Monday, April 24, 2017

Michigan Steelhead Ride

This past weekend I managed to get out with my new Mercian 753 Special, just recently completed, and I got to enjoy it with a group of fellow vintage bike nuts in Michigan.

Steelhead Trout (Oncorhynchus Mykiss)
Dubbed the Michigan Steelhead Ride (after the popular game fish) the ride was organized by a Retrogrouch reader, Jim T., who is also a friend on the Classic Rendezvous Google Group. Although driving about four hours (from Akron, Ohio to Lansing, Mich.) is a long way to go for an informal bike ride, I'd been looking forward to getting out with some like-minded retro riders now that winter seems to have relinquished its hold on us. There wasn't a huge group to ride with - about eight guys altogether - but there were some nice bikes to enjoy and swap stories about.

The group met at a nice little café in the quiet town of Dewitt, just a few miles north of Lansing. There we had a tasty breakfast - corned beef hash seemed to be popular with the group, and the coffee was quite good. The folks at the Family Tree Café were kind enough to allow most of us to keep our cars in their small parking lot while we went for our ride.

Weather was kind to us. We had beautiful clear skies, but a bit of a chill in the air with only about 45 degrees when we were ready to depart. Almost everyone on the ride had some vintage wool to wear, but most of us also had a light shell to throw on for the first half of the ride. It was one of those mornings where it felt too warm with the shell, but too cold without. But the temps rose as the ride continued, and by the half-way point, most of us were stuffing the shells into our back pockets. I think it must have gotten into the mid 50s by the time we got to the end. Jim had named the ride Steelhead - but I joked we could have called it the "hockin' phlegm" ride since the cool air, combined with the fact that a lot of us were probably getting over colds, meant there was expectoration a'plenty. Sorry - too much info?

The roads were in decent shape, though there were stretches where winter's freeze and thaw had thrown some cracks and holes in our path. Traffic was fairly light on the whole, and the group kept a nice pace and mostly stayed together. Occasionally some show off would take off on a sprint to the top of a climb (alright, that was me), or we'd wait up at an intersection for one or two folks to catch up. Really though, it was a good group of riders. Along the route we found a little bakery that had some fantastic oatmeal raisin cookies which were worth the stop.

As mentioned, there were some cool folks on the ride, and some fun bikes to enjoy. Around the mid point we stopped for a break at a little gas station/party store (called Spagnuolo's - a name that reminded us a little of Campagnolo) and I snapped some pictures of the bikes:

Most, but not all the bikes were vintage. Those that weren't were at least "vintage inspired."

Unfortunately, I didn't get everyone's names, but we had one Rivendell Homer Hilsen on the ride, with wide upright bars, and a well-broken-in Brooks saddle.

Marcus H. brought a recently completed Terraferma, a very pretty randonneur-style bike. I believe he said this was one of the first rides he'd done with it. We really enjoyed his build choices, which included a cool mix of new and vintage components.

We had this one-owner Maserati with complete Campy Nuovo Record along with us.

There's my Mercian 753. Other than a short "sorting out" ride to make sure everything was adjusted properly, this was the first chance to really put it through some paces.

Jim T. brought a very sweet custom Randy Smolenski. Yes, it has modern shifters, but also has a beautiful Zeus crank, and fabulous vintage SunTour Superbe Pro brakes. Notice the rear brake mounting. Slick.

Steve C. had this vintage Frejus fixed-gear which was a real treat to see. Steve must be a pretty strong rider, as he had no trouble keeping pace despite the single speed.

Mark A. brought this vintage Torpado which had an interesting set of black-anodized 
Super Record parts on it.

We also had this one-owner Raleigh Professional from about 1977. Apart from the wheels and pedals, it appears to be mostly original.

As I mentioned, this was an inaugural ride for my new-old Mercian. I was really curious about how the bike would ride. A couple of impressions: it is stiff, and the angles are pretty steep, so it's very responsive. It does have decent compliance, but it's always been hard for me to tell if something like that is more from the frame or from the tires. I can certainly say I wouldn't want to go narrower on the tires. The tires I chose for the bike are Schwalbe One tubulars, and they are listed at 28 mm wide, but in reality they probably measure more like 26 or so, at least for now. There's plenty of clearance under the fork crown and the seatstay bridge for them, but between the chainstays, it's pretty clear I couldn't go any larger. I'll have to always make sure my wheels are nice and true.

I've also decided that the vintage Cinelli Campione del Mondo (mod. 66) bars have a really deep drop -- yes, I knew they were deep when I installed them, and I put them on because (A.) I had them available in my stash, and (B.) they seemed to fit the "theme" and "period" of the build that I was after. But in actually riding with them, I'm reminded that I'm no longer as young as I used to be, and I really just can't ride very long in that low position. I spent most of the ride up on the ramps and the lever tops. I may have to set those bars aside and put on something a little "friendlier" to my current riding requirements.

The bike got many compliments for its Emerald, Ruby, and Gold paint scheme, as well as the "like-new" Campy Super Record gruppo.

When we finished the ride, the group hung out for a while until people needed to move on for the day. A few of us stayed after and re-visited the Family Tree Café where we had either a late lunch, or an early dinner. The waitress recommended their burgers, and all of us took her advice. She was right, as the burgers were truly first-rate, as were the fries. I also got to try Bell's Oberon ale from Kalamazoo, which was a nice discovery for me, and I need to look around to see if anyone near me carries it. It was a great complement to the burger.

Eventually I needed to head home, facing another four-hour drive back to Akron. It was nice meeting some folks up in Michigan, and I had a really good time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Retrogrouch Reading: Giro d'Italia

The 2017 Giro d'Italia begins on May 5th and will be the 100th edition of Italy's famous grand tour. Just in time to mark that special milestone, Pursuit Books has just released Colin O'Brien's Giro d'Italia: The Story of the World's Most Beautiful Bike Race. O'Brien is an Irish writer, currently based in Italy and is a regular contributor to Rouleur magazine.

There are many books on the subject of the Giro, and I'm not sure how much there is to set O'Brien's book apart from the others that are out there, but I really enjoyed reading it. Though the title may imply that the book would be a near encyclopaedic account of the race's history, it actually is nothing of the sort. Rather, it mainly follows the history of the grand tour through some of its great heroes, its duels and rivalries, and occasionally through a look at some of its great mountain passes.

From a fairly detailed look at the race's somewhat humble beginnings, the book chronologically covers some of its first champions, like rivals Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda (the latter of whom was the first 5-time Giro champion, a seemingly unbeatable force from 1925 to 1933), later Coppi and Bartali, Merckx and Gimondi, and on to Saronni and Moser by the end of the 1970s. Some of the book's chapters look at the relationship between the race and the politics of the day - for example, the rise of Fascism in Mussolini's government, and its effect on the race and its athletes, including the famous Ottavio Bottecchia, whose death may have been politically motivated.

I think some of my favorite chapters of the book come in the latter half when the race takes on more of an international flavor - with the introduction of the American 7-Eleven team and others. These latter parts of the book feature extensive interviews with some of the Giro's living champions, like Andy Hampsten and Stephen Roche. I don't think it would be possible to read Hampsten's account of his 1988 Giro win without being convinced that he is one of the most humble, genuine people to come out of professional bike racing. Yes, the story of his unforgettable ride up the Gavia Pass in appalling conditions is one I've heard and read in many sources, but there's no doubt that it's a fantastic story and will long live as one of the great legends of the Giro.

One mild critique I have is towards the end of the book where one fairly brief chapter deals with the difficulties of believing in professional racing in today's world of doping scandals. I almost feel that O'Brien goes out of his way to sweep the doping issue away, and is almost too eager to point out that the old champions, like Coppi and Anquetil were doping too. And a modern-era racer like Marco Pantani is glorified despite the fact that his "beautiful" performances in the mountains were almost certainly fueled as much by EPO and steroids as by heart and soul. I still have a hard time with the beatification of Pantani. I pity him as perhaps a pawn in a game, used and used up by people with far more power, money, and influence, but undoubtedly another major reason why racing today has such a serious credibility problem that will kill the whole sport the same way it killed Pantani.

Despite that (again, minor) criticism, I do recommend O'Brien's book about "the world's most beautiful bike race." I think Retrogrouch readers would enjoy it, and I definitely would pick up a copy before the 100th race takes off from in Sardinia, on its 21-stage journey back to Milan.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mercian 753 Special

It's my spring break from work, so I've had some time this week to work on a pretty awesome project: a 1979 Mercian 753 Special. It's now mostly finished and ready for some photos.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I believe 1979 was the first year that Mercian offered a model built with Reynolds 753 tubing. According to the book The Custom Bicycle by Kolin and de la Rosa, by 1978 the only 753-certified builders in the U.K. were Raleigh, Bob Jackson, and Harry Quinn. At the time they were being interviewed for that book, Mercian owner Bill Betton said they were looking into using the special heat-treated tubing, but hadn't yet decided, and had not yet sought certification for it. But according to the serial number, this frame was built some time in 1979, and by 1980 the model was listed in the company's catalog. I suspect (but can't say for certain) that there can't have been many frames built with 753 prior to this example of mine.

When I got the frame last fall, it had a busted cable guide and would need new paint, but the price was low enough that I figured it was worthwhile even with the cost of the renovation added. I already had most of the parts needed to complete the bike, but I did want a top-level pair of tubular wheels for it, which I felt would be the right choice for a special racing frame. While the frame was off at Mercian Cycles being renovated, I spent some time sourcing the right vintage rims and hubs, then built the wheels last month.

Why did I go with Mercian for the renovations? There are very good painters much closer to home, but the price of renovations at Mercian is really competitive, and the exchange rate right now is as good as I've ever seen. The price of shipping back and forth to the U.K. is the big downside. Ultimately, the renovation itself was cheaper than keeping it in the U.S., but the shipping cost eliminated any savings so the price would have been about the same either way. But the idea of having the frame renovated by the same folks who originally built it was enough to tip the scale.

Remember that post a couple months ago about "proper" bike setup? Not-so-modestly speaking, right here is a great example. 
I had these '80s vintage sew-up tires on hand, Clement Super Condors - I mounted them (without glue) to check them out but I probably won't end up using them - they are really narrow at only about 20mm wide. Even with short-reach brakes (the pads are all the way at the bottom of the slots) there is so much room in the frame that I can easily mount a larger-volume tire, and nowadays there are some good choices, even in sew-ups.
I've got a full Campy Super Record group on the bike - with one exception: Simplex retrofriction shift levers. That's a substitution a lot of riders made back in the day. Putting Campagnolo rubber covers on Simplex levers was a little trick riders like Laurent Fignon used to do to keep his sponsor Campagnolo happy. Fignon continued using the Simplex levers as late as 1989, even after Campagnolo came out with their own retrofriction levers (they called their system "doppler," by the way).
It's rare for me to use anything but Brooks saddles, but I had this like-new Cinelli Unicanitor saddle looking for a lightweight, high-performance vintage bike. Fistful of post, too. I went back and forth on the brake cable housing - trying to decide between this vintage translucent red Casiraghi housing and the classic grey Campagnolo housing (yes, I had both). I thought the red might be almost "too much" with the color matching - but at the same time, it is an EXACT match for the Ruby Red on the frame. In the end, I think the red is the right choice.
These are old-logo Cinelli stem and bars (Mod Campione del Mondo - the deep drop ones). The current "flying C" logo came about after the Columbo family bought Cinelli around '78.
There's that Campagnolo Hi-Lo hub.
Campagnolo Super Record rear derailleur with Regina Extra freewheel and drilled chain.
Can't quite see them here, but I've got super light Ale aluminum toeclips and classic Alfredo Binda straps on these Record Superleggero (SL) pedals. The SL pedals are not quite the same as the rarer Super Record pedals - the SR use titanium spindles, whereas the SL use steel. Not as light, but a lot easier to find and they'll last a good long time.

All assembled, the bike weighs around 20 lbs - not bad for a steel bike with a 60cm frame. In a post on 753 tubing, I pointed out that Reynolds offered the tubing in a couple of different gauges. The very thinnest gauge was generally reserved for smaller frames, below about 58cm, while larger frames would have tube walls that were not quite as extremely thin. Though there could be exceptions to that distinction, Mercian was (still is) a pretty conservative builder, and this one for sure uses the slightly thicker gauge. How can we tell? It takes a 26.8mm seatpost. Smaller frames, or any using the thinner gauge would take a 27.0mm post.

I still have to glue on tires before I can take it for a ride. When that happens, I'll put out a ride report.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Step Back In Time - '94 Bridgestone Calendar

While searching through eBay recently, I spotted a fun little bit of Bridgestone memorabilia for sale: a 1994 Bridgestone Endangered Species Calendar, at a buy-it-now price of $50. As of right now, it's still available. Who knows if it will bring the asking price, but I do know that I won't be buying it. You see, I already have one. But seeing the auction made me get it out and take another look.

The calendar represents month after month of vintage components and accessories to make a retrogrouch drool. I thought readers of the blog might enjoy seeing some of what's inside:

On the cover: a series of large-flange hubs. Campagnolo Record, SunTour Superbe, Zeus 2000, and Shimano Dura-Ace. Inside the calendar, the text goes on to mention how people used to claim that large-flange hubs added strength and rigidity to a wheel - something that turned out to be not really true. Still, they are very cool-looking, and even more uncommon today than they were in '94.
Zeus 2000, Huret Duopar, Simplex LJ, Mavic, Huret Jubilee, and Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleurs. The text of the calendar goes on to say "In the days before indexing, rear derailleurs from different makers had distinct personalities. But with the advent of indexing, designs have been homogenized to the point where all modern derailleurs have slant parallelograms and look like the original SunTour design." That is generally true, though to be truly honest here, three of the derailleurs shown (the Zeus, Mavic, and Campy) all share basically the same design mechanically, while the differences are mostly stylistic. The Zeus was very obviously modeled on the Campagnolo Record, but with some drillium. I've always enjoyed the Erector-set aesthetic of the early Mavic derailleur. The Simplex has a similar design but with the addition of a sprung upper pivot for crisper shifting. The little Jubilee is probably my favorite in terms of its minimalistic design, but the Duopar was probably the most unique derailleur design of them all. It's also the only touring derailleur shown.
Even by 1994, lugged frames were already becoming scarce. On the left is a pair of Cinelli stamped upper and lower head lugs. On the right is a pair of Dubois upper and lower head lugs (made by Nervex - and used on Masi Gran Criteriums). In the middle on the bottom is a Nervex Professional lower head lug, but above it is sort of a Nervex-copy made in Japan, and not quite as ornate as the original (it also happens to be a lower head lug, and is shown upside down - oops).
Flat-topped fork crowns. I had featured a few of these in an early Retrogrouch article called "Lovely Fork Crowns." Upper row is Fischer, unknown maker, and a Masi double-plate. Lower row is Zeus track crown, Vagner, and Davis track crown.
Centerpull brakes were truly "uncool" in '94, though they seem to have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years - particularly in versions that have their pivots brazed directly to the frame or fork. Shown are (top row) Universal 61, Shimano Dura-Ace, Weinmann Vainqueur, and (bottom row) Mafac 2000, Dia-Compe 510, and Zeus 2000. Some of these would command good prices today on eBay.
Friction shift levers. I still use them on most of my bikes. From left to right: Zeus 2000, Campagnolo bar-end, Campagnolo  Record down-tube, SunTour Power Ratchet bar-end, Simplex retrofriction down-tube, a Simplex retrofriction bar-end (good luck finding those today!), and a SunTour XC Power Ratchet thumb shifter.
Leather saddles. Clockwise from top left: Lepper sprung saddle (from The Netherlands), Brooks Swallow, Brooks Professional, and Ideale 88 Rebour model.

Some other "endangered species" that are shown in the calendar include traditional quill-type pedals for toe clips and straps, single-pivot sidepull brakes, classic black leather cycling shoes (like the old Dettos and Duegis we all had back in the day), and thread-on freewheels.

There is a bit of retrogrouchy text that goes with each of the monthly selections that almost always ends with something along the lines of "Eddy Merckx won all of his races on ________." Whether it's friction shifting, quill pedals, or lugged steel frames. That's practically a retrogrouch mantra. "If it was good enough for Eddy . . ."

So in 1994, all these items were considered "endangered." What is the status of these components 23 years later?

High-flange hubs? Still pretty hard to find, though not impossible - at least for track/singlespeed wheels. In fact, for people who still want to build their own wheels, just being able to buy hubs at all is becoming a challenge now that everyone (except us retrogrouches) wants pre-built "high-tech" wheels with super low spoke counts, or even carbon fiber wheels.

Friction shift levers? Thankfully still available. Dia Compe is still making versions of the old SunTour power ratchet (with a really fine ratchet, like the last-generation SunTours) that are sold under a couple of different names. Velo Orange is a source.

Centerpull brakes? As mentioned, they have made a bit of a comeback, though with the proliferation of disc brakes, they're still probably on borrowed time. Paul's centerpulls are super nice. Dia Compe still makes some, and Compass Cycles has a nice updated version of the old Mafacs. With posts brazed directly to the frame/fork, centerpulls give excellent stopping power and great modulation.

Single-pivot sidepull brakes? Gone. Just gone.

Quill pedals? Still around, surprisingly, and the quality is quite good. MKS seems to be the main source for them today.

Leather saddles? Somehow these are not just surviving, but maybe even thriving. Brooks is still the main one, but Gilles Berthoud, Selle Anatomica, and Selle Italia all offer high-quality leather saddles. There are some Taiwanese-made versions as well.

Lugged frames are scarce unless one is willing to shell out for something from a custom builder. Anything "off the rack" these days is going to be TIG welded, assuming it's even metal. Lugs and nice fork crowns are still out there for frame builders, but even a lot of steel frames nowadays use carbon fiber forks . . . (shudder).

It's kind of funny to think that after more than 20 years, the situation for many of these items hasn't changed a whole lot, but I think if I were to put out a new version of an Endangered Species calendar today, I'd probably add traditional quick release levers, threaded headsets, and quill stems. Anything else to add? Leave a comment.

Monday, March 27, 2017


All unpacked and unwrapped.

The frame is a 1979 Mercian 753 Special, completely refurbished by Mercian. I took the time to install a bottom bracket, headset and fork, and a seat post before snapping a few more pictures.

The color is Emerald Green Flamboyant, with Ruby Red Flamboyant contrasts. The original color was the same Emerald Green, but the contrasts were originally gold.

The lugs have long points with little arrowhead "window" cutouts in them. The windows were filled with the same Ruby Red contrasts, and outlined in gold.

Another look at the little cutout windows - this time in the head lugs.

I love a nice flat-topped fork crown. This one's got some nice little details on the shoulders.

I'm almost certain that 1979 was the first year that Mercian offered a 753 frame. I don't know how many they may have built before this one. I've thought about having Jane at Mercian track that information down, but I've seen the records there -- they aren't computerized, and it would be a hassle to have her dig through them just to satisfy my curiosity. 

To finish putting it all together, I have a full Campagnolo Super Record group from about 1980 - '81 to hang on there, along with a Cinelli bar/stem combo. And of course, the fantastic set of tubular wheels I recently built.

More to come . . .

Friday, March 24, 2017


Just got a package the other day. A pretty big box, about the size of a flat-screen TV. Opened it up and found a heavily bubble-wrapped bundle inside. Much better than a TV.

I started peeling back some of that bubble wrap and thought Retrogrouch readers might like a peek . . .

Ruby, Emerald, and Gold. Very nice.

More to come . . . Stay Tuned.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Retrogrouch Reading: Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture

Brooks Saddles has been in business for 150 years - essentially going back to the beginning of bicycles as we know them. To celebrate that history, the iconic company has released a book, The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture (Thames & Hudson, $32.75), which they describe as "A celebration of the bicycle and its wide-ranging cultural impact worldwide -- an insider view into the world of cycling bound to inspire the imagination of professional and amateur cyclists alike."

As a whimsical touch, the top of the book is drilled through with
three holes, like the top of a B17 saddle.
The Compendium is an eclectic (and perhaps eccentric) collection of stories, essays, photos, drawings, profiles, and more - compiled from a range of writers, artists, designers, and athletes, and edited by Rouleur magazine's Guy Andrews.

For the most part, the book is NOT about Brooks Saddles, the company or its products. In fact, some chapters are only tangentially related to bicycles at all. Instead, the book captures a wide range of "areas of interest" in the wider world that might appeal to cyclists, or to like-minded folks who appreciate tradition, craftsmanship, creativity, or perhaps even a certain distinctive "Britishness." There are chapters on British innovations (among which, the leather saddle and the pneumatic tire are listed alongside electric teakettles and hypodermic syringes); the simple joys of cycling, whether for adventure or simple transportation; the sometimes hostile relationship between London's cyclists and taxi drivers; British vs. Continental bicycle racing; naked bike rides; and an explanation of words and phrases from bicycle racing, including of course the expression "on the rivet."

The only chapters that really seem to be centered on Brooks include the story of the company's early beginnings, and a photo essay depicting the inner workings of the Brooks factory.

The photo essay of the Brooks factory includes some wonderful, 
and in some cases quirky, glimpses into the factory.

Perhaps because of its eclectic nature, the Brooks Compendium is not quite the book I expected it to be, and is not like most other cycling books in my collection - but it is an engaging book to read and peruse. If I had to compare it to anything that Retrogrouch readers might relate to, I'd say it reminds me a little of an expanded Rivendell Reader in book form. Like the Brooks Compendium, that periodical would frequently feature articles that had little to do with Rivendell bicycles specifically, or sometimes not even bicycles in general, but somehow would capture the interest of anyone who would be drawn to that company's distinctive (idiosyncratic? contrarian?) philosophy. It was always an enjoyable read, and so is the Compendium.

Among many great innovations listed in the book, the Brooks B17
is probably the only one that is still used in basically unchanged
form since its Victorian-era inception.

Racing "Over Here" and "Over There," compares British racing with its
Continental counterpart, and features insights from retired racer Robert Millar

Wonderful illustrations, and other cycling-inspired artwork.

Would it surprise anyone to know that London's cabbies hate bicyclists?
They hate bus and lorry drivers, too. But all of them hate the cyclists.

The Brooks Compendium is a large format, beautifully bound book, and over 190 pages of stories and pictures that any true bicycle devotee would be sure to enjoy.