The need for a new bike took shape gradually, and was not necessarily something I wanted. The Alves is a bike of fabulous quality and I was attached to it not only because of our long history, but also because I seemed to be doing pretty well on it when I revived riding around the countryside from 2016–2019. I survived some pretty long rides on it, up to 200 km, without any pains that didn’t get better the next day (which is kind of my rule of thumb for when something needs to get fixed). But of the pains that I did have, a couple could be described as persistent niggles. My hands are getting older and they and my wrists can get quite uncomfortable over a long day’s riding. And my shoulders, which are tight from various kinds of stress and desk-sitting, remain so while cycling or sometimes get worse. Another thing that suggested to me that something wasn’t quite right was that I was never able to ride that bike no hands. Many years ago on the bike of my youth, a cheap Peugeot, I was able to sit up and ride no hands for a long way; it’s a handy thing to be able to do. Somehow I never came to trust the steering of the Alves enough, and it also wasn’t easy for me to sit up and take the weight off my hands. I’d tried out a number of changes of handlebars and brake levers, none of which really changed anything much for the better. The one thing that seemed to make the bike easier to handle was the IRD RollerDrive headset. But then, with a dip in riding in 2020/2021, coming back to it in slightly worse shape, the feeling that something more fundamental wasn’t right became more insistent.

Saddle setback
After one particular ride in autumn of 2021, when my hands really got quite sore, although it wasn’t a very long day, I finally googled “too much weight on hands cycling” and found this page by Bike Fit Adviser aka John Weirath. For the not-sitting-up problem, I tried moving my feet forward (cleats back) a little bit, and then another little bit, and moved my saddle back. This got slightly complicated because my saddle was a Brooks Flyer, which doesn’t go very far back, and my seatpost also didn’t have much setback. So I got a seatpost with more seatback, a Deda RS01. However what I didn’t quite reckon with was that “further back” means “further away from the pedals”. It became quite noticeable that I needed to lower the saddle a little bit. The Deda seatpost is oval at the top, which is pretty, but meant it couldn’t go any lower. At that point I did something I’d been thinking about for a while anyway, and ordered a pair of B17 rails and some copper rivets. The leather on a Flyer is the same as on a B17, but a B17 saves about 1 cm of height. So I converted my Flyer into a B17. On the sitting-up score, the saddle position now seemed better, but after a couple of back-to-back longer days at Christmas 2021, I gave myself a raw saddle sore from being tipped too far forward. This introduced me to a part of my body I probably hadn’t experienced consciously before: of course if you think about it, there has to be a spot where the front ends of your arse cheeks taper out towards your bawbag. Ouch. So I had to ease off the saddle position a bit again.

Even shorter stems?
A final experiment I did was to check out whether an even shorter stem would work. I got an A-head adapter and a couple of cheap A-head stems in 4 and 5 cm. The 4 cm was immediately very weird, almost unrideable. The 5 cm at first seemed ok and made it much easier to reach the point of sitting up to let go of the bars. Aha, I thought. But on further riding, I realized the steering really didn’t feel right. Interestingly though, the nominally 4 cm and 5 cm stems only changed the reach by by about 5 mm in reality. This gave me a hint of the kind of increments that could make a difference: a change of one cm or less can be a big deal.

A new, shorter bike?
So from all of this, at the beginning of 2022 the conclusion hardened that the real problem was the frame being too long for me and that I needed to try a shorter one. Old Bike has a top tube length of 56 cm. I am 169 cm tall and if I look at the charts of recommended bike sizes, this would be the normal-ish size for young fit people. If you’re older and stiffer maybe you should be erring on the small side, and a size smaller would be maybe 2–3 cm shorter in the top tube. This was a first bit of backup for my guess.

So I started studying the geometries and prices of new frames and bikes. One off-the-peg bike would have more or less everything I needed: the right range of gears, a leather saddle, mudguards, rack, bar end shifters etc.; this was the Kona Sutra SE. It was priced at around € 1700 at the time. I also looked at a variety of frames, including the All-City Space Horse, Pelago Stavanger and Brother Kepler. All of these would have cost considerably more to build up or modify from the available built-up versions, probably ending up at a total budget of well over € 3000. In hindsight I think I’d add the Soma Pescadero to this list; the rim brake version is very like a traditional touring bike, just with more tyre clearance.

As an incurable DIYer, another approach was also on my mind, and that was to find a suitable used frame. Instead of building a modern bike with many unknowns (to me) in terms of technology and geometry, to build something essentially the same as Old Bike, just smaller. So I was surfing around on the vintage bikes webshops. One kind of frame that caught my eye was the Gazelle Champion Mondial. Good brand, 531, and looked like having reasonable room for tyres: back in the 70s and 80s many amateurs probably still had one bike for everything and needed to be able to fit mudguards and/or touring wheels when they weren’t racing.

But frames of the size I wanted were on the rare side. So I was googling “Champion Mondial 50 cm” or something like that and landed on the page of Turned out they’d already sold the Gazelle, but they had a Mercian touring frame in 531ST with a top tube of 53 cm. To be honest, it just looked bloody nice too. As a way of justifying this to myself, I said it would also be the perfect frame to test the theory of the bike just being too long, and nothing else, because the tubes were the same and the geometry was like Old Bike, as well. Also, I could save money (for the moment) by borrowing the wheels off Old Bike, because the rear dropout spacing would be 126 mm. Not to mention various other bits I had. It would allow me to try out setting up a randonneur-ish bike the way I thought one should be, in detail, for no more than the basic version of one of those modern bikes. And so it was ordered, and arrived in March 2022.

Based on the frame number, the old Mercian catalogues online, and the Reynolds decals, the frame was quite easy to date and identify. It is a Classic, what we would now call an entry-level model, pretty much standardized, with the customer being able to specify just a few bits. And it is from 1988, two years older than Old Bike. New Bike being older than Old Bike makes me smile.

So the frame arrived and was inspected. The paint is in very good shape, though it’s a different colour where the band of the gear levers used to be. Exposure to light has turned what was a deep blue into a subtly more silvery, steely shade. It’s still a bit darker on the undersides of the tubes.

The story continues here.