Every steel bicycle frame begins life as a pile of tubes and frame components. This frame really started as a pair of Shimano UF, semi-vertical dropouts, lying on the Schauff table at Eroica South Africa. I bought them on a whim, after enjoying a few beers at the finish line of the 2020 event. At that moment I thought I would hang them on a keychain or hand them over to a friend, Dave Mercer of Mercer Bikes.
If I’m honest with myself, there was a tiny kernel of an idea that I could build a bike with them. Although, when this was unfolding in early March, South Africa had yet to go into its hard lockdown and the idea seemed so outlandish that I didn’t give it room to grow. Building a hand-made steel bike had long sat near the top of my bucket list, filed away with all the things I’ll probably never have funds or opportunity to pursue.
As it happened, when I took the dropouts to Dave, he mentioned that he had been toying with the idea of offering a frame-building course – one-on-one stewardship through the process of designing and building a custom steel frame. He’d built a custom tourer/commuter for me 5 years before and I have some modern mountain bikes but had never owned an out-and-out road racing frame, with modern parts and geometry. Through the course of the 3-week hard lockdown, the idea grew (full-disclosure, I obsessed for countless hours over geometry and frame details) and Dave and I exchanged emails.
When we could get back into his workshop, we started the process of building my frame. The silhouette and details are an homage to some of my favourite steel frames – my introduction to road riding was through classic 70s and 80s steel frames. A few choice details include the fast-back, seatpost binder of a 1984 Raleigh Panasonic Team replica, a brake bridge inspired by a Gazelle Champion Mondial, and the scalloped stays of many great Italian frames.
The build proved both easier and much harder than I had expected. I run a small furniture workshop and am not nervous around power tools, metalworking machinery, or hand tools, but the brazing. was. terrifying. The tubing wall-thickness, tolerances, and metallurgic heat properties all made the brazing a truly anxiety-provoking process. At least at first. Over the course of the build and under Dave’s watchful eye, I was able to find some flow while brazing. And luckily for me, all the fillets and other brazing is hidden underneath a powder-coat finish.
The end of the build was a bit of a blur; I was starting to pick up my own work again and trying to get out of Dave’s hair. I sent the bike off to be coated and received it back the day before a 150km Strava-based race called SXSE – mixed surfaces, beautiful landscapes and sure to be a trial by fire. The ride was flawless, comfortable, and fast. I had to keep reminding myself that the frame between my legs was something that I had made.
After almost 10 years of making things in my workshop, and thousands of objects later, this frame is among those that I am most proud of. Luckily, unlike most of the things I make, I can keep this one.