Mercian Cycles, Artisans of Long Standing
“People appreciate a hand-built item, they really do.”
By Tom Owen
You personally have had a very long relationship with Mercian. Was that constant throughout or did you go away and do other things and then come back?
I’ve never worked anywhere else. I was out on a local club ride 40 years ago and Jeff the manager at that time asked me if I wanted a Saturday job, I thought ‘that’s a way of getting cheap equipment!’ So, I joined Mercian Cycles.
At what point did you get involved with building the bikes?
I started full time at Mercian when I left school, lacing wheels for the wheel builder and then bike building as I got more experience. Over time I became full-time wheel-builder, to this day I still enjoy building wheels. I like the Campagnolo spares side of things too, I was lucky enough to visit the Campag factory a few times.
About 15 years ago I got more involved with the frame fitting and measuring side, using the frame-fit jig to get the right size of frame for customer orders, doing BikeCad drawings for the frame builders to work to, choosing the right braze-ons for the equipment and ordering components for bike orders. A bike order usually takes about three hours and we take appointments, so we can concentrate on the job in hand. When the frame order is finished it contains all the information the frame builders and sprayers need to build and paint the frame.
So, you’re now at Pontefract Street in Derby and it’s all about frame building with no retail store, but previously the shop has had a lot of different iterations?
From the 1980s onwards we had a big showroom. Then the internet killed trade really, we had lots of stock and people would come in with their smartphones and scan the barcodes after they’d asked us for our advice – we felt as though we were an internet showroom and most of the business going through the till was Mercian related work, so we took the decision to shut the shop to concentrate on our own stuff – Mercian bikes, frames and the repairs, resprays, servicing side of things – and it’s working out pretty well to be honest with you.
We don’t have a showroom at the workshop yet, but we will in time, and people seem to enjoy seeing the real side of bike building that you can’t see in your usual bike shop.
Do you feel a responsibility to carry the legacy of the Mercian name on?
Of course. I’m going to be passing it on to hopefully somebody who is going to be looking after the name after I’ve left it, so there’s a big responsibility of course.
What to you are the historical implications of the Mercian name? What does it associate for you?
The history of the name is great and it’s nice to hear everyone’s memories, but we can’t rely on history, we’re only as good as the bikes we make now. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Mercian was building hundreds of frames for the UK and USA market, with shops ordering 20 frames at a time, all standard spec, in a range of sizes and it was much faster production then. Now, most builds are bespoke for individuals, they take longer to build and they’re more intricate, the quality is so important. We try to build our frames to be as responsive and comfortable as possible, Mercian frames ride really well and that’s so vital.
And then of course there are special projects, like the £20,000 tandem you made with Paul Smith.
Yeah, well it’s fabulous! You need to see that one in the flesh to appreciate the detail. It took weeks to build the frame alone, then the paint and the build with the newest equipment… ah the bike build, I thought that one was going to kill me to be honest! It took a lot of engineering expertise too.
We enjoy working with Paul, he’s a good customer of ours and he comes from Nottingham which is only down the road from us, so we’re all Midlands people.
Does the Mercian name have much pull outside of the UK?
We do a few for America, that’s quite a big market for us, but we do send new frames and renovations all over the world. We’re now seeing interest from the Japanese market, they must have found us with the internet and probably because Paul Smith is so popular in Japan.
Have you seen any other changes in the demographics of who orders from you?4>
We really do have all types of customer, we’re lucky to have lots of really interesting people come to us and I don’t know if it’s me getting older or the customers are getting younger. Since the website’s been on and we did the work with Paul Smith it was amazing, we got emails asking for frames from countries I didn’t even know existed.
What about the sort of rider?
Honestly – all sorts. Just recently we’ve taken more orders for sportier, bolt thru rear axle, disc brakes, carbon forks, oversized tubing, we’re doing quite a lot of that at the moment.
You mentioned that as well as building new bespoke bikes, you do resprays and renovations. Is that of older Mercian frames or renovations of steel bikes generally?
We do a lot of Mercian renovations, but we do all other makes of steel, alloy and carbon too. When somebody’s frame is looking a bit tired, or if it’s a family bike with sentimental value, we can make it look like a new frame – it’s really satisfying to restore them to their former glory. We do that a lot, that’s a big part of the business, we’re well known for doing good paint and we’ve got some real talent in the sprayshop as well.
What are the hallmarks of a Mercian bicycle?
Craftsmanship and quality. Hand-built, comfortable, responsive, longevity, quality components, build and paint – it’s the whole shebang. When people buy a Mercian, they’re sort of entering the family of Mercian. No matter where you go, you could be in Timbuktu and somebody goes ‘I had one of those’ or ‘I’ve got one of them in my shed’. You just can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who has got a Mercian, it’s unbelievable.
Why do you choose to put a Brooks saddle on a bike?
Well the quality of the Brooks saddle is what sells it, we only put the best components on our bikes. Someone wanting the classic look tends to have the leather saddle, but now the sportier bike suits the Cambium. When we had the test Cambium saddles 99% of the people who tried one bought one. They’re all nicely put together and they do complement the bikes really well. A Mercian bike looks great with a Brooks saddle and matching bar tape, you can’t beat it.
What is traditional free hand brazing and why does it matter?
Building without a jig is kinder to the tubes, it doesn’t put any undue stress on the frame. It’s a slower, more skilful way to build a frame. It keeps the characteristics of the tubing, so it makes the feel of the bike, Mercian frames feel fast and comfortable to ride and that’s down to the way the frame is built. That’s why we braze.
And you do it on an open hearth, which is extremely rare these days?
Yes, we do open hearth brazing which is the traditional way, it’s how frames were built in the 1940s when Mercian started and we’re probably the only frame manufacturers still doing it now.
People have moved away from that process because it’s not fashionable. Why have you preserved that?
Because a Mercian frame is great to ride and they last a long time, that’s why people keep coming back to us time and again, and that’s down to the way the frame is built – why change that? It’s harder to do it in a hearth as well, but our hearth still gets fired up every day.
How many people know how to do that?
Not many now I’m guessing, probably just a handful of older frame builders and the guys who work here. We’re lucky to have many years of experience in the Mercian workshop, but we’ve got some good new guys who bring new ideas and talent too.
There’s a value in craftsmanship that we have perhaps lost in the modern day.
Yes it’s a mass produced world and people are starting to appreciate craftsmanship again.
Some people still think that Mercians are built in a big factory and when they come to the small unit on an industrial estate they can’t believe they’re made in our small workshop. We take that as a compliment really. People appreciate a hand-built item they really do. Something that’s built for their specific needs, the colour and everything, it goes a long way.
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