To grasp the influence of Charlie Cunningham’s bikes fully on the development of the modern mountain bike, you have to go back to the late 1970s. Other mountain bike builders, such as Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze and Charlie Kelly, were producing steel bikes with super-slack angles and long wheelbases. Sure, these rigs were great for descending, but they were heavy and handled like giant land yachts. Wanting something more nimble, Cunningham put his mechanical and aerospace engineering expertise to work and built a compact frame out of lightweight 6061 aluminum that had steeper and more responsive geometry. The result was a bike that weighed about 24 lb. in an era when mountain bikes frequently clocked in around 30 lb. And yet, even with this low overall weight, Cunningham’s bikes were incredibly durable and never suffered from the frequent cracking that other aluminum mountain bike manufacturers would experience in the years to come – a testament to his understanding of materials and construction.
While Cunningham’s frames were undoubtedly ahead of the curve, it would be wrong to ignore his equally important component innovations. At a time when mountain bikes were being reined in with flimsy cantilever brakes, Cunningham i ntroduced his rollercam brake. Unlike the licensed version found on more production-oriented bikes (that was often improperly mounted and therefore less effective), Cunningham’s roller cams delivered what many thought were the pinnacle of braking power and modulation. Other perhaps more subtle component improvements by Cunningham include the precise handling Type 2 forks, 135-mm wide rear dropout spacing (when 125 mm was the norm), the grease-guard bearing system (for easy maintenance of hubs, headsets, bottom brackets and pedals) and the revolutionary Ground Control tire. The Racer in the photo was produced in the early ’90s and is one of fewer than 200 bikes made by Cunningham. With its numerous subtle updates from his original bikes, it highlights Cunningham’s never-ending desire to improve mountain bike design. The bike also showcases many concepts that the more mainstream bike industry eventually embraced. – Gusalexandropoulos