08 February 2016

Mercian Revives An English Tradition--For Now

When I first became a dedicated cyclist--around the tail end of the '70's Bike Boom--high-quality, performance-oriented bikes were marketed in two categories:  racing and touring.  Although there were elite touring bikes available, such as Schwinn's touring Paramount and machines from custom builders, racing bikes were seen as the more advanced and higher-quality machines.

By 1987 or thereabouts, major bike manufacturers had ceased making bikes designed for loaded, or even light, touring. 

For one thing, multiday bike touring was no longer as popular as it had been in the wake of the Bikecentennial.  Many people who bought touring bikes used them for once-in-a-lifetime treks, whether cross-continental tours like the Bikecentennial or an after-college ramble through Europe--or just a crossing of the nearest county or state line.  Then, "life intervened" or they simply lost their incentive to do another tour, and their bikes hung in rafters or barns, or collected dust in basements.  Thus, by the mid-'80's, there was little demand for new touring bikes.

For another, by that time, mountain bikes had come "of age", as it were.  The "racing/touring" dichotomy of the Bike Boom era was thus replaced by a "road/mountain" binary that lasted through most of the rest of the 20th Century.  The "hybrid" bicycle was supposed to be a cross between road and mountain bikes, but, as one wag noted, it had "the speed of a mountain bike and the comfort of a road bike".

During the race/tour and road/mountain eras of cycling, new cyclists came into the fold without knowing of other genres of bicycles that enjoyed popularity--and fulfilled clear purposes--throughout the history of cycling.  For example, most of us didn't know about the randonneuses made by constructeurs like Rene Herse and Alex Singer, let alone what distinguished them from fully-loaded touring bikes.  We also didn't know about cyclo-cross bikes or riding--and, when most of us did learn, the riding was introduced to us as if it were some kind of proto- or paleo- mountain biking.

And, until a few years ago, most of us hadn't heard of "path racers".  It's a British term for bikes that can be ridden on smooth dirt pathways as well as on roads. They are said to be inspired by fin de siècle French track bikes, which would account for the fact that they're usually ridden with turned-over North Road-style and other "riser" bars to give an aerodynamic position.

Even in England, a whole generation of cyclists came of age without knowing about these bikes, as their peers and France were forgetting about classic randonneuses.  Fortunately, Alex Singer (Ernst Csuka) lived long enough to see a revival in a demand for such bikes, and Rene Berthoud as well as builders in other countries are making such bikes.  Now it seems that the path racer is enjoying a revival in England.  Pashley, the country's last large-scale bike manufacturer, has been making the Guv'nor--a stylized version of such bikes--for several years.  Now one of Britain's best-known traditional bike builders is making a limited-path racer:

As of now, Mercian plans to produce only ten Path Racers. Given the new surge in popularity of such bikes, I wonder whether the folks in Derby might be persuaded to make more. 


  1. I came across this a few days ago and it made me curious enough to at least investigate. It made me wonder what was up if their order books are always so full. I guess that they just had to make the rear tyre impossibly close to the seat tube so clearly ever only a dry day bike. Looks quite smart in the black and cream though I could not ever own another black bike, the world needs more fun and needs more colour.

    I would love the neatness of an IGH but am thinking 8 / 11 / 14 gears not 3. Do like the pale tyres, could go for them.

  2. Funny that Mercian should come up with this just now. i've just this weekend completed the resurrection of my old Mercian. She's an unusual bike that i bought used back in '78 or so when i didn't really know better. Light gauge 531, track ends, Vincitore lugs, wrapover seatstays, and a long wheelbase. i raced her as a track iron a couple of years, and later fitted up with brakes and did centuries with her; i finally had her resprayed and decalled and now have revived what i'm sure is a true path racer. Serial dates to 1970. Wish i knew the original builder's intent, but what a fun ride! Blog post soon. Watch this space...

  3. I saw that on their blog the other day. I'd like to get a closer look at the lugs on that bike, as they almost look like some vintage lugs from the '60s (notice what looks like some pretty slack angles!). Did they dig up about 10 sets of some vintage lugs? Or did they have one of their builders hand-cut that many sets? Either way, it might explain why the series is limited to only 10 bikes.

    On the other hand, being that one can order almost anything (within reason) from Mercian, there's no reason that a person couldn't place an order for a bike that's at least similar in function, equip it appropriately, and end up with a fully custom path racer outside from the limited edition.

    I've long thought that the Pashley Guv'nor was a neat bike, but I'd be more inclined to get the Mercian. Can't get either, though. Neat bike!

  4. Coline--Interesting, isn't it, that their order books are always full. I had to wait nearly eight months for Arielle and six each for Tosca and Helene when I ordered them.

    I agree on black bikes, having owned a couple myself.

    Mike--Your Mercian sounds very interesting. Could it be a path racer manqué? I'd love to see it.

    Brooks--Good questions about the lugs. As you say, the answer to either would explain why they have to limit their production. And, as you say, one could probably order, say, one of their road or track models and ask them to tweak it a bit, then equip it appropriately.

    I feel the same way about the Pashley: It's nice, but given what it costs, I'd rather get a Mercian, though neither is in the cards for me right now.