Friday, March 31, 2017

Mercian 753 Special

It's my spring break from work, so I've had some time this week to work on a pretty awesome project: a 1979 Mercian 753 Special. It's now mostly finished and ready for some photos.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I believe 1979 was the first year that Mercian offered a model built with Reynolds 753 tubing. According to the book The Custom Bicycle by Kolin and de la Rosa, by 1978 the only 753-certified builders in the U.K. were Raleigh, Bob Jackson, and Harry Quinn. At the time they were being interviewed for that book, Mercian owner Bill Betton said they were looking into using the special heat-treated tubing, but hadn't yet decided, and had not yet sought certification for it. But according to the serial number, this frame was built some time in 1979, and by 1980 the model was listed in the company's catalog. I suspect (but can't say for certain) that there can't have been many frames built with 753 prior to this example of mine.

When I got the frame last fall, it had a busted cable guide and would need new paint, but the price was low enough that I figured it was worthwhile even with the cost of the renovation added. I already had most of the parts needed to complete the bike, but I did want a top-level pair of tubular wheels for it, which I felt would be the right choice for a special racing frame. While the frame was off at Mercian Cycles being renovated, I spent some time sourcing the right vintage rims and hubs, then built the wheels last month.

Why did I go with Mercian for the renovations? There are very good painters much closer to home, but the price of renovations at Mercian is really competitive, and the exchange rate right now is as good as I've ever seen. The price of shipping back and forth to the U.K. is the big downside. Ultimately, the renovation itself was cheaper than keeping it in the U.S., but the shipping cost eliminated any savings so the price would have been about the same either way. But the idea of having the frame renovated by the same folks who originally built it was enough to tip the scale.

Remember that post a couple months ago about "proper" bike setup? Not-so-modestly speaking, right here is a great example. 
I had these '80s vintage sew-up tires on hand, Clement Super Condors - I mounted them (without glue) to check them out but I probably won't end up using them - they are really narrow at only about 20mm wide. Even with short-reach brakes (the pads are all the way at the bottom of the slots) there is so much room in the frame that I can easily mount a larger-volume tire, and nowadays there are some good choices, even in sew-ups.
I've got a full Campy Super Record group on the bike - with one exception: Simplex retrofriction shift levers. That's a substitution a lot of riders made back in the day. Putting Campagnolo rubber covers on Simplex levers was a little trick riders like Laurent Fignon used to do to keep his sponsor Campagnolo happy. Fignon continued using the Simplex levers as late as 1989, even after Campagnolo came out with their own retrofriction levers (they called their system "doppler," by the way).
It's rare for me to use anything but Brooks saddles, but I had this like-new Cinelli Unicanitor saddle looking for a lightweight, high-performance vintage bike. Fistful of post, too. I went back and forth on the brake cable housing - trying to decide between this vintage translucent red Casiraghi housing and the classic grey Campagnolo housing (yes, I had both). I thought the red might be almost "too much" with the color matching - but at the same time, it is an EXACT match for the Ruby Red on the frame. In the end, I think the red is the right choice.
These are old-logo Cinelli stem and bars (Mod Campione del Mondo - the deep drop ones). The current "flying C" logo came about after the Columbo family bought Cinelli around '78.
There's that Campagnolo Hi-Lo hub.
Campagnolo Super Record rear derailleur with Regina Extra freewheel and drilled chain.
Can't quite see them here, but I've got super light Ale aluminum toeclips and classic Alfredo Binda straps on these Record Superleggero (SL) pedals. The SL pedals are not quite the same as the rarer Super Record pedals - the SR use titanium spindles, whereas the SL use steel. Not as light, but a lot easier to find and they'll last a good long time.

All assembled, the bike weighs around 20 lbs - not bad for a steel bike with a 60cm frame. In a post on 753 tubing, I pointed out that Reynolds offered the tubing in a couple of different gauges. The very thinnest gauge was generally reserved for smaller frames, below about 58cm, while larger frames would have tube walls that were not quite as extremely thin. Though there could be exceptions to that distinction, Mercian was (still is) a pretty conservative builder, and this one for sure uses the slightly thicker gauge. How can we tell? It takes a 26.8mm seatpost. Smaller frames, or any using the thinner gauge would take a 27.0mm post.

I still have to glue on tires before I can take it for a ride. When that happens, I'll put out a ride report.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Step Back In Time - '94 Bridgestone Calendar

While searching through eBay recently, I spotted a fun little bit of Bridgestone memorabilia for sale: a 1994 Bridgestone Endangered Species Calendar, at a buy-it-now price of $50. As of right now, it's still available. Who knows if it will bring the asking price, but I do know that I won't be buying it. You see, I already have one. But seeing the auction made me get it out and take another look.

The calendar represents month after month of vintage components and accessories to make a retrogrouch drool. I thought readers of the blog might enjoy seeing some of what's inside:

On the cover: a series of large-flange hubs. Campagnolo Record, SunTour Superbe, Zeus 2000, and Shimano Dura-Ace. Inside the calendar, the text goes on to mention how people used to claim that large-flange hubs added strength and rigidity to a wheel - something that turned out to be not really true. Still, they are very cool-looking, and even more uncommon today than they were in '94.
Zeus 2000, Huret Duopar, Simplex LJ, Mavic, Huret Jubilee, and Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleurs. The text of the calendar goes on to say "In the days before indexing, rear derailleurs from different makers had distinct personalities. But with the advent of indexing, designs have been homogenized to the point where all modern derailleurs have slant parallelograms and look like the original SunTour design." That is generally true, though to be truly honest here, three of the derailleurs shown (the Zeus, Mavic, and Campy) all share basically the same design mechanically, while the differences are mostly stylistic. The Zeus was very obviously modeled on the Campagnolo Record, but with some drillium. I've always enjoyed the Erector-set aesthetic of the early Mavic derailleur. The Simplex has a similar design but with the addition of a sprung upper pivot for crisper shifting. The little Jubilee is probably my favorite in terms of its minimalistic design, but the Duopar was probably the most unique derailleur design of them all. It's also the only touring derailleur shown.
Even by 1994, lugged frames were already becoming scarce. On the left is a pair of Cinelli stamped upper and lower head lugs. On the right is a pair of Dubois upper and lower head lugs (made by Nervex - and used on Masi Gran Criteriums). In the middle on the bottom is a Nervex Professional lower head lug, but above it is sort of a Nervex-copy made in Japan, and not quite as ornate as the original (it also happens to be a lower head lug, and is shown upside down - oops).
Flat-topped fork crowns. I had featured a few of these in an early Retrogrouch article called "Lovely Fork Crowns." Upper row is Fischer, unknown maker, and a Masi double-plate. Lower row is Zeus track crown, Vagner, and Davis track crown.
Centerpull brakes were truly "uncool" in '94, though they seem to have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years - particularly in versions that have their pivots brazed directly to the frame or fork. Shown are (top row) Universal 61, Shimano Dura-Ace, Weinmann Vainqueur, and (bottom row) Mafac 2000, Dia-Compe 510, and Zeus 2000. Some of these would command good prices today on eBay.
Friction shift levers. I still use them on most of my bikes. From left to right: Zeus 2000, Campagnolo bar-end, Campagnolo  Record down-tube, SunTour Power Ratchet bar-end, Simplex retrofriction down-tube, a Simplex retrofriction bar-end (good luck finding those today!), and a SunTour XC Power Ratchet thumb shifter.
Leather saddles. Clockwise from top left: Lepper sprung saddle (from The Netherlands), Brooks Swallow, Brooks Professional, and Ideale 88 Rebour model.

Some other "endangered species" that are shown in the calendar include traditional quill-type pedals for toe clips and straps, single-pivot sidepull brakes, classic black leather cycling shoes (like the old Dettos and Duegis we all had back in the day), and thread-on freewheels.

There is a bit of retrogrouchy text that goes with each of the monthly selections that almost always ends with something along the lines of "Eddy Merckx won all of his races on ________." Whether it's friction shifting, quill pedals, or lugged steel frames. That's practically a retrogrouch mantra. "If it was good enough for Eddy . . ."

So in 1994, all these items were considered "endangered." What is the status of these components 23 years later?

High-flange hubs? Still pretty hard to find, though not impossible - at least for track/singlespeed wheels. In fact, for people who still want to build their own wheels, just being able to buy hubs at all is becoming a challenge now that everyone (except us retrogrouches) wants pre-built "high-tech" wheels with super low spoke counts, or even carbon fiber wheels.

Friction shift levers? Thankfully still available. Dia Compe is still making versions of the old SunTour power ratchet (with a really fine ratchet, like the last-generation SunTours) that are sold under a couple of different names. Velo Orange is a source.

Centerpull brakes? As mentioned, they have made a bit of a comeback, though with the proliferation of disc brakes, they're still probably on borrowed time. Paul's centerpulls are super nice. Dia Compe still makes some, and Compass Cycles has a nice updated version of the old Mafacs. With posts brazed directly to the frame/fork, centerpulls give excellent stopping power and great modulation.

Single-pivot sidepull brakes? Gone. Just gone.

Quill pedals? Still around, surprisingly, and the quality is quite good. MKS seems to be the main source for them today.

Leather saddles? Somehow these are not just surviving, but maybe even thriving. Brooks is still the main one, but Gilles Berthoud, Selle Anatomica, and Selle Italia all offer high-quality leather saddles. There are some Taiwanese-made versions as well.

Lugged frames are scarce unless one is willing to shell out for something from a custom builder. Anything "off the rack" these days is going to be TIG welded, assuming it's even metal. Lugs and nice fork crowns are still out there for frame builders, but even a lot of steel frames nowadays use carbon fiber forks . . . (shudder).

It's kind of funny to think that after more than 20 years, the situation for many of these items hasn't changed a whole lot, but I think if I were to put out a new version of an Endangered Species calendar today, I'd probably add traditional quick release levers, threaded headsets, and quill stems. Anything else to add? Leave a comment.

Monday, March 27, 2017


All unpacked and unwrapped.

The frame is a 1979 Mercian 753 Special, completely refurbished by Mercian. I took the time to install a bottom bracket, headset and fork, and a seat post before snapping a few more pictures.

The color is Emerald Green Flamboyant, with Ruby Red Flamboyant contrasts. The original color was the same Emerald Green, but the contrasts were originally gold.

The lugs have long points with little arrowhead "window" cutouts in them. The windows were filled with the same Ruby Red contrasts, and outlined in gold.

Another look at the little cutout windows - this time in the head lugs.

I love a nice flat-topped fork crown. This one's got some nice little details on the shoulders.

I'm almost certain that 1979 was the first year that Mercian offered a 753 frame. I don't know how many they may have built before this one. I've thought about having Jane at Mercian track that information down, but I've seen the records there -- they aren't computerized, and it would be a hassle to have her dig through them just to satisfy my curiosity. 

To finish putting it all together, I have a full Campagnolo Super Record group from about 1980 - '81 to hang on there, along with a Cinelli bar/stem combo. And of course, the fantastic set of tubular wheels I recently built.

More to come . . .

Friday, March 24, 2017


Just got a package the other day. A pretty big box, about the size of a flat-screen TV. Opened it up and found a heavily bubble-wrapped bundle inside. Much better than a TV.

I started peeling back some of that bubble wrap and thought Retrogrouch readers might like a peek . . .

Ruby, Emerald, and Gold. Very nice.

More to come . . . Stay Tuned.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Retrogrouch Reading: Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture

Brooks Saddles has been in business for 150 years - essentially going back to the beginning of bicycles as we know them. To celebrate that history, the iconic company has released a book, The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture (Thames & Hudson, $32.75), which they describe as "A celebration of the bicycle and its wide-ranging cultural impact worldwide -- an insider view into the world of cycling bound to inspire the imagination of professional and amateur cyclists alike."

As a whimsical touch, the top of the book is drilled through with
three holes, like the top of a B17 saddle.
The Compendium is an eclectic (and perhaps eccentric) collection of stories, essays, photos, drawings, profiles, and more - compiled from a range of writers, artists, designers, and athletes, and edited by Rouleur magazine's Guy Andrews.

For the most part, the book is NOT about Brooks Saddles, the company or its products. In fact, some chapters are only tangentially related to bicycles at all. Instead, the book captures a wide range of "areas of interest" in the wider world that might appeal to cyclists, or to like-minded folks who appreciate tradition, craftsmanship, creativity, or perhaps even a certain distinctive "Britishness." There are chapters on British innovations (among which, the leather saddle and the pneumatic tire are listed alongside electric teakettles and hypodermic syringes); the simple joys of cycling, whether for adventure or simple transportation; the sometimes hostile relationship between London's cyclists and taxi drivers; British vs. Continental bicycle racing; naked bike rides; and an explanation of words and phrases from bicycle racing, including of course the expression "on the rivet."

The only chapters that really seem to be centered on Brooks include the story of the company's early beginnings, and a photo essay depicting the inner workings of the Brooks factory.

The photo essay of the Brooks factory includes some wonderful, 
and in some cases quirky, glimpses into the factory.

Perhaps because of its eclectic nature, the Brooks Compendium is not quite the book I expected it to be, and is not like most other cycling books in my collection - but it is an engaging book to read and peruse. If I had to compare it to anything that Retrogrouch readers might relate to, I'd say it reminds me a little of an expanded Rivendell Reader in book form. Like the Brooks Compendium, that periodical would frequently feature articles that had little to do with Rivendell bicycles specifically, or sometimes not even bicycles in general, but somehow would capture the interest of anyone who would be drawn to that company's distinctive (idiosyncratic? contrarian?) philosophy. It was always an enjoyable read, and so is the Compendium.

Among many great innovations listed in the book, the Brooks B17
is probably the only one that is still used in basically unchanged
form since its Victorian-era inception.

Racing "Over Here" and "Over There," compares British racing with its
Continental counterpart, and features insights from retired racer Robert Millar

Wonderful illustrations, and other cycling-inspired artwork.

Would it surprise anyone to know that London's cabbies hate bicyclists?
They hate bus and lorry drivers, too. But all of them hate the cyclists.

The Brooks Compendium is a large format, beautifully bound book, and over 190 pages of stories and pictures that any true bicycle devotee would be sure to enjoy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wabi Woolens Jersey

Regular readers of the Retrogrouch know how much I enjoy a classic wool jersey. For the last couple of months or so I've had the pleasure to wear the Wabi Woolens Winter Weight jersey for some of my morning commuting. Made in the American cycling mecca of Portland, Oregon, Wabi Woolens are a great choice for winter cycling - and with different knits and styles available, would be a good year-round choice as well.

Wabi Woolens was started in 2008 by Harth Huffman, who coincidentally (just like myself) is also a full-time English teacher. Huffman set out to create top-quality American-made wool clothing for cycling and other outdoor activities. The company now offers their Winter Weight long sleeve jersey, with or without rear pockets (without pockets, it is called their "Adventure" jersey, and would be good for things like X-country skiing), and the Sport Series, which is made from the same merino wool but in a lighter weight, available in either short or long sleeve.

One thing about the Winter Weight jersey is that it is not meant to be machine washable. The jersey is cut/designed to be a little larger/longer out of the package to allow for a small amount of shrinkage, and the amount of shrinkage can be controlled by the washing method. The company recommends that the first wash be done in the machine (I used the delicate cycle, then laid it flat to dry), which will shrink it about 2 inches in length. That initial wash also makes the knit a little "denser" which adds to its resistance to wintery weather. After that, it is recommended that it only be hand washed and laid flat to dry. According to Wabi Woolens, the Sport Series jerseys are treated to be machine washable (though to be safe, I'd probably still use only the delicate cycle and lay flat to dry).

I'm a fairly thin guy, and I found the overall cut to be a nice one, giving a fairly close-to-the-body fit which I appreciate. The company recommends going up a size for someone with a broader build. It's worth mentioning that even though the fit is a trim, athletic cut, it's not restrictive in any way, and will "relax" a little with wearing. I found that the length was more than adequate, and even with the initial shrinking, the sleeves were still long enough - and I have fairly long arms. The length in the body is probably a little longer than I need. If the body were to shrink another inch or two without also shortening the arms, I'd be in heaven. But on the bike, the extra body length does help to keep one's bum warm, and there's no danger whatsoever of it riding up and leaving the lower back exposed.

I am really pleased with the construction of the jersey. The wool, just as advertised, is nice and thick, very soft to the feel, and the stitching and quality are all top-rate. Like any classic cycling jersey, it has 3 pockets in back, and one has an additional zippered pocket-within-a-pocket that is perfect for carrying a cell phone.

Colors and styling are quite traditional. Most are single-color only, without stripes, contrast panels, or other embellishments, though there is a version of the Sport Series jersey that has a 2-color chevron design that looks pretty classy. On the whole, the Wabi Woolens jerseys are about function - not flash. Prices range from $160 for short sleeve jerseys, up to $175 for the long sleeved Winter Weight. That's right in line with other wool jerseys I've seen, and considering the made-in-America provenance and the fact that they are made to last for years, I think they are a great buy. The jerseys can be purchased directly from the Wabi Woolens website.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Shortening a Silca Frame Pump

Despite the popularity of mini pumps, which now are often small enough to fit into a seat pack or even a back pocket - sometimes a classic frame-fit pump is a great way to go. And when it comes to frame-fit pumps, the most common choices have long been either the Zefal or the Silca. I've used both, and honestly the Zefal works a little better - but the Silca is my sentimental favorite.

The classic plastic-bodied Silca Impero has long been discontinued, but lightly used or even NOS examples are still easy to find. Getting them in the right length, however, can sometimes be the trick. Not all that long ago, there was a discussion on the Classic Rendezvous group about shortening a Silca frame pump. The timing was pretty fortunate, since I had recently picked up a nice old pump on eBay that turned out to be just about an inch too long for any of my bikes (always make sure about whether the seller's measurement includes the pump head or not!). Since I didn't really want to bother with the hassle of trying to return the pump for a refund, I decided to look into shortening it instead.

There are a couple of methods for shortening a pump. The method that the CR friends seemed to agree was the most reliable is pretty clever, and seemed easy enough to follow, but unfortunately, also requires a drill press for the best results, which I don't happen to own or have access to. However, I did find someone in the group who was kind enough to shorten the pump for me, which was great. Still, even though I didn't end up doing it myself, I thought that revealing the method might prove useful to some Retrogrouch readers who might want to give it a try.

So here, with some pretty simple diagrams, is the method for shortening a Silca frame pump:

First, you'll need to disassemble the pump. Easy enough to do. Remove the plunger, and take off the head, rubber gaskets, and metal sleeve.

Remove the plunger by unscrewing the knurled ring at the top of the barrel.
Unscrew the pump head and remove the gasket and the metal sleeve. Cutting operation will begin by removing material at this end of the pump, and then re-gluing the nipple end back into the shortened plastic barrel.
From here on, you'll have to refer to my home-made diagrams:

Carefully cut the pump to the desired length from the nipple end of the shaft as shown. Make sure that the cut is straight, and clean up any burrs on the barrel with fine sandpaper.
To make it easier to work with for the next step, you may want to make another cut to remove some more of the excess material. Get it down to roughly one inch or a little less.

Here's where the drill press comes in. Carefully chuck the nipple end into the drill press. Take precautions not to damage the threads. The drill press will essentially work like a lathe.

With the end of the pump spinning in the drill press, and using a file, remove the remaining bit of the barrel tube from the "plug" that is glued into the end. Work slowly, and remove just enough material to reveal the plug. You can always take off a little more, but you can't put it back on once it's gone. When it's finished, it should just slip into the newly cut barrel tube.
Use 2-part epoxy to re-glue the plug into the newly shortened pump barrel. Make sure everything is clean and grease-free before gluing.
Next, you need to shorten the plunger tube by the same amount.

Again, cut straight, and make sure the cut is clean on the piece you're saving.
The plunger itself is simply pressed into the shaft and held in place by a couple little punched-in "dimples." Carefully put the plunger shaft into a vise and file through the aluminum shaft to free the plug.

Press the plunger piece into the newly shortened shaft.

Tap with a center punch tool to make new dimples to hold the plunger piece in place. Really - that's how they did it a the factory. If you want to add some epoxy in there just to be safe, it probably won't hurt, but it will make any future changes more difficult.
As you can see, the process seems pretty straightforward. The only thing that prevented me from trying it is the lack of a drill press. If you have a Silca Impero that is too long, and you have the tools, it might be worth a try.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shattering Wheel Deals

Right after I posted about the amazing 2-Spoke wheels (that supposedly generate speed in crosswinds) I caught "wind" of this other high-tech wheel-related story - about Shimano 3-spoke aero wheels shattering under a Team Sky rider in the team time trial at this year's Tirreno-Adriatico race.

The wheels are Shimano PRO Textreme carbon fiber wheels that were also being used by the BMC, Orica-Scott, FDJ, Sunweb, and LottoNL teams in addition to Team Sky. Shimano claims that the wheels passed "rigorous testing" and have a "flawless record."

When the front wheel of Gianni Moscon begins to shatter, he appears to be on perfectly smooth pavement, just riding along (at nearly 40 mph). Although Moscon's wheel is the one that was utterly destroyed and caught on camera, teammate Geraint Thomas said that two other wheels used by the team were also badly damaged in the stage. So much for the "flawless record."

So, what happened? The failures are being blamed on three of the riders hitting potholes in the road (how big these holes were isn't mentioned) but what's interesting is that the wheels didn't break right away. According to the interview with Thomas, Moscon's wheel was the first to break up, but others broke further down the road, whereas the rest of the team had to wait for the others to catch up so they could finish the stage with at least five riders.

By the way, the same wheels have been available to the public for a couple of years now and sell for about $2500 (yes - that's for just the front wheel). I can't imagine paying that much for any wheel -- not even one that doesn't shatter spectacularly.

Shimano is reportedly investigating the incident. In their statement they said, "We are continuing to look closely into all factors that could cause the incident. During production the three-spoke wheel passed PRO's extremely high internal quality control and ISO/UCI standards. PRO's three spoke wheel was introduced in 2014 and has a flawless record, achieving countless time trial victories since, including BMC's team time trial win in the same stage."

In other words, "isolated incident" and possibly, "rider error." Something tells me that their investigation is going to conclude that the riders should have known better than to hit potholes in the road. Good advice for any fool with more money than sense who shelled out $2500 for a single wheel.

Just to put this all into some Retrogrouchy perspective, I recently built what I consider to be a pretty killer set of wheels with NOS vintage Campagnolo Record hubs and Mavic Monthlery Legere rims, and butted stainless steel spokes (36 rear, 32 front). The components were about the best one could get in the late '70s and early '80s -- professional quality all the way -- and in my view, just as good today as they were back then, regardless of the current era's carbon fetish. Their weight rivals a lot of today's carbon fiber wünderwheels, and I expect that they'll probably last the rest of my life. I think the total cost was about $350. Hmmmm . . . which would YOU choose?