Groupe Sportif Meral

1980 Meral Sportif frame

I knew nothing of Méral bicycles until I spotted a vintage frame for sale on French eBay back in 2012.  At that time I was searching for the perfect platform for a 650b conversion, which I intended to build up into an all rounder that could equal the comfort and joy provided by my long ago crashed 1976 Centurion Pro Tour.

After lusting over the extraordinarily beautiful 49 x 51 cm frame with its gold-lined chrome lugs, chrome drive side chainstay, and Meral branded chrome drop outs, I did just a tiny bit of research before bidding.  Later I learned more about the company, and as a result, I have added two more Mérals to my collection.

Méral was a smaller workshop (employing about 35 staff at its peak) in La Fuye, France, a village in the grape-laden Loire Valley about 340 km to the south and west of Paris, before being acquired in 1983 by Lejeune Cycles. Unfortunately, very little English language information seems available about the company’s history.  And, the French Wikipedia site does not include Méral in its list of historical bicycle manufacturers, which is odd considering that there are thousands of other companies in this list, including all the constructeurs of the golden age, with the notable exception of Goeland.

But with much diligence (using my Google outsmarting skills), I discovered that Méral was founded in 1974 by Albert Metayer – a sofa manufacturing baron whose company still exists today, although he retired back in the 1980’s and has since passed away – Sedac-Meral.

In the late 1960’s, Monsieur Metayer wanted to become involved in France’s competitive cycling teams so had founded his own Meral Sportif team which competed for a number of years.  The riders pedaled the Gitane brand and wore Metayer’s chosen colors.  By 1974, Metayer decided that building his own bikes would be a way to sponsor racers as well as make money selling bikes to the general public.  It was at that time that Metayer recruited 24 year old Francis Quillon, who was a competitive cyclist riding on the Méral team, to take the reins of his fledgling bike shop. “I was 24 at the time, I knew how to make frames, I worked at Manutube, and then I was inspired by the high-end machines of the time, Singer and Berthoud” – quote attributed to Quillon from Confrérie des 650.

Francis Quillon on the right

Francis Quillon has been credited with being the mastermind behind the quality of Meral bicycles which consisted of off-the-shelf offerings as well as custom builds. When the company was acquired in 1983, Quillon split off and decided to start his own company – Cyfac – a highly regarded shop which built custom frames for professional racers and continues to this day, although Francis sold his interest in it a number of years ago.

Clearly someone was responsible for the extraordinary build quality and unique features of Méral bicycles, because these bikes really do surpass what one sees even in the most ethereal of cycling atmospheres. That’s why I have decided to increase my collection of these amazing bicycles. The 1980 Méral, which I bought as a frame and fork and converted to 650b has become one of my daily riders.  In addition I have a 1970’s Meral 650b randonneuse, and have recently acquired a 1980 700c Randonneuse.  Here are some photos of these wonderful bikes:

1980 Meral custom 700c sportif frame converted to 650b – my daily rider.

1970’s Meral 650b – with custom Meral steel racks and fenders.

Beautiful cream colored paint and nicely filed lugs.  Noted the sloping fork crown.

Fully chromed Reynolds 531 fork on the 1980 Meral.

And, my latest acquisition – a 1980 700c Randonneuse – still awaiting shipment:

1980 Meral Randonneuse with Vitus 788 tubes – photo credit eBay seller lilo920 – my latest addition.

Méral also pioneered an unusual take on a mixte frame.  This involved sloping and bending the top tube to allow an easier throw over of one’s leg.  Here is one example whose color scheme matches my 1970’s cream colored Meral:

Photo found on Pinterest – I would like to credit this photo to its proper owner.

Velobase.com has a 1984 Meral catalog on its site which is worth perusing.  Quillon’s influence is still visible at this point.  If you have a chance to acquire one of these machines, you’ll be advised to look for a pre-1983 model, which will reflect the builder’s amazing skill and attention to detail.

Mercier Meca Dural Restoration Progress

2016-12-11-015

Restoring vintage bicycles, especially those from the “golden era” which lasted from the 30’s through the 50’s, sounds vaguely romantic and thrilling.  Which it can be.  But the truth is that it can also be a very solemn and tedious process, full of stops and starts.

2015-12-31-004

This late forties or early fifties Mercier Mecal Dural is one of those projects that can test your resolve.  The bike, whose frame is made from aluminum “duralumin” tubing, was not 100% original, yet the frame itself was in beautiful condition.  Over the course of its life, someone had tried to mount 700c wheels from the 1970’s on this late 40’s/early 50’s bike designed for 650b rims, and had spray-painted over the rust and corrosion on the bike’s original steel fork.  Some parts were missing, such as the original chain guard as well as the bike’s bolt-on attachments for the shifter and chain guard.  And, the Meca Dural head badge was gone.

2016-12-11-031

Undeterred, I set out to research the history of this method of frame building, as well as to find as many other examples of these frames as possible.  Fortunately, I was successful on both counts.  Several others before me have successfully restored these bicycles, and there is a decent amount of information available on the web and in print which gives a history and background for this interesting frame construction.  However, I still haven’t been able to locate any information on the serial number scheme used by Mercier.  This frame’s SN is 16822.

1953 Mavic rim 650b

2016-12-11-017 2016-12-11-028

My first task was to find a 650b wheelset from the same era.  I harvested the wheelset from another project, which dates to 1953 and features Mavic aluminum rims laced to Fratelli Brivio hubs.  One of the initial challenges involved rebuilding and restoring the wheelset itself.  While the front hub was easily brought back to its free-spinning glory, the rear hub proved difficult.  I was not able to remove the unbranded 4 speed freewheel from the hub, lacking the particular removal tool.  I modified a Suntour two prong remover, applied copious and various kinds of lubricants to the threads, used both my vise and my giant-sized long-armed wrench, to no avail.  I didn’t want to take this freewheel apart – it is working fine and will probably last another 60 years.  So, that meant cleaning and rebuilding the hub with the freewheel attached.  All went well until I discovered that the original axle was slightly bent. When I was ready for the hub’s final adjustment, I found that the axle could not turn in the hub, due to the zero distance between the hub shell and the cone.  This particular hub has no dust cover, so I couldn’t strong-arm the opening by widening the dustcaps themselves.  That meant trying to find another perfectly straight 9.5mm axle of a similar length and with similar threads.  Amazingly I had ONE such axle in my parts bin – it was only slightly shorter than the original axle.  Whew!  On to the next problem.

2016-12-11-006

CLB 700 brakes with 650b rims

2015-12-31-006

CLB 700 brakes with 700c rims

Once I had the wheels rebuilt it became clear that the CLB 700 sidepull calipers were probably not original to the bike.  Their 70cm reach is not quite long enough to engage the 650b rims.  Darn it!  The extra reach needed is only about 2mm.  When there is enough material on the brake calipers to allow for it, you can take a round file and sand the opening lower at the bottom of the caliper arm to allow for a slight improvement in brake reach.  But, these calipers do not have enough material on the lower brake arms to make me comfortable with this approach.  Instead, I will now locate long reach side pulls from this era.  One more setback.

2016-12-11-001

Tight clearance – chain ring and chain stays

2015-12-31-003

Stronglight 49D crankset with Louis Verot chainring

Then it came time to rebuild the bottom bracket and install the beautiful, lightweight Stronglight 49D crankset, with its 46T Louis Verot chainring.  Everything went well until I observed the clearance of the chainring to the frame.  I had previously noted what I thought was a crimping mark on the sleeves which serve as the chainstay fender bridge.  When I looked closer, I realized that the “crimping mark” was actually a gouge caused by the chainring contacting the frame at the chainstays, probably under vigorous pedaling.  Investigating further, I found that the chainring itself had a wobble, which is not unusual for this type of crankset with a tiny bolt circle diameter.  A larger diameter can resist stresses from the rider, but the downside is that a larger diameter BCD cannot accept tiny chainrings needed for climbing.

2016-12-11-014

2016-01-07-014

One of the things I learned in my research about these duralumin frames is that the bottom bracket shell is set up to provide for chain line adjustment.  The shell is a simple aluminum cylinder, held in place with bolts.  In order to address the issue of the crankset contacting the chainstay sleeve under vigorous pedaling, I first measured the torque setting on the bottom bracket bolts, referencing the highest setting at 100 inch pounds as being the most accurate.  After removing the bolts, I twisted the BB shell using the locking on the non drive side of the bottom bracket.  I adjusted the BB shell over about 2mm to provide for additional necessary clearance for the crankset, by taking a mallet and gently tapping the BB.  I would not have known about this option had I not seen numerous examples of other duralumin framesets showing the BB shell in various positions.  Unfortunately one problem with these frames is that the aluminum chain stay sleeves can fail.  I wanted to give this frame a good shot a lasting through the decades, so by adjusting the BB shell, further damage to the chainstay sleeves will be avoided.

2016-12-11-035

Huret derailleur

2016-12-11-033

Beautiful Dural Azur stem with arrow design

2016-12-11-018

Hammered rear light

2016-12-11-026

Lefol hammered fenders

The next steps involve installing the Huret derailluer and shifter, polishing and cleaning the beautiful components, and setting up the brakeset and cables, and installing the tires, as well as cleaning and lubricating the leather saddle.  Stay tuned for more torture, and related thrills!

Cranky

2013-03-22 001 2013-03-22 008

Vintage TA crankset with triple rings – 48/40/28.

The lovely & vintage TA crankset which I selected for my 1980 Meral 650b conversion has been an unusually frustrating interaction between the characteristics of vintage components and modern cycling requirements.  I chose this component for two reasons:  the crank arms were 160 mm, helping me to eliminate toe overlap on my 1980 sportif frame; and, since the Meral came with a TA bottom bracket,  I thought it would be nice to match it to a TA crankset of the same era.

But this crankset was problematic.  The big ring had a massive wobble that I had straightened a few times in my vise.  And, even though I use a similarly geared crankset on my Terry – a Shimano 600 with 48/40/30 rings – there was something about the TA rings that never really came together.  I never landed on my “cruising gear” even though I went through two different cassettes and two different front and rear derailleurs.  And, the drive train was always noisy, even after trying a few different chains.

Some frame-up builds come together perfectly, and some require more tweaking.  The Meral ended up being in the latter camp.

2016-02-13 001

Version 2 with TA 44/28 rings.

I decided that I might prefer a compact setup for this bike.  Since most of my current riding is commuting, it is important if only for safety reasons not to have to worry about gear selection while riding.  My other bikes provide easy and intuitive gear selection, so that my eyes can stay on the road.

A large tooth difference between the chain rings was de rigueur back in the heyday of French cyclo touring.  So, maybe it would work for me too.  I sourced NOS TA 44 and 28 teeth rings on eBay.  The rings are very pretty, and gave the Meral a real “French” look.

Unfortunately, for my kind of riding, the 28 tooth ring did not work at all.  Essentially, I was now riding a bike with a single chain ring plus a bail out gear, rather than a regular double crank which allows for even steps between the gears.  And, shifting between the two front rings often required a triple shift to maintain cadence. To make matters worse, the small chain ring was noisy in certain gears due to the extreme angle of the chain, front to rear and side to side.

2016-05-04 002

Version 3 with 44/32 rings.

2016-05-04 005

Beautiful new TA Pro Vis 32 tooth ring.

Not one to give up, I decided that a larger toothed small chain ring would be the answer.  I ordered a brand new 32 tooth TA ring from Boulder Bicycle.  The new ring is beautifully etched, and looks quite fine with the older crankset.  Even better, after installing yet another cassette (a SRAM 7 speed 12-32) to accommodate this new gearing, and adding a few links to the chain, the bike’s gearing is perfect for what I need.  My new gear inch range is 26 to 95, with even steps between the gears.  My shifting pattern is normal, and I have a cruising gear on my big ring that matches a comfortable cadence on a flat surface.  While I was at it, I adjusted the Simplex Super LJ front derailleur lower to make my front shifts crisper.  This front derailleur uses a parallelogram with an extreme angle, so in order to make it work well, it needs be about 1 mm above the teeth of the larger chain ring, rather than the usual 2 or 3 mm, to achieve ideal shifting.

2016-05-04 008

1980 Meral 650b as currently configured.

This bike was meant to take the place of my old beloved 1976 Centurion Pro Tour, which I crashed irreparably in 1999.  It has been a “long and twisted road” finding the right bike which can carry me not only to work and back, but to the undiscovered as well as the familiar. But this is what I have been yearning for.  A soul mate.