One of the things I was very much looking forward to on my trip to New York last week, was visiting Justine of Midlife Cycling. Justine is a fascinating, generous and knowledgable person and we have lots to talk about outside the world of bicycles. But more pertinently to this blog, Justine is known for her small, exquisite collection of Mercians. And so I happily found myself in Astoria, Queens, in an apartment that was eerily similar to my own in its proportion of total living space to the space devoted to bikes. Nothing wrong with that at all.
When I first wrote about Justine and her Mercians two years ago, she had three of them - all custom made and painted the same stunning shade of "flip-flop purple green" (more on this later). One of these is a geared roadbike, the second is a fixed gear, and the third a Miss Mercian step-through. Subsequently, Justine unexpectedly acquired a fourth Mercian secondhand - an earlier Miss Mercian model, from an era when the design was still a classic mixte with twin lateral stays. Knowing this, I was looking forward to seeing the two generations of Miss Mercians side by side, and excited when Justine offered me to test ride both bicycles and compare my impressions. While her diamond frame bikes are too big for me, the lower step-over of the Miss Mercian frames enables me to try them.
Through the quiet streets of Astoria, we rode to the Socrates Sculpture Park to photograph the bicycles along the East River. The park is small, but very pleasant, with a cobblestone path along the water and views of Roosevelt Island and passing boats in background. It was a cold and windy morning, but at least the sun was out, bathing the bicycles in a golden light.
One of my photographic goals for this bicycle was to capture the flip flop purple green finish in action. The beauty of this colour is hard to describe, but basically it's as it sounds: Under some lighting conditions it looks purple, under others it looks green. Seeing the colours change takes my breath away. Above I captured it in a very purple state, though usually it looks like a much more subdued silverfish lilac.
Flip-flopping in the sunlight! I love this colour and might have used it for my own bike were it not so distinctly Justinish in my mind. It is certainly one of the most unique paint finishes available.
Justine lowered the saddle for me and switched out the pedals to platforms, so that I could comfortably ride the bike around the unfamiliar-to-me area. When I rode this bicycle, the geometry - not the frame style, but the angles and proportions - struck me as an exaggerated version of my Royal H. mixte. My positioning on the bike was very similar as well. Unfortunately the angled step-through frame and I did not get along when it came to mounting and dismounting the bike: I found the top tube too high for me to comfortably climb over and kept banging my knee. I was also a little uncomfortable with the amount of toe overlap, and between this and the high top tube I felt oddly trapped by the frame, as if everything was too tightly spaced. Of course this says more about the difference between my and Justine's geometry preferences than anything else, but I was a little nervous on this bike as I followed her up the winding bridge ramp to Roosevelt Island. I did not want to crash the bike or to knock it over while attempting to dismount. Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened and we had a nice ride with scenic water views. As we rode, I noticed that the frame flexed for me a bit more than I would have liked, which is odd because Justine describes it as stiff. The subjectivity of this sort of thing is amazing.
Stranger still, is that Justine describes her older Miss Mercian as more flexible than the current model, whereas I found it to be stiffer. How can this be? Are we simply associating different sensations with the terms stiff and flexible? It's a mystery.
The day did not warm up despite the sunshine, and even though I had donned every single pair of stockings I'd brought with me to New York (three pairs!) I was uncomfortably cold. Between this and having to be across town by early afternoon, our ride was not very long. Still, I feel that I got a fair sense of the difference between the two bicycles - although since both of these are custom bikes made for specific people, I am not sure how generalisable my impressions are to Miss Mercians at large.
Overall, I felt more comfortable on the older (1994) Miss Mercian - with its longer wheelbase, lower stand-over and greater toe clearance. I also preferred this bicycle's ride quality and handling, which to me felt a bit cushier and more stable. None of this necessarily has to do with the styles of the two frames; it is more about geometry really. Still, I lamented that Mercian no longer makes the classic twin stay mixte - it was oh so elegant.
Justine's 1994 Miss Mercian is named Vera, and the original owner ordered the frame in English Racing Green with gold lug outlines.
The Reynolds 531 frame was built for cantilever brakes, and eyelets for fenders and front and rear racks.
Justine set up the older Miss Mercian similarly to the newer one, but with a front rack in addition to the rear, a single instead of a double chainring, North Road handlebars instead of the Porteurs, and flat pedals. This bicycle is a little more upright and relaxed, and set up to carry more weight than its sportier room-mate.
this bike to her Mercian collection, then let me test ride it extensively. Fingers crossed!
For the entire picture set, please see here. And I thank Justine profusely for allowing me to try her beautiful bikes!