Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Visit To Mercian Cycles

People may or may not have noticed a lack of posts to the blog for the last couple of weeks. I generally don't like to announce to the world at large when I'm out of town (Hey everyone on the internet, we'll be gone for two weeks on vacation - would somebody be kind enough to pop in to water our plants? The key's in one of those fake plastic "rocks" in the garden. Thanks!) but now that I'm back in the world of reliable WiFi, I don't mind revealing that I was gone on a pretty terrific family trip to London and Paris. It was an awesome experience, but now we're home.

The scene from outside the Derby rail station.
As long as I was in England, I thought it would be a great opportunity to visit the folks at Mercian Cycles to see the shop and meet some of the folks who made some of my own bikes. So I boarded a train in London and rode about an hour-and-a-half north to Derby, where I was met at the station by the lovely Jane Mosely, co-owner of Mercian along with her husband Grant.

Before heading over to the shop, Jane took me to the recently opened Derby Velodrome - an impressive, modern facility that houses not only a state-of-the-art indoor track, but also a fitness center, and a concert venue. While we were there, we got to see a couple members of the British Women's Team warming up on a tandem.

Our next stop was the Mercian workshop, which sits in an unassuming little garage-like building in an industrial park, about a mile away from the retail store.

Stepping inside is almost like traveling back in time. I doubt that the workshop looks much different today than it would have about 50 years ago when they first moved the framebuilding operations into this building. Inside, I got to meet two of the Mercian builders - John, and John. Senior builder, Tony, was on vacation.
There's John, working on a Vincitore bottom bracket.
John shows me some of his work, explaining how the extra-long tangs are welded onto the shell, then filed seamlessly. That bottom bracket shell is a cool but dangerous-looking piece. 

The younger John showed me the brazing on a Mercian fork. The open hearth brazing method is something the company is well-known for, and Mercian is one of the few builders that still use it.

Next I got to see the paint shop, where Rob and Phil were working their magic.

Phil masks off the head tube lugs on a Vincitore model.
Senior painter, Rob, prepares a contrasting seat-tube panel on a new touring frame. Rob's been at the shop for more than 40 years, so if you have a Mercian made since the 1970s, chances are, Rob painted it.
Phil adds some lug lining to finish off a new fork.
There's the color board, along with an old advertising sign from the '50s.
Some of Rob's work - he mixes most of the colors himself.
A special treat was next, as I got an insider's look at something I'm sure few people get to see - the design boards for a new collaboration between Mercian and famous fashion designer Paul Smith. Unfortunately, I cannot show the newest design, since it hasn't yet been released by Paul Smith, but I think I'm safe showing the boards from a couple of previous collaborations.

Seeing this set of boards, from a 2007 collaboration, I immediately spotted something familiar. Among the sketches and color samples were some photos of a bike that helped inspire Smith's design. That green and white frame shown was my own bike, built for me in 2003, and afterwards photographed for the company's website before shipping. That was very cool to see.
After the workshop, Jane drove me over to the retail store, where Grant and Carl were preparing some bikes to take to Eroica Brittania that upcoming weekend. Mercian would have a stand set up at the event.
Love the red, black, and gold scheme on this King of Mercia touring frame.
Orange pearl and silver Vincitore track bike.
I spotted this Eroica-ready bike (well, maybe everything except the dual-pivot brakes) out on the showroom floor.  The color combination was truly eye-catching. 
These outline-only downtube decals were a cool touch I'd never seen before. 
Some new frames ready for purchase.
Here's a limited edition path racer in the shop window. The bike uses vintage lugs from the '60s, and there are only enough of them for 10 classic-styled bikes.
I spotted this cool poster hanging in the shop, but forgot to ask about how old it is. They ought to look into getting them reproduced.
Grant, Jane, and me in front of the Mercian shop. (Thanks go to Carl for snapping the picture.)
Visiting the shop was a great experience, and I have to heartily thank Grant and Jane for their hospitality, and all the guys at the shop for taking time out to chat. It was a real pleasure!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Classic Rendezvous Weekend Reports

There haven't been any Retrogrouch updates for at least a week or more - Sorry. Internet access has been spotty. More on that later.

In the meantime, I can report that the Classic Rendezvous group had a big vintage bike weekend recently in Greensboro, North Carolina. It's one of those events that any fan of vintage and classic bikes really must get to some time, though there hasn't been one for a couple years. I didn't get to go this year either, but it's nothing to feel too bad about. When there's more time, and better internet, I'll post all about that.

Until then, if you're looking for something new to read, here are a couple of reports from the CR weekend that might interest you - from somewhat newer blogs that I've been enjoying lately.

One report comes from Scott Calhoun at The Beautiful Bicycle.

Scott drove all the way from Tucson, Arizona to get to the event in North Carolina. His report was a nice read.

Also, there are several of articles about the Classic Rendezvous weekend from Brian Ignatin and Matthew Butterman of the Handbuilt Bicycle Guide.

CR weekend includes a vintage show with winners in various categories, and a full list of winners is on the HBG. Also, there were guest speakers for the event, including framebuilders Brian Chapman, Peter Johnson, and Dave Moulton, who gave different perspectives from different eras in bicycle building.

Another report people should definitely check out comes from Dave Moulton himself, whose blog is always worth a read.

Hopefully those will keep you busy until I can get back to more regular posts.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Jocelyn Lovell - Canadian Cycling Hero: 1950 - 2016

Though a lot of cycling fans in the U.S. might not be familiar with the name, bike racer Jocelyn Lovell was as big of a hero in Canada as somebody like Greg LeMond here in the states. Lovell was a dominant force in Canadian cycling on both the track and road, and helped reinvigorate the sport in his country in much the way LeMond did in the U.S.

(photo from Toronto Star Archives)
Jocelyn Lovell was born in England, but moved with his family to Canada at the age of four. He started bicycle racing when he was just 13, and competed in his first of three Olympics games in Mexico, 1968. He would have been only 18 years old and finished an impressive 6th on the track in the kilometer.
Lovell on the track, in his familiar national colors.
During his racing career, he won more than 35 national titles, competed in the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, and won numerous medals in the Commonwealth Games (including 4 golds), Pan American Games (2 golds), and World Championships (silver). In some of those performances, he set records that would stand for decades.

Lovell on a bike built for him by Giuseppe Marinoni, who built a number of bikes for the Canadian racer. The two were reunited in the recent documentary about Marinoni, The Fire in the Frame.

In 1983, while out for a training ride, Lovell was tragically hit and dragged by a dump truck. The  resulting spinal cord injury left him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

Lovell with his first wife, speed skater Sylvia Burke, shortly after the tragic accident in 1983. (photo from the Toronto Star Archives)
Though the terrible incident ended Lovell's racing career, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. Just last year, he was among the first inductees into the new Canadian Cycling Hall of Fame.

Lovell would become a major advocate for spinal cord research in his life, but reportedly continued to suffer from health effects and complications from his life-changing accident. He died last week, June 3rd, with his second wife, Neil, at his bedside.

What a terrible loss. Jocelyn Lovell, Rest in Peace.

Friday, June 3, 2016

It's Officially Summer

I know the Summer Solstice doesn't happen until June 20, but for me and the Retro-Kids, today is the official beginning of Summer. It's their first day of Summer break, we got to go out for a bike ride and picnic, and it's opening day for the little fruit market in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Our weather today has been perfect. A little hot in the sun, but a perfect day to be outside. We loaded up all the bikes and drove down to the CV National Park to ride the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath.

One of our stops along the way was the wooden boardwalk over a beaver marsh. No, I've never actually seen any beavers there, but we do often see turtles, herons, and a variety of other birds and fish. Dawn and dusk are good times to see the beavers, or so I've heard. Their hutches and dams are readily seen, though, and the marsh exists because they've dammed up the old canal. Here, the Retro-kids are watching some carp and bluegill.
We found a nice shady spot for lunch by a park visitor center. Our area is experiencing the height of a 17-year cicada cycle, so the rattle of the red-eyed insects is a constant drone. We kept finding their little cast-off shells, but luckily they don't really bother people much.
Along the towpath, we encountered this little guy - a baby snapping turtle sitting in the path. He was in danger of being run over by passing cyclists, so we urged him along carefully back toward the water.
"Move along little guy."
Stopping for a rest at one of the old canal locks.
Actually, I think we spent more time resting (and eating) than riding. Szlay's fruit market in the Cuyahoga Valley is a perfect destination for any bike ride. Lots of fresh produce, and cold treats like ice cream and slushies, too. 

As far as the Retro-kids and I are concerned, Solstice or not, Summer has officially begun.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

GPs Thoughts on Disc Brakes

I saw this post on the Rivendell Blug not too long ago about disc brakes vs. rim brakes. Needless to say, Grant Petersen says a lot of the same things I do about disc brakes, but with his years of experience in the business, he still has a way of saying them with a certain authority that I simply don't have.

If I could summarize Petersen's view on disc brakes, it is that there's nothing exactly wrong with them, but they aren't the vast and remarkable improvement over good rim brakes that the industry has been pushing for the last few years. In other words, they don't make bikes with rim brakes obsolete, and shouldn't.

Petersen points out some of the benefits of disc brakes -- notably the fact that they are less affected by mud and water, and that they don't heat up rims to the point of tire blowout on scary-fast descents.  Then again, for the majority of cyclists and conditions, those benefits are over-sold. And on the down-side, as he adds, the leverage of a disc brake concentrates a lot of force near the hub, putting a lot more stress on seat-stays, and on fork blades far from the crown. As a result, frames need to be beefed up in those areas, which can affect compliance and comfort. He also mentions how those braking forces concentrated out at the frame ends have been enough to overwhelm quick releases and even "lawyer tabs" on front forks, necessitating the move to through-axles. To wit, he asks the question, "Which is better -- a mechanical system that localizes stress on a small area, then bullies it into submission with bulk and beef, or one that disperses stress and spreads it out?"

He goes on to say, "Disc brakes are fine, but if the bike could speak for itself, it might request a rim brake. . . The fact is, rim brakes are getting pounded these days, but it's a kind of artificial pounding by fashion and commerce."

I would have to agree with that. I mean, if I were looking at a new bike on the showroom floor and the bike I wanted came with disc brakes, I certainly wouldn't reject it for that reason. But at the same time, I wouldn't be drawn to a particular bike because it had discs. And if there were another bike basically the same but with rim brakes, and selling for a lower price, I'd probably choose to save the money.

But there's another point to be made that resonates with me. And that is regarding the simplicity of a traditional rim brake. Everything is out in the open, easy to see and easy to maintain, while potential problems are easy to diagnose and solve. Some would likely point out that once a modern hydraulic disc brake system is set up properly, it needs little maintenance. To which I would respond that getting it set up properly is a lot more likely to be something that requires an experienced mechanic, and if something actually goes wrong (and things do, indeed, go wrong - even on the best of systems) it can be a lot harder to diagnose or solve. This is something I wrote about last year when a bike reviewer for BikeRadar had a pretty scary disc brake failure on a test ride. In that case, the brake components were sent back to Shimano for inspection, but ultimately, even they couldn't adequately explain how or why the failure occurred.

Petersen describes it like this: "Ultimately, you can expect the bicycle of the immediate future to become more of a high tech black box, with cables being replaced by hydraulics, and the visible levers and pulleys and other simple machines that combine into bicycle magic being hidden or replaced by electronics. The bicycle of the future will, absolutely, be shrouded in mystery and sold on reputation and faith, like a Samsung flat-screen TV."

He continues, "There's a tendency to trust mechanisms you can't see more than those you can, because when you see how something works, you see also the potential for failure. . . If you're mechanically adept you might be more attracted to something you can figure out and fix, but more people aren't that than are."

That really nails it for me, and it's something I've touched on again and again in this blog - whether it's electronic shifting, or disc brakes, or integrated/connected dashboards and other electronic gewgaws -- all that stuff makes the bike more of a "black box" (I like that description, so I'm using it) and takes it further from the simplicity that I value in a bicycle. Fly-by-wire electronic and hydraulic systems, for efficiency, comfort, and safety, all controlled by a state-of-the-art computer is fine for my car. But what makes a bicycle special is that it demonstrably doesn't need any of that to make it any better.

People do seem to like push-button/touch-screen convenience, which oddly enough seems so simple, but only because the far greater complexity is kept hidden, and only accessible by those who are specially trained and certified to look behind the plastic covers. That illusory simplicity is great when everything works as it should, but vanishes into the ether when something goes wrong. It's like a microwave oven. If something goes wrong, it ends up costing more to fix it than to just scrap it and buy a new one. Bikes and bike components shouldn't be that.

In the end of Petersen's blug post, he concludes by saying "Don't dis the rim brake. It's beautiful and it works, and today's rim brakes are better than ever."

Couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Record Bike Commuting Numbers

Last time I reported on my bike commuting was in December as the Fall semester was wrapping up. At that time I had a bike-to-work average of 75%, the best I'd ever had at the mid-way point in the year. Now that another school year is wrapping up for the Summer, it's time to take another look back.
The bulletin board in my classroom has a running
tally of the days I've ridden to work. Some of my
kids have really gotten enthusiastic as the numbers
have climbed.

When the year began, I had a goal of riding 50% for the year, or about 90 days. Actually, that's been my goal every year since I started doing this on a regular basis, but I fell short of the goal for the past two years. In fact, last year (2014-2015) with its horrible and seemingly endless Winter, I didn't even come close. Up to now, 90 days was my all-time record for bike commuting in one school year.

With the tremendous Fall we had here in NE Ohio, I had an excellent start to the year, but my average always drops during the Winter months, and this past year was no exception. Still, I was able to ride more this Winter than any year previous. I averaged roughly one day per week in January, two days per week in February, and about three days per week in March. All good, but not enough to keep that 75% average from falling.

Still, by the end of February, I was already up to 75 days, and it became a near-certainty that I'd hit my 90 days early, so I decided to raise my goal for the year to 110. That meant I would need to average at least three days per week for the rest of the school year. A cold, wet Spring (we even had snow in April!) made things a little uncertain at times, but this week, the last week of May and the last week of school, I pulled up to work under a golden sunrise with 110 days in the saddle. That works out to an average of 62% for the year.

Arriving at work on my 110th day riding. The sunrise was golden.
Here are some figures for the year:

Days ridden: 110 (62% avg.)
Miles per day: 28.5
Commuting miles for the year: 3135
Fuel saved this year: estimated 111 gallons (based on my car's avg. 28 mpg.)
Best single month: October (17 days, 85%) I only drove my car three times the whole month!
Worst single month: January (5 days, 27%)

Figures for the past four years combined:

Days ridden: 337 (47% avg.)
Total miles: 9604 miles
Fuel saved: est. 343 gallons

If I could just forget that the awful 2014-15 year ever happened (I only managed to ride 61 days that year, or 35%), my overall multi-year average would be about 51%.

At current gasoline prices (about $2.40 per gal), that 343 gallons would work out to more than $820 in savings, but it's actually more than that, since gas prices were typically between $3 - $4 per gallon until this past year.

Some photos from the past couple of months:
Snow in April.
Is it springtime yet?
A foggy morning sunrise in May
My riding companion on a brilliant May morning.
With 110 days riding to work, I may have just set myself a new record that I won't be able to beat for a long time to come.