When Alex approached me for a custom frame I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate a mile stone this request was. Alex and I started mountain biking together as gawky, geeky teenage lads in 1992. Mountain Biking was entering it’s own awkward adolescence and new designs and out-the -box thinking were slathered all over the pages of our favourite magazine – Mountain Biker International.
We whittled away lesson time at school drawing frame designs and dreaming of our own custom bikes. In the early 90’s many brands were still small, enthusiast run outfits and custom, handbuilt frames were the pinnacle of desirability. Little did we know that those dreams would one day come true.
After we left school Alex pursued a number of jobs – almost all of them bike related. This peaked when he ,joined an international Mountain Bike team as a mechanic and toured the world stage with them maintaining their bikes. It’s this background that’ll best prepare him for his next challenge. For the first four months of next year, Alex will be riding in the Tour De Afrique as a mechanic. The Tour begins in Khartoum, the second largest city in Sudan, and 4 months and 12 000 km later it culminates in Cape Town. Alex needed a bike that would be comfortable and capable to carry him down Africa’s spine.
Having 22 years of cycling experience and his illustrious credentials as World Cup mechanic, Alex knew exactly what he wanted. It was going to be a very different beast.
For starters it was to have twin skinny top tubes that would arc in a gentle radius from the head tube all the way to the rear drop outs. It would have disk brakes with 700c rims built around bomb-proof XT Mountain Bike hubs. It would also feature a very compact front triangle with a long seat post extension. It would have Cyclocross geometry but with road bike proportions and it would be capable of fitting 40c touring tires. Neither of us knew whether the twin top tubes would noticeably affect the stiffness of the frame but we hoped it would allow more spring in the seat post to help to tame Africas roads.
We chose an oversized 38mm, thin walled Columbus Life down tube and paired this to an oversized 32.8mm Columbus Zona seat tube. The twin top tubes are 16mm Columbus Gara tubes and are usually used as re-inforcing struts on tandems. The seat stays are slim 14mm tapered Zona road offerings and the chainstays are ovalised Zona Cyclocross stays. A 36mm head tube allows for a 1 1/8″ steerer for extra versatility. Alex has always admired cowled dropouts, so the Breezer drops were an obvious and classy choice.
Since the Top tubes and seat stays would go on as single units I decided to build the rest of the frame first. The main tubes were all fillet brazed together.
One of the problems we faced was how to bend the top tubes and seat stays into a continuous arc. Alex soon had a solution: he custom built an enormous bending die from scrap chipboard. Using an angle grinder mounted on a pivoting arm he machined a groove along the circumference of the die. The same pivoting arm would later hold a grooved roller and the entire contraption would be capable of rolling forms with a 1,5 m radius. The tapered seat stays were slip brazed into the ends of the 16mm top tubes and then rolled on Alex’s machine. It performed impeccably and within minutes produced 2 elegant arcs.
The rest of the frame came together quickly and before long it was time to attach the twin tubes. I was concerned about the relatively small contact area the tubes would have as they passed on either side of the seat tube. With the seat tube having a long extension I was also concerned about creating extra stress at this point. To reinforce this area I created a shield shaped sleeve from some left over seat tube and brass brazed this onto the seat tube at the point where the twin top tubes were to pass around the seat tube. Two spacers were cut and mitred to hold the twin tubes at the right distance away from the seat tube and these were then silver fillet brazed in place. Since silver solder has a much lower melting point than brass this would ensure that the reheating of the area wouldn’t negatively affect the reinforcement I’d made.
After this there was little left to do except add to a BB badge and braze-ons. Alex couldn’t wait to meet his new frame:
Once Alex calmed down he made some decisions about paint and then it was off to Jared at BMC to get the ZED-P coloured in.
A few days later Alex’s new bike was built up and ready to test ride. We took it out into the street and I anxiously waited for feedback. A few moments later Alex’s face splitting grin told me all I needed to know as he blasted past the gate.
Alex, I wish you the very best experiences during your African tour. I can’t think of a better ambassador to crusade a MERCER frame through this untamed continent of ours. Ride safely and keep well. Hamba Kahle my friend.