Cape Town Steel Safari: A Shop Visit to Mercer Bikes

Growing up in a small South African town in the late 80s and early 90s meant David Mercer was largely shielded from the travesties of the apartheid era. But in 1994, in a coincidental coming-of-age historical convergence, the status quo was cracked open, not just for Mercer but for the whole country. The same year he turned 16, South Africa officially ended apartheid as the country held its first democratic elections. At this point, Mercer was well enmeshed in his love affair with bikes, having grown up a young BMX ripper but becoming fully infatuated with mountain biking as a teen. Many youthful afternoons spent pouring over bicycle magazines like MB UK and Mountain Bike Action led him to develop a fast fascination with steel-wielding magicians like Dave Yates and Chas Roberts and were responsible for his own framebuilding aspirations. However, the end of apartheid brought a wave of foreign frames as longtime sanctions were finally lifted. This swift influx quickly decimated the local steel bicycle manufacturing industry and a deflated Mercer went on to become a veterinarian. The dream of bikes was always there, simmering in the background, but it would be nearly a decade-and-a-half before he’d pick up a torch himself.

Makers Space: The Bijou Theatre

Characteristic of the art deco style, the Bijou Theatre in Cape Town’s Observatory neighborhood stands on a busy street corner with an air of staunch elegance. These days, the old grand dame is showing a little wear around the edges, with a few scars left over from a devastating fire that rampaged the building’s then plastic factory in a less romantic past life. But it still commands attention, both locally as a frequented spot for photoshoots and internationally when it hosted film crews from the dystopian series Black Mirror.

Today, the Bijou is a creative collective. The interior of the theater has been cordoned off into studios and workspaces for rent and is home to an eclectic bunch of crafty folks including Conrad Hicks’ blacksmithing operation and The Tool Room, the Firebird Cafe coffee shop, the painter Chris Denovision, and Mercer Bikes. Walking inside, the smell of freshly-pulled espresso paired with the clanging of the forge greets the senses with a mixed modern-meets-medieval impression.

I was lucky enough to be in Cape Town over a weekend that the Bijou was hosting an open house (thanks for the rec, Stan!) and had a chance to chat with David Mercer about his long-delayed journey to taking up framebuilding. Dave’s an easy conversationalist and, if you’re in the area, I’d highly suggest swinging by for a beer and a “natter about bikes”—he’s always keen!

An Emergency Vet Answers A More Feral Call

Dave has a way of describing the evolution of Mercer Bikes as if he were a bit of a bystander to the process and he’s as flabbergasted as anyone that it’s worked out—well, I might add—thus far. “It was never supposed to become this feral thing and totally take over my life.” He laughs, palms turned innocently skyward.

Upon graduating high school and coming to the dismaying realization that South African steel framebuilding had been eclipsed by imported frames, especially of the aluminum variety, Mercer completed his veterinarian degree and, in 2002, moved to the port city of Cape Town. Nearly a decade of working a week on/ week off schedule as an emergency after-hours vet had yielded ample opportunities for road tripping along the cape’s wild eastern coast, but the mundane, Ground Hog Day-esque grind of the work itself was starting to wear. Heavily. In 2010, Mercer recalls being “thoroughly disgruntled” and the idea of finally trying his hand at framebuilding had become a persistent distraction. After dabbling with some simple frame repairs and low stakes tinkering—building a few touring racks, adding canti bosses to old steel frames—he credits his wife with finally pushing him to buy a set of tubes already and make a bike for himself in 2013.

From then on, like the repeated act of catching a door that’s about to close, the prospect of this other life kept getting caught, nudged, and shoe-wedged back open as friend, after acquaintance, after stranger kept asking him at arhythmic intervals to build them something. There might have been a lag but at the last moment, someone would always appear before the door closed.

After he had nine frames to show for his fledgling framebuilding operation, Dave traveled to the 2014 Bespoked Bike Show. Jokingly, Dave describes his attendance that year as his debutante debut onto the stage of lusty would-be hand built customers, “it was my framebuilding coming out ceremony, as if to say, ‘I’ve arrived!’” (cue the jazz hands). He brought a proto-gravel model based on classic, lightweight English randonneuring bikes, dubbed his CX Tourer, and following the show put it to apt use touring around Scotland.

His trip to the UK gave him the confidence to go a bit more whole-hog on the endeavor once returning to Cape Town. Up until this point, anytime Dave had been approached with a frame request, he had only charged the customer the price of materials explaining that, in a way, he saw that period as an apprenticeship to himself. As he pinned a price on his own time and stepped away from the vet clinic permanently, the transition from hobby to business was complete.

Builds & Semi-Stock Models

Based on our conversation, I feel confident in saying that Dave will build you (nearly) any bike you want. Over the past 12 years of dabbling, debating, then fully diving in, Dave’s running tally includes 180 frames built, with 120 being fully custom and the remaining 60 being some combination of his semi-stock designs. His custom builds have run the gamut from full suspension rat rigs to posh-and-polished track bikes, with a few bicycle-adjacent freedom machines in the mix as well (more on that later). Note that his semi-stock collection is only represented in part on the website (“it’s horribly outdated and even crashed a couple years ago, I thought I might not get it back; my Instagram is a much friendlier place,” says Dave). The four mountain bike frame options shown on the site belie his preference for the trails but he also has one gravel model available and a road-geo concept in the works. You can find a few lines from Dave below on these signature range frames.

Hungry Monkey
“A do-it-all, versatile modern trail hardtail. Designed around a 140-150mm travel fork, 650b wheels and 2.4” trail rubber.”

Lanky Lemur
“A 29er hardtail for those longer days in the saddle or multi-day stage races. Designed around 120 – 140mm forks and can run 2.4” tires.”

King Dong (yes, that’s a dick reference—go ahead and have a chuckle.)
“Hungry Monkey’s bigger, badder, brasher, ruder brother—it’s longer, lower and slacker and designed around a 140-150mm travel fork and clears up to 2.5” 650B tires.”

Gangly Gibbon
“The perfect South African Full Suspension Trail bike. 29er wheels, 120mm rear travel with 140-150mm forks up front.”

Grubby Grivet
“Versatile all-roadish bike that could wear skinnier shoes for road rides and up to 40c knobby clogs for some gravel cushion.”

Bike-Adjacent Creations

For me, the most unexpected—and delightful—part of the conversation was hearing Dave recount a series of bicycle-adjacent creations he’s been commissioned to make over the past three years. The self-described madness started in 2020 when he envisioned and built the Velo Sedan Chair, a “luxuriously-appointed trike,” for the aging proprietor of a vacation lodge in Botswana. Think Fine Leather Goods—leather bar tape, Brooks Swift Saddle, and a leather-upholstered seat fit for a cigar lounge.

On the heels of that luxury class cruiser, Dave was commissioned to labor over another three-wheeled design, this time in the form of a lever-driven, off-road wheelchair. The chassis supports a foldable front wheel and foot platform unit, two individually-rolling rear bicycle wheels, two brake-equipped arm levers, and a custom-built seat. The crux of the engineering came in decoupling the wheels so that the owner could not only brake the wheels independently for steering purposes but also to enable quick and clean removal of the wheels so the whole contraption could be conveniently broken down and transported. From what I hear, the owner is so thrilled with the finished product that he plans to put it through its paces on the Camino de Santiago!

Seemingly, Dave is a sucker for design headaches, or just has a soft spot for off-the-wall requests. “After each crazy project,” he tells me, “I’m always like—never again! Next time, I have to charge so much more!” His most recent undertaking probably induced the most undercharging self-flagellation. Just last month, he completed a replica of a 1863 Vincent Michaud Velocipede (a “Boneshaker”) commissioned to fill a hole in the collection at the Trails End Bicycle Museum in Grabouw. Both monikers call to mind a bygone dinosaur and, in a way, that’s exactly what it is.

Quick history lesson: the Velocipede was the first two-wheeled pedal bike and emerged in the early 1860s. It was innovative in its use of crank-turned pedals paired with its two-hoop platform and acted as the forerunner to the iconic Penny Farthing and all the bicycle-like iterations that came before reaching today’s modern bicycle design. It was also a serious feat of metalsmithing. This aspect of the construction made it especially difficult to replicate today, as Dave describes below:

“It’s hard to see what actually went on in building it. All the other things I’ve built that haven’t been bicycles have still had a lot to do with bicycles. This is the most bicycle-shaped thing that has been the least bicycle-like thing to work on. The original Boneshakers were all wrought iron. They were completely solid, forged iron, made in one piece in workshops very much like Conrad’s forge [next door]. When Conrad saw the photos, he described how they would have been made. The big stumbling block these days is the tooling that would have been required to get all the stamped shapes as you’re working your way through the process. [As a result] we couldn’t make something solid, my Boneshaker is mostly hollow but in order to make it look as though it had actually been forged, there was a lot of lateral thinking of how to combine modern angle iron and square and rectangular tubing around stuff, and what could be squished and shaped. There’s about 30 meters of brass filet laid down over other steel so I could shape and file to get the profiles that are typical of a forged piece. So the dimensions all match the originals and the weird shapes [are that way] because the originals were that weird. I’m really proud of how it turned out, it’s got a gravitas and a presence about it—it looks like a visitor from outer space.”

Framebuilding & Design Ethos

Compared to all these special projects, for Dave, making frames of his own design feels very relaxing, “these days, the framebuilding side of it feels very natural, feels as though I were born to do it. But, not so long ago I still felt like ‘what on Earth am I doing? How are people supposed to do this—repeatedly!?—it’s so hard!’ But now it feels so relaxing and I suppose that’s a measure of how far things have come.”

As with any craft, Dave acknowledges that it’s important to respect the process and that progress and success are relative, constantly shifting targets, “I do think with every single frame, your goal post just moves: in the beginning, your goal is to actually build a frame. Then, your goal is to build a straight frame. Then your goal is to build a straight, pretty frame.” Over a decade deep now, Dave describes his current goal post as efficiency and being able to perfect the process as well as the product, “Nowadays, my goal is to build an efficient frame, to know that it’s been done efficiently with the best use of my resources and my time. The stuff that frustrates me the most is where I think ‘why did I do that, I’ve wasted so much time here, I could be moving onto the next thing.’ I get a big kick out of having an efficient process and feeling totally on top of it.”

In terms of the design aesthetic, Dave’s true north is uncluttered, functional design, “I don’t want my frames to be fussy. I want them to be clean and classic, even if they have fairly modern silhouettes, I want the actual frame construction to look clean and simple.” Perhaps most importantly, he wants to make bikes that light a fire to ride, “Ultimately, I want the end product to float my customer’s boat in the best possible way. I just want people to look at my bikes and think, first and foremost, ‘that looks like an absolute riot to ride. That looks like a real, proper bike.’ Then, hopefully when they look a bit closer they’ll be impressed by clean details and the way it’s been put together.”

Finally, Dave wants each of his bikes to create connection, a closed loop between rider and maker,“With manufacturing, I think it’s kind of sad that for so many of the things we treasure, we’ll never know the faces behind them and there is something special in knowing that the thing that brings you so much joy also brought its maker so much joy. There can be joy all around.”

Earlier this year, Jared Paisley made a great short film about Mercer and his approach to bikes. Give it a watch!