Last Thanksgiving, in pre-holiday mode, I got on my 1980 Meral and rode to my local grocery store to stock up on a few supplies needed for our holiday dinner. One of the nice things about being a vegetarian means not carting around a 20 lb turkey. However, I did discover that veggies can also be quite heavy. When I loaded them into the panniers I had thrown over these modest F. Fiol front and rear racks (which mount only to the fenders and not to the frame), something bad happened. The bike went nowhere. The rear rack sunk down into the fender, and moved the wheel out of its dropout. I had to dismount and carry the bike to a sidewalk where I could troubleshoot the problem. Unfortunately, the rear fender had altered its position so significantly that I could not ascend back home. I had to call for help.
Once I had the Meral back at my shop, it became clear that I needed to replace the F. Fiol rear rack with something more robust. Racks are very tricky, as most mechanics know, and it can be challenging to find the right rack to work with your bike to provide the utility you need.
I eyeballed a number of racks that I had on hand, and decided to go with this Blackburn rack which I had previously taken off a 1980’s Miyata touring bike. It’s very strong and has a number of useful features.
The rack fit perfectly to the frame, and was level without any modifications needed. I used P-clamps to mount the rack stays to the seat stays (because this frame has no rack mounts). I used these Nitto clamps, pictured above, which were leftover from another project. These clamps are very robust, and protect the frame’s paint. Even so, I taped the frame underneath the clamps with electricians tape, just in case. Because…things can go wrong.
Broken seat post bolt, removal slots created with Dremel
As I was putting the frame into the work stand, I managed to break the seatpost bolt head right off. That might be one indication that I’ve put this frame in the shop stand too many times. The ensuing panic finally resulted in relief when I took my Dremel and cut screwdriver slots into each side of the remaining bolt. It took quite a while to rock the bolt in and out using a screwdriver and vise grips, but I finally got it free. Yeehaw!
Brake hangers – Surly and Problem Solvers.
New seatpost bolt.
Smooshed Mafac hanger.
I had contemplated changing my “smooshed” Mafac rear brake hanger with a different application. Unfortunately, nothing else was suitable. It is challenging to mount a rear hanger on a smaller frame. The Surly hangers would have been perfect, except they were too long and didn’t allow for the requisite 20 mm of clearance above the Mafac straddle cable. And, the Problem Solvers hangers were too thick at the seatpost mounting ring, so could not be used with the Meral seat post clamp. (Problem Solversis great resource and worth checking out.) Fortunately, the Mafac hanger works just fine.
Beautiful new T.A. 44-28 chainrings
Now that the bike was in the shop stand, it was time to think of other modifications that I had been contemplating for this bike. I had been using a T.A. triple crankset with 48-40-28 rings. The big ring had a massive wobble that I had corrected a few times by smashing it between two planks in my vise.
I decided that it was time to go with a smaller big ring, and convert the crankset to a double. T. A. cranks, with their tiny bolt circle diameter should only be used with smaller chainrings, because the small diameter bolt circle can cause the big ring to flex under load. So I sourced these beautiful new rings – a 44 and a 28, and converted the drive to a double.
Shimano ac-7speed cassette – 11-28
Acceptable chain line
Simplex Super LJ front derailleur
Changing out the front rings meant an evaluation of the rear cassette. I decided to use a 7 speed Shimano 11-28 cassette, to help adjust the resulting chain line. The Simplex Super LJ is very happy with this double chain ring set up, and was designed to shift rings with large teeth differences. Now, we’ll see how this works out on the road.
I’ve been riding my “new” 1980 Meral 650b for over a year now. Only recently has it become my bike of first choice, however. As with any bike, and especially with a frame-up build combined with a wheel size conversion (700c to 650b), there were a number of challenges and some disappointments. Here is an overview of the results:
Frame and Fork:
My favorite aspect of this bike is its beauty and the build quality of the frame and fork. It’s just an absolutely gorgeous, well put together bike. The Reynolds 531 tubing feels great and is not punishing, as can happen with stiff aluminum frames (especially smaller frames). I love the chrome accents and chrome fork, and the lovely sloping fork crown.
The deep purple color is eye catching and I like the gold lettering of the Meral logos, which goes with the gold-lined chrome lugs.
The frame geometry is suited for my riding preferences – with a steep seat tube and head tube angle. It has more stand over height than I really need, and if the frame were taller I would not have had to use a Nitto Technomic stem to get the bars at the height that feels good (slightly higher than the saddle height.) But, it wasn’t custom built for me, after all, so I’m not complaining.
Tires, Wheels, and Handling:
The Panaracer Col de la Vie 650b tires were extremely disappointing – to the point that I actually stopped riding this bike while I figured out what to do. They produced a lot of tire noise, and the deep treads picked up rocks like a vacuum cleaner, then spit them into the aluminum fenders, for an even greater cacophony. The tires felt squishy and ponderous no matter what pressures I tried, and made climbing feel like I was riding through quicksand. On descents, the bike was noticeably slower than ALL my other bikes, causing me to conclude that the tires had an enormous amount of rolling resistance. Since the tires come so highly recommended, I delayed changing them out while I tried out other theories to explain the bike’s slowness. Were the wheel hubs improperly adjusted? Was the freehub bad? No, and no.
In fact, I am really happy with this Velocity Synergy 650b wheelset. The hubs were adjusted perfectly right out of the box and are very smooth. I did have to make a small truing adjustment to the front wheel, and that was all. I ordered this 32 hole set from Rivendell and I think they were well worth the price (about $400 for the pair).
While I pondered what to do about the tires, I also had to contend with a problem that I had never experienced before to this degree: fork shimmy! The bike shimmied from the get-go, at high speeds and slow, and would get worse if I rode with just a single bag in back instead of two. So, I did a lot of reading about fork shimmy and found that it is as mysterious as “planing”, “q-factor” and bottom bracket drop in terms of facts vs. mythology. For instance, Jobst Brandt has a pretty scientific explanation of fork shimmy. Here is a quote from his treatise on the matter:
“Shimmy is not related to frame alignment or loose bearings, as is often claimed. Shimmy results from dynamics of front wheel rotation, mass of the handlebars, elasticity of the frame, and where the rider contacts the bicycle. Both perfectly aligned bicycles and ones with wheels out of plane to one another shimmy nearly equally well. It is as likely with properly adjusted bearings as loose ones. The idea that shimmy is caused by loose head bearings or frame misalignment seems to have established currency by repetition, although there is no evidence to link these defects with shimmy.”
He goes on to state that shimmy is caused by the gyroscopic forces of the front wheel, which combined with the tilt of the steering axis, exerts force on the top tube and downtube, causing them to oscillate. While absorbing this explanation, I read a number of other explanations, but none seemed as true to my mind as this. Based on that, I concluded that I definitely needed to replace the Panaracer tires because I felt they were contributing to, if not causing, the shimmy problem, with their deep tread pattern.
I finally broke down and ordered these Compass Loup Loup Pass 650b tires. I ordered the regular model, not the super-light. Conclusion: what took me so long! These are the best tires I have ever ridden, ever. They are comfortable, fast, quiet, and seem to help spur me up hills. I have ridden them on gravel, pavement, and over some bad and deep potholes. They are fabulous! Now, when I take the Meral out for a spin I find that I end up riding far longer than planned. They have restored my enjoyment of riding, and have really been the turning point in making this bike my favorite. And, I have absolutely no more fork shimmy, at any speed. So, I guess we can add tire tread depth and design as a possible contributor to fork shimmy – let the mythology continue!
The vintage TA triple crankset had a massive wobble so I had to disassemble it, place each chainring between two planks, and smash the hell out of them in my vise. It took enormous force to get them straightened, but now they are fine. The rings are 48/40/28. For this kind of bike, I really need some smaller rings up front, plus I prefer to have a 10 tooth difference between the big and middle rings. Rather than replace the TA rings, I decided to change the cassette. First of all, I had to accept the fact that I could not use an 8 speed cassette on this drive train – the Ultegra front derailleur could not handle it. Instead, I put in a spacer and ended up with this 14-32 7 speed cassette after trying 3 other cassettes that had higher gearing. I decided to stick with the Ultegra derailleur, though, because after doing much research I realized that it can be very difficult to find any front derailleur that will work with a TA crankset, due to its narrow tread. So, if it works, don’t fix it. The bike is geared a bit lower than my other bikes as it is a bit heavier, and I ended up replacing the SLX rear derailleur with the Deore pictured above which seems to work better with the larger cassette cogs. I am using my Shimano bar end shifters in friction mode and the shifting is fast and precise, with very little trimming needed. One of my favorite pieces on the bike is this modified Huret downtube clamp which can accept Shimano shifter pods – it looks great and the pods mounted precisely.
I used vintage Mafac Raid brakes to accomplish the conversion to 650b. This set was in nice shape and included all the mounting hardware. Because I was working with what was originally a sport touring bike, made long after these Mafac’s were manufactured, I had to make some modifications to the hardware to make things work. For the Mafac rear fender mount, I had to reverse the piece, tap out the other side, and mount it backwards in order to make it work with the brake bridge on this bike. I also “smooshed” the brake hanger and installed a longer seat post bolt to get the hanger to work with this bike. The brake arms are very long, as you can see, and naturally have a lot more flex due to the long reach. My Kool Stop replacement pads squealed like crazy for the first month or so of riding, and then finally everything settled down and braking is silent. However, the front brakes have a squishy feel, which is consistent with my experience with Mafac’s on other bikes I have ridden and restored. But, they get the job done, and that’s what matters. I am using Shimano aero levers, which fit comfortably in my hands – I use these for all my bikes with road bars.
Saddle, Rack, Bags, and Fenders:
The Cardiff saddle, a brand I haven’t tried before, turned out to be a real hit. It is breaking in nicely. It has longer seat rails than a Brooks, and a slightly different shape that seems to work well for me. The saddle is big enough to provide a number of different seating positions depending on where my hands are on the bars. In short, I will probably not go back to riding Brooks saddles as I find the Cardiff far more comfortable (comfort being a relative term when speaking of bike saddles…). And, it’s a pretty handsome saddle that goes perfectly with my plum-colored leather mud flap.
For my rear rack, I had wanted to use the Velo-Orange constructeur rack. It is very pretty and mounts to the rear fenders, which makes the rack sit down nice and low – ideal for carrying weight in the back. At the time I was building up the bike, that rack was out of stock, so I decided to try out the Electra Ticino rear rack instead. While the rack itself is not ugly, per se, it sits up very high, has unadjustable stays, and is very heavy. I sanded the stays to allow for greater adjustment so that I could level the rack (photo above is before I had done this), so that helped a bit. The Ticino panniers are nice bags, but are also very heavy and suffer from being oddly shaped. Nonetheless I have continued to use them and they have held up well.
Here is the bike now, after all these mods, and after a year of riding. It’s a very striking bike, and now a very comfortable bike after tweaking the components and upgrading the tires. Today, I meant to go out on just a short ride, but ended up two towns away! This bike has finally exceeded my expectations.
This bike came to me as a frame, fork, fenders, shifters, headset and rack. It is a 1970s Meral 650b Randonneur. The Meral shop, located in France, built custom bikes up through the mid 80’s. Their custom racks and fenders are as beautiful as their frames. This frame features double rack mounts front and rear so that Meral’s custom camping racks could be added. Note: these photos were taken before final assembly and QC – the brake holders are mounted backwards. The closed section of the holder should be facing the front of the bike, so that the pads don’t slide out! (Everybody knows that, right?)
The fenders are stainless steel – and looked beautiful after just a bit of polishing. I needed a number of parts to get the bike completed, and ended up deciding to build the wheelset using a set of NOS Italian Gnutti hubs, since the spacing at the rear was 120 mm. It can be difficult to find a nice wheelset with this spacing these days, and I didn’t want to cold set the frame to wider spacing, as I usually strive to keep a wonderful bike like this as original as possible.
The hubs are very pretty and look a lot like older Campy hubs.
I used Weinmann 650b rims, and removed the labels for a clean look. Even though this bike features through-the-frame dynamo wiring, I decided not to use a generator hub, both to save weight and to keep the bike simple and closer to original. I am not a huge fan of generator lighting, and find that for the riding I do I can use simple, lightweight, and inexpensive battery-powered lights.
The original cork spacers are still in perfect condition. However, my fender line needs some more work. Installing and fine tuning racks and fenders can easily take as long as building up the bike itself. This frame is designed with tight clearances, so I could only use 32 mm tires. I chose these Grand Bois Cypres tires from Compass Bicycles, and they are fabulous. The ride is really just about the smoothest I have experienced. The only down side may be their puncture resistance, which I haven’t put to the test.
I used Simplex Super LJ derailleurs, which are not only beautifully made, but work perfectly with this drive train. A Stronglight crankset and IRD 6 speed freewheel finish off the drive train. The IRD is just a placeholder – I no longer trust these freewheels due to their high failure rate, which I have experienced personally on two separate freewheels in use for under a thousand miles.
I used NOS Zeus pedals, which are some of the nicest I have seen, and Mafac levers to match the Mafac Racer centerpulls. The bars are Nitto World Randonneur and the stem is a French sized SR.
The frame was built with Columbus Aelle tubing, for a stronger frameset, or perhaps for a heavier rider. Even so, the bike weighs 26.6 lbs, including the rack fenders, Brooks saddle and pedals – that is amazing. The paint is still very vibrant and in beautiful condition. More photos of this bike can be found on my FB page.