Commuting on a Vintage Bicycle

French 1939 Sironval Recumbent. A 24 inch wheel at the rear and a 22 inch wheel in front.

One of the biggest obstacles to attracting new cyclists is the fear of maintenance.  Bicycles are time consuming, messy, and non-intuitive. That’s a (fun, IMHO!) fact.  It’s so much easier to drive your car, order Lyft or take public transportation, and avoid the challenges involved in becoming a commuter cyclist – right?

Meanwhile, certain members of the retail cycling industry seem to lack the will or interest in helping to educate new cyclists on the many, and rewarding maintenance tasks which routine cycling requires.  Instead, the marketing focus is on overcoming these obstacles with technology – such as belt drives, e-bikes, index shifting, bike share, and the like.  And for new and returning cyclists it can feel like the retail industry’s focus is on intimidating and humiliating newbies, catering only to elite competitive cyclists and wannabes.

While I believe new technologies are critical to the future success of the cycling industry, I don’t necessarily believe that they are critical to the success of the cyclists themselves.

Lightweight box style rims, components drilled to save weight, and custom racks and fenders are not necessarily something the regular cycling commuter wants to think about. For a commuting cyclist, safety, efficiency and reliability are the most important elements in determining whether to ride, and what bicycle to ride.

While new bicycles and e-bikes can address some of the needs of new cycling commuters, vintage bicycles, modified as needed, can actually provide much greater utility for a new or returning commuting cyclist.

Over the last 25 year I have cycled regularly from my current home to downtown Portland where I work.  That ride offers steep hills, sharp turns, and plenty of discouraging encounters with car drivers.  Often in the mornings when I ride over Mt. Tabor, I have spotted the same cyclist – someone about my age, riding a fairly upright bike.  We have nodded and waved to each other over the decades.  Recently, I noticed this cyclist was ascending the hill I was descending with quite a bit of speed.  When I passed her, I realized she was now riding an e-bike, and that made me smile.  Yes, keep riding, and find the right bike to do it with.

But what is that bike?  I think the first thing to look at is the drive train – which involves choosing among internal hub gears, single speed, or derailleur options.  Chain driven derailleur-geared bikes offer the greatest range of gears as well as the greatest efficiency.  Derailleur equipped bikes are also the most time consuming and messy when it comes to routine maintenance.  These are also the most commonly found vintage bicycles. They are generally very reliable, and are the easiest to learn to work on yourself.  Their components have not been designed for built in obsolescence.

A cyclist in a relatively flat environment can instead choose a single speed or internally geared option, and that will mean very little routine maintenance for the rider, but potentially expensive service costs should the internal hub fail.  Vintage Sturmey Archer hubs are extremely reliable, and with only routine lubrication can last many decades without the need for an overhaul.  So, a good choice for commuter cycling in a relatively flat environment would be a pre-1970 bicycle with a Sturmey Archer internally geared hub.

I would like to make the case for the derailleur geared bicycle as the most desirable choice for new commuting cyclists.

You can achieve, by far, the greatest gearing range and the most efficiency by using a front and rear derailleur with at least two rings up front and 6 or more cogs in the back.

But, I have often seen neglected triple crank bikes, with teeth wear only on the middle chain ring.  Their riders decided not to figure out how to shift or trim out the front derailleur, and instead used only the middle ring.  That is something to take note of.

The other reason vintage bicycles are so much more suited to new and returning cyclists is their steel frames, usually lugged, and often quite beautiful.  It is a matter of pride to venture out on one’s well-designed, comfortable, and eye-catching lugged steel frame and ride among the masses of heavy, stiff, uncomfortable aluminum frames, or those of questionable reliability such as carbon fiber.

First ride on the 1972 Mercian

1972 Mercian

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.

1972 Mercian

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.

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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

Suntour adjustable BB with sealed cartridge bearings.

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Suntour SL High Normal front derailleur.

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Suntour Perfect 14-32 5 speed freewheel.

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Suntour Vx rear derailleur.

Vintage Huret Shifter

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.1972 Mercian

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.1972 Mercian

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.

Mafac racersMafac racers

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.

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GB Stem

Mercian headbadge

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.

1972 Merican in Mt. Tabor Park

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.

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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.

A 1972 Mercian

2972 Mercian

I recently purchased this Mercian on eBay.  The seller described it as a 1960’s model, but with its Shimano dropouts, I suspected it was actually made a bit later.

1972 Mercian

The bottom bracket shell seems to indicate this is a 1972 model.  A name appears to be etched above the serial number, but I can’t quite make it out.  Perhaps this was the owner’s name.  Having looked through the available Mercian catalogs on-line, and after taking frame measurements, I still don’t quite know what model this is.

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However, given that it has decent length chain stays (44mm), and single eyelets front and rear, it is possible that this is the Campionissimo or Olympic model, off the shelf frames designed for light touring and randonneuring, but with no customizing available except choosing the color.

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The lugs are ornate, and unusually shaped, although not a great deal of time was spent filing them.  The frame is equipped with pump pegs and a full set of cable stops.  The pump pegs are mounted slightly off center below the top tube, to prevent interference with the cable stops also mounted slightly off center on the opposite side.

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I measured the frame and took some preliminary angle readings.  It is a 49 cm x 51 cm frame (or, speaking British, a 20 inch frame – which the company measures center to top).  The angles appear fairly steep, at about 74 degrees for both the head tube and seat tube.  Of course, there is a margin of error using this method, and once the bike is built I will re-measure the angles using a level to correct for errors.  I also checked brake reach using 700c wheels (I think the frame was built for 27 inch wheels).  It looks like I will need about 65 mm of brake reach to use 700c wheels with this frame – that is definitely doable.

However, the biggest challenge will be determining whether the paint damage and oxidation to the top tube will mean having to re-paint the frame, something I am loathe to do.  If the paint damage is just at the surface level, and there’s no rust underneath, I’d like to preserve the beautiful patina of this nice Reynolds 531 hand built frame.

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Thankfully, it was a rainy, stormy day today, not suited for riding.  A perfect shop day.  I got out my various cleaning products and began to experiment on the back side of the fork legs, so that if I did something irretrievably bad, it would not be so visible.  As it turned out, the most effective product was an automotive paint cleaning compound.  Applied vigorously, and polished vigorously afterwards, this product was best at removing the years of neglect.  I was worried about taking off too much paint however, and I only gently cleaned the Mercian logos.   I definitely did not want to damage these as they were all in great condition.  The photos above show the frame after several hours of cleaning and polishing – there is a definite improvement!  That gave me the impetus to start working on the top tube.  I figured that no matter how hard I rubbed, I couldn’t make it worse than it already was.  I really wanted to see what the damage looked like underneath the oxidized paint.

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The good news is that underneath the oxidation was nice silver-colored steel, with no rust visible at all.  The bad news is that the top tube looks pretty funky, still.  I will probably clean it up a bit more and then apply some clear paint to protect the exposed areas.  After more cleaning, I will also apply many coats of wax to the entire frame, just to make sure that it remains protected in the elements.  You’ll note from the above photo that I also removed the California bike license tag.  While I usually keep these kinds of artifacts intact, this one really detracted from its appearance.  Underneath was the original frame color – a very vibrant red.  Well, now the bike is a very cool orange color!

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It’s now time to start thinking about the components.  Since the frame has such a vintage look, I think it would be best to build it up with period components.  Fortunately, the old Mercian catalogs will provide a lot of information about how these machines were typically configured.  I have these GB 88 brakes which would be from the period, and which have just the right amount of brake reach.  My crankset collection includes two Stronglight candidates.  The crankset at the left is a Spidel/Stronglight set from the 80’s – meant to be a copy of a Campy Super Record Crankset, and the one at the right is a 1970’s model with the star shaped spider that I love.  I will probably go with the more vintage look.  The frameset came shipped with a TDC headset, probably orginal, and a Sugino bottom bracket, which may or may not be original.  By this time, Shimano and other Japanese components were beginning to be considered on par with the best French, British and Italian component makers of the time.

Dura Ace high flange hub

I have been wanting to find the right home for this beautiful Dura Ace high flange front hub with its smooth as butter cups and cones.  It is laced to a 700c Araya rim.  I might decide to use an unusual rear hub, such as a 2 x 6 Sachs-Fitchel hub, or even a Sturmey Archer, in keeping with its British heritage.  That is part of the fun – envisioning the many interesting ways this frame can be configured.  I look forward to riding it and getting this great old frame back out on the road.