Why spend £12K when you can build your dream classic bike for under £500? Here's how...

If you love a project, don't mind spending time scrolling through Ebay listings and are a bit of a tinkerer, why not build yourself a brand new bike out of old parts and save yourself a ton of cash?

Mercian winter bike build
(Image credit: Andrew Daley)

After three decades, thousands of commutes in all weathers and a spell of being kept outside when I was in between sheds, I had to accept it was the end of the road for my fixed winter bike. There were some raw-looking rust patches on the underside of the down tube as well as the tinkling of rust flakes inside the frame, which is a sign the bike isn’t healthy on the inside either.

So I started looking on Ebay, Retrobike and Facebook Marketplace for a replacement frame that would suit a fixed conversion. It had to have Campagnolo-style sloping dropouts for getting the chain tension right. And ideally brazed-on mudguard eyes for fixed mudguards. And it had to be steel. Those were really my only requirements.

Why fixed? I've always enjoyed switching to a fixed bike at the end of the season: no pressure to ride at a certain speed or power, just simple pedalling - and hopefully improving one’s souplesse at the same time if you believe the old-school hype.

Additionally, a fixed or singlespeed bike is perfect for winter: no gears to get clogged up or corroded and only a front brake if you’re doing fixed-wheel the traditional way.

Mercian Ebay listing

(Image credit: Simon Smythe)

When this beautiful 1986 Mercian Classic frame and fork came up on Ebay for £195 it took me about 10 seconds to hit ‘Buy It Now’.

Mercian is one of those famous names in British cycling - it has a huge amount of history and heritage. Mercians have been ridden since 1946 by everyone from Eileen Sheridan to Paul Smith and they often have elaborate lugs and candy stripe paintjobs. The King of Mercia is the best known model and is still made.

The Classic was a more affordable Mercian frame with plain lugs and made from Reynolds 531 ST - Special Tourist - a double butted tubing that was a bit heavier-duty than standard Reynolds 531. It was described in Mercian’s 1986 catalogue as “a lively touring frame with the usual Mercian high quality workmanship not usually seen on frames of this price.” I don’t know what that actual price was but I’m pretty sure it was more than I paid for it 35 years later.

Possibly people looking out for a Mercian would want the fancy lugs and the paintjob and I’m guessing that’s why this one didn’t get snapped up.

A plain Mercian it might have been, but it was still a bit too nice for transferring all the old knackered components from the old bike, which was my original plan. So I decided to set myself a limit of £500 that would hopefully be enough to do it justice, build it up with some fresh kit and salvage what I could from the old bike.

The build

Mercian winter bike build

(Image credit: Andrew Daley)

First up: new wheels. St John Street Cycles or SJS Cycles as they’re now known build their own. They’re not built to order - you can just click on them on the website and get the spec you want if it’s in stock. These ones have SJS’s own large-flange track hubs built onto Ryde Zac 19 36-hole rims, which are bombproof touring or trekking rims with a 19mm internal rim width. they are laced with DT Champion plain gauge spokes. It’s not a lightweight wheelset but it’s perfect for heavy-duty winter riding on horrible roads. The price is incredible - £149.99.

The Bluemels All-Rounder mudguards came from a cycle jumble, picked up for £17.50, and I think they were genuine new-old stock. Incredibly sparkly, super bling and, as my mother would have said, extremely vulgar. If anything was going to brighten up a dull winter’s day on the bike it would be these.

Originally I used a Campagnolo single-bolt classic 27.2 seatpost that came from the same jumble and cost £25, but I had to replace it later with a longer Condor Strada because it was a little too short.

The San Marco Rolls saddle is one of a few I've owned over the years. It was a favourite of 1980s pros. The distinctive gold strip at the rear makes the 'Belgian Armchair' immediately recognisable. 

The chain is a Clarks 1/8in track or BMX chain. I’ve always run a proper track chain where possible even if the chainring and sprocket are compatible with 3/32in. The extra width between the plates gives you a little bit of leeway if the chainline isn’t 100% perfect.

The Condor Legacy square-taper track chainset had been idle in my shed since I sold on a frame from an earlier project. It had a 46t chainring which was inconveniently bigger than the 42 I’d been using with a 15t sprocket to give me my favourite road ratio of 75in. I found a 17t sprocket in one of my biscuit tins that would give me a slightly lower 73in gear.

I used 27mm Challenge Paris-Roubaix tyres that have the tan sidewall that this bike deserves - though tyres like this only look pristine for about the first five minutes.

The handlebar, stem and front brake were the only components I transferred over from the old bike. It has a Bontrager 42cm bar, a welded steel 3T 120mm stem, a Shimano ‘aero’ front brake lever and a Cane Creek caliper. I was just able to take it off, without disconnecting the cable from the caliper, and drop it straight in.

Total cost

  • Frame and fork: £195
  • Wheels: £150
  • Tyres: £112
  • Seatpost £25
  • Mudguards £17.50
  • TOTAL: £499.50

So I just scraped in under the £500 with this project that was somewhere between Antiques Roadshow and Scrapheap Challenge

The things I had lying around (or transferred off the old bike) and didn’t have to buy were the bar, stem, brake lever, caliper, bottom bracket, chainset, sprocket and saddle. I was lucky to have a well stocked shed with plenty of biscuit tins full of old bike bits. Perhaps not exactly fair but that’s where the Scrapheap Challenge bit comes in.

The Mercian ended up with a sort of 1950s aesthetic, which wasn’t the original intention but I’ve always liked that idea of the clubman’s bike that could be used for racing or touring with just a change of wheels and removal of mudguards. Let’s call this bike an accidental tribute to those simpler times.

Future upgrades

Generally people are very complimentary about this bike - but there’s one thing that is commonly not very well liked, and that’s the stem. Utilitarian (OK, ugly) steel welded quill stems like the 3T Chromix - another was the ITM Eclypse - replaced much more graceful forged aluminium stems for a short time in the 1990s but disappeared again when the A-head type with separate faceplate meant another redesign and a move back to aluminium. A particularly elegant forged stem I would choose for this bike is the ITM Goccia or the 3T Status. A polished aluminium bar by the same brand as the stem would look nicer too.

I've also been using a Brooks B17 saddle more recently because I wanted to use my Carradice Barley saddle bag, which attaches to the Brooks bag loops.

Sadly the Campagnolo seatpost was a little too short, even with the extra stack height of the Brooks saddle, and was slipping because there wasn't enough of it in side the seatpost. So I replaced it with a longer Condor Strada that stays put and although it looks newer still has the retro polished look.

And finally, the drop of the Cane Creek standard road caliper wasn't quite long enough - it was just a bit too close to the top of the braking surface, so I've had to swap in a 57mm long-drop Miche. With old bikes things are often not as easy as they first seem.

My riding

When the clocks go back, that's the traditional time to switch to the mudguard bike and hang up the race bike for the winter and I still like that rhythm of changing bikes with the seasons. So from that point on, all my riding will be on the Mercian, whether clubruns, evening rides to the pub or just going somewhere by bike instead of by car.

The 73in gear is low enough to get me up all but the steepest hills in Surrey and it’s high enough that I can average 18 or 19mph if I’m doing a faster training ride. 

I plan to keep this bike forever so I'll probably need to gear down in 10 years or so, but one of the great things about a simple fixed bike is that although it's retro it's also futureproofed: there are hardly any 'components' on it since it doesn't need a groupset and only has one brake. Here's to the next 35 years of its life - and mine!

The spec

  • Frame/Fork Mercian Classic 531ST
  • Chainset Condor Pista 46T
  • Sprocket Miche 17T
  • Chain Clarks 1/8in
  • Brakes Shimano lever/Miche long-drop caliper
  • Wheels SJS 36H Ryde Zac 19/track hubs
  • Tyres Challenge Paris-Roubaix 27mm
  • Bar Bontrager 42cm
  • Stem 3T Chromix 120mm
  • Seatpost Condor Strada
  • Saddle Selle San Marco Rolls
  • Weight 9.4kg

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