Saturday, September 21, 2019


With school back in session, and with a new schedule and new teaching assignments, it seems I haven't had a lot of time for blog writing these last few weeks. But I have been riding to work as much as possible. Usually I ride a decidedly non-retro-grouchy bike to work, fully decked out with racks, panniers, fenders, bags, and lights - and with an aluminum frame, modern Shimano components, and even (gasp) disc brakes. I see it as utilitarian pack mule that gets the job done without inspiring much passion - and riding it in rain or winter's salty slush doesn't make me cringe the way I would if I were on a nice classic steel bike.

The last couple of days have brought us fantastic weather -- warm, sunny, and with no hint of rain in sight. I haven't had to carry a lot of gear back and forth either, so for my last few commuting rides I decided to skip the pack mule and take something a little more lively: my black & blue Mercian "retro-mod." Since I haven't really featured it on the blog much, I thought I might take some time today to rectify that.

This was a frame I had built back around 2010 - a King of Mercia model in Reynolds 725 heat-treated chrome-moly. The "retro" comes from the lugged steel frame and vintage-inspired paint scheme with contrasting panels and bands on the seat-tube. The "mod" comes from its modern (well, modern for 2010) components - including 10-speed cassette and Campy Ergo brake/shift levers. Prior to acquiring the pack mule with its disc brakes, this was the most "modern" bike in my collection.

In the Mercian color palette, the main color is called Black Pearl - it has a fine metallic sparkle that catches the light. The contrasting color on the head-tube and seat-tube is called Blue Intenso Pearl. I had Mercian finish it off with red pinstriping and lug outlining. The bar tape, from Fizik, was a near-exact match to the blue contrasting panels, while the saddle has a center stripe in the same shade. The red cable housing picks up the red in the pinstriping. It's very matchy-matchy, but it all fell together so easily that I couldn't resist it.
The bike was built with clearance for reasonably large tires - those are about 28 mm, though I think 32 would fit without difficulty. Most of the components are Campagnolo, but Campagnolo doesn't make a "medium" reach brake as the clearance on this frame required. The brakes I ended up using were made by Tektro, but they have a beautifully polished finish and first-rate hardware (like the barrel adjusters and the eccentric quick release) much nicer than their low price would indicate. I was "snobby" enough to carefully remove the Tektro name from the calipers, though. I upgraded the pads with top-quality ones, and the brakes look and work as well as the best. 
The tubing on the frame is slightly oversized, but that meant an oversized 1⅛ steerer, too. Yes, I think 1⅛  is overkill on a steel bike, but apparently the available lugs made it necessary. So I had to get a threadless headset (Chris King) and stem. The stem from Velo-Orange is a decent-looking one with a nice polish, but honestly I think a traditional quill stem looks better on a steel bike. Another thing - commonly available aluminum headset spacers tend to be really thick, making the already large steerer tube look even bigger. I had a friend who owns a machine shop turn down some nice thin spacers for me on his lathe. It helps the look. What would be ideal would be to have someone craft a nice, slim stem out of steel, but that's an expensive option.
I've used or at least tried the integrated brake/shift lever systems from the three main component makers - Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, but of the three, I really prefer the Campagnolo Ergo.  The Shimano shifters have a "lighter" touch, but the Campagnolo have more "feel" or "feedback." The paddles for shifting need only a small "throw" to execute a shift, and can make multiple gear shifts with one press of the lever. By contrast, the Shimano take a much longer sweep of the lever to make a shift. The lever shape is a little weird-looking (at least they are if you typically use more traditional or vintage-styled levers), but they feel nice in the hand. The bodies are long and offer plenty of room for big hands.
In this shot you can see the sparkle in the black and blue paint, and the little hand-cut heart detail in the lugs.
Campagnolo Centaur 10-speed drivetrain looks good in silver. The crank looks a little like the late-'80s C-Record but has the Ultra-Torque bottom bracket system. There can be issues with that system (I wrote about that HERE), but mine was set up well to make it smooth and trouble free. Fun detail: my bottle cage is carbon fiber. It's the only carbon fiber thing I have on any bikes.
The light, nimble, and racy bike made for a fun change of pace on my commutes for a few days.