Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Beauty of a Mercian

I like my bike. 

No,  I love my bike.

Many people have bikes and I am sure that they are very fond of them. But they are just bikes. The same bike as the one next door or the the same as the one in the next village, town or city.
The popularity of cycling and the power of marketing is ensuring the world is becoming populated by identi-kit bikes.

For my dream bike I wanted craftsmanship. I wanted my bike to be man-made Something which demonstrated engineering excellence and was ageless. I was not interested in the latest mass produced carbon sensation, it would be wasted on me anyway.
I wanted something unique. A perfect fit just for me.

But I am not alone in this desire to pay homage to tradition and homage to a legend..
And to record this fact I take the opportunity to photograph other Mercians that I encounter whilst out cycling, the only restriction being that I do not allow myself to stand outside the Mercian showroom in Derby, capturing images of these wonderful machines as they begin their lives on the road.

A gallery of the bikes I have seen can be seen here on my Flickr site The Mercian Set

This gallery is regularly updated ( or at least as and when I spot a new machine ), so drop back and keep in touch

and as a taster this is an image of my vintage Mercian Audax taken in the heart of the Kingdom of Mercia.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Mercian Stable

So how many bikes does one need?

Rule #12 states that while the minimum number of bikes one should own is three, the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your partner.

I currently have the minimum number.

When I started cycling following retirement I bought a Specialized Sirrus Comp ( 2008 ).
I don’t really  know why.
I wanted a bike and sitting upright seemed a safer option. It was built with an aluminium frame and carbon forks, which I assumed was a lighter option. Equipped with 27 gears that seemed more than enough though precisely what that 50/40/30 and 12-28 cassette meant I had not got a clue. The group set was Shimano Tiagra and the wheels were fitted, so I was told, with 700x28mm tyres which I noticed had very little tread.
And so my cycling adventure began!
I got on board and cycled the 7km home, most of which was uphill..and I was exhausted. Driving a desk for 35 years was just no true preparation for riding a bike.
Encouraged by my wife, whom I secretly suspect thought the prospect of having me at home 24x7 after a lifetime of having the house to herself was an anathema , I persevered and soon my fitness improved, the distances increased and I began to experience the thrill of completing a climb and touring the country lanes around Derbyshire.
I soon met other cyclists who welcomed me to the fraternity and started explaining the basics of cycle maintenance and introduced me to that road to ruin, the ( essential ? ) upgrade. Looking at their bikes and listening to their stories I was introduced to the legendary names of equipment manufacturers, the famous races and the incredible history of the sport. Campagnola, Brooks, Mercian were soon to become as much a  part of my vocabulary as it was of theirs.
And a Brooks B17 saddle was my first upgrade, just the smell of the pure leather was intoxicating. This was rapidly followed by a further purchase, a jar of Sudo Cream, as I became painfully aware that leather saddles need to be broken in before  that state of ultimate seat comfort could be achieved.

It was whilst talking about bikes in a tea shop during a break in one of our rides that the opportunity to add to my bike stable emerged. One of my friends mentioned that he had an old Mercian that he was thinking of selling. It had been hanging from his garage wall for the last 5 years and so he thought it needed a new owner and a new lease of life.
I bought it!
It is a 1961 Mercian Audax with a Reynolds 531 frame and I am at least its fourth owner. It was originally equipped with a Campagnola Group Set with a 53/42 chain set but this has later been modified by adding a 30 tooth inner ring. The rear cassette is now a Shimano 14-28 and gear change is accomplished by a gravity downtube shifter though I have upgraded this to an index system for the rear cassette.
The quill stem, bars and seat stay are all the original Campagnola  but the brakes are a mixture of bits from Shimano and others.
The bike currently has 630x32 Schwalbe Marathon tyres mounted on what could be an original Mercian hand built wheel on a Jet Set R-10 rim at the rear and a Mavic Module-3 on the front.
Though the bike was obviously not built for me, it does ride beautifully and whether it is the lower rider profile on the drops, the larger chain rings or some other factor, it is certainly much quicker than the Hybrid. In summary, it is a bike which seduces you to the majesty and engineering excellence of a hand built machine.

My love affair with Mercian had begun.

And so I determined to have my own hand built bike and a description of it has been the topic of previous posts.  The result is a Mercian Vincitore Special ( 2012 ) and I wonder if the story will end here, or........

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Marques of Distinction

The history of cycling is littered with iconic names

The names of the Five Monuments of Cycling are generally considered to be the oldest and most-prestigious one-day races on the calendar.

  • Milan - San Remo ( Italy )– the first true Classic of the year, its Italian name is La Primavera (the spring), this race is held in late March. First run in 1907.
  • Tour of Flanders ( Belgium )– also known as the "Ronde van Vlaanderen", the first of the 'Spring Classics', is raced in early April. First held in 1913.
  • Paris - Roubaix  ( France )– the "Queen of the Classics" or l'Enfer du Nord ("Hell of the North") is traditionally one week after the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and was first raced in 1896.
  • Liege - Bastogne - Leige  (Belgium) – late April. La Doyenne, the oldest Classic, was first held in 1892 as an amateur event; a professional edition following in 1894.
  • Giro de Lombardia (Italy) – also known as the "Race of the Falling Leaves", is held in October. Initially called the Milano–Milano in 1905, it became the Giro di Lombardia in 1907.

and at the other end of the scale are the Grand Tours lasting more than 14 days each
  • Tour de France– Tour of France (est. 1903), held in July
  • Giro d’Italia– Tour of Italy(est. 1909), held in May
  • Vuelta a Espana – Tour of Spain (est. 1935), currently held in August

The stories of the men who have competed in these events; their feats of endurance, daring , bravery and imperviousness to pain are the stuff of legends.

And they were all done on a bike whose basic concept has rarely changed over the decades. Though advances in engineering technology and material science has now allowed the introduction of exotic materials into frame construction and wireless technology into gear change.

It was to capture some of the essence of those early pioneers that I wanted my bike to be built from components which harked back to those early years. A retro bike in these days of carbon frames and electronic gear shifters.

A bike which would salute those Marques of Distinction.

Monday, April 9, 2012

When Dreams Encounter Reality

The hardest decision that I had to make when specifying the kit for my dream Mercian was what Group Set to have fitted. The choices seemed endless.

Shimano or Campagnola or SRAM.?
And then a double front chain wheels or a triple?
And what range of tooth set on the cassette?
And of course there was the question of component quality
And style, tradition and engineering pedigree

To help the decision making I could of course call upon Sheldon Brown and his Gear Inch Calculator,  ;though one still needs to be able to translate into the reality of climbing a mountain the difference between 32 and 38 inches.

My vintage 1961 Mercian Audax with its original 53/42 front chainset coupled to gravity non-indexed gears with a 12-25 cassette results in a lowest gear of 45.4 inches which is certainly a challenge to my aged legs. Hence it has been modified to something more manageable by one of its previous owners to have a third ring of 30 teeth and a cassette reaching the dizzy heights of 28 teeth resulting in a manageable 28.9 inches.

But do I REALLY need a triple?  Those 50/34 compacts with a 12-26 cassette result in 35 gear inches, only a mere 6 inches difference from my ancient steed.  “A trifle” says my heart and the whole classical Campagnola range are open to me if I go with the compact, and after all, how many hills have I not been able to climb? None. So, a few extra inches, a man of 65 years who is a novice and whose strength will soon be ebbing :-()
Is there a reason why most of my riding companions have gone for triples with 46/36/26 rings and upto 34 teeth on the rear cassette?  Do those Derbyshire Peaks get steeper with every passing year?

Dreaming meets Reality.

Or does it?

Currently I can power up the hills and the recovery rate is rapid. I rarely use anything bigger than 30/22 , (or 36.8 gear  inches ) and when I have tried riding a 26/34 combination my legs were spinning so fast to get nowhere I almost fell off. So perhaps a compact IS feasible, even with my poor conditioning.

And so to a decision.

I would choose Campagnola because of its classic heritage and its reputation for engineering excellence.
This decision meant that all the rear cassettes above 29 teeth were ruled out as Campagnola seem to believe that road bikes are designed for fit young men and only make a token effort towards the casual veteran cyclist.  That token, a Centaur Triple with 50/40/30 front chain rings and a 10 speed 13-29 cassette would be my choice. And if, in a few years time as my strength starts to fade rapidly, I find the hills too hard to manage, I will change the entire group set for something easier. Until then i will enjoy the excitement of the ride.

Would you have made a different choice?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stay In, Drop Out

If you have been following this blog then you will be aware that I am very much a novice cyclist and have only come to this pastime, I would be ashamed to use the word " sport " in reference to my endeavours, since I retired.  One of the effects of this is that my ability to know instinctively when to change gear is poor. Whilst this  failing reduces my average pace in virtually all cycling situations, the most noticeable effect occurs when trying to change gear when the chainset is under severe load. This tends to occur when climbing and I suddenly need to change down gear as the gradient becomes too steep, or when I try to accelerate hard on a climb in order to attack the other riders.
I own two Mercians, one of them being a 1961 vintage Audax, which has a Horizontal Drop Out on the wheels

The power that I transfer to the pedals, and hence the chainset, under these conditions is such that the rear wheel twists in its supports causing the tyre to rub against a chain stay. I once road 35km in the Derbyshire Peak District under these conditions and struggled to keep up with the rest of the peleton to such an extent that I considered abandoning the ride. It was only when a more experienced cyclist pointed out that I had been doing  severe resistance training up the peaks and corrected the problem was I able to continue.

My new Mercian Vincitore Special ( 2012 ) has a different design for holding the rear wheel in place.

This is engineered with Vertical Drop Outs and I suspect is a much improved design feature as there is nowhere for the axle to slide. In any event, I have yet to experience any inadvertent resistance training.
But it could be that the chrome plated stays on the vintage Mercian are the problem and that horizontal drop outs do have advantages over the vertical type.