Friday, August 29, 2014

A Popular Rerun

As The Retrogrouch Blog marked its first anniversary, I looked back at some of the posts from the first year of the blog, and found which ones proved to be the most popular or had the most visits. Of those most-visited selections, I thought I'd re-run my favorite -- slightly updated. After this first ran, I got a note from Jane Mosley. It read: "That's a really good article. Normally I can't read things written about us for some reason (it makes me want to cringe a bit), but not yours. Thank you for writing such a great article."  It was good to hear. Mercian linked to it from their own blog, which probably accounts for a lot of the traffic it received.

Back when I was still basically a kid first discovering really nice bicycles, one of the first people I encountered who shared my passion was an older guy who rode a Mercian that he'd owned since the 1970s. He had the Professional model, with the long spearpoint bottom bracket shell and a classic barber pole paint job, deep red and white, built with the full Campagnolo Nuovo Record group. I don't even know how much time I must have spent admiring the details on that bike -- but I know it left an impression on me. Today I own eight of them.
The Mercian Shop, in Alvaston near Derby.

Mercian have been building bicycles (that's British-style grammar -- not an error) since Tom Crowther and Lou Barker set up shop in Derby, England in 1946. Through the 50s and 60s, they gained quite a following with the British club riding scene. Their reputation for quality, beauty, and great-riding bikes continues right up to today. Mercian still make bikes today using the same time-honored, traditional techniques that they've used from the beginning -- building with Reynolds tubing, brazed together on an open hearth.

I was fortunate enough that Grant Mosley, who has owned Mercian since 2002 with his wife, Jane, was willing to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions for me about the company. Grant has been with Mercian for nearly 40 years. "I started as a Saturday lad," he says, "making cups of tea etc. in the shop. I was in the local cycling club and Jeff Bowler, the Shop Manager, asked me if I wanted a job while we were on a club run." I'm sure Grant never imagined at the time that he would one day own the place.

1950's catalog, from the Mercian archives.
The Mosleys are essentially only the third owners of Mercian Cycles, but in a sense, the company's history has remained intact as ownership has always stayed within. By the 1950s, company catalogs list Tom Crowther and his wife Ethel as sole proprietors. Then, according to Mosley, Tom left and in 1965, Ethel (by this time Tom's ex-wife) sold the company to Bill Betton, who had worked his way up within Mercian from apprentice to framebuilder. Betton ran the company for the next 36 years. Then, in 2001, Mosley got an offer. "The company was for sale and I bumped into Bill on a Sunday bike ride. He said he wished that someone within the company could buy it, and myself and Jane begged, stole, and borrowed to buy the company in 2002."

Serious Mercian fans or collectors might be aware that co-founder Tom Crowther went on to also sell frames under his own name. Most of these were still built in the Mercian factory, though it's hard to know how many. "Records before 1970 were burned at a company Guy Fawkes bonfire party in the early '70s, so it's hard to know exactly," Mosley recalls. "I know Mercian built some Tom Crowther frames, as we still have stocks of transfers for them. Tom Crowther frames that we've resprayed have our frame number identity on them, but we don't know if all Tom Crowther frames were made by Mercian."

Use Google Maps to get an interactive view of the shop.
You can use arrows to move around inside the shop. Very cool.
Apart from the aforementioned bonfire, Mercian history has been well preserved. Frame records since then are kept on file, and owners regularly write to the company to trace the beginnings of their frames, or to order a new frame with the same measurements and geometry of their old one. According to the company website (, there is a £10 charge for a records search, since the files are not computerized and searching can take time. With the popularity of eBay, they get so many requests for frame records that they can sometimes spend hours tracking down numbers.

Hand-shaping a Vincitore lug from a lug
"blank" is a painstaking process. The
results are exquisite.
(photo from 2004 Mercian catalog)
Another way that Mercian history is preserved is that their framebuilding tradition is handed down, builder-to-builder, within the company. Derek Land, who had built frames at the shop for over 45 years, retired not long ago. Grant says that Tony Phillips is currently the longest serving framebuilder, having been with the company for over 35 years now. Rob Poultney, the senior painter, has been with Mercian for over 40 years. According to Grant, Rob "started out as a framebuilder but didn't like it!" These well-tenured craftsmen help the "new lads" (that's pretty much anyone with less than 10 years at the shop) learn the Mercian way of doing things.

I asked Grant about the process of training the "new lads." He said, "Luckily we don't have to recruit new builders that often, but when we do they start with smaller jobs -- brazing dropouts and filing/finishing until they get the feel for the materials and tools. Then they start to build frames from start to finish, but with lots of supervision and assistance from a skilled builder." He then added, "Because Mercian build frames free-hand, without jigs, it takes longer to learn the art of framebuilding in this way."

Brazing free-hand in an open hearth. Few builders
still use this traditional, time-honored method today.
(photo from 2004 Mercian catalog)
Mercian is well known for its free-hand, "open hearth" brazing method. Frame tubes and lugs are fitted together on an alignment board, then the joints are pinned and then brazed in an open-hearth fired by air and natural gas, rather than the more modern method of building the frame in jigs with oxy-acetylene torches. Mercian's builders feel their method is gentler on the tubing, and one of the secrets to their frames' longevity. "Since day one Mercian have built frames this way," said Mosely. "It's a really traditional way of brazing and we're probably the last in the UK to still build like this."

A view inside the Mercian frame shop. (photo courtesy
of Bob Troy)
"We've built this way for over 65 years, and the fact that we renovate decades-old Mercians proves to us that it's kinder to the frame," he continued. "There are arguments to support every method of building that people use, and I'm not saying either is right or wrong, but if it ain't broke don't fix it! Mercian bikes ride really well, they're responsive, stable, and comfortable, and once people ride one they're pleasantly surprised. So I reckon we're doing it right."

Another tradition going back to the beginning is the almost exclusive use of Reynolds tubing. "We've always had a great relationship with Reynolds and because we've built with it from the start, the framebuilders have a real 'feel' for the tubing." Over the years, the company has built primarily with 531, and was among the earliest to be certified by Reynolds for 753. Today, Reynolds 631, 725, and 853 are popular choices. Grant says they have used other brands of tubing when customers have specifically asked them to, "but we still prefer Reynolds." The shop has also built some frames from 953 stainless, but supply interruptions have, at least for now, put that material on hold.

Long spearpoint lugs and a bold color palate distinguished
the Paul Smith track bike. (from Mercian's site)
In the last decade, Mercian frames have taken on an almost iconic status. Back in 2007, fashion designer Paul Smith collaborated with Mercian on two special limited-edition bicycles -- a touring model, and a track bike -- distinguished by Smith's unique color motif, as well as special long-point lugs on the track model. I asked Grant about how that collaboration came to be.

Sir Paul Smith, on his
stealth-black Mercian.
(photo by Horst Friedrichs)
"It was a trip to the Nottingham Paul Smith shop which started the ball rolling. We noticed in his shop a chair made for him by a local company and just thought a Mercian would look nice there. We got in contact in the off-chance, and Sir Paul thought it would be great if we could make a few bikes for them," Grant said. "Of course we jumped at the offer and the rest as they say is history."

Paul Smith also ordered a special "urban" fixed-gear bike for himself -- a "stealth" machine with a matte black finish and black components. Photos of Sir Paul with the bike have appeared in numerous non-cycling publications, including fashion magazines. Smith, a longtime cyclist who rode a Mercian in his teens and dreamed of becoming a professional bike racer (a bad crash ended that dream), frequently adorns his shop window displays with bikes -- a number of which were built by Mercian. Grant would not specify, but hinted that other collaborations may be in the works.
Ewan McGregor's Vincitore Special, with vintage
Campagnolo parts. (photo from Derby Telegraph)

More recently, Mercian built a bike for none other than Obi Wan Kenobi himself, actor Ewan McGregor. Grant told me how that came about. "I posted a picture of a leaf green Vincitore Special on our Twitter feed," he said. McGregor, who had been following the company's site, "saw the bike and said it reminded him of the first bike his dad bought for him." The actor contacted Mercian and placed an order for a Vincitore Special -- leaf green with a barber-pole paint scheme. He provided his measurements, and let Grant advise on the rest. McGregor spent some time searching eBay for vintage Campagnolo parts. "He supplied a few of the components to be fitted, like Campagnolo Delta brakes," added Grant.

Yes, that's my bike in the 2004 catalog.
As a personal side-note - I'm a huge fan of the color scheme of McGregor's Mercian. In 2003, Mercian built me a Professional model, not unlike the bike I admired so thoroughly when I was in my teens. Rather than copy that vintage example exactly, I picked out leaf green and white. When the frame was done, Grant asked me if they could photograph it for their new catalog. What could I say? YES! I built that bike up with a complete 80s vintage Campagnolo Super Record group. A honey-colored Brooks leather saddle and matching bar tape finished off the bike, which later appeared on the company website in an "owners gallery." Since then, I've seen several other Mercians painted in the same scheme. I have no illusions whatsoever that I was the first to get a bike painted like that, but I like to think (even if I'm mistaken) that it got more popular after my bike appeared in the catalog.

For those interested in ordering a new frame from Mercian, the wait time is currently about 5 - 6 months -- and that's true for celebrities, too. Even Ewan McGregor didn't get to jump the queue. When it comes to custom frames, the company offers some standardized specifications for racing, touring, track, audax, etc., which can be a good place to start, but customers have a lot of input on their frame order. Grant said, "We don't do trikes, triplets, 4-wheeled buggies, etc. but for solo frames we look at each enquiry as it comes and advise accordingly." I've found in my own experience that the company can be very accommodating for special requests, whether in colors, lugs, geometry, or whatever a person may desire for their dream bike. If one comes up with some ideas that the builders, in their experience, feel would not work well, they'll advise against it. Otherwise, a person can get pretty creative when ordering a Mercian.

The online frame builder lets you create your dream bike.
Be careful -- it's addictive.
Should someone want a new Mercian but not want to wait, there are some options. Mercian keeps a few frames in the shop painted and ready to go. One can always call or email to inquire about what's in store. They've recently come up with a semi-custom option as well. Grant said, "we've recently built a small stock of King of Mercia frames in popular sizes, in 725 tubing, all in undercoat, so they can be painted to order and shipped in 4 - 6 weeks." This move, Grant said, was in preparation for their upcoming online store. Until the online store is up and running, though, customers can entertain their new-bike fantasies with the online frame builder. With it, one can pick a model, choose tubing, braze-ons, and other specifications, and try out all 63 standard colors in a variety of popular paint schemes. It's a little bit addictive.

Given that the company has been building frames for over six decades, there are a lot of vintage examples out there. Figuring out when a Mercian was built is usually pretty easy (but not always). On most vintage frames, the serial number will be located on the bottom bracket. Usually, the last two digits in the series will be the year that the frame was made. However, there have been some years, especially in earlier vintages like the 1950s, where the pattern was different and the first two digits were the build year. Sometimes, other details on the frame can provide clues, but according to Classic Lightweights UK, if a frame has a serial number like 59557, it may be impossible to know if it was built in 1959 or 1957. Also, I have seen some older Mercians -- notably some track bikes from the 50s -- where the serial number was stamped on the rear fork end instead of the bottom bracket. By the way, a second number stamped on the bottom bracket is a framebuilder's code, which can indicate who built the frame -- interesting to know. Since Y2K, the serial numbers have become unambiguous -- the year is now indicated with the full four digits -- xxx2013, for example.

I asked Grant if he's seen a resurgence of interest in Mercian frames. "We have a very full order book. The demand seems to be growing," he said. "There are a lot of riders out there who have never had a good steel frame. They started on alloy (aluminum), progressing to carbon, then trying the NEW steel frames." Not only that, he added, but the company also gets a lot of repeat business. "Most of our customers who order seem to re-order again and again once they have felt the difference in the ride quality." I know what he means. . .

My Mercians:
Professional model - 2003 -- with 80s vintage Super Record group. Reynolds 631 tubing. The idea here was to have a new bike that would seem almost like a vintage example. A trendsetter?
"Classic" model - 1979 -- my second Mercian. Reynolds 531. This one was refurbished at the factory in "Bianchi Blue" with a cream head-tube. 
"Anniversary Model" 2006. Sixty bike were made to celebrate 60 years in business. Has modified Pacenti lugs, a special head badge, and Reynolds 725 tubing. Campagnolo Centaur group. Honjo fenders and Velo-Orange racks. The bags are from Gilles Berthoud. 
I've been putting a lot of miles on this one.
Strada Speciale track bike. 2008. 631 tubing. Lots of NJS parts.
1973 Superlight - Reynolds 531 tubing. Original paint. Period-correct Campagnolo Nuovo Record group. When I found this, it was a nearly 40-yr-old new-old-stock frame.
King of Mercia model. Reynolds 725. Modern Campagnolo Centaur group. 
2012 Vincitore. Reynolds 631. Built as a "road/path" bike with a mix of old and new Campagnolo parts. Single speed, fixed gear. This one was pictured in the UK publication Urban Cyclist.
1980 Strada Speciale. The most recent addition to the collection. Built with a mix of age-appropriate
parts, mostly of Japanese origin. Steep angles, fast handling, but a really nice ride.

History and Tradition are such a big part of Mercian Cycles. And not just for the company itself -- but also for the people who ride the bikes. Like myself, who admired one in his youth and wanted so much to own one, there are many others who can tell similar stories. Look at Paul Smith, who raced on a Mercian in his teens, then decades later began designing bikes with the company. Or Ewan McGregor, drawn to a Mercian that reminded him so much of a bike his father bought him in his youth. Or even Grant Mosley -- working Saturdays at the shop as a lad, years later becoming the owner of the brand as it neared its 60th year in operation. I'll bet lots of people find themselves drawn to the bikes for similar reasons. And the brand is still there, still making bikes the way they did in the beginning, ready to welcome back old friends, or to greet new ones just discovering the virtues of a hand-crafted steel frame. The Mercian shop, its workers, the bikes, and the people who ride them are all part of this Tradition extending back to 1946.

Some Shop Photos (from a 2008 promotional calendar):
An assortment of tools on a framebuilder's workbench.
A lugless fillet brazed frame. The joints are being smoothed to a seamless radius.
A Paul Smith track frame, ready for paint.

I'd like to thank Grant Mosley for taking the time to respond to my questions. Thank you so much for contributing to the Retrogrouch Blog!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Retro-Grouchy Anniversary

I just realized that The Retrogrouch Blog has marked its first anniversary. One full year on the web, and I almost missed it. In that year there were 189 posts, the first of which was posted on August 27, 2013. Readership is nowhere near BikeSnobNYC numbers, but it has grown every month since the beginning.

Here's a little background. I'm a full-time English teacher with a journalism background. I did spend some time working for a magazine before I started teaching -- though it was nothing bicycle-related. It was a trade publication for the directional drilling and underground utilities industry, read by contractors and vendors in the industry and civil engineers. It wasn't much fun, but writing is writing, and it was good experience.

I've always been a bit of a bicycle nut, full of strong opinions on bikes and equipment, and driving people nuts with my retro-grouchy ranting. I figured I should start putting some of it down in print, so a couple years ago I started sending out "feelers" to see if I could get some paid writing jobs for some of the bicycle magazines, but came up with nothing. My local bike shop has a blog, and I asked them if they'd be interested in some product-review kinds of submissions, which they were. After getting some decent feedback to my contributions to the bike shop blog, and still getting no response from the bike magazines, I figured why not just start my own blog? It doesn't pay anything -- but it's a good outlet anyhow.

I briefly toyed with calling the blog "The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet" after a fictional newsletter in the web-comic Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery, but eventually decided that might be a bit too obscure. Still, anyone who would read a blog called The Retrogrouch would probably get the reference. We'll never know.

Over the past year, I've ranted against carbon fiber frames and forks, disc brakes, and press-fit bottom brackets. I've looked at products I like, both old and new -- like Brooks saddles, traditional pedals, single-pivot brakes, fenders, and more. And occasionally I've looked into the history, lore, and tradition of classic and vintage bicycle components and brands. I've also been a critic of the bicycle industry today for their increasing reliance on planned obsolescence, and the constant marketing hype of incremental changes as massive improvements -- which probably means that none of them will ever want to advertise with The Retrogrouch.

I don't know how much and for how long a person can go on ranting against changing technology, or praising the good stuff of the past -- but a year seemed to go by pretty quickly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

50 Bicycles That Changed the World

I just finished reading Design Museum's Fifty Bicycles That Changed The World, a slim volume, little more than 100 pages, that takes a chronological look at the evolution of the bicycle through 50 "innovative and influential" machines. The book, written by Alex Newson, is one of a series released by London's Design Museum, which also includes volumes about 50 influential cars, chairs, dresses, shoes, typefaces, and more.

From the description: "The bicycle is the world's most popular form of transport. From the penny-farthing and the velocipede, the design of the bicycle has evolved over the decades both in terms of style and technology. From high-performance cycles to practical run-arounds, conceptual bikes to commercial models, Alex Newson explores the 50 most innovative and influential bicycles from around the world."

Of course, any time someone tries to boil down more than a century of historical significance into 50 objects, there are going to be disputes, and I do have some. However, in this particular case, there are not only questionable/debatable choices, but plenty of factual mistakes. Here's an example, from a section on heavyweight Schwinn cruisers:

"During the first decade of the nineteenth century the United States experienced what is often referred to as the 'first bicycle boom.' This was sparked by a series of vital design innovations such as the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyres and accelerated by modern assembly lines and methods of mass manufacture."

Actually, the first decade of the 19th century would be 1800 - 1810. The bicycle boom referred to in the text was actually the 1890s and was a worldwide (not only an American) phenomenon.

Here's another -- relating to a subject that's been talked about on this blog a few times -- on Greg LeMond's 1989 Bottechia TT Bike, with Scott Aero Bars:

"On the eve of the final time-trial stage of the 1989 Tour de France, Laurent Fignon held a seemingly insurmountable 50-sec. lead over his nearest rival Greg LeMond. Fignon, a very capable time triallist, was expected to ease to victory. However, over the 25 kilometre stage LeMond gained more than two seconds per kilometre over Fignon and secured his first Tour de France title in the process." 

1986 just didn't happen, I guess.

There are other mistakes, and yes I'm probably nitpicking. Careful readers of this blog have occasionally picked out factual errors -- but it's one thing when you're a one-man writer, editor, fact-checker, and publisher. It's something else when you have the resources of an actual publishing company behind your work. I just find the mistakes to be annoying, and they detract from the reading experience.

Not the first folding bicycle, but the refinement of the design
and the ease and compactness of the fold put the Brompton
on the list.
What about the choices of the fifty bikes? As I already hinted, it would be impossible to come up with a list of 50 significant anythings that would satisfy everyone. If the criterion is, as the title suggests, "50 bicycles that changed the world," there are some choices that are virtually indisputable, but there are many others, especially from the modern era, that were probably picked more for their bizarre design-school-exercise aesthetic than any actual "world-changing" influence.

Some "solid" choices: Baron von Drais's Laufmaschine c. 1817; the Velocipede c. 1863; the Penny-Farthing c 1870; the Safety Bicycle c. 1880. Significant evolutionary steps, all of them. Some others, significant for their impact on the use of the bicycle for transportation and work, include: Dutch Omafiets or "grandma bike" (the "men's" version is an Opafiets, but the book doesn't mention that even though the bike pictured is an Opafiets); English Roadster with 3-speed hub; Chinese Flying Pigeon; Cargo and Porteur bikes (as a general category) and others.

Some other bikes are listed for their significance in starting major trends, or changing the way people looked at bicycle designs. These include the Moulton "F-Frame" bikes from the early 60s, which helped start a trend to small wheeled, portable bikes. And some of the first mountain bikes, like those built by Joe Breeze, or the first Specialized Stumpjumper of 1981, which brought mountain bikes to the masses. Although the author credits the "Breezers" as the first "purpose-built" mountain bikes, the book does give credit to the "klunkers" as they were known -- cobbled together from old balloon-tire bikes and motorcycle parts -- which gave birth to the whole mountain bike phenomenon.

There are a number of racing bikes listed, such as Greg LeMond's aforementioned 1989 TdF time trial bike, as well as hour-record machines from Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Chris Boardman, and Graeme Obree -- some of which may be significant for their influence on the sport or on their particular racing events. Other racing bikes listed are more debatable choices, such as Bradley Wiggins's Team Sky Pinarello Dogma. The Pinarello has unusual-looking stays and forks, but on the whole is not that much different from all the other carbon fiber bikes in the pro peloton today, and it's hard for me to see it as any more significant, innovative, or influential than anything else available in the past decade.

A masturbatory design school exercise.
Not a world-changer.
Really questionable choices: Bianchi Pista, 2007? Okay, the "urban fixie" thing was a fad, and it may still be really popular in Britain (I don't know), but they are (and were) nothing new. The trend certainly didn't start with the Bianchi, and in no way did it change the world. Another would be the Raleigh Chopper, 1969. The book comes from the U.K., so there may be some bias at play, but either highlight "muscle-bikes, wheelie-bikes, chopper-bikes" collectively as a basic fad (which did have a significant impact on the children's bicycle market in the 60s and 70s), or highlight the bike that first capitalized on it in 1963, the Schwinn Sting-Ray. But the Raleigh Chopper was a late entry to that market -- a follower, not an innovator.

Then there are the masturbatory design school exercises, like the YikeBike, 2010 (an electric-assisted, folding, mini-Pfar), the Vanmoof, 2010 (a "no-nonsense bicycle in which simplicity is the key" -- with its built-in lock, headlight, and taillight) and the Mando Footloose, 2012 (another electric-assist folding bike). Bikes like these illustrate the fact that the bicycle is a wonderful, simple, and beautiful machine -- and most attempts to "improve" it end up doing the opposite. Maybe I'm short sighted, but I cannot imagine some of these things having any impact on the bikes we will ride in the future.

If you're a person for whom any book about bicycles is a "must-have" then you'll probably check out Fifty Bicycles That Changed The World, if you haven't already, regardless of what others will say. But chances are, you'll find yourself disagreeing with, or at least questioning some of the author's selections, and the factual errors will be annoying to any careful reader.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Smart Wheels - Dumb Wheels

I was out for a ride this weekend, and while riding along a very popular stretch of road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), I came upon a guy on foot, carrying his very expensive-looking carbon fiber bike on his shoulder. The man himself was all decked out in full-on fred mode, with a team jersey that matched his team shorts that matched his helmet that matched his bike. I stopped to see if I could offer any assistance.

"Anything I can do to help you?" I asked.

"Probably not," he said. "I broke a spoke. Somebody's coming to pick me up."

I looked at the wheel. It was one of those 16 spoke wheels, with paired "bladed" spokes and an aero-section rim. "Boutique" wheels. He probably paid a lot for them. One of the spokes had, indeed, snapped, and the wheel went so badly out-of-true because of it that it would have been impossible to open the brakes wide enough to let it pass through. It probably wouldn't fit through the bike's stays, either.


I've been riding seriously for well over 30 years, and I don't think I've ever had more than one broken spoke in all that time. It certainly didn't end my ride, or leave me calling for someone to come get me. I don't even remember having to open up the brakes or anything. I probably just rode home and avoided potholes. With a 36 spoke wheel, you can do that. One broken spoke just isn't a ride-ender -- and it shouldn't be.

I suppose opinions on it can vary, but as far as I'm concerned, the ideal set of road wheels has 32 spokes front, 36 rear. For a loaded tourer, I'd go 36 front/40 rear. The front wheel is usually under less stress than the rear, so one can get away with fewer spokes without impacting durability, but even there I think of 32 as a minimum. I might use 28 for the front on a track bike, but not for the road. My Rivendell has 32 front and rear -- which bothered me a little at first, but the hubs were sold as a pair, and that was what I could get at the time. I built the rear wheel with an off-center rim that reduced the wheel dish by a few millimeters, which I thought might be helpful to even-out the spoke tension and improve durability. Thirteen years and I don't even know how many miles, and it's been trouble-free.

36 spokes. Breaking one isn't a ride-ender.
Another thing about the wheels on my bikes is that I built most of my wheels myself. I have a couple sets that were built by a friend at the bike shop -- but basically all the wheels I use are hand-built. They are all built well enough that they don't often get out of true, but when they do, it's always a very simple matter to touch up with a normal spoke wrench, and if a spoke does break (as I said, I can only remember once -- so we're talking about "what if") replacements are "normal" and plentiful. That cannot be said of many of these expensive, low-spoke boutique wheels.

The trend to fewer spokes, and paired (or other unusual or proprietary patterns) is one that really just doesn't make a lot of sense. There's a perception out there that dropping anywhere from 16 to 20 spokes from a wheel saves weight, but often it means that the rim has to be beefed up to handle the much higher tension that comes with having fewer spokes. I haven't tried it (and don't intend to) but I would guess that if you tried to build a 16-spoke wheel using a pair of vintage Super Champion Medaille d'Or rims (265 g!) the necessary tension on the spokes would probably rip the rim apart. And with all that extra tension per spoke, it also means a higher likelihood of broken spokes. And as the incident above makes clear, even one broken spoke with these boutique wheels means walking home.

The real advantage is supposed to be aerodynamic and I'm sure there the manufacturers have all kinds of wind tunnel data to "prove" just how many seconds their wheels will save over however many miles -- but again, at what cost? How many seconds are you saving when you're waiting on the side of the road for a lift?

Having said all that, let me get back to my ride this weekend. As I left the rider with his broken spoke and he waited for his ride to come get him and take him home, I thought to myself that I finally had figured out a real advantage to a super-light carbon-fiber bike. When it breaks and you have to carry it home, at least you'll have less weight to carry on your shoulder.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Ultimate "Inflation Tool"

I suppose when a pump sells for $445, you really can't call it a "pump" anymore. Hence, the Ultimate "Inflation Tool" from the new Silca.
It's not a "pump." It's the "Ultimate
Inflation Tool."

I had written last week about classic old Silca pumps, with a bit of history on the company. In that article, I explained that the company which had been owned by the Sacchi family in Italy since 1917 was sold last year and moved to Indianapolis. Though the new incarnation of the company is apparently still supplying some of the replacement parts for the old classics, there are apparently no plans to reissue or resurrect the old pump designs. Instead, the goal of the new Silca is to maintain the original company's reputation for innovation, while respecting tradition, durability, and serviceability. As of the writing of the article last week, the company had introduced a new pump head, similar in design to the classic brass version, but crafted in stainless steel, with an elastomer gasket for a better seal and longer life. At that time, I mentioned that the company had plans to introduce a whole new pump that new owner Josh Poertner hoped would be "unlike any other pump ever sold." Well, introduced just this past week, here it is -- dubbed the Super Pista Ultimate, which is described as the ultimate Inflation Tool.

Did I mention that it costs $445?

Like the finest kitchen knives - or a top-quality
guitar -- the handles are made from rosewood.
Built in the U.S. with top-quality materials, the new Silca is "meant to define a new category of Inflation Tools." The press release goes on to say that the "SP Ultimate will keep the Silca Passion alive for the next generation." The new Inflation Tool has classic features like the solid metal presta chuck and the replaceable/regrease-able leather plunger washer. "Meant to be heavy, ergonomic, rebuildable, and built to last a lifetime."

The handle on Ultimate Inflation Tool is supposed to have been inspired by top-quality tools, such as culinary knives. The grips are made from hand-turned rosewood, mated to investment cast stainless steel center and end pieces for beauty and durability.


The base is described as being heavy and stable -- at 800 grams, the base alone is heavier than most complete pumps. An unusual feature is something called the "Surfboard Control" which is a "high precision piece of CNC machined aluminum which contains the air passage between the check valve body and the gauge/hose." This surfboard feature essentially "floats" above the base, keeping the important and delicate pieces of the pump off the ground, and holding a magnetic dock for the chuck. The surfboard also serves to transfer the air to the hose, and functions as a protective bezel for the high-precision pressure gauge.

Did I say something about a magnetic chuck dock? Yes. The chuck is made from 17-4 stainless steel -- which is one of the few types of stainless that is attracted by a magnet. The MagnetDock contains a neodymium rare earth magnet which secures the chuck when not in use. If the chuck is anywhere near the dock, it will seat itself, and this would be a useful feature, because the hose (rated for 12,000 psi, and made with over-braided stainless steel -- used in the pits at Indianapolis Speedway) is a generous 51 inches long. Borrowing more technology from the motorsports industry around Indianapolis, the barrel and piston rod are precision-made and teflon hard-anodized for smoothness and durability. Oh yeah, and it sells for $445.

When I first saw a classic Silca Pista pump, back in my teens, I knew I wanted one, but the price at the time was a bit more than my then-meager budget would allow. I eventually found one about 1/2 off on clearance -- possibly because it was painted pink, and apparently nobody wanted a pink pump. I've had that thing for around 30 years. My wages today are considerably higher than they were in high school, but as nice as it is, at $445 the new SP Ultimate is still priced way out of my budget. Lucky for me, my old pink classic should last a long time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Used to Like Cars

Not so much anymore, but I used to like cars a lot. When I was in my teens, apart from wanting a Masi just like the one the kid in Breaking Away rode, I also wanted a little two-seat roadster -- like an MG, or a Triumph. Horribly impractical little things, with temperamental mechanicals, and diabolical electrical systems. I was not afraid. There was something about the cars that inspired passion. I don't like to say that they had "soul," because let's face it, they're just objects. But I don't know how else to describe it. Was it history? Who knows?

My father-in-law, who has always loved the "top-down" car experience, has a Mazda Miata. He's driven it for years and loves it. He even belongs to a Miata club. The little Mazda is supposed to offer the same kind of driving experience as the little roadsters of the past -- wind-in-the-hair, sprightly acceleration, zippy handling --  but with all the bulletproof reliability that Japanese cars are known for. No more late nights in the garage chasing electrical demons, replacing ignition points, or re-jetting carburetors. The new cars just don't have things that go wrong that often -- but when they do, it's also a fair bet that the average home mechanic won't be able to solve them himself.

I've driven his little Miata. It's nice, but I don't want one. No passion. No "soul." It could be that I just don't get excited about cars anymore, but if I had the choice and actually still wanted a little roadster, I'd still probably go for the old MG -- reliability be damned. Though, truth be told, if I had the money for that kind of purchase, I can't say I wouldn't spend it on a really nice bike (or two).

Like her father, my wife is also really big on the convertible experience, but from a slightly more practical standpoint. She wants something that still has room for kids and cargo. Some years back, she had me come with her to test-drive a Toyota Solara convertible -- a mid-size two-door. We drove it, and all I can say is that putting the top down did nothing to disguise the fact that we were still basically driving a Camry -- a dependable car with a little more reliability than a Maytag dishwasher, and about as much fun to drive. A driving appliance, if you will. We didn't buy it.

So, what does this have to do with bikes?

The way I feel (or felt) about those cars is pretty consistent with how I feel about bikes. Comparing the old British roadsters with the modern Japanese version, it's hard to argue with the fact that the newer car is superior in so many ways. More reliable. Better brakes. More efficient. Probably lower emissions. Safer. The list of "betters" could go on and on. But given the choice, I'd still choose the old classic for what are totally emotional reasons. History. Nostalgia. "Soul."

There is no doubt that my '73 Mercian weighs more than a new Specialized Tarmac. The vintage Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleurs don't shift as smoothly and reliably as the latest Dura-Ace Di2. The old Record brakes take a lot more hand effort to stop than the latest dual-pivots or disc brakes. My square-taper bottom bracket might "flex" more than a new BB30 or whatever new oversized press-fit wonder the technophiles rhapsodize about today. My 36-spoke wheels with their box-section aluminum rims generate more wind drag than 20-spoke wheels and deep-profile carbon-fibre aero rims. But given the choice, again and again, I'll take the old classic. Every time.

The makers of many carbon frames like to call their product "hand-made" -- and I suppose that might be true of some of them. But most of them are popped out of molds. Sure, someone laid pieces of resin-impregnated carbon fiber into that mold by hand -- but it's still popped out of a mold for cryin'outloud. And if one of those frames differs in any measurable way from every other frame in the run, it's a defect.

There's something beautiful about a set of frame lugs that were filed and shaped by a craftsman, and recognizing that it is not a defect if the lugs aren't exactly identical down to a fraction of a millimeter as all the other lugs shaped by the same artisan.

I like my traditional cup-and-cone ball bearing hubs, and non-cartridge square-taper bottom brackets. They need to be serviced from time to time, but that's just the thing. . . I can service them. I even enjoy doing the work because it's therapeutic in a way. There's something satisfying about a bike that can be serviced, and being able to do the work yourself. If a Shimano Di2 goes bad, can it be fixed? And who would fix it?

I like treating a Brooks leather saddle with Proofide, and love the way the stuff smells. I like that my hand-built wheels don't look like billboards. The list goes on and on. Bikes are best when they are simple and beautiful. The classics might not truly have "soul," but that's the only word that seems to capture the idea.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Caps, Not Hats

"One thing I love about cycling is the odd traditions that still exist no matter how hi-tech it gets. The cycling cap is one of these so it seems a shame that on the podium, the showcase for the race, you always see baseball hats."

That quote, from cycling writer Bill Strickland, pretty nicely sums up a recent movement called Caps Not Hats. The movement got started as a reaction against the proliferation of baseball hats in the cycling ranks and on the victory podiums, which has pushed the traditional cycling cap out to the fringes.

Look at photos of racers of the past, in the days before helmets, and see how many don the little cap with the short brim as their only head gear while riding. Sometimes you'll see one tucked under a leather hairnet. And on the victory podiums, the caps were a regular sight. Nowadays, it's all baseball hats.

When did the change start? I could be wrong, but searching through old photos, I believe it started in 1989 -- Greg LeMond on the final podium at the Tour de France with his neon-pink Coors Light ball cap. LeMond regularly is credited as a pioneer in the use of carbon fiber frames, aero-bars, clipless pedals -- all things that make a Retrogrouch cringe (though I try not to hold it against him) -- but now I'm adding baseball hats to the list. No, he wasn't the first cyclist to wear a baseball hat on the winners podium. One could sometimes see them at American races, like the old Coors Classic of the 70s and 80s. Even Bernard Hinault wore one with his Coors Classic victory in '86 (and no Frenchman has won the Tour de France since Hinault -- a coincidence? Hmmm. . .). Since LeMond in '89, the baseball hat has almost completely supplanted the traditional cycling cap, even among the Europeans.

Let's look back a bit. . .

Coppi and Bartali in '49. It's hard to top that look.
It's actually not easy to find pictures of Jacques Anquetil with anything on his head -- probably didn't want to mess up that awesome hair.
There we go.
Can't leave out Merckx. 
LeMond with Hinault in 1985 -- the last time a Frenchman won the TdF.
LeMond and Hinault on the podium in '86. The tradition is still safe . . . for now.
Stephen Roche in '87.
Delgado bucks the trend with his headband in '88. Rooks and Parra stick to tradition.
1989. The tide turns . . .
By '92, there's Chiapucci, Indurain, and Bugno -- all with baseball hats.
Bjarne Riis, in '96, dons the traditional cap. Probably the last TdF winner to do so. Notice that Virenque is holding a baseball hat.
Jan Ullrich and Eric Zabel in '97. Mountains winner Virenque goes hat (and cap) less. 
Of course we know what this guy wore for all his wins. But there's Basso and Ullrich, wearing baseball hats, too, in '05.
Contador takes aim on tradition. . . and blows it away!
Froome, Wiggins, and Nibali in 2012. Two British, and one Italian rider -- not a cycling cap in sight. Froome would wear a baseball hat on the podium in 2013, and Nibali, too, in 2014.

All those photos are from the Tour de France, but look for pictures of podiums from any bicycle race in the last 20 years, and they all look pretty much the same. Baseball hats have taken over.

No Frenchman has won the TdF since Hinault in '85. I do have a completely crackpot theory that it has something to do with the fact that the definitively American baseball hat supplanted the traditional cycling cap among most racers. Nuts, I know, but think about it.

In my teens, this was the only head-wear I ever wore. It told
people "I'm a cyclist." No baseball hats for me. Period. 
The Caps Not Hats movement may be having a small, but hopefully growing impact on cycling, and I think it's a movement that can be embraced by Retrogrouches and technophiles alike. Mark Cavendish has been seen sporting the traditional cap more recently, as has the young American Taylor Phinney. Walz Cycling Caps has some CNH-logo'd caps available for people who want to promote the cause.

What else can I say? The traditional cap is one of those little items that tells people "I'm a cyclist" -- even when you're off the bike. Embrace it!