While in Marin for a few photoshoots, John swung by to see Mike at Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes Station. It had been several years (maybe you recall his Shop Visit post) since he’d been in the area and was long overdue for some catching up.
Mike is an industry veteran, having raced bikes and worked for various brands over the years before launching his own in-house brand of bikes under the banner of Black Mountain Cycles. We’ve featured several Black Mountain builds over the years and are big fans of what Mike designs. Mike owns several unique vintage bikes that have helped inform his own designs, yet the crème de la crème is his personal Cunningham road.
We pinged Mike to write about this rare machine, showcasing its origins and unique details found only on a Cunningham, so read on for more!
I told myself I didn’t want it. I don’t need another bike. But the question was asked “do you want it?” Of course, I wanted it.
In December of 2011, Geoff Halaburt, a long-time customer and friend, was embarking on a new bike project. Two new bike projects, in fact. After a 20 year hiatus, Charlie Cunningham was going to make a small production run of bikes. He’d gotten the bug to build a couple of bikes for himself: a road bike with some different front end geometry that he was curious about and a 29” wheel mountain bike. For a long time, Charlie had been put off by the feeling that a 29” wheel was too big and unwieldy for the type of riding he liked to do, primarily of the tight and twisty singletrack variety.
Here’s what I recall on Charlie’s 29” wheel intrigue: In 2008, his wife, Jacquie Phelan, won a custom DeSalvo frame at Single Speed World Championships in Napa for piloting the oldest bike at the race. With geometry input from Charlie, a 29” wheel frame was built. It would be for Jacquie, but also sized so Charlie could work out some ideas on how a 29” wheel could perform.
As a framebuilder, when you build a bike for yourself, you aren’t paid for your work. In order to help finance this project, a couple of Charlie’s longtime friends and customers put in their own orders for custom Cunningham 29” wheel mountain bikes, bringing the total up to four bikes. As Charlie began getting excited about this new production run, he reached out to Geoff and said something to the effect of “the heat-treat oven holds five frames. I can build one more. Would you like a road bike, too?” Of course, Geoff was all in on a road bike. So there it was: three 29” wheel mountain bikes and two road bikes. The ‘E Series.’
Starting in late 2011 and wrapping up in 2013, Charlie delivered these two mountain bikes and one road bike for his friends/customers. As chance would have it they were also both friends and customers of mine and I got to finish building each one of those bikes. One of the mountain bikes left the country to live with its owner, but Geoff’s road bike stayed in Marin County. I was tasked with their maintenance over the years. I’m intimately familiar with each of them. Sadly, Geoff passed away of a fast spreading cancer in October of 2021. Geoff documented the build process on Instagram at #2013cunninghams.
The Cunningham Way
When you commission Charlie to build a bike for you, you are, in effect, giving him artistic license to be full Charlie in the bike’s creation. This means accepting the fine-tuned preferences that he’s cultivated over the decades he’s built bikes and parts. The main focus of a Cunningham bike has to be the brakes. This Cunningham road bike, #E5GH, was built around mini Lever-Link brakes (the mountain bikes were all built with full-sized Lever-Links).
Roller-Cam left, Lever-Link right
Charlie’s first brake design was the venerable Roller-Cam brake, a design he licensed to Suntour in about 1984. Over the years, Charlie would fine-tune the performance of his brakes, culminating in the Lever-Link shown here. I’ve ridden a lot of brakes—and there are a lot of great ones out there—but the feel, modulation, and power of a Charlie-tuned Lever-Link brake can’t be beat. Sure there are times when a 4-piston hydraulic disc brake with 8” rotors is the best option. However, for most situations and, especially, for fans of Charlie’s work, his rim brakes are sublime in their performance.
Paraphrasing Archimedes: give me a brake with a lever long enough and a properly placed pivot point and I’ll stop your bike on a dime with minimal effort at the brake lever. That’s the goal of the Lever-Link. Minimal effort at the lever to produce the most effective mechanism to control the speed of the bike, or to just simply stop the bike. We all have to stop at some point.
At face value, the brakes look crude. File marks in the arms, some weird looking wire with brass balls… The weird wire is actually a safety hook that prevents the brakes from accidentally releasing as the springs are run with just enough tension to return the arms. Most folks’ brakes are set up with too much tension that only serves to contribute to hand fatigue.
Speaking of the springs, they are taper ground from an original round shape. The grinding of the springs produces a more linear ramp up in tension as the brake is applied resulting, again, in less effort to brake. The brakes have a lot of power (hence the bridge tying the two posts together reducing flex at the pivots). Yet, there’s never the feeling that the brakes are going to lock up since they modulate that power so well. Handmade with file marks, but beautiful with a high degree of function.
Seen from a distance, it’s just a bike. Get up close and everywhere you look wondrous details emerge. While not fragile, the brake’s arms and linkage could be damaged in a crash if the bars were to whip around and smash the brakes into the down tube. To avoid that scenario, a titanium steering limiter is bolted to the Cunningham-designed “crownless” Type IV fork and fixed to the down tube via, what Charlie calls, a “limpet” tied off with parachute cord.
Way before boost was a thing, before it was even imagined, Charlie made extra wide, dishless hubs. The front hub on this road bike is 118mm wide. It’s constructed with Hi-E flanges riveted to a custom fit center section. Not satisfied with off-the shelf rear hubs, this King R45 has a custom made left end that widens the overall spacing to 141mm to produce a dishless rear wheel.
The wheels are secured into the frame by what are known as “Slo-Releases.” This was essentially a Hi-E skewer design that was modified by Charlie with a few more pin holes and titanium shafts. They’re tightened with a stainless pin that fits into one of the holes. When installed correctly, they are very secure. The rear wheel fits into the frame from the rear, so torque from pedaling will pull the wheel forward. The overall design makes rear wheel slippage in the dropout virtually impossible.
When Charlie was making seat clamps for these bikes, he asked Geoff if he wanted it to be smooth like a DKG clamp or if he wanted more hand-made look, like he’d make for his personal bikes. Geoff’s response was clearly “hand-made like yours.”
It’s obvious that the shifters don’t match. This is in deference to Charlie’s personal likes. The vintage Campagnolo front shifter is simple by design and has a good feel. It’s basically an on/off switch. Big ring/small ring. For the rear, there’s nothing wrong with good old index shifting. It works and it’s reliable, but what’s that on the lever? Bondo. Shimano indexed bar-con shifters are pretty skinny and by adding Bondo, Charlie was able to craft a lever that feels better to your hand when shifting. If it can be improved, do it – just like the flared Cinelli Giro d’Italia handlebars to give them a more comfortable feel in the drops.
A crowning touch to the fully decked out Cunningham bike is the seat post, or the F.A.S.P (Fixed Angle Seat Post). While some FASPs were straight, some, like this, are gently curved to properly place the seat (and rider) in relation to the crank center. The seat post on this bike is oversized at 1 3/8” (34.9mm) and is central to the extreme slope of the top tube and the ability to run a lot of exposed post. The Cunningham compact, sloping top tube dates back to 1979 when he made his first mountain bike.
“Fixed Angle” comes from the fact that seat tilt cannot be adjusted. The angle of the top of the post is created based on the particular seat being used and how much seat angle tilt you want. In this case, the Unicanitor seat is set level. In order to adjust the tilt for a different seat, if it doesn’t match a Unicanitor, the top of the post would have to be filed or machined. A single bolt secures it all. The main benefit of the F.A.S.P. is your seat will never move or tilt during a ride.
Maybe the most important aspect of a custom Cunningham bike is Charlie’s design philosophy, which can be understood by looking at the overall design of this bike and Charlie’s very simple formula for his “Fit Like A Glove: Where Body Meets Bike” chart. Using your body’s contact points on a bike (seat height, seat setback from BB, bar reach, and bar drop), Charlie plots out those points and then comes up with a frame size that is efficiently compact, and seemingly on the small side. Then custom seat posts and stems are made to put the rider in the position that is based on that rider’s most comfortable/efficient position. This is why stems on many Cunninghams have significant rise – shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Coincidentally, this is the same method I currently use to size riders to my Black Mountain Cycles’ frames.
Geoff visited me at Black Mountain Cycles many, many times during the creation process for these E-Series Cunninghams to talk about parts, geometry, and to share what he and Charlie talked about regarding production of these frames. He always arrived with cold Racer 5 IPAs. I was just as excited about them (the bikes, not the beer, but what I would give to share another round with him today) as he was and it was an honor and privilege to perform the final assembly on this bike in 2013 and send Geoff off with, what can only be described as, a one-of-a-kind bike. Perfectly crafted for Geoff. Thankfully, my seat height is only ½” off Geoff’s, so this bike also is an ideal fit for me.
While this Cunningham road bike is, technically, now mine, it will forever, in my mind, be Geoff’s bike. It’s not aero. It’s probably not particularly light by modern carbon standards. I haven’t weighed it and don’t plan to. When something rides as nice as this, does it really matter how much it weighs? It’s a 10 year old bike that was built with, at that time, parts that were already out of date. Yet, it’s an amazingly timeless bicycle that I’ll ride for as long as I can keep riding.