Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Riding a 1940s Mercian

Chris Sharp's Mercian Collection
One of my most vivid memories from Northern Ireland is standing outside Chris Sharp's house, staring at a dozen Mercian bicycles lined up on the front lawn. The rainbow of their frames stood out in vivid contrast to the wall of dark pine trees behind and the gray skies overhead.

Chris Sharp's Mercian Collection
Rain was coming down - slowly at first, then in earnest. Fog set in. As water dripped from the frames and a milky mist began to surround us, it looked as if someone had spilled tubes of paint onto the lawn. What a sight.

Chris Sharp, Mercians
Since the time he was old enough to save up for his first roadbike, Chris Sharp has been accumulating Mercians. There is just something about them he enjoys and feels is special. A familiar story!

Mercian Time Trial Bikes
Several decades later, his Mercian collection includes road, touring and track bikes, a mixte, and several time trial machines, as well as catalogues and paraphernalia from the early days of the Mercian Cycles shop.

Chris Sharp's Mercian Collection
The magnificent spread I saw on the lawn was not his entire collection; there is more in storage and elsewhere. But it was nonetheless stunning and provided beautiful examples of the legendary machines throughout the years.

Chris Sharp's Mercian Collection
Chris Sharp's bikes do not get babied. They see rain, they are taken to events, they get ridden by him and others. Which did I want to ride? How about the earliest example, a machine from the 1940s? Never mind the downpour and the fog.

Early Mercian Single Speed
Considering that Mercian Cycles set up shop in 1946, seeing this early machine was rather exciting. Chris's brother Keith was curious to try it, though I was reluctant - imagine crashing something like this!

Early Mercian Single Speed
Though the exact year of the bicycle's production is unknown, most likely it is 1947. The paint and components are not original; the bike underwent several cosmetic changes in the course of its existence. The frame itself however has remained unaltered. Chris bought the bicycle in Derby, England - from Mercian Cycles directly when the shop was under its previous ownership. The current restoration was done by Mercian, and the build was done by Chris using vintage English components.

Early Mercian Single Speed
It is a shame that the original paint and decals could not be preserved. The original head badge would have looked like this.

Early Mercian Single Speed
But the original lugwork can still be admired.

Early Mercian Single Speed
I love the older fork crowns as well.

Early Mercian Single Speed
Though cosmetically battered over the years, the frame itself had remained in good condition and the restored bike is entirely ridable. 

Early Mercian Single Speed
Chris had it set up as a fixed gear for himself, but had put a freewheel on it to make it easier for others to test ride. The size is just about perfect for the Sharp brothers. 

Early Mercian Single Speed
Keith Sharp is a bicycle racer and rides mostly modern machines, though appreciates his brother's vintage collection. He had never ridden this particular Mercian before, but loved it when he tried it. "The ride quality! It is very comfortable, you really must ride it!" I confess that it took a bit of convincing to get me on this bike. It was too large for me and I was unsure that I'd be able to use the brake levers effectively. Also, it was raining! But finally, my curiosity to learn what one of the earliest Mercians ever made felt like on the road won over and I tried it.

Very glad I did - what a bicycle. Yes, there is something about the ride quality. A steady, comfortable and almost effortless ride, gliding over rough road surfaces and yearning for uphill stretches. The bike was surprisingly easy to maneuver despite being too large for me. Once I started riding it, I wanted to keep going. It also felt oddly similar to my own Mercian back home. It makes no sense to believe that there is a distinct ride quality associated with Mercians that spans decades of production, despite the generational change of builders and the use of different tubing and geometry. And yet the Mercian owners and collectors I've spoken to quietly believe this, while conceding that its unlikelihood. I do not plan to collect Mercian bicycles, but I enjoy learning about their history and interacting with their enthusiastic owners. It was a treat to ride a Mercian of 1940s vintage - one of the earliest made. More pictures here.

40 comments:

  1. Lovely photo of the two brothers!

    The bike does not look all that big on you, were you able to stand over the top tube?

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    1. I think it is a 56cm frame? I could stand over it just barely, sort of. Normally I ride a 52cm.

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  2. Interesting. Are the cable guides along the top tube original, or were they added during restoration?

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    1. although this frame has what we would now call track ends it never was a track bike. in the UK in the post war period time trialing was the predominate form of cycle racing, and time trialists rode fixed gear. the club racers generally rode the same bike for daily transport as they raced on. so the bikes had mudguard mounts and brakes and flip-flop hubs. so the cable guides would be right at home on this frame.

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    2. I was photographing so many bicycles that day and the weather was so poor, that I lost my head and did not get a good shot of the dropouts. However I don't believe this bike has track ends; I think they are horizontal dropouts and Chris simply chose to set it up as a single speed. I will try to find a close-up.

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  3. Mmmmm...slim stays. Only vintage.

    Looks those are modern and light tires. You should really try your own Mercian on something better than city utility tires.

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    1. Speaking of! You've had yours for about a year. Will we get a proper review?

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    2. Yes. I want to put a freewheel on the bike and experience it as a non-fixed gear first. And with faster tires.

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  4. Love the posts on Mercian. I have one - 1972 I think. I bought it used in about 1976 and have owned it ever since. It is a Vincitore with chromed head lugs. Can send pics if you're interested

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  5. do you know what the original paint was?

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  6. What a jaw-dropping collection that Mr. Sharp has! He must have the world's best historic Mercian collection, it's like a museum!

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  7. This is a lovely bicycle indeed, what a treat! That said, I am surprised that the parties responsible for the restoration chose to use incorrect decals. With images of the originals available, they could have been custom made.

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    1. I noticed that too; the Reynolds decals are newer vintage. Sometimes factories will use whatever they have on hand unless the customer specifically states otherwise. When my 1972 Mercian went back for restoration, the owner (previous to me) provided Mercian with period-correct Reynolds transfers since Mercian didn't have any at the time.

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    2. Maybe the owner will comment on this if he has a chance. But I suspect he wanted the restoration to be factory-correct, which is why Mercian used their stock decals. I love the older Crowther & Barker headbadge though.

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    3. Not sure what you mean by "factory-correct"?

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    4. I meant that the work be done by Mercian and decals provided by Mercian. It's possible that despite the later vintage of the decals this is perceived as giving the bike more value than simply manufacturing a decal that imitates the original headbadge yourself? I am just speculating though.

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    5. There's a 1947 (or maybe 1949) Mercian for sale at Hilary Stone's site if you want to show us the right way to do it.

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    6. Not that I am in the market, but can you post a link to this? I do not see such a thing on his website.

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    7. The '47 Mercian is listed under classic pre-1970 frames, page 1. It's too big for you.
      There is a relatively pedestrian 1969 that would fit you.

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    8. Silly me, I was looking under bikes, not frames. See them both now. I am honestly not in the market, but oh my. Good deals, too.

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    9. There's also a '60 Vincitore track there. A little high priced to my mind but wonderful eye candy.

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  8. Christopher FotosJuly 11, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    Is that long yellow thing a pump? Let no color feel neglected! But really, that is one long pump or else an emergency pole vault.

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  9. I want a Mercian badly. Such beautiful bikes, and I hardly see them in NYC.

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    1. That's because they're all in an apartment in Queens :).

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  10. Yes, a close look at the photo showing the left, the non-drive side of the crankset, clearly shows a pump peg brazed to the top of the bottom bracket's socket for the left chainstay.
    As the rider of a late 80's Mercian Professional I have no problem believing these bikes display a unigue ride, handling and performance. I also own two Colnagos but the Mercian is the most "efficient" frame I have ever ridden. It simply puts pedalling effort into forward motion very effectively. A pleasure to just push that little harder on a hill rather than gearing down. Or to ride it as a single speed/fixed wheel the way it is currently set up. You can see photos on Cyclofiend single speeds, #280 and see the unigue 'manual change' multiple gearing. http://www.cyclofiend.com/ssg/

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    1. That would explain why a particular bike feels great. But Mercian makes a variety of custom frames using different tubing, different geometry, different lugsets. Assuming they don't sprinkle the frames with proprietary fairy dust, I just don't see how there can be anything Mercian-specific about the handling and feel...

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    2. Of course they use fairy dust! Don't you know that everyone is going faster on a Mercian? ;)

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  11. I never noticed the Olympic rings in the Mercian logo. I know the story of the rings in the Falcon logo, but I sense a future post on those rings from yourself or Justine at some future date. I suppose I will just have to keep tuning in.

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  12. I love that grease nipple on the bottom bracket shell!

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  13. Yep, those Mercians are special. I had one built for my daughter a few years ago and she still has it although it has hung on a wall for the last five or six years. Never sell it.

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  14. I spy a blue Mercian mixte somewhere back there. Mmm, I'd love to see that one up close too. Mercians are such beauties.

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    1. Yup. The mixte belongs to Chris's wife Susan and here are some better shots. The construction is similar to Justine's mixte, but the geometry of Susan's is more road than touring. Great bike.

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  15. I love your description of standing on the lawn and looking at the bikes. The photos contribute to the dreamlike quality of the story. Who are these people? Is this place real? You have the pictures to prove it, but it still has the quality of a dream. I hope you get the chance to visit Ireland again, these are my favorite posts by far.

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  16. The amount of verbage that you are able to produce on a regular basis that actually makes sense (plus great pictures) astounds me. Well done!

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  17. Old bikes are lovely but I always feel a bit sad that they weren't ridden hard and cast aside and forgotten by young men (or women) who moved on to something better.

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  18. Old tech, old construction techniques = rides the same. You're not seeing the forest because you're looking at the leaves.

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  19. I have only four Mercians. I'm such a slacker next to that guy! I guess I need a bigger apartment.

    I'd take a trip to Ireland just to see--and ride--that collection. I'd especially like to try the one from the '40's.

    Ground Round Jim has a point: Mercian has building its bikes in more or less the same way for 60+ years. They seem to know that some of us like their ride quality and aesthetics, and that there will probably always be people who will.

    As WH Auden wrote in "Musee des Beaux Arts," the old masters understood.

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    1. "I'm such a slacker next to that guy! I guess I need a bigger apartment."

      Whatever you do, don't visit Hilary Stone's website...

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