This Mercian arrived over a year ago, but ended up hanging in the shop until this last July. It took me awhile to decide what to do with it. You see, the components weren’t bad, it’s just that they weren’t in keeping with the spirit of the bike. The frameset looked to have originally been built as a day-tourer with a longish wheelbase, cantilever studs and lots of dropout eyelets. The components were more in keeping with a racing bike with double chainrings, lightweight wheels and downtube shifters. I’d always wanted to build up an vintage bike with a Campagnolo touring setup so this looked like the perfect opportunity. I began hunting parts down; a Nuovo Record triple crankset here, a Rally rear derailleur there, until I had everything I needed to dive in.
…And that’s when the Mercian started fighting. For some reason the “correct” bottom bracket length ended up not being the right bottom bracket length, the Mafac cantilever brakes wouldn’t work with the pads I’d chosen, and I couldn’t for the life of me get the fenders spaced evenly around the wheels. I cleaned, overhauled and polished a set of Nuovo Record hubs, built them into wheels, only to find out that the rims were too small in diameter. The cantilever studs had been mounted for taller 27″ wheels. I overhauled a new set of Campy hubs, built them into the new rims, but forgot to space the rear hub correctly.
Along the way, I ended up installing the Campagnolo bar-end shifters multiple times, something you don’t want to do with these irascible pieces. First, I forgot to mount the Mafac brake levers so off the levers came off, then I had to remove them to switch the Mafac brake levers with Campagnolos when I discovered the Mafacs I’d chosen were an unmatched set. Then the shifters came off and on again when I found the matching single Mafac at the bottom of the parts box. What were three brake levers doing in the box to begin with?
Somewhere in the midst of this I started making mental mistakes, cutting cable housing and fender braces too short, for example. I also completely monkeyed up the first round of bar tape. I bet I hadn’t messed up a tape job that bad in 20+ years. It was becoming pretty clear the bike was possessed. Originally the job had been one that shouldn’t have taken more than a week. It had now been in the stand for well over a month.
For my part, I began second-guessing every step. I also questioned my supposed bike knowledge, fussed and worried to no end, and even went on the wagon for the better part of a week in hopes that I might be able to reach a higher level of mechanical consciousness.
About the time I was seriously considering involving the clergy the project finally started seeing headway. in the end the Mercian went together when it was damned good and ready. The final irony of the whole deal is that it is a real pleasure to ride. Any of the possessed qualities it showed in the workstand never showed up on the road. It rides like a champ and shifts surprisingly well given all the extra gears. The Mafac cantilever brakes have no devilish tendencies and grab the rims with aplomb. The frame feels light and efficient to the point where sometimes I forget it isn’t a true racer.
Currently the bike sits in the living room. Normally finished projects don’t stay in the house as long as the Mercian, but I like having it around if only to remind me that it isn’t downstairs, still in the workstand.
I try to air out and air up the contents of The Wheelhouse at least once a year. Often it happens if the bikes are heading off to a local show or display. This year it was just a random day. Still fun, though. Here are some photos.
From the nether regions of the Buzz Bomb basement workshop, a fine example of “Donkey Wheel”.
I know, I know. I should be working and not goofing off, but I’m so easily entertained by sounds from my truing stand.
These all arrived the same week so I took the opportunity to photograph them all together. Shown are a 1949 Phantom, 1995 Anniversary Phantom, and early 21st century Nexus-hubbed Cruiser 7. Among other things, note how the fenderlight position has changed over the years.
Some 20 years ago I helped restore this 1949 Phantom for Gary Klefman, the owner of the Schwinn shop here in town. It was one of the first restorations I’d done for someone else. To that point all the bikes I worked on were either for myself or my partner in paint, Sean O’Brien. I admit I wasn’t yet used to putting all the sweat and tears in for someone else’s benefit. Both Sean and I were young and though neither were rich, we were nominally funded enough to restore and keep anything we worked on. It took over a year, but in the end the Phantom was finished. It was thus was a bittersweet moment when it rolled out the front door.
After that, I’d occasionally go into Gary’s shop. I’d see the Phantom hanging on the wall and I’d start to pine for it, partly because I’d put all the time into it and partly because, well, a collector is always collecting. I knew Gary prized the bike and that it would have been futile to make an offer, however ridiculous. I had to be content visiting it on the rare occasion I needed something from the Schwinn shop. I think I might have even made up an excuse to go see it once or twice, purchasing a couple extra Bendix two-speed springs just so I could look it over.
Gary’s son Randy took over the business in the 2000’s, the shop moved and eventually they even dropped the Schwinn line. …And still the bike hung on the wall. Imagine my surprise when Randy called recently, asking me if I might be interested in purchasing the bike. He seemed shocked that I was interested, and I must have sounded shocked that he thought I might not have been. I guess a possession can mean different things to different people. To Randy the bike might have been merely a dust collector. To me, well, you probably know what it means to me by now.
So now there’s another full circle ownership story to tell. It took a little over two decades to complete, but nevertheless, it feels like the bike is home.
This Witcomb was purchased from its original owner in Colorado and shipped here a couple weeks ago. The bike had a mix of components on it, everything from Campagnolo to Suntour to early Dura-Ace. I’m guessing the combination was largely done to extend the gear ratio, probably not a bad idea since Colorado is known to be a bit hilly. The eventual goal for the bike, beyond overhauling and giving it a good detailing, is to remove any non-Campagnolo bits and get it flying under one component flag.
When it arrived I admit I didn’t know much about Witcombs. I knew the U.S. versions were built in Connecticut, but that was only because it said so on the head decal. I had no idea there were American and English Witcombs, nor did I know that the frames themselves had a storied past. To me it was just a nicely made road bike that was still in great condition.
Roland was the one who eventually clued me in. It seems that more than a few reknowned framebuilders cut their teeth at Witcomb USA; Richard Sachs, J.P. Weigle, Chris Chance and Ben Serotta all put in time there. Each has subsequently gone on to carve out a name for himself. Like, a really big name for himself. I admit I was a bit star-struck when I found that out.
I have no idea which person actually built this Witcomb, or if was any of the builders listed. I don’t even know who was and wasn’t working for the company in 1976, the year the owner claimed to have ordered the bike. Maybe more information will come down the road. For now, it’s enough to know that it’s part of a bigger story.
Some bike folk remember all the little details. For example, they can wax on about why a particular Schwinn is a 1938 and not a ’39. Me? I’m lucky to get within a couple years either way. I hear the differences but over time they just slip away.
I guess it doesn’t help that strange, new bikes are always showing up. Take this Adler which I’m sure to mis-remember here soon. Brief research turned up evidence that Adler was quite the manufacturer in Germany, making everything from motorcycles to Zeppelin engines. …And bikes, of course.
I don’t remember seeing an Adler before, and I think I would have remembered based on the unique accessories they have. Take the locking mechanism on the rear hub brake arm, for instance. Or the knurled knob on the headlug; a lockout for the headset, perhaps?
The Bosch lighting system still works and the original Continental tires hold air. With its heavy tubing and looong chainstays it’s never going to win any races, but it rides more efficiently than most prewar American bikes, since the Germans only hung accessories that added to the practicality and versatility of the bike (no tanks here).