New handmade, steel frame bike coming soon

My commuter bike is again out of action being patched up for further winter abuse on the grimy roads. Which has left me with a choice – get the special bike out of its winter hibernation and subject it to the mud and grit, or just drive the car. I went for the first option.

Mud-splattered Merckx

Mud-splattered Merckx

But what if there was a third option? If cycling has taught me one thing, it’s that you can generally buy yourself out of most problems. So I finally pulled the trigger on that handmade, steel frame bike I’ve been yammering on about for ages.

After a series of emails and phone calls with Mercian in Derbyshire, last week I travelled up to their shop to make my choices. Unlike buying a ready-made bike from a shop or the internet, I was able to specify every individual part of the bike making it a completely bespoke end product. Mercian have been around since the 1940s making mostly road and touring bikes. They produce about 300 – 400 bikes a year.

The Mercian shop

The Mercian shop


Hand made frames adorn the walls

Hand made frames adorn the walls

Gothic or modern text on the frames

Gothic or modern text on the frames

As I will be mostly using the bike for commuting I opted for an audax setup which is a little more comfortable and less aggressive than the racing setup. The geometry of the bike was established based on my body measurements and then I checked these against measurements I had taken of my current bike. I chose to have two bottle cage mounts on the frame as well as front and back pannier lugs.

I went for Reynolds 725 steel tubing and in terms of the finish went for it in pearl red with pearl white details. The name in gothic text, a few white bands on the down tube and a proper head badge.

The full choice of colours

The full choice of 63 colours

I knew I wanted red, but almost changes my mind for a nice, sexy beige

I knew I wanted red, but almost changes my mind for a nice, sexy, metallic beige

I am looking at having it built up as a complete bike, but for now have just paid a deposit for the frame building and spraying. I thought I had finalised the components and finishing kit choices, but a few last-minute, concerned emails from my wife’s Uncle about why on earth I was choosing Campag Veloce rather than Athena, and the problems of trying to squeeze mudguards with tyres larger than 23mm through Campag brakes have lead to further discussion with the Mercian shop! Further details to follow, however the groupset and finishing kit will all be in chrome to ensure it has the classic bike look.

A computer-generated image of my choices

A computer-generated image of all my choices

I’m looking forward to having a beautiful, hand-crafted object for everyday use. I’m going to love riding this bike.

Getting cold feet

Whenever the temperature drops below about 5’C or if it’s raining and the roads are flooded (which seems like just about every other day for the last six months) then my feet end up cold and wet and bloody uncomfortable on any rides longer than about 45 minutes. I have overshoes but they never really keep the water out for long and they don’t seem to make much of a difference in keeping my feet warm. I’m beginning to think their only purpose is keeping your shoes clean on muddy roads.

I realise this could be a personal thing and there are probably lots of riders out there who never get cold feet. Personally I can’t wear hats or caps under my helmet when I ride or my head just overheats, even in cold weather. Maybe all the blood goes to my head rather than my feet (which might explain why I do a lot of thinking but I’m crap at dancing)

Anyway, winter commuting combined with the never-ending rains has lead me to buying a pair of waterproof cycling boots. Back when I used to play football I remember somebody turning up to training once in a pair of rugby boots and that we all laughed. Hopefully cycling ‘boots’ will not similarly class me as a mountain biker to the road cycling fraternity! Regardless, they work a treat and have allowed me to cycle to work, an hour each way on wet and flooded roads with dry feet. No more stuffing newspaper into my shoes at work, no more struggling with ineffective overshoes.

Northwave waterproof road shoes

Northwave waterproof road shoes (these shoes contain warm & dry feet)

I opted for the ‘Northwave Fahrenheit (GTX) Gore-tex Winter Road Shoes’. I was almost tempted by some brightly coloured shoes but after 20 minutes cycling in these I realised that anything other than black would have ended up brown or required constant cleaning.

Black shoes don't mind the mud

Black shoes don’t mind the mud so much

I opted for a size up on my normal size. This was really just so I could wear thick socks on cold days. Here’s to happier commuting in 2013 …

Wooden storage chest (providing a home for cycling stuff)

Back when I decided to get a bike and use the car less, I thought it would make life simpler. In some ways it has – ditching the gym membership and exercising while commuting has given more free time and also turned the worst part of the day into the most enjoyable part. However I never really comprehended the added complication of all the stuff needed to ride a bike.

The other day a friend emailed me with a link to a new road bike he’s considering buying. Like many other people he wants to get into cycling but hasn’t actually owned a bike since he was a teenager and has never owned a road bike. I said the bike looked good and made some well-intentioned comments about the frame, groupset and gear ratio which were almost certainly confusing and completely unhelpful. I also said that he should consider the cost of buying pedals, helmet, shoes, shorts, jersey, waterproofs, leggings, lights, bottle & bottle cage, spare inner tube, pump, multitool, saddlebag, tyre levers and a speedometer. It wasn’t my intention to scare him off but I never heard back!

As well as recently confusing and scaring friends I’ve also been irritating my wife. Every evening I leave little cycling nests around the house in preparation for the next day: helmet, gloves and glasses by the back door; jacket, shorts and jersey at the top of the stairs; water bottle, hat and Garmin at the bottom of the stairs; pannier bag in the corner of the kitchen. To me it all makes perfect sense and my morning routine involves visiting each nest in succession as I turn from zombie into cyclist. But to my wife it’s just a bunch of annoying, ugly clutter that needs a home. So in order to maintain marital harmony (and mostly just to keep myself busy) I decided to build myself a large, permanent nest in the form of a wooden storage chest from old scaffolding boards.

Restoring old scaffolding boards required a lot of sanding

The first step was to cut the boards to the approximate length. This also allowed me to cut out any excessively damaged parts. I then joined boards in pairs using dowelled, butt joints. Any gaps between the boards were filled using a wood-coloured filler before sanding smooth.

I decided to join the corners of the chest with mitres as cut ends of scaffolding boards would have been too rough. I don’t (yet) own a table saw so this required some careful cutting. Fortunately, however, I am now the proud new owner of a router which I used to cut grooves for the base board of the box. I decided to use plywood for the base to keep the overall weight of the box to a minimum.

Mitred corners and a groove for the base board. Note the newly purchased router (my cycling equipment is still inferior to my tool arsenal)

Box glued and strapped

For added strength I then decided to dowel the mitred corners.

Dowelled corners

After more sanding I applied a clear varnish to the top. However once dried I wasn’t happy with the colour. I think the scaffolding boards are pine which can sometimes turn a bit yellowish under a clear varnish. So I decided to go for an ‘antique oak’ stain with a clear varnish to give a more rugged look. Unfortunately this meant more sanding of the top to take it back to the natural wood.

The top with clear varnish – the box with ‘antique oak’ stain and clear varnish

I recently found a local reclamation yard which sells a few pieces of new, hand-made, forged ironmongery. I headed over there and found some great looking handles and hinges for the box.

Hand made hinge


It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but the box measures approximately 1 metre x 45 cm (3ft x 1 & 1/2 ft). This should be ample space for my current cycling equipment plus a few inevitable future purchases.

The permanent nest at the bottom of the stairs

et voila!

My only concern is that it actually looks a bit prettier than intended and may subsequently be commandeered by my wife to become a much needed table / footstool in the lounge. I suppose at least then I can return to my systematic and completely logical nesting routine guilt-free!

On a slippery slope to comfort

If the natural evolution of a cycle-person is to recognise the greater value of comfort and usefulness over speed and appearance, then I may finally be reaching an age of maturity. However, it is entirely conceivable that I’ve unfortunately become just a nerd on a creaky old bike. This week was my first experience of riding with mud-guards and panniers and allowed me to carry and keep dry my laptop, clothes and shoes along wet and muddy roads. However, judging from my colleagues’ reactions at seeing my road bike adorned with its new accessories, I may have committed a crime against style equal to wearing socks and sandals in public (I regularly wear socks and sandals around the house but this is actually a form of domestic haute couture).

From my experience of cycling there appear to be two main kinds of riders – those who shave their legs, wear skin-tight aero suits and spend a fortune on reducing weight to increase speed, and those who have hairy legs, beards and creaky, heavy bikes and spend a fortune on ‘useful things’ like powerful lights, racks, bags, mud-guards and reflective clothing, thus increasing weight to increase comfort. I had hoped that my latent cycling prowess would allow me to justifiably become the former, but unfortunately I may just be on the slippery slope to the latter.

With all of this in mind, I’ve decided to embrace it and will now present the mundane effectiveness of my latest cycling purchases, illustrated in the following uninteresting photos of inanimate and stationary objects:

1. Bike with new nerdly equipment following a wet and muddy ride

2. close-up photo of mud spray to emphasise muddiness of roads

3. socks turned down slightly to emphasise presence of mud spray across hairy legs and shoes

4. photo of seat of cycling shorts. Clean as a whistle and not a speck of mud in sight

In addition to this increased cycling comfort I also had the opportunity to wrinkle my nose and waggle my bearded chin at a couple of mud-soaked cyclists riding without mud-guards. It’s possible that they may have called out “did you forget your basket, old man?” but it was quite difficult to hear over all the rattling and creaking coming from my bike.

The end of mud

As it turns out, cycling for miles along muddy, wet roads carrying a heavy backpack isn’t the best fun. The clothing on your back ends up soaked through with sweat and your arse-crack looks like it has a giant streak of crap up it. Which is because it does. The only ‘fun’ is trying to decipher the ‘Rorschach’ inkblot stains left up the back of my jerseys when I arrive home to see whether this was the commute that finally broke me psychologically.

This inkblot (like every other) just seems to represent dark clouds dumping huge volumes of water onto a road

However, that’s not to say that good honest fun can’t be found in trying to guess which part of my bike is hiding beneath the thick layer of dried mud in the photos below.

This is either a pedal or a handlebar


Oh, it was a brake and a light

Anyway, despite all this recent fun and the subsequent constant washing of clothing, bicycle and cyclist, I finally succumbed to the need to buy mudguards and panniers. I had initially felt that these items lessened the aesthetic appearance of a bike and were a bit too sensible for my liking. But riding a bike caked in horse shit and arriving to work looking like you’d been dragged there was also beginning to lose it’s questionable appeal.

It took me about 2 hours to do the installation this evening (although a fair portion of this time was spent cleaning the bike first). The mud-guards were fiddly and took a lot of adjustment, but there wasn’t any particularly difficult or frustrating element to it.

Pull up a chair – this might take a while 

The pannier was easy to fit and was simply a case of bolting it directly to the frame and hooking on the bag. The end result looks less ‘sensible’ than I had feared and will certainly improve the enjoyment of my commutes.

Keeping the old girl going

After last weekend’s failed attempts to fix my skipping chain I almost managed to convince myself that the remedy to the problem was a new bike. “Why keep pouring good money into a crappy bike?” I thought.

After a short period of time building a hypothetical bike on a certain bicycle website, I realised that this remedy would involved spending a lot of my good money. A very lot. So in the end I decided to just buy a new rear cassette for the commuter bike (and a couple more tools) and have another go at fixing the problem myself.

I had intended to wait until the weekend to replace the chain and cassette, but having broken and then remade the links of old chain in three different places last weekend I was beginning to doubt its reliability on my daily commutes. Plus the skipping was getting pretty bloody annoying, so this evening I decided to carry out the changeover.

These are the things I needed – one rear cassette, one cassette nut and a chain whip to discipline the bike if it misbehaved

It was a surprisingly straightforward job and probably only took about 15 minutes to whip off the old cassette, fit the new one, fit the new chain and make a few small adjustments to the derailleur.

Old cassette having been whipped like a walnut 

New shiny cassette

Back in good working order

Here’s to hopefully another few thousand miles of riding. If I can keep the old girl going through the winter months then I may contemplate an upgrade next year …

Weekly do-stuffering

This week was a straight flush for the bike with five consecutive days of cycle commuting and no driving. The morning temperature is now getting noticeably colder and the sun is only beginning to rise as I leave for work. This has resulted in the need for pansy clothing like full gloves, long sleeves and overshoes but has also provided some beautiful sunrises out on the quiet country lanes.

The sun rising over a misty Chew Valley this week

On Friday evening we went to the Chew Valley Beer Festival with a few friends. We enjoyed a variety of decent local ales, although there was one memorable thick, black stout which would probably have been more suitable as a lubricant for my lawnmower engine.

Rock & Roll & Beer. Fest.

Following some hungedover festering on Saturday morning I rode to the local bike shop to see if someone could take a look at my skipping chain and also cut down my ugly steering tube. Unfortunately the mechanics were too busy (or they took one look at my mud-encrusted machine and just pretended to be busy) so I bought a new chain and headed home to try and do it myself. The chain was a pain (although at least there was no rain on a plane in Spain to add to my woes). I got the old one off and fitted the new one but this made the problem infinitely worse than before. It would seem that the stretched chain has worn the rear cassette cogs (or something like that according to some quick searching on the internet) so I was forced to take it off and refit the old chain, which I firstly managed to do back-to-front from it’s previous setup resulting in me quickly transforming from Mr BikeVCar to a greasy-handed Grumpelstiltskin. After some effing and jeffing I eventually managed to restore my bike to it’s original shonky condition.

Next on the agenda for my incompetent bike mechanical skills was cutting down the steering tube. This is a completely vain requirement and serves no purpose other than making my crappy bike look slightly less crappy. During my five minutes of internet research I found out that lots of other cycling idiots had cut their steering tubes too short resulting in useless bikes with redundant front forks. Determined not to make this mistake I decided to cut the tube just 10mm initially, this being the length of one large spacer. I also used the spacer as my guide for cutting, rather than trying to achieve a specific measurement from the underside of the stem cap (this seemed a likely cause of other people’s mis-cutting).

Step 1 – remove heavily rusted steel forks / steering bar thingy and mark the cut line with some tape

Cut tube with a little girl’s little hacksaw (men’s hacksaws are available but you have to prove your manliness to the bloke in the local hardware shop to be allowed to buy one)

Stand back and admire the handiwork – all those nasty, burred edges of metal look great. Go and hunt around in your handbag for your nail file to clean it up 

Voila! Finished job (p.s. before ‘Step 1’ don’t forget to knock down the little star-shaped nut inside the tube before you start cutting. I hope nobody is ever stupid enough to try and follow these terrible instructions

I didn’t take any photos of the finished job because it was dark by the time I’d eventually lashed it all back together. But it all worked fine with no injuries, swearing or questionable workmanship which is very unusual for my normal bike butchering.

Wet feet – a bodged solution

If you live anywhere in the Northern hemisphere you will be aware that the months of May, June and July are commonly known as ‘Summer’ due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis providing an increased exposure to direct sunlight; that is unless you live in England where it’s been raining cats and dogs for the last three months. Sick of cycling to work with squelchy, sodden feet and in fear of getting trench foot, today I decided that extreme weather requires extreme solutions. Seeing a plumber applying some silicone sealant I had an idea and asked him to squeeze a bit of ‘spadge’ into the air vents in the soles of my cycling shoes.

Soles of cycling shoes in the pre-silicone era (note the gaping air vents)

Freshly-spadged cycling shoes

It worked a treat and kept my feet slightly-dryer-than-sodden on my cycle home. I had been flirting with the idea of buying a new pair of shoes, but it seemed a crime on my feet to buy a crap pair just for commuting and seemed frivolous to buy an expensive pair before the current ones wore out. It’s always nice to come up with a bodge rather than having to spend hard-earned cash to solve problems. No doubt we will now get a heat wave and I’ll be picking out the silicone to allow my sweaty feet to breathe.

Bike accessories – No. 5: Garmin E800 Case

There’s no denying that the Garmin Edge 800 is an attractive and intelligent piece of kit. However it has a design flaw.

During last month’s climbing challenge I noticed that when it rained, the Garmin’s altitude readings went haywire. Typically, it stopped registering any change in elevation which was quite frustrating.

Initially I thought the device was faulty, but some Googling around revealed that the Garmin has a small hole in the back which allows an internal sensor detect atmospheric pressure and temperature. However, a small droplet of water can clog the hole and block the sensor.

Even the rear-end of the Garmin E800 is sexy

However, the hole in the centre of the shot has no protection from rain

After hunting around on the interwebs, I discovered that Garmin manufacture a silicone case for the E800 which covers the offending hole, but with a groove to still allow air movement.

Garmin dressed for success

Cut outs for fixing bracket and SD card / USB slots

The groove allows air movement but runs down the body of the Garmin so there should be no way water can find its way up

Product spec – this can be ordered from Amazon but be warned, they posted it in a parcel the size of a shoe box. The case could probably be rolled to fit in a matchbox

My verdict on this accessory is that it is essential if you own a Garmin E800 and cycle in the rain. But what irks is that you shouldn’t have to hand over more cash to Garmin to resolve their own design flaw.

If you really don’t want to pay extra to protect the device, there is always the sammidge bag solution. However I was consuming two sammidge bags a month which would have equated to the cost of one Garmin silicone case in less than a year. The price you pay for living in the rainiest part of the UK…

Garmin E800 Sammidge Bag (available from all good grocery shops)

The end of a big cycling week

I cycled over 300 miles this week. This is my biggest week ever and has seen a few notable events along the way:

300+ miles for the bike. A nominal amount for the car

The (insane) Strava Challenge continues at a good pace

A rapid blue line recovery here too. Go bike!

My first roadside puncture. There's surely never a good time to get a flat, but during a 70 mile Sportive in the wind and freezing rain wasn't great. It took me 15 minutes to replace the inner tube. I'd like to get quicker but could honestly do without further practice!