Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meeting of the Mercians

Meeting of the Mercians
In the sort of uncanny coincidence that can only happen in the alternate bikeland universe that is the Boston area, our local Somervillain is now also a Mercian owner. His is a vintage model, restored with new paint and period-correct components by the bicycle's previous owner. Somervillain's bike arrived at about the same time as our frames. While we were building mine up, he was putting the finishing touches on his.

Meeting of the Mercians
Once both bicycles were ready, we of course had to commemorate the occasion. We arranged to meet on a sunny day. Alas as I cycled to our meeting spot, the clouds gathered and so our Mercians met under dramatically overcast skies. They had a great deal to say to one another - though, regrettably we could not understand their secret language.

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
Somervillain's Mercian is really quite a find. It is a 1971 Olympian model in English Racing Green with white headtube and seattube panels and gold outlining. 

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
The geometry is like that of a club racer (would that be Audax or Sportive?), and the frame fits him well at 61cm x 58.5cm. 

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
The complete history of this bicycle is unknown. The previous owner found it in pretty rough shape - badly repainted and entirely unrecognisable. Only after stripping the surface layer of paint and finding a serial number did it become apparent that the frame was a vintage Mercian. The owner decided to get it restored. He sent the frame off to England for a full repaint and began to hunt around for period correct components. 

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
A year later, the bicycle was restored to its former glory, and it was beautiful... too beautiful! The former owner found himself incapable of riding it. He kept it as a collector's piece for a bit, but ultimately decided to sell it to someone who would be willing to give the bicycle an active lifestyle.

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
...which Somervillain was more than happy to do. He got a good deal on the complete bicycle, and is happy both with Mercian's restoration and with the former owner's choice of components -

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
- which include a Campagnolo drivetrain,

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
Weinmann centerpull brakes,

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
and Cinelli handlebars and stem.

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
One thing Somervillain was keen to add to the build, was a set of English Bluemel fenders. He felt that the Mercian did not look right with French style fenders, or the plastic SKS. I've considered this as well and agree that English bicycles don't look right with, for instance, hammered or fluted fenders. But for me the plain ones would be all right, since they really have no identifiable style to them and look fairly neutral. 

AT's 1971 Mercian Olympic
But the Blumel fenders are quite special and difficult to find. Behold the little contrasting mudflaps. 

Meeting of the Mercians
Despite the 1971 Olympic and my 2011 Vincitore being entirely different models made with different lugsets and hailing from different eras, we marveled at how similar they are. The finishing is similar, the tubing is similar, the overall "presence" of the bikes is similar, and our accounts of ride quality are similar. Somervillain describes a responsive, but comfortable ride, easy over bumps and potholes - which is how my bicycle feels as well. 

Meeting of the Mercians
It is fascinating to me that Mercian has managed to keep their process so consistent over the years with their classic models. You can choose much lighter tubing now if you wish, but the method remains the same. I would love to try an older Mercian in my size and compare it to how mine rides. Unfortunately Somervillain's frame is much too big for me, but if I visit New York City, maybe Justine of Midlife Cycling will let me try her 1994 mixte - it would certainly be a treat!

39 comments:

  1. My Peugeot mixte came with English Bluemel popular fenders in white. I didn't know they were actually popular! I just thought they were cheap plastic fenders...I even got my mechanic to remove the mudflap (well, I still really don't like the mudflap look..).
    My fender stays are all corroded/rusted, but the plastic is still in good shape.

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  2. I can't go back as far as 1971, but my first Mercian was bought in 1982 and at Christmas 2008 I picked up my second from the Mercian shop. The first was of 531 tubing and the new one is made from 631. It's a little difficult to compare the two bikes as the geometry is different, the 531 bike was an audax frame, slightly sportier than the current King of Mercia tourer. There's also the difference in the rider. I was 19 when I bought the first 'Mouse' and I'd hit 45 by 2008 with an enforced decade away from cycling between. However 'Mouse 2' felt like coming home and exactly as I remember the first bike. I guess that Mercian have just stuck with a winning formula. Both lovely bikes, and they get better with age.

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  3. Where in the WORLD did he find Red shifter covers!? The Olypmian is just Gorgeous and the Vincitore is of course ...lovely. Thanks for sharing these wonderful bikes

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  4. Like the "Club Special" Blumels, though I'd be inclined to go w/leather flaps.

    Since my Bob Jackson is of the same Sportive genus (rear rack braze ons, none in front), it's interesting to note similarity in the "over square" geo. Mine is 58 x 56.5.

    No doubt uniquely English, but any one know the practical reason(s) behind it?

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  5. Dominique - I am sure you could sell them, even with the corroded stays.

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  6. Scene: country lane outside of Dumbledore, UK. Me on the ground.

    Cop: "Had a long sit at the pub, 'ave you?"

    Me: "No, I wish. Just had too much at the TCO buffet."

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  7. Two things of gorgeous beauty,they are! :)

    Disabled Cyclist

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  8. : ) FWIW I don't think this bike actually has TCO.

    But yes, I've noticed that both Mercian and Bob Jackson tend to make tall frames with short top tubes. The only explanation that's been suggested for this is not a very flattering one: basically not reconfiguring the entire geo, but only increasing ST length based on rider's height. Not sure whether this is really true.

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  9. I don't have TCO really, but then again my feet were bound as a child.

    I think they had too much of the Guinness at the "design" table.

    Consultant: "If you want to enter the 21st century I'd make the frame square or the TT longer than the ST. All you have to do is switch the tubes and use the same lugs."

    Various lushes: "Screw that, we're English. Find the door now."

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  10. Absolutely gorgeous. Not at all too perfect to ride, all sturdy, serviceable, available parts.

    One thing that shows more in the photo than on the bike I'm about to go ride is the reach to the brake lever. Big hands required. Strong hands too. If you meet those requirements still one of the best brakes ever.

    Those hoods are much better than mine. I've got red dot levers. Same cutout on the blade, feels nice.
    More pictures. Please.

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  11. Two Mercians met, and I wasn't invited! I mean, just because you guys are in Somerville, MA and I'm in Queens, NY...

    I find it interesting that you and he find such similarites between your Mercians. Actually, every traditional builder has a "signature" way of building bikes. Thus, anyone who's owned or ridden a Mercian (or, say, a Jack Taylor or Rene Herse) understands your bike and why you ride it, even though you and that other riders might be on different models from the same builder. Also, I have four Mercians--each a different model. Yet I can say each of them has a Mercian ride, if you will, and the finish and other details are definitely Mercian on all of them.

    I'm pretty sure that Somervillan's bike is an Audax. I feel confident in saying that, as I ride one myself.

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  12. "Ground Round Jim said...
    I don't have TCO really, but then again my feet were bound as a child."


    I never know when to take you seriously.

    Justine Valinotti said...
    "I'm pretty sure that Somervillan's bike is an Audax. "


    I was thinking that too.

    I've looked into taking a bike on AmTrack to NYC. It seems complicated, but I may try in the spring.

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  13. Bluemels were probably the first plastic fenders to be used on high-quality bikes. They were indeed common on English club riders' bikes and, in fact, some British bikes came with them as standard equipment.

    They look "right" on bikes like Somervillan's. However, I would warn him that those fenders will crack if they are bent. Back then, plastic fenders weren't made with a foil or laminate inside them, as current plastic fenders like the SKS are. Also, the plastic that was made in those days was more brittle than what companies like Planet Bike use now. Still, the Bluemels are indeed more "right" on classic English bikes.

    On a related note, Bluemels also made aluminum fenders. I once had a ribbed pair that looked something like the "Zeppelin" fenders Velo Orange sells. They were lovely and, when you can find them, fetch high prices on eBay.

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  14. Three of my Mercians--which were made custom for me--are 56 cm frames with 53.5 top tubes. (In the case of my Miss Mercian, it's an "imaginary" top tube length.) All of those modern bikes on which the seat and top tubes are of equal length, or on which the seat tube is shorter, never felt right to me, even with the extra length of seat post.

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  15. Mercians are the Morgans of bikes.

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  16. Hmmm ribbed aluminum Blumels...

    Speaking of Morgan, I've received an email from Cooper announcing that they now make bikes, with Reynolds tubing.

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  17. Ahhh! What a treat. Four of my five bikes are vintage, i.e. prior 1984. Somervillian's Mercian takes my breath away. About 2005 I had a King of Mercia built for my daughter. BTW, the computer on the vintage handlebar doesn't belong on that bike. That's sacrilege.

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  18. I am sure some day they will invent i-phone bicycle computer aps and retrogrouches will rejoice : )

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  19. My oh my. Mercians everywhere I look lately. I've always loved traditional English bikes and these still check all the right boxes. I've been staring hard at the Mercian website lately and have decided to just give in and order one. I've been riding mostly old/vintage or second hand bargain custom stuff since, like forever as I couldn't afford anything new. But these bikes are a bargain(although if you want the tubing transfer to read "531" than the upcharge sort'a stings).

    Somervillain's makes me think I might just order mine without toptube cable guides and use the n.o.s. chrome Campy clamps I've been stroking and calling "My precious" for 30 years. All I have to do is decide if I'm going to buy the bike I've wanted for 25 years or the bike I can ride for the next 25...

    Spindizzy

    P.S.If I get it in Dark blue with metallic silver headtube/seatube, and a silver fork than what color should the luglining be?

    P.P.S. Morgan are also building Three Wheelers with big motorbike twins again. Steel bikes and absurd sportscars. I love England so much.

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  20. Two gorgeous bikes! Somervillian's bikes are always a treat to see here. It amazes me how similar in taste you two are. How can any two people build up such pretty bikes, much less two people in the same town? Must be something in the water...

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  21. It's interesting to see the differences between handlebars. Old school are much narrower than modern thinking. Any reason why?

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  22. Thanks, Velouria for the photo-op and write up!

    I'll try to answer a few questions that have been brought up.

    TT length-- my understanding has been that up to a certain seat tube height, TT length should be proportional, increasing with ST length, but beyond a certain point, the TT length should not continue to increase as the ST length increases, but should remain constant. i.e., you'd be hard pressed to find a 63 x 63 frame. I think the idea is that really tall riders have all their excess height in their legs, not torsos. In that regard, a 58.5 TT with a 61 ST is not all that short. Both my Shogun and Schwinn voyageur frames have 63 x 57 frames! My longest frame is a 62 x 60, and it's French. French bikes seemed to have the longest TTs- the so-called 'stretched out' geometry.

    The Mercian has 73 degree parallel geometry and relatively high trail (low 50s), putting it in the audax category, but then these categories are all blurred, anyway. 73 parallel is pretty versatile.

    Incidentally, the Mercian's size and geometry is almost identical to that of my Trek 560 (the fit of which I have long felt has been perfect for me). The only difference is that the Mercian has slightly less trail (low 50s versus high 50s) and slightly longer chainstays (about 0.5cm). Trek billed the 560 as a racing bike.

    As for TCO, I haven't bothered to check, but so far riding clipless, it hasn't been an issue. I haven't even thought about it. I'd predict that there would be some if I actually tested it, but probably not severe. If the fork had less rake, it would probably be more of a problem.

    The bike originally came with fluted Honjos, which were gorgeous, but looked out of place on a vintage English bike. Comparing the Bluemels wih the Honjos in terms of quality and durability, there's no contest: the Bluemels are crap and I don't expect them to hold up like Honjos. But they're English and they maintain the English character of the bike. Bluemels did make a couple of aluminum models, none fluted that I'm aware of, but the narrower ones that would fit this bike (the Bluemels "Tour de France") were simply impossible to source. I expect the Club Specials I fitted will crack over time, but oh well... the bike won't be ridden in winter, so hopefully that will reduce the risk of cracking.

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  23. Don-- There are exceptions I will make when outfitting vintage bikes to give them the functionality or comfort that I have come to really appreciate... the two biggies are clipless pedals and computers. Don't worry, the Campy pedals with Christophe clips are safely tucked in a box in my basement and won't be going anywhere, but for actual road riding, I've switched to clipless.

    Velouria-- a surprising twist on your iphone-retrogrouch joke is that most of the staunchest retrogrouches I've met-- real hardcore luddites, have embraced the iPhone. And yep, I use a cycle computer app on my iPhone. They're great for getting stats on elevation gain, and for recording GPS tracks. But for basics like speed and distance, I prefer a simple computer right there on my handlebar.

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  24. "...the computer on the vintage handlebar doesn't belong...." Oh my, I overlooked the clipless pedals. Those have to go also.

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  25. love this green colour for a bikecycle!

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  26. Spindizzy - Oh wow, will this be your first new bike in XX years?? That is incredibly exciting. I'd say white lining!

    somervillain - Yup, I say that precisely because I've noticed that most bike retrogrouches have i-phones and other fancy tech : )

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  27. somervillain - Out of curiosity, what is the distance between the center of the BB and front hub?

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  28. First brand new road bike bike since the Guerciotti I wrecked in 19freaking87. I've had a new MTB or two to race since then but everything else has been secondhand in someway or other. This one will end up with mostly secondhand parts but it's still going to feel like Christmas.

    I already have some really nice Campy 9speed sew-ups and Campy 53-39 crankset that I bought used from someones racebike up-grade, and a brand-new black Brooks Professional so I'm like almost done, right?

    Spindizzy

    White lining is probably better than the light blue that seemed so obvious at first...

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  29. Bluemels do crack but it's not predictable. You can be lucky. For maybe 5 years I've been seeing a set of yellow "Popular" fenders on an old silver Schwinn LeTour when I go to the produce market. Bike gets used and not really maintained. I've seen them blasted at short range by a snowblower. Still going.

    The other bit on that build that will need looking after is the bottle cage. It's the best visual way to go, I have two of them, but it's just the one screw. Better with short bottles. If you hear a BB click, the cage is your first guess. I've had no big problem but they do move and need an alert rider.

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  30. Sharp bikes. I have a Ron Kitching that is one of the best-riding bicycles I own, but definitely not in the same aesthetic category as the Mercians. It's probably 2 or 3 years younger than the Olympian, and also lacks bottle cage bosses. Can someone tell me a source for the bolt-on waterbottle cage? (Maybe a little loctite would be good?)

    Also, I had a 1981 Schwinn Le Tour Tourist mixte model that came with white Bluemels, a wonderful about town bike. The fenders were going strong when I sold it last year. I once had to jamb it into the back seat of my car for a day, and the fender deformed pretty badly. I used a hair dryer to mold it back close to good as new.
    Mark in Beacon

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  31. You can get rings for a few bucks in well equipped stores or online. Then look for normal cages that look like they could take a clamp.

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  32. Anon 9:27
    The one-bolt cage is old & made by Specialites T.A. Start looking, you'll find one. I've seen them change hands for as much as $150, they also sell for much less. There are also Taiwanese knockoffs which are cheap or free if you can find them.
    Not many could have been made. A good bit of trouble to put the extra bend in the cage wires to handle the clamp. No good for racing. It's nothing to do with the screw coming loose, it just twists. Even if the cage doesn't move, the bottle sways. Worth putting up with to make pretty, a more normal cage is more practical.

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  33. Anon 9:27
    Also wanted to say your Kitching may be more bike than you think. The lower end frames were built in France by Andre Bertin. Kitching and Bertin got on well and Kitching really knew the business, Bertin sent him good frames. You should be able to tell if it's French.

    If English built, Kitching used all the builders. He sold framebuilding supplies and there are many ways to pay your bill. But he got good frames. The largest number of later Kitchings were by Metcalfe and Mason,then it became MKM, with K for Kitching and those frames are legendary.

    Find out what you can about the frame. Many beautifully made Kitchings had cheesy paint. It might be worthwhile to respray and the place to do that is Mercian.

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  34. Thanks for that info. I'm familiar with some of the Kitching history, and based on the component group (Crane GS rear der., first generation Dura Ace sidepulls) I believe the bike was made by MKM around
    1972-3. (It also helps that it has a small, silver, rectangular sticker at the bottom of the seat tube that reads "Made in England".)
    I'm a believer in "it's only original once" so even though the hospital green paint has faded to an almost robin's egg blue, and the super crummy black decals are torn in places, I'm hesitant to get a repaint.
    The lugs are not flashy, Bocama I think, 531, Campy dropouts and a gorgeous fork curve, with the absolute thinnest blades I've ever seen. It also has a very cool Sugino drillium crank with 52/47 rings, which I'm about to replace with an IRD Defiant compact to preserve the look as much as possible (though I won't be drilling the rings).

    Based on the impracticality/rarity/possible expense of the TA wb clamp, I'll keep using the VO waterbottle clamps unless/until I ever get a repaint, in which case I'll probably have bosses added.

    Mark in Beacon

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  35. in 1980, in London, i bought a Mercian frame which was outfitted into a touring bike by the shop. Back then ESGE fenders (now, SKS) fenders were original. Later, I met the owners of ESGE in Bielefeld, Germany. They helped me find a tan Ideale saddle. Maybe a Brooks would have been "authentic" but I liked the Ideale more.

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  36. I have a circa 1960 Mercian (most of the serial number is obliterated by the wheel QR marks, but it ends in 62. The parts indicate a late 50's build though. The frame is 64cm ctt ST and a 62.5cm top tube ctc. By far the longest frame I have seen. It has a set of Cinelli #13 Koblet bars which have a very short reach and very long drops that come about 10cm behind the clamp. It is original with lots of patina, but it still has a shine and will be staying original. I also have a circa 2000 KOM which is my dedicated commuter and gets about 3000km per year.

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