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.
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'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.
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!
It is a shame that the original paint and decals could not be preserved. The original head badge would have looked like this.
But the original lugwork can still be admired.
I love the older fork crowns as well.
Though cosmetically battered over the years, the frame itself had remained in good condition and the restored bike is entirely ridable.
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.
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.