My Mercer ‘Buitelander’ (translated from Afrikaans – ‘foreigner’)
Words and photos by Stan Engelbrecht
I have a handful of track bikes. Almost all local South African-built in the 1980s. I love these bikes, all weird and wonderful and collectible. For some years my Hansom pursuit-style 700c was my day-to-day ride, but this constant use was starting to take its toll on the frame and the beautiful pink to seafoam fade paintwork. And the front wheel / downtube clearance is so tight that normal road use would sometimes push the tyre into the frame, resulting in long black rubber streaks under the downtube. It was obvious – I needed a bike I could use every day, without having to worry about destroying a bit of South Africa cycling heritage in the process.
I looked at my options. I have an old blue Cannondale Track with destroyed seatstays that I’m in the process of repairing (with carbon, but that’s another story). Not durable enough, and I’m still unsure about the repair. I looked at a couple of beaters and rat frames around, but my mind was already drifting to a more multifunctional approach. The first thing I thought of was all-round practicality. I always take a bike when I travel, but sometimes taking my Mercer ‘Buitestander’ multipurpose tourer – featured here before – is still a chore. Even though it has S&S couplers and breaks down quite small, packing a bike with drop bars and protruding road shifters, rear derailleur, and disc brake rotors that easily bend, is still time-consuming and a bit of a story. I’ve always loved the simplicity of a fixed gear bike, and I have traveled with one before. They’re super easy to break down, pack, and reassemble. I’m sure you can see where my mind was going… an S&S coupled fixed gear with flat bars. Simple, and small. It breaks down in a minute and you can just throw it in a box. No small parts to break, no protruding anything. I thought of ordering the S&S couplers from the United States, and maybe taking a rat and adding them to that. David Mercer of Mercer bikes, who built my ‘Buitestander’ could easily cut it up and install them for me. Then it hit me – he could just build it from scratch, incorporating all the elements I would love in a fixed gear for road use. Slightly more clearance for larger tyres than the 20c ones that barely fit in the fork of my Hansom. Slightly higher bottom bracket to avoid those hair-raising pedal strikes. A little less toe-overlap. Maybe a front rack mount? What about a forward-sloping top tube like my pursuit-style Hansom? A way to mount a front brake for when I’m too old and decrepit to ride brakeless anymore? And so hours and hours of research and discussion ensued. If you’ve ever built a bike you know what I’m talking about. But first I contacted David to see if he was into the idea. He said yes, and it would be his first fixed gear.
I rode my Hansom over to his home workshop and we put some ideas down on paper. The central idea for the bike became practical packability. But durability for daily use was also very important. So… parts. I can’t remember exactly, but it somehow came down to the headset and stem. A quill stem would mean that I could easily pull out the bar and stem without having to disturb the headset – something I hate doing when packing a bike. Exposing all the bits on an often filthy bike, and suddenly everything is loose, just feels wrong. Quill and 1” steerer it was. So no carbon fork. And if you’re going 1”, you might as well go classic. My hunt started. My early 90s Moser Leader AX road bike has Dura Ace 7400 on it, and I seriously love the aero stem with the hidden handlebar binder bolt, so that was my departure point. I spent hours on eBay, trying to piece together a Dura Ace track group with aero bits. Through this, I also rediscovered the 600AX aero components, but I just couldn’t find it all. And often the condition of these parts was very poor.
In the meantime, David prepared some mockups of my frame. Cool and aggressive, S&S couplers in place, with small gauge tubing to match the classic parts I was hunting for. I don’t recall how, but one day was speaking to my friend Jan of the historic Schauff brand in Germany about my new project. He said he might have some NOS track parts down in the basement at the factory, and I should send a list. By this stage, of course, I already had a detailed wish list of what I thought would be perfect. I sent it over in the hopes that he might have one or two of the pieces I was struggling to find. A few days later I get an email from him – “where should I sent it?” I couldn’t believe my luck. And then he asked if I would also like sets of NOS Shimano track and fork ends for the frame. What!? I was unclear about what exactly he was sending me, but a few weeks later I was unwrapping meticulously packed, insanely hard-to-find in NOS condition parts, most NJS still in original boxes. The centerpiece – an unused first-generation Dura Ace track crankset. Brand new Shimano 600AX seatpost, stem and 600 headset. High flange Dura Ace hubs – double-sided rear! Dura Ace cogs! Two sets of NOS Mavic rims! To this day I still don’t know if I’ll ever be able to thank Jan properly for this incredible gift. He single-handedly elevated the project from daily ride to absolute showpiece.
The few extra parts I needed were easy to track down. A Flite Titanium saddle, Nitto risers with Nitto bar-end plugs, ODI grips, a NOS Dura Ace 45t chainring (the best combination with my 14t/16t in the rear for maximum skid patches), a Dura Ace NJS bottom bracket, SRAM track chain, and some 25c Gatorskins with Continental tubes.
I got the UFP-10 fork and track ends to David, and as the frame was coming together (built from a mix of quality Columbus tubing), so was the pile of parts in my workshop. My good friend Rolf was building the wheels, as meticulously as only he can, and my mind was drifting to the finish of the frame.
For a brief moment, I considered attempting to anodize all these old parts black, because of some black Dura Ace track hubs I saw somewhere online. But I came to my senses. Silver parts it was going to be. And inspired by my Moser I thought of chroming the fork and rear end of the of the bike, just like higher-end steel track and road bikes in the old days. As I understand, exposed chrome used to mean you spent more on your frame, and it would be more durable in the areas that wear most during wheel changes, especially on track bikes. Finding someone to take on a once-off high-quality chroming project in South Africa proved much harder than I imagined, especially since David and I came up with the idea to leave part of the frame ‘exposed steel’. There was something cool about an all-metal frame, with no paint to chip. A nod to the durability angle we were aiming for. But this meant that the chromer couldn’t simply dip the entire frame – which would have been easier – but the areas requiring chroming had to be carefully masked off. It took some doing, and a bit of work cleaning the bare steel of errant chrome, but we pulled it off.
During all this, we turned our attention to the idea of a small front rack. I wanted it to be elegant and integrated and as simply as possible. And we had been speaking about the possibility for a front brake in future. If we mounted the rack on the front, utilizing the front brake mounting already in the fork crown, that would mean that if I wanted to run a brake at any time I would not be able to use the rack. I took an old Shimano 600 front brake caliper and tried to see a way clear to mount both simultaneously. Maybe a little bracket snaking behind the brake? No, the clearance was too tight. Then it dawned on me – remove the bolt that keeps the caliper together, and substitute it with the central stalk the rack would mount with? An idea, but we would have to see. I emailed David, and he asked me to bring the brake over. He’d have a look. The genius that he is, after some tinkering he made it happen. A little sleeve screws on to hide a thread, but when it’s removed a brake caliper is easily mounted, totally integrated. I have not fitted this brake since I got the bike (and I actually still need a lever), but I don’t plan to soon anyway. I hope to be riding brakeless for years to come. And besides, I don’t want to ruin my lovely Mavic rims.
Now we had to figure out the ‘bare steel’. Leaving it to rust would look amazing, especially contrasted against the chrome, but the exposed areas would rust away in Cape Town’s ocean air in no time. We looked at some options like clear coating (prone to that strange rust ‘worming’ where it chips), but David was keen to try something called Penetrol, a marine grade primer. I didn’t quite get how it would work, but I told David to give it a go. Applied with a sponge, it formed a clear protective clear layer over the metal, but somehow it’s still building up a patina under there. I think it looks cool, but I don’t know if it’s a permanent solution. The coating is not as hard-wearing as a quality layer of paint. So might I paint the ‘exposed’ part in future? Time will tell.
Once assembled it was as comfortable and fun as I’d hoped. And I love the aggressive street look with some classic nods. I thought this would be my day-to-day knock around, but to be honest it’s pretty hard to lock it to a rusty pole somewhere.