Now THAT Was a Bike: Charlie Cunningham's Prophetic CC Proto

Apr 11, 2018
by Richard Cunningham  
Charlie Cunningham s first bicycle CC Proto is in the Marin Museum of Bicycling
Charlie Cunningham's first creation, named "CCproto" was finished in 1978 and is contemporary today. - Cunningham Bicycles photo


To put it bluntly, if it had to do with mountain bikes and it was either invented or became popular before the year 2000, there is a good chance that Charlie Cunningham had either filed the patent, sketched a drawing, made a prototype, or discarded the concept as fruitless. I can say that without modification. Charlie's rare combination of creative and analytical genius, combined with a soul that always seemed to be in the moment, rendered him immune to cycling's most toxic poisons: historical precedence and current trends. Freed from the litany of recurring mistakes that so often dim the industry's brighter lights, Cunningham laid down the DNA of the modern mountain bike so early in its history, that many so-called inventors are still congratulating themselves for reinventing his inventions.

Charlie built his first bike over the course of a year from 1978 to '79 and today, it sits in the Marin Museum of Bicycling. Cunningham (no relation to RC) chose oversized aluminum tubes for his "CC Proto" as it came to be known, and TIG welded the thin-wall pipes together into a diamond frame with a dramatically sloping top tube to save weight and add stiffness. His low-slung top tube required a tall seat post, and if one existed longer than 220 millimeters (they did not), it would have been too skinny and
Charlie Cunningham at his shop
Charlie Cunningham in his workshop. - Cunningham Bicycles photo
flexible to support a rider - so Cunningham made his own oversized-diameter post with a zero-offset seat clamp. He didn't gel with his first choice of geometry,so he simply hack-sawed the top and down tubes off and started messing with numbers until he arrived on a 70.5-degree head tube angle and a seat-angle near 73.

Cunningham Racer 22
The 1998 Racer number 22 is owned by the Pro's Closet where it was restored with period components. - Pros Closet photo


Somewhere in that 12-month gestation period, Charlie realized that road bike drivetrains, with their limited gear ratios and narrow chain lines, were not going to serve well on the dirt. Charlie abandoned the front derailleur from the start, choosing a single, 42-tooth chainring on the crankset and then fashioned a top-mount chain guide from titanium. At the time, most freewheel cassette cogs topped out at 26 teeth, but Charlie dug around until he found larger cogs and then brazed them to an existing freewheel. His first wide-range freewheel was a 13 by 34 five-speed (Yep that's all we had to begin with). Later, component makers increased the cassette count and by 1982, Charlie was hand-building limited-production seven-speed 12 by 38-tooth freewheels.

Cunningham Racer 22
Roller Cam brakes and their torsion-bar springs were some of Charlie's inventions. The dual taper of the wedge allowed the brake pads to set farther from the rims without compromising modulation. - Pros Closet photo


One-by drivetrains today offer the same benefits that Cunningham was seeking in '78. Moving the chainring outwards and eliminating the front changer allowed the inventor to shorten the chainstays without sacrificing tire clearance. Restricted by the confines of 120-millimeter-wide bottom bracket axles, road bike-sized chainrings, and 126-millimeter wide rear hub, "short" chainstays measured 18 to 19 inches in 1979. Charlie's first bike, however, had 17-inch chainstays, which are compact by today's standards, but he could not pull off that feat without another prophetic innovation. Charlie widened the rear axle spacing from the existing 126-millimeter roadie standard to 135 millimeters, which centered the rim between the hub flanges and corrected the chain line for his one-by drivetrain.

Cunningham Racer 22
Cunningham's tubular fork crown was simple, lightweight and very strong. Charlie preferred straight blades, but he also used more conventional curved lowers. - Pros Closet photo
Cunningham Racer 22
Gearing was limited in 1988. This bike has a conventional three by crankset. At the time, Charlie was making wide ratio seven-speed cogsets. - Pros Closet photo


Compare Cunningham's first design with those of other early mountain bike makers and it's clear that he was looking much farther ahead. Existing frame and component makers were clinging to traditional construction methods and established standards that had already failed to meet the demands of mountain bikers, so if he wanted innovative products, he had to make them himself. Cycling's establishment would take well over a decade to catch up with his first bike, and Charlie was just getting warmed up.

Cunningham Racer 22
Not for you? John Tomac raced downhill with these bars to keep him sharp while he was a pro road racer in 1991 for Team 7 Eleven in Europe. - Pros Closet photo


It was a foregone conclusion that existing forks were not going to hold up to the rigors of trail riding. Cunningham made his own fork for the CCProto using straight fork blades made from butted steel top tubes and later integrated a curved, tubular crown that became his trademark fork, The futuristic-looking fork was considered ugly by many - but elegant by those lucky enough to ride them. In keeping with his wider rear axles, Charlie also widened his front axle width from 100 to 110 millimeters for extra rigidity. The simplicity of his tubular fork design influenced the wholesale switch to the "unicrown" fork in the pre-suspension era.

One feature that Cunningham clung to that was not widely adopted was his trademark dropped handlebar. Reportedly, the first renditions were off-the-shelf bars (the widest he could find) that were bent into a new flared shape by Charlie to clear the rider's wrists while descending in the drops. He developed an external clamp-on stem like we use today, but with a much higher rise to get his hands in the correct position. His CC Proto used a simple bar-end shift lever, but later models came equipped with a clever adapter that put the thumb-shifter inside of the brake lever so the rider could switch gears without abandoning control of the brakes. Charlie's handlebar only enjoys a cult following today, but a more moderate version of its flared shape has been universally adopted by the road community - as has pairing the brake levers with the shifting controls

Cunningham Racer 22
Crude, but effective. Charlie's adapters put the thumb shifters within reach while the rider was in the drops. - Pro's Closet photo
Cunningham Racer 22
Charlie brazed an extension tube that protruded above the fork's threaded steerer, where his clamp-on stem attached. - Pro's Closet photo


Charlie's career as a mountain bike builder produced less than 200 bicycles, hand made in a workshop that has been described by visitors as a farm shed. At a time when a high-end mountain bike cost around $1800, a Cunningham was around $4200. Cunningham would eventually partner with Mark Slate, his trusty employee, and fellow mountain bike maker Steve Potts, to found Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB). Along the way, Cunningham invented roller-cam rim brakes, which increased the power and eliminated the clearance issues of the cantilever-type brakes of the time, and grease-injection hubs and bottom brackets. Among his many innovations, Charlie also laid down the foundations of mountain bike tire design based upon the actual strike angles of the tread blocks in relation to cornering and straight-line travel. The WTB partnership was mysteriously dissolved in 2002, reportedly, after a contentious takeover by WTB CEO Patrick Seidler, after which, Cunningham's focus shifted away from mountain bikes.

Cunningham Racer 22
Grease ports are common today, but "Grease Guard" is where it all started. - Pro's Closet photo
Cunningham Racer 22
Perhaps his simplest invention, "Toe Flips" screwed onto the back of the pedals for quick entry. Thousands were sold. - Pros Closet photo


At present, there are as many of Cunningham's creations in museums as there are still being ridden. He guaranteed them for life. Charlie is a quiet person who shuns the limelight. The penalty of being as far ahead of the curve as Charlie was is that many of his inventions were forgotten before their time was realized by rank and file riders. It is understandable then, that the short history of our sport has not highlighted his influence upon its development. The two bicycles featured here, the CCproto, owned by Charlie and on display at the Mountain Bike Hall of fame, and the 1988 Racer 22C, owned by the Pros Closet, are examples of why we should.

Sadly, the man who laid down the DNA of the modern hardtail cross-country bike suffered a head injury while riding a few years ago. Assisted by his wife, Jacquie Phelan, and donations from friends, Charlie is slowly making inroads on his recovery and the news is hopeful. For more information on one of the mountain bike's most brilliant and creative minds, visit the Cunningham Bicycles web page.


79 Comments

  • + 134
 Man this guy copied Salsa's woodchipper bars. Trek's brake on their madones. And Sram's 1x drive train. Look at that Thomson bent seat post. Some people can't think for themselves.
  • + 64
 hahaha. I sense sarcasm. Smile

Yeah Charlie was doing shit way ahead of his time. A good 10-30 years ahead of his time. A true innovator.

BTW he has medical issues and needs funds:

www.gofundme.com/w85tn3dg
  • - 30
flag WAKIdesigns (Apr 11, 2018 at 8:20) (Below Threshold)
 Aside of conneseur forms of masturbation, which I practice, admire and respect, is there anything Salsa did that is worth copying? Indeed those must have been the times if someone did... A Fatbike with drop bars is like... like... like... I guess there's little nonsense in the world to match that, because a 29er with drop bars is stupid enough. Reasonably speaking off course.
  • + 4
 Rip off magic mary's too, shameless.
  • + 15
 Not to mention the audacity of stealing the whole cyclocross thing and naming it CC Proto.
  • + 5
 @jollyXroger: so cunning of him...
  • + 12
 you forgot boost front and rear, oversized mtb aluminum frame, sloping geometry, compact geometry, etc. etc. Founders of Ibis, Kona and other brands used to work at his shop.
  • + 11
 Who would downvote the gofundme link?
  • + 2
 @RedRedRe: It's boost width front, but the rear is 135mm.
  • + 6
 @spankthewan:
He had 141 or 140 rear in the mid-late 80's.
I know because I have had one of his bike.
When he had 135, all others were pretty much 130.
  • + 6
 Also a very fast rider... meaning top 10 national fast when he was 40!
  • + 6
 And clamp-on stems, vs quill
  • + 3
 @BryceBorlick:
Yes but those were more advanced than nowdays clamp on.

For the curved stems, the top of the fork tube is tapered and the inside wall of the stem is conic. The stem was clamped with pinch bolts.

The straight stems (not in the pictures) had a similar system without any pinch bolts.
The stem was press fit on the fork.

With these you never had a loose headset and was a stiffer and lighter set up.

What about removable face plate stems when everybody else had pinch bolts?

Too long to mention everything he designed (also with Steve Potts)... Ground Control, Extreme Control etc. tries, 1988 (?) mtb geometry for Trek, helped Cannondale with their first mtbikes etc.

I can not think of any company or builder that can nearly reach his obsession with perfection and refinements.
Need to see his bikes in person to get a sense. Everything is modified to an extreme.
  • + 2
 This was the first attempt at birth control. Messy but effective, he really changed history, and squashed alot of balls.
  • + 3
 @fecalmaster: Still less "ball-squashy" than those stem mounted shifters of the 70's just above the headset. Ouch.
  • + 6
 Indeed, they were really trying to hurt people back in the day. My question is will our kids looks at the "modern" bike designs we use today and say the same in 30-40 years? I'm thinking we have reached an extremely high level in the design and astetics of everything from frames to tires. In 40 years our kids or grandchildren will be getting rad on ???? Laser guided bikes that can fly if needed. Either way I have been thru the whole movement and think we are getting pretty freaking rad today!
  • + 1
 I look at some bikes today and wonder wtf they were thinking, are you kidding me? lol
  • + 29
 FYI Charlie Cunningham, this genius/legend of a man who's not only the inspiration for many of today's products we love but the founder of WTB as well. He did however multiple injuries in an accident not that long ago and there is a go fund me for his recovery/rehab expenses.

Donate and help this man out here:

www.gofundme.com/w85tn3dg
  • + 10
 So many innovations and so much earlier than they actually reached the mainstream. Low top tube, 1X drivetrain, wide hubs, short chainstays and wide range cassettes (freewheels). Just an amazing innovator.

Oh yeah, and 2, count 'em 2, water bottles inside the frame triangle!!!!!
  • + 7
 Just a few months after his accident we had the chance to set up a small fundraiser at the Philly bike expo. It was really amazing to see how many of the vendors contributed to the raffle and had kind words to say about Charlie and his impact. When I was walking around trying to sell tickets to the raffle I was surprised by the amount of people who didn't recognize his name or the contributions he has made to the industry. This is a guy who has made a huge impact on the kind of bike we are all riding today and if you can come to recognize that it should be easy to throw a few bones his direction.
  • + 10
 Awesome article on a true legend!
  • + 7
 Total MTB (ATB) legend. I’ve seen his Fb Page, now I’m going to click on it again and see if I can help his fundraising. I did have a WTB banner and brand new headset years back, some dude from NY snapped them up!
  • + 4
 I have huge respect for CC... And would give several organs for one of his creations, followed closely by a Potts, then an OG Phoenix. For those who want to see more: www.vintagemtbworkshop.com/vintage-charlie-cunningham-bicycle-photos.html
  • + 2
 Yeah, the Phoenix.... basically a steel Cunningham welded by Steve potts. Still have mine. One of the best hardtail ever made, up to the best 26 inches produced nowadays.
  • + 2
 Is Brent Foes on that photo with him?
  • + 3
 Then, call the surgeon, because next month there will be one for sale at Mombat´s full sale:

www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2188072224554720&id=166038966758066
  • + 8
 Thanks Pinkbike. Loving this series!
  • + 3
 I remember Jacquie Phelan winning races on drop bars in the early 90ies! Charlie basically defined what our dream bike would be, back in the day. Unfortunately, a school kid's allowance and holiday jobs would not come close to making it a reality.
  • + 0
 Johnny T sported drop bars in NORBA also.
  • + 4
 "Unfortunately, a school kid's allowance and holiday jobs would not come close to making it a reality."

Back when I was a super-noob high schooler reading MBA, of course you wanted a Stumpjumper because that was possibly semi-close to reality. Then you'd read about CC, Fat Chance, Yeti (before it seemed "Yeti")...and wondered why all these phenomenal ideas weren't trickling down (until 20+ years later). Wishing you could win just $5k in a lottery somewhere...

I wanna build a drop bar bike now.
  • + 3
 Drop bars are way fun to descend fast on, especially through smooth corners. Gets you down low, front wheel sticks like mad...takes commitment, but it's undeniably fun.
  • + 1
 @CaliCol: you said NORBA
  • + 4
 This is so rad! Amazing combination of historical insight, interesting tech, and some much deserved time in the spotlight for an under-appreciated legend of the sport.
  • + 2
 I remember seeing Cunninghams in the window of some bike shop at the end of Haight street in the 80s. Made me think bikes could be sorta cool again as I skated by on a Madrid with the very first Thunders. 10 years later I was on a bike again. Thank you, Charlie, and get well soon my dude.
  • + 1
 That was at American Cyclery at the corners of Frederick and Stanyan in the Upper Haight/Cole Valley.
  • + 1
 @TysonMitchell: Close but not American - it was actually on Haight between the Amoeba driveway and McDonalds (RIP & good riddance).
  • + 3
 FYI- There is a doc on Amazon Prime (free), called"KLUNKERS". It's about the very beginning's of mountain bike riding. It's always good to learn about those who made possible what you take for granite now.
  • + 2
 Tomac didn't race downhill with dirt drops, he used standard road handlebars. And if I recall correctly, he never raced downhill with them just cross country events. Also his reason for riding drop bars off road was at the request of his coach/team (7-11) vs to "keep himself sharp". This is a common practice where road bars are used off road by road pro's to keep the same positon/feel as on their road bike. Danny Pate did this locally in Colorado Springs. However, this practice has long fallen by the way side and was more based on a theory than a proven need to do so.
  • + 5
 Johnny T talking about the '90 Worlds, from a 2015 cyclingtips interview:
JT: I didn’t have a very good race, actually. I was leading the first part of the cross-country race and flatted, so I think I finished sixth. I expected to be able to compete, to win the race, and it didn’t go that well for me. So I wasn’t too happy with that outcome. The downhill was okay, I think I was fourth in that, which was a reasonable result. I almost died that day, so it was good. I was riding drop bars back then, because I was riding on the road for the 7-Eleven team and I wanted my bikes basically identical. Riding a downhill world championship on drop bars is a little bit gnarly.
  • + 2
 @endurendo: yeah but Tomac set up his mtb just like his road bike.
Road drop bars (maybe 44cm wide) and saddle to bar drop of 10+ cm.

The original off-road drop bars in comparison were 57cm wide and very flared. Saddle to bar drop is generally 0cm. Basically place the hands exactly where they go on a flat bar.
Total different beast.
  • + 6
 @RedRedRe: no argument there, just wanted to point out that he did race the DH on drop bars, not just XC
  • + 3
 Beautiful bike, love the brakes. Wouldn't look out of place in 2018 as a gravel grinder. Unlike John T no way would I want to ride it downhill with those bars, let alone race.
  • + 2
 Haha--I'm guessing you love the aesthetic of those old rollercams?--cuz they were a royal pita to dial-in.
  • + 1
 John Tomac raced both XC and DH with straight up road drop bars, not wide stance mtb drop bars. His position was the same on every bike - road, cross country, and downhill (yikes!).
  • + 1
 Yes, exactly, I don't know where RC gets some of these things. And by 91' Tomac had switched to full time MTB, riding for Raleigh, and was running flat handlebars with bar ends. 90' was the last year of the drop bar setup, when he was still on Yeti.
  • + 4
 The best article I have read this month! Thank you
  • + 4
 Cool article, love seeing the history
  • + 2
 Back when innovation was moulding how the mountain bike will evolve. Thank you for sharing some clarification on who were the pioneers of the sport.
  • + 2
 Thanks for the trip down memory lane! A true pioneer. I'd ride that over scores of 'modern' bikes. Sad to hear of his injuries, hope he can recover and ride again.
  • + 3
 Aw man! And here I was thinking that PB had a genetic link to this legend...
  • + 4
 I swear Surly still makes this bike!
  • + 3
 Well done PB!!! It would be cool to see a write up on Charlie other-half Jacquie Phelan! One of the coolest racer ever.
  • + 2
 Anyone else think this first photo bears a shocking resemblance to an early 90's Rocky Mountain unpainted Stratos?
  • + 1
 o man - dont let the gravel grinders hear you call their bikes dropbar mountainbikes. also, slightly misplaced use of the word 'contemporary' IMO.
  • + 2
 Thanks for the history lesson! We need more Charlie Cunninghams and Keith Bontragers.
  • + 2
 Heal up CC. Thanks for all that you contribute to cycling
  • + 2
 This is MTB gold, sorry Platinum! I would like to shake this mans hand.
  • + 2
 No gearbox, no motor, superboost, and 28.99BB...no thanks!
  • + 2
 Fantasic article. Lots of things I didnt know about CC.
  • + 2
 2 water bottle mounts AND a threaded BB!? Genius!
  • + 2
 Bike packers everywhere salute you fella!!
  • + 2
 Mountain biking with drop bars = Soiled chamois
  • + 2
 From the fun. Carrying CC's ideas forward, 80-100mm travel forks w/lockout, 29in wheels, hydraulic discs, and tubeless change the equation. There isn't a more versatile platform: I ride anything that's hardtail compatible, hit drops and jumps w/o issue: road climbs to trail heads and/or headwinds are less annoying.
  • + 1
 looks like the perfect commuter. nice.
  • + 3
 That "perfect commuter" has won a ton of races Smile
  • + 1
 @juansevo: yes, so has a ferrari 250 gto, but if i were to race it against contemporary racecars, obviously it would get smashed.

if i were to race it against a contemporary hot hatch, like a focus rs/golf r or an sti or something, it would get smashed.

if i were to race it against a 2018 camry at a stoplight, itd get smashed.

so, id rather commute to my penthouse office with it Smile
  • + 2
 @jaycubzz: if you compare a rigid 26 inches with dual suspension 29ers, yes, you get smashed.
If you compare it with nowadays rigid (no front suspension) 26 xc/trail bikes I think you may end up with the advantage.
These were not 250 gto, more like a Formula 1 from the future.
Not a fanboy, I have ridden those bikes.
  • + 1
 @RedRedRe: uh yeah cause 26" rigid xc bikes are a relevant category of bikes. anybody who willingly rides one is a masochist and is missing out on a lot of joy in mountain biking.
  • + 2
 @jaycubzz: Riding a HT or rigid is a great way to improve your skills on a bike. Technique is paramount when aboard one, as there is no suspension to bail you out.

Your body is the best suspension.
  • + 2
 @jaycubzz:

A Ferrari 250 GTO runs a 5.4 sec 0-60 time and a 13.1 sec. 1/4 mile... hot hatches and camry’s Can’t “smash” those numbers.

Similarly, some of the fastest riders I know, ride and train on single speed fully rigid bikes.

Modern bikes are rad, but older bikes are still good.
  • + 1
 I thought they were Odyssey Pitbull Brakes.
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