Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole - First ride with the Mercier Nano Mini-Velo

Recently, I sold one of my .22lr rifles and some bike parts and had enough to buy a budget "play" bike - something that I can use for cruising at speed or recovery rides. At first I was really looking into purchasing a fixie again (and I use the term "fixie" not "fixed gear" for a reason), but when browsing the BikesDirect.com website, I stumbled upon the Mercier Nano Mini-Velo.

Some time ago, I remember BikesDirect posting a thread about offering "Mini-Velo's", and at the time, my closed mind concluded that the small wheel was just too inefficient to make any sense of having one. They also looked funny to me. As you know (if you actually read this blog), I am no stranger to the 20" wheel. I grew up BMX'ing and rode flatland up until a year ago before my knees started to hurt from it. Sad, because I love BMX with all my heart. But, having ridden the 20" wheel for so long, I knew that it provides a very slow, inefficient way of getting around.

As much as I decided the mini-velo was a lame idea, the Mercier Nano simply could not be ignored. As much as I shopped BikesDirect's site for a new fixie, I kept returning back to the Nano page. I was being reeled in.

I decided to do a little research before going any further. Bike Forums has a great ongoing thread about these bikes and what I read intrigued me even more. I found that the 20" wheels, when geared properly, can actually scoot along pretty well - almost as well as a 700c wheel. Furthermore, I learned that the mini-velo, although small enough to fit in the back of a car, is still plenty of bike to tackle big road rides.

With $299.99 burning in my PayPal account, I took the plunge.

After doing the BikesDirect Shuffle (adjusting of everything) I took it out front and rode up and down my street. It was then I realized everything claimed on the Bike Forums thread was true. It moved around pretty nicely, and immediately you forget you are on small, 20" wheels. I brought it back in, made further adjustments to the front and rear derailleurs, and placed it in my dining room "staging area" for today's lunch ride.

I set out for today's ride with my normal roadie loop in mind: approximately 20 miles with +/- 1000ft. of climbing. After I got used to the initial weirdness, I found myself rolling along quite nicely. However, it felt slow - but the end result numbers from my B.icycle app tells a different story.

The cockpit feels very natural, and the 40cm road drops are just fine, even for me, (I normally ride a 46cm drop bar). The bike feels a little flexy on mashes due to the quill stem and 25.4 handlebars, but also very stable. Riding no-handed is no problem and the small wheels do not twitch at all.

There are some improvements that need to be made, however, and I have already turned this $300 into a $500 bike (which kinda defeats the "budget bike" thing, although $500 is not bad). First, the rims are drilled for presta valves only, so I drilled them out to fit Schrader valve tubes which are widely available at a variety of stores. Conversely, 20" presta tubes are hard to come by unless you are near a bike shop. 20" Schrader tubes can be found at big box stores, hardware stores, and even drug stores.

Second, the gearing looks big, but it is actually appropriate for the small 20" wheel. The crankset is a 52/42, and cassette is a 12-25. In the 52T chainring and the 12T cog, you still spin quite a bit on the flats and descends. I ordered a new cassette (11-32) and a new chain to compensate for the bigger cog. Today, I made the climb just fine on the stock 25T cog, but there may come a time when I'll need to climb a wall and that 32T may come in handy. I did not like the gear spacing between the cogs at all. Two of my bikes are 8 speed and they don't feel as rangy as this cassette.

Third, the seat is a bit uncomfortable when in the "road riding" position; I feel it would be better suited for a more upright seated bike (like my beach cruiser). So, I ordered a new, narrower road seat (brown Origin 8) with brown bar tape to match.

Forth, the tires are slow. they are cushy (65psi max, even though I have 80psi in them). Good for mild riding, but they have a lot of rolling resistance. I have not ordered replacement tires yet, but I have a feeling these will be next on the list after pay day.

And lastly, the down tube shifters are annoying. I'm happy that the rear is indexed, but the front shifter is friction and it's not fun to remove your hands from the handlebar to shift. I wouldn't mind this if my bike was truly for leisure rides, but if you want to move along quickly, having shifters on the handlebar is more appropriate. I found Shimano ST-2200 brake shifters on eBay for $95. I would've went with bar ends shifters, but the ST-2200's were only $20 more.

In the end, this is how my ride stats ended up. The ride time did not show up, but I did my roadie loop on the Nano in 1:23:14.

Not bad for a weird, little bike! Here's how the same route looks on on my Surly Pacer. I don't know how I gained 300 additional feet on climbing with the Nano - it must be the small wheels. As you can see, the numbers are almost identical.

This bike surprised the living hell out of me - it's almost like the little kid that gets picked on, yet knows Martial Arts and kicks every one's ass. People will laugh at it, look at it strangely and even ask if it's something that you made in your garage. My brother, in fact, asked me if I was going to put "freestyle BMX pegs" on it (as a joke, of course... or was it?) Don't let this strange, niche, "popular in Asia" bike fool you. It is plenty capable of a regular road ride, and when geared correctly, will surprise the kitted club guys when you're hanging in there with them

If you're looking at buying one of these, understand that the parts are for a... well... $299.99 bike and you may want to upgrade. For a small bike it is heavy, but the steel frame can insure many, many years of enjoyment. Even if you don't upgrade (I rode mine in stock form today), it is plenty fine to move you around town.

Like all my bikes, I will follow up with a three month review in the future. Here are some pics from today:


  1. Thanks for the report...I've been itching to get a mini-velo for a while, just for the hell of it. All the high-quality ones are too pricey to buy on a lark, but $299? Hell yeah. Worst case scenario is that it'll be a bike that stays at work for when I want to ride further than walking range for lunch.

    A question that you might be able to shed some light on...if I normally ride ~54cm road frames, I'm guessing that I definitely should get the M/L 53cm size?

    Love that it has braze-ons for a rear rack and fenders...can't wait for the perversity of adding on crap that will end up costing more than the initial bike.

    P.S. I think I'm de-lurking with this comment...think I originally found your site via a search for info about the Pake C'mute...

  2. Hey @Chester:

    I ride a 54cm road frame and the M/L does fit me fine.

    As far as the upgrading thing goes - it's inevitable. :-/

  3. Nice write up. I really like my Nano. Great for my 8 mile commute in Seattle. Surprisingly fast as well.

  4. Thanks for the feedback on size. Just got the bike delivered yesterday, as well as a pair of the Schwalbe Kojaks, and a couple rolls of rim tape. Picked up some Schrader valve 20" tubes and will try to file open the valve holes in the rims tonight. Then ride around a bit and see what else I should do to dramatically increase the cost of this bike...