Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting Reacquainted With An Old Friend

I got out for a ride yesterday with an old friend I hadn't ridden with in quite a while. There wasn't much reason for the long time that had passed since we last rode together -- but it's probably been at least a year or two. Time just has a way of getting away from us. We'd think about getting in touch, then the timing just wouldn't work out. Schedules conflict, people get busy, things just come up. Sometimes newer, fresher faces walk into our lives and end up getting all our attention.

A wonderful riding companion.
The last time I had ridden the green Mercian with its barber-pole paint job, I found that it needed a new back tire, and the rim was in need of a little truing touch-up. Neither thing was any major issue, but I didn't want to take it out on the road as it was, so I hung the bike up on its hook to wait until I'd get a chance to take care of it. Then every time I'd think about doing the little bit of work the bike required, I'd get distracted by another job. When I'd want to go for a ride, I had plenty of other bikes to choose from that were ready to go, so the minor repairs just dropped down the list of priorities.

And then there were other bikes that also needed attention -- bikes that were a little more "important" and more demanding -- like the commuter that gets me and all my essentials to work most mornings. That bike would need a new tire, and it didn't feel like something I could put off, so I'd get that bike on the stand to replace a worn tire without delay, while the green Mercian hung lonely on the hook. Sorry, old friend. Next time, OK? Of course, "next time" came and went. I'd think about taking the green bike for a ride, but remembering that I still needed to change the tire and touch-up the back wheel, I'd end up grabbing a different bike -- one that that didn't need anything before hitting the road. I suppose as far as that goes, having roughly a dozen bikes to choose from is both a blessing and a curse.

The green Mercian was built in 2003, but has a full set
of Campagnolo Super Record components from the early '80s.
Another thing is the appearance of new faces. Back in the spring, without really planning to, I found myself purchasing another bike -- the 1980 Mercian Strada Speciale that I wrote about a few months back. I wasn't really looking for another bike, but it looked like a good one that needed a new home and a bit of TLC. It was my size and the price was right. A new project. So that bike got a lot of my attention for much of this last riding season -- polishing and buffing, locating age-appropriate parts, wrapping bars, etc. And of course, when I've been looking for a light and racy bike for faster un-laden sunny-day rides, I've been going to the new face, while the green Mercian continued to hang on its hook. The green bike had always been perfect for rides like that. In terms of riding style, the "new" bike has a lot in common with "old" one, which makes it seem almost like betrayal.

Rare as hens teeth (what exactly are hens teeth?) Super Record
retrofriction shift levers. These feel a lot like the well-known
Simplex levers -- the touch is light and makes for positive shifts.
Recently I was getting some things prepared for an article about shellacked handlebars, and pulled out the green Mercian so I could shoot a couple of photos of the bars. I took it out into the sunlight and noticed how the light sparkles in the leaf green pearl paint. I admired the barber pole paint scheme and remembered how Mercian Cycles used the bike for a catalog photo shoot after they'd finished building it. I started to think how stupid it is to have such a nice bike just hanging on a hook unridden. I found I couldn't even remember just how long it had been since we'd ridden together. It had to be at least two years.

Newly determined, I decided it was time to finally get the bike put right. I ordered some new tires from Compass Bicycles -- the Grand Bois Cerf green label tires in 28mm width. The old tires were 25mm (a "true" 25mm -- not the kind that were labeled 25 but actually measured 22) which seemed plenty comfy enough back when I'd first installed them, but my preferences run a little wider nowadays. The Grand Bois tires have such a perfect look for a bike like this -- and though it wasn't intentional, I couldn't help but smile when I saw that the tires' green labels so nicely matched the green frame. While I had the wheels off the frame, I put the back wheel into my truing stand and touched up the little spot that was out of true. I checked the hubs while I was at it and put in some fresh grease. Then I cleaned the chain and gave it some fresh lube, and lubed the derailleur and brake pivots as well.

I splurged when I bought that bottle cage -- a Nitto race cage.
I have no regrets about that.
Taking the bike out, I couldn't understand why it had been so long. It has such a classic "steel" ride -- made even better, I'm sure, by the new slightly larger-volume tires. It holds the road so well, but has that springiness that a good steel bike is known for. The geometry, which is classic road-race, seems nicely sorted out. It can be ridden no hands easily and tracks true, but changes direction quickly with a light touch.

Although many people (including myself, sometimes) are often critical of old Campagnolo derailleurs for not shifting as well as modern units, I found myself re-evaluating that criticism. The Super Record rear derailleur (in this case, upgraded with C-Record ball-bearing pulleys, as opposed to the more typical brass sleeve bushing ones) shifts smoothly and silently, finding the right gear quickly and without much fiddling. The retrofriction shift levers probably help with that as well, with their light, smooth touch. The levers have such nice feedback that one can almost feel the derailleur and chain find the right cog. The only place the shifting proves to be finicky is when making the shift to the last cog on the outside of the freewheel. It's a function of the traditional parallelogram that the chain gap widens as the derailleur moves outward, making those last high-gear shifts a bit balky. For me, it's that last one, to the 13-t cog, that sometimes just doesn't want to happen. Occasionally, when it just refuses to make that last shift, I'll make a quick front gear change, down to the smaller chainring (yes, that's the No-No small-ring-to-small-cog combination -- but I don't actually ride it like this) which alters the chain tension just enough that usually the chain will drop right down to the smallest cog, and then I immediately shift back up to the big ring. With the light-touch downtube levers, it can all be done easily with one hand. Riders raised on SIS and STI, or Ergo, or whatever, would probably screw up their faces wondering why anybody would put up with this and still manage to find it acceptable (or charming, even). Perhaps, but then, I don't race, and I don't really find myself riding in 53 x 13 gear very often anyhow.

That little oval decal signifies the full-Campy build. The bottom
bracket on this bike, the Professional model, has long tangs on the
down tube, seat tube, and chain stays. It seems to stiffen up the BB
without negatively affecting the ride.
There are some ways that the vintage drivetrain actually has advantages over newer setups. Front shifting, for instance, is actually better in my opinion than either Shimano's STI, or modern Campy's Ergo. The Super Record (and mostly identical Nuovo Record) front derailleurs are plenty strong and stiff, with a fairly narrow no-nonsense cage design. Front shifts are immediate and positive, whether up or down -- and I believe the shifts are slightly faster than modern Campy, and definitely faster than anything currently from Shimano (supposedly the new electronic shifting is plenty fast and easy, but at what cost?). With full friction levers, one has virtually infinite adjustability for trim, so one never has to suffer the annoyance of a chain rubbing on the derailleur cage because their STI won't trim properly.

Speaking of silence, I had completely forgotten just how quiet this bike is. The shifts are smooth and silent, both front and rear. Even when coasting, the bike is barely audible. A lot of that silence should probably be credited to the SunTour freewheel -- an ultra 7 (narrow-spaced) New Winner. I know that Regina is probably the "traditional" choice with vintage Campy, but SunTour freewheels are hard to beat. I don't feel awkward about mixing nationalities -- there is no language barrier here.

Overall, my ride on the green Mercian was a revelation and a pleasure. Getting on it after such a long hiatus, I was immediately struck by the way everything just seemed to fit into place, and the way the bike responded to my input. It was great to get reacquainted -- to rediscover the bike's many virtues. Hello again, old friend.


  1. Good thing you appear to be shorter than me, or I'd be happy to relieve you of some of your excess Mercians :) That bikes in the upper 50's, right?

    Gorgeous bike. Reminds me I've got a Sekai hanging up that just needs a new tube to be up and rolling again.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. It's a 60 cm frame -- maybe 61 c-to-t. Not for sale, but you knew that.

  2. Enjoyed reading about your old friend. I could relate to much of what you wrote. Thanks.

  3. I really like this bike. Might be one of my favorites of yours (at least from the pictures you've posted). Something about that beautiful green with the brown saddle/ wraps & hoods/ gumwalls, a very classy combination. I probably wouldn't have done much different, were it mine to tinker with.

    Earlier this summer, I was sizing up my bikes before a ride, trying to decide what kind of mood I was in that day. For no real reason, I opted for a bike that I probably hadn't ridden for nearly a year. Meandering quite slowly along the path by the river, I happened to run into my parents (out for a walk in the nice weather). My father questioned me about the bike, as it was set-up a bit on the sporty side (for me, anyways...) and he knows that if I'm on this particular path I'm just tootling around. "It just asked to go out for a ride today" I quipped.

    I think that those of us that have the luxury of having a large stable of bikes, particularly if they are all "riders" and not "wall-hangers", almost always have some number that are out of commission due to some maintenance issue that we drag our feet getting to. As your post illustrates, it's a fun exercise to take a bike that hasn't had any attention in a long while, service the bearings or clean/ lube the chain or get some new tires on it, whatever has side-lined it, and re-discover the charms of that bike. If it has been a particularly long time since riding it, it can almost be more than becoming reacquainted, it can be like getting a "new" bike. And we all know the joy of that...


    1. I like your story -- and totally agreed. Thank you!

    2. Interesting. I have a few bikes but the rule is - they are either riders or they are disassembled with frames hung on the wall and the bits in a box.. or sold.

      Sure, some will need air in the tires, but that's it - or they are decommissioned. Same with gadgets - they either work or are removed. If I don't care about it enough to fix it, then I should pass it on to someone who does.

  4. Hey there! I have a '77 King of Mercia that I think is the same shade of green. Have you found a good touchup paint that matches well enough? Doesn't have to be perfect, but close. Lovely bike!

  5. I had bought some touchup paint direct from Mercian once, but apparently that is no longer an option -- due to certain new regulations, they cannot ship the paint. Although I haven't tried to match this particular shade of green, I tend to do pretty well for minor touchups by mixing some colors of Testor's model paint. I'll buy a couple of shades, then mix them a little at a time on a small palette until I get something pretty close. For that shade of green, I'd probably start with a metallic green model paint, then add drops of yellow, and maybe a little metallic blue.