We’re running with an alternative format for this week’s classic bike feature from The Pro’s Closet vault! It’s one we hope you enjoy as it was penned by the original owner of this stunning singlespeed WTB Phoenix, Jacquie Phelan. Jacquie was an early MTB pioneer in the Marin constituency and along with her racing accolades is, perhaps, most known for starting the Women’s Mountain Bike & Tea Society (WOMBATS). In her own words, she hasn’t retired from racing and still loves to mix it up on two wheels. Read on for her retelling of how this bike faired at the 2008 Napa Single Speed World Championships (SSWC)…
The Phoenix I rode at Curtis Inglis’ 2008 Napa Single Speed World Championship has a bit of history itself, and the very name–the mythic creature that is consumed in flames, and reborn of the ashes–accurately foreshadowed my own re-emergence to fat tire racing.
Early 90s Backstory
The bike was built by Steve Potts in 1993, painted white with an iridescent sheen, and came with a Cunningham Type II fork. Rock Shox sponsored me at that time, but my contract stipulated that I use their product 80% of the time so there was some wiggle room. In the early spring of that year, Outside Magazine featured a long story about how and why I created WOMBATS—meetups and skills practices for women. The accompanying photographs showed me demonstrating my own skills and techniques. In those days, there was no such thing as a commercial mountain bike skills camp. This is a category of endeavor I (apparently) ‘invented’ while people shook their heads and told me ‘Everyone knows how to ride a bike.’
When Paul Turner saw all those photos in the magazine of me not riding his fork (which Charlie hadn’t had time yet to mount) he abruptly broke our (written) agreement.
My challenge in racing has always been finding ancillary sponsors because no one would talk me out of racing on Otto, my trusty ‘Ham. I had the bike repainted Pepto-pink and used it as a beater for the subsequent years, but never raced it. Let me set the record straight(er): I have never retired from racing. When someone asks when I retired, I insist that, if invited, I’d gladly race anywhere in the world.
A Pair of Doughty Scotsmen Come to Mt. Tam
In 2002, when SSWC was held in Downieville, CA, a pair of doughty Scotsmen, Jon Meredith and Chris Marquis, paid me a visit at the lookout tower on Mt. Tamalpais. I was the lookout there in 2003, and along with making the trek to see Charlie down in Fairfax, they came all the way up to the summit to find me.
We had tea and I played banjo; I was very touched they’d climbed our 2400-ft sacred mountain to pay a call. For the few years, I’d get the odd packet of Brook Bond tea from Scotland, until they wrote to say the SSWC was slated to be held in the States again; wouldn’t it be fun to meet up in Statesville, Pennsylvania? Yes, it would.
2005 SSWC State College, PA
Paul Sadoff (of Rock Lobster Cycles) lent me his bike, named “Ugly,” a haphazardly painted machine with the front wheel bigger than the rear.
The race was so much fun (brilliantly produced by Eric Roman, now a fine art photographer) I swore I’d compete in Singlespeed Worlds each year. Eric used a ‘randomizer’ feature at his race so that the top finishers would have to compete in a go-kart race and the winner of THAT round got the tattoo.
I still believe that if all racing were ‘randomized’ this way then corporate bicycle manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sweep in and make off with the fun, the way it tends to happen when the ‘fun’ grows big enough to be ‘marketable.’ The fun then drains out and it replaced by the idea that this activity should be a Job.
Don’t get me started.
2008 SSWC Napa, CA
So, back to Curtis’ SSWC in Napa… It is my belief that big companies should stay out of sports, if the sport is to remain true to its original innocence. I’m sure plenty of folk don’t agree. Pursuant to this ‘velosophy,’ I chose to wear a Harris tweed men’s jacket, a tie from 1975, Oxford button-down shirt, vest, and trousers for SSWC Napa. The sartorial message? “The suits are coming for us.” (See “First We Take Manhattan,” by Leonard Cohen for clues to this reference.)
On a 90 degree day, my suit proved to be a major benefit. I sweated mightily, and was cooled by evaporation. I didn’t get sunburnt, like my unfortunate overcooked Scots friends who’d flown out.
Roughly 300 riders descended on Napa. Park policy kept a strict limit on the number of riders, which kept this edition smallish, although the organizer did let in a happy handful of hopefuls with the condition that they wore jockey short ‘tighty whities’.
It was a rocky, grueling event through the oak scrubland, and we had to pass a shimmering reservoir at the far end of the course. A lake. Or was it a mirage?
Three long laps. There were people I knew, and many I didn’t, but as in all the SSWCs I’ve been to, much socializing occurred as we ground away at the pedals. At 53 I was more Old and In The Way than ‘competitive’. I found Meredith parched under a tree, and shared my water with him as we sat and watched riders zip (or creep) past. Then we re-mounted and by the finish we were hand-in-hand, and mightily wasted.
The party was well underway. Curtis Inglis’ wonderful 95-year-old grandmother was resplendent in her brilliant red sweater (she probably felt a draft? Charlie is always dressed warmly in all weathers, because TBI disrupts the body’s temperature-control system). There was a bike sculpture thing that you could ride, and children were trying it out. Was there music? Most probably there was.
Beer flowed. Food was plentiful but I don’t recall precisely what. Rachel Lloyd, my WOMBAT neighbor from Fairfax, got herself a tattoo. No clue which fellow got one. I had a costume change and put on a slinky, tight-fitting blue sequined gown that would have suited Little Richard.
There hasn’t been a ‘randomizer’ at the SSWC since that epic go-kart race more than a decade earlier—the invasion of the suits continues apace. Pros routinely show up. I remember a few years later how, in New Zealand, the winner didn’t even bother to wear a costume. He was kitted out in ‘sponsor-ly array’. The man that came in after him however, Ben Bostrom (top flight Moto GP racer and friend of mine) had taken the time to array himself in … practically nothing. A vest, a tie, and shorts. Do we know what second place is in singlespeed world? Well, it doesn’t’ get a prize, but all the participants are second to the tattoo’d winner.
If I got to be boss of racing, I’d simply pull the entry form out of a drum and announce a truly random winner.
But speaking of prizes…Inglis silenced the crowd and asked, “Who completed the race on the oldest bike?”
Murmuring from the assembled riders. And lo, it was my 1992 Phoenix! Somehow, nobody had bothered to tackle the course with an original Breezer, or, better yet, a 1940’s mongrel Schwinn….. He handed me an envelope that bore a letter stating “A custom-built singlespeed bike by Mike DeSalvo.” A gasp went up.
A couple of people slapped me on the not-sunburned back. I was in a daze. Never have I ‘won’ such a fine prize, and I was pretty sure I didn’t deserve it. The Oregon framebuilder probably had in mind some kid churning the course on a rusty heap. It took a week of deep—no, okay—shallow thought. I am not worthy. I AM worthy. I am not worthy.
Charlie helped tip the balance: he was eager to see what this 29er thing was all about and asked Mike DeSalvo if he could design the frame himself, and have it built that way? DeSalvo graciously agreed to it, and before long we were in possession of a truly beautiful snot-green steel machine that propelled Charlie into building himself a 29er. And possibly detonated a spate of frame-building that was the last time he ever made frames.
Frame: Steve Potts Phoenix
Fork: Steve Potts/Charlie Cunningham Type II
Stem: Charlie Cunningham
Headset: Chris King WTB Grease Guard
Bottom Bracket: Grease Guard
Handlebar: Specialized RM-3
Front Derailleur: N/A
Rear Derailleur: Surly Singleater
Brake Levers: Dura Ace 7200
Front Brake: Speedmaster Rollercam
Rear Brake: Togglecam
Crankset: XC Pro
Chainrings: XC Pro 42
Pedals: Suntour MP1000/Specialized Toe Clips/Binda straps
Hubs: Hi-E WTB
Rims: Ritchey Vantage Expert
Tires: WTB Velociraptor
Wheel QR: Cunningham HiE Slo Release
Seatpost: Cunningham FASP
Seatpost QR: Cunningham
Bar Tape: Lizard Skins
Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace
Bottle Cage: Blackburn Bomber
If you’d like to donate to Jacquie and Charlie, you can do so at their GoFundMe.