapping to the dirt drop setup…

The bike arrived in 2022, and I tinkered with the flat bar build for a full year before finally putting the LD stem and dirt drop setup on it. It’s taken me a full year to write about it after building it and riding it with the dirt drops, for no other reason than something was “off” about the bike.

Earlier this year, while hanging in Santa Rosa with my buddy Nick, who now works with us here at The Radavist, we swung by his friend David Halstead’s shop. Nick said, “You’re gonna dig David’s bikes!”

Sure enough, I was enamored. Baylis number one, a DiNucci NAHBS bike, a few vintage Merckx bikes… You get the drift. David has exquisite taste. Like Mike Varley mentioned above, David is one of these men of mystery in the bike industry. During the 1990s, they helped steer the course of bicycle design and innovation, all behind the scenes. Mike and David don’t want the spotlight; they want bikes to be good.

The 1983 Potts features Specialized Flag cranks and Hi-E modified WTB hubs, which have had the outer lip of the flange machined off for ease of access to change the sealed bearings.

We got to chatting, and David brought up Bryant Bainbridge, the guy who was the liaison between WTB — Cunningham, Potts, and Slate’s blooming MTB company — and Specialized.

It’s not often you hear of a giant company like Specialized teaming up with a company like WTB, but the relationship was mutually beneficial. WTB got access to Specialized’s production facilities and name for co-branded bits like the RM-2 dirt drop, and Specialized gained a wealth of knowledge from WTB on designing components like the “Flag” cranks.

David (above, left) bought the bike in 1983 from Bryant Bainbridge, a longtime friend. It was delivered as a traditional mountain bike and David converted it into a “dirt drop” MTB with WTB Speedmaster Rollercam brakes and a Type II fork. Very similar to my 1985 Signature. At the time, he had just begun working for Specialized and soon managed the Stumpjumper racing team. He rode the Potts for a while – note the Specialized logo on the top tube – before deciding that he hated how the roller cam brakes rode. Work obligations also forced him onto a Stumpjumper, so he retired the Potts, but not before he took a hacksaw to the u-brake mounts, stripped the paint, and put it in the garage.

David brought the Potts into the Ibis Cycles shop and hung it on the wall. It sat there for over a decade. In the interim, David took a job at Serotta before eventually returning to Ibis, seeing the frame with a $50 price tag on it, still hanging where he had left it.

He took it down and gave it back to Bryant Bainbridge, who had Steve Potts refinish the bike with cantilever brakes and a cantilever fork and finished it off with modern Potts logo decals and two stems, an upright riser for flat bars and a LD stem for dirt drops.

Bryant held onto the frame before selling it to Mark Janike in 2015. Mark built it up and rode it until 2022 when he sold it to me.

What struck me about the bike when I took delivery was how it had thick chainstays and a large, flat brake bridge, indicative of a chainstay-mounted roller cam setup. The seat stays were very thin as well but seemed to match the aesthetic and ride quality of the nice and flexy cantilever fork.

David told me this was the first bike Steve made with specialty, lightweight road seat stays, which explains the bike’s smooth-as-silk ride quality, especially compared to my 1985 Signature. The 1983 just feels buttery smooth in the rough stuff whereas the 1985 is much stiffer and zippier; tuned for racing.

I felt like the bike was intended for dirt drops because it really felt more like an off-road road bike than a MOUNTAINBIKE of the early 1980s. Sure enough, David’s photo confirmed the story…

While I absolutely love the bike and its smooth-riding disposition, as you can see in the photo of me on the bike, it is 2″ too short in both directions. Normally, I ride 24″ frames, and this is a 22″. I am not in the business of owning bikes that are too small for me.

After a few text messages with Tasshi Dennis, he summed up the conundrum perfectly:

“Yeah, that custom bike wasn’t built for you…”

It’s always painful to put all the time and energy into building a bike, documenting it, and trying to make it fit, but I finally decided last month that it was time for the bike to find a new home under someone who would be able to ride and enjoy it. While this bike has had quite a life, I’m honored to have a small part in it and to be able to tell its story…

Build Spec

Year: 1983
S/N: Obscured by paint
Frame: Steve Potts
Fork: Steve Potts Cantilever
Stem: Steve Potts LD
Headset: Specialized
Bottom Bracket: Grease Guard
Handlebar: Specialized RM-2
Shifters: Suntour
Front Derailleur: Shimano Deerhead
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deerhead
Brake Levers: Shimano 600
Front Brake: Mafac Touring
Rear Brake: Mafac Touring
Crankset: Specialized Flag
Chainrings: Specialized Flag 36-47
Pedals: Suntour XC II
Hubs: Hi-E WTB
Rims: Specialized X22
Tires: Ultradynamico Mars 2.22″
Wheel QR: Suntour
Seatpost: XC Pro
Saddle: Selle Italia Turbo
Seatpost QR: Fastback binder
Tape: Neubaums custom dyed to match paint
Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
Cogs: Shimano
Pump: Silca
Bottle: NOS Suntour

Many thanks to all who helped out on this article! Bryant Bainbridge, David Halstead, Mike from Black Mountain Cycles, Mark from Monkey Wrench, Tasshi from Vintage MTB Workshop, and to you for reading!