Test riding a newly built bicycle can be unnerving. Will the bike be uncomfortable to ride? Will the brakes fail while descending down a steep hill? Will the shifters slip while climbing? Will I drop the chain while crossing a busy intersection? Well, now I can one more possibility to the list of dreaded catastrophes. But first, let me share how I chose this 1972 Mercian frame’s components, which I recently acquired as a frame and fork with very compromised paint.
Here it is, after cleaning, reviving, and waxing the frame and building it up. The tubes are double butted Reynolds 531, but the transfers were lost long ago. Fortunately, there was no rust inside the bottom bracket shell or anywhere else on the frame. And, the compromised paint on the top tube is not that visible from afar.
I was surprised to find brass residue inside the bottom bracket shell, left over from brazing. Normally I expect to see silver, as is typically used. Since silver can be brazed at lower temperatures, there is less chance of overheating and weakening the main tubes. That led me to research how these frames are built and I discovered the whole frame is heated, after tacking the lug points, in an open brick oven, with natural gas. Apparently, this evenly heats the areas to be brazed, so the chance of overheating doesn’t exist, as when one directs a flame at the lug joints. Each builder has their own preference as to brazing materials, some use brass and some silver. The builder of this Mercian frame chose to use brass, at least for the bottom bracket shell.
After taking measurements and determining the rear spacing, I was inspired to set up the drive train using Suntour components combined with a Stronglight crankset and Huret shifters.
Suntour adjustable BB with sealed cartridge bearings.
Suntour SL High Normal front derailleur.
Suntour Perfect 14-32 5 speed freewheel.
Suntour Vx rear derailleur.
Huret drilled downtube shifters
The rear Vx derailleur works perfectly and provides very smooth shifting. The front SL is a “high normal” front derailleur, and it was extremely easy to set up. I chose it because its cable stops were what I needed, given the type of stops used on the frame. The Suntour cartridge bearing bottom bracket is about as smooth and free of friction as they come, and it has lock rings on both sides which allow for a perfect chain line adjustment. It would be nice if all BB’s were built this way. The 14-32 Suntour Perfect freewheel is … perfect! The low gear is a 33, but I found that I never actually needed it, even climbing the steep hills of Mt. Tabor Park.
I still haven’t determined what model Mercian this is. The lugs are fancy, and resemble the lugs used for the Olympique model of this era. The fender eyelets and the 44 cm chainstays suggest the bike was meant to be an all-rounder – good for sport riding as well as light touring and randonneuring. Mercian cycles are well regarded, so there are plenty of photos and websites available on the web. One particularly fetching Mercian can be seen here.
It has been a while since I have ridden on 700c wheels shod on a classic road bike. I was reminded how much fun it is to blast up the hills and to be inspired to sprint past other riders on their newer carbon fiber machines. This bike is fast! The downside to 700c wheels on such a small frame, however, brought me back to reality. With headtube and seattube angles of 72 degrees, and fork rake at about 50 mm, this bike has tons of wheel flop and trail. More than I like, and I noticed that right away when I rode into downtown Portland across the Hawthorne Bridge on a windy day – the front end was blown around due to the high trail. And, at slow speeds the bike is not as stable as I would prefer. However, at higher speeds and while descending, this bike performed well.
After spending way too much time trying to get a set of GB vintage centerpull brakes to work (due to the small amount of space at the seat stays), I finally switched over to a set of Mafac Racers, and was done with my brake set up in no time. Really, no better engineered centerpull brakes can be found. I had to clean and sand the rims, and install Kool Stop orange pads on the front set to eliminate brake squeal.
For the rest of the build, I used a Maillard/Weinmann wheelset from 1988 which was in great shape, and mounted Continental Gatorskins to the rims – great tires for 700c machines. I had a GB stem and rando bars on hand, and decided to use some green cable housing to bring out the colors in the Mercian headbadge.
Now to the mishaps of its test ride. First, I took the bike up to Mt. Tabor Park, prior to taping the bars, to see how the bike performed and determine if any changes were needed in the set up. All good. The bike fit me perfectly, and I really enjoyed the first ride. Then, I commuted to work on this bike, across the Hawthorne Bridge and into downtown Portland. No problem, had fun, passed other cyclists, felt like a champ. Then, it came time to venture back through downtown Portland. There is an area of 4th Avenue that seems jinxed. On this particular stretch I have experienced a tire blow out on my Jack Taylor, a rear flat on my Guerciotti, and too many near death experiences involving car drivers changing lanes into me or pulling out in front of me. Today, something new happened. As I was descending down 4th toward the Hawthorne Bridge ramp, I switched over to the far left lane to avoid traffic. Then I encountered some kind of strange road surface anomaly that set up quite a bit of vibration on the front end. As I was struggling to hold on to the brake hoods, the water bottle, which I had mounted to the handlebars, flew out and began a cannon-like descent down the street, fortunately not hitting any cars or pedestrians. I quickly pulled over, spotted the water bottle, chased it down and polo-like was able to stop its progress, pick it up, and proceed on my way, quite daunted.
And that’s when I remembered the bad ol’ days of putting 100 psi or more into my narrow road tires. I had inflated these tires to 100 rear and 80 front. As soon as this mishap with the water bottle occurred, I pulled over and lowered the pressures. After that, I rode home in quite a bit more comfort. And with a smile on my face.