that Mercian machine!

Before you read further, let me say, it’s an honour to write for OldVelos. What follows focuses mainly on one thing…a Mercian. Lovers of bikes and Mercian lovers in particular, will no doubt tell me how many times ‘Mercian’ was referenced, if at all, in Quondam: travels in a once World. Honestly, I wasn’t counting! The book was written neither for-nor-about that ‘Mercian machine’. Yet, be in no doubt, when you do get to read it, you’ll understand how central it was to the success of that long-ish journey. 

Now, where to begin or how? 

Fools Day, 1985, Upper Aghada, is as good a place as any! I still recall the drizzle but the Mercian didn’t care a whit, she took me round that first bend and that was it…the beginning of a seminal adventure into a quondam world. Before anyone gets carried away, let me come clean. Back then I was no cyclist or even a regular bike user, just a guy who understood that to extract the maximum from a long-haul trip, it had best be done on two wheels. Sure, Dervla Murphy’s 1963 adventure left its mark but, though I met her and we spoke of ‘bikes’ she was of the ‘Sturmey Archer’ generation and thus I made my own call – a Mercian it would be.

To sit on a Brooks B-17, atop of a Mercian frame, for two years through thirty-three countries, is long enough to feel at-one with what’s under you. One’s butt moulds the leather until they fit like lock-and-key. One’s body adjusts, unconsciously, to the bike’s ‘personality’, its ‘way’, how it ‘holds’, how it moves, what the needs are, as the weeks and months roll-by. It was a veteran, now in cycling heaven, who told me first to opt for a Mercian. Brain Murphy knew a thing or two about bikes and I, not knowing anything…duly listened. And George Harding, of Hardings, that quondam quintessential bike shop in 1980’s South Terrace, Cork city, George had the job of assembling her pieces and make her feel like a true ‘war-horse’. Oh, if she’d known where she was being taken, she might have opted to remain on Leeside but then, innocence is beautiful – for her owner didn’t know either and thus we departed a duo, a man-Mercian duo, knowing very little between us except we would do it together…whatever that meant. Looking back we were truly a Don Quixote and Sancho Pança or perhaps better put, a half-dotty Don and his trusty steed, Rozinante!

In Ireland we understand what it means to have ‘a grá’ for someone or something. Sometimes the ‘grá’ grows slowly and that is how it was, a slow love. For nine months or more it was a pragmatic affair, just a mechanical functionality. I had a job to do so she would get oiled and tweaked and ‘fed’…that was it really and then…twelve months later, crossing the Nubian desert…

‘It felt colder than an Irish winter when we departed the chai-station. I rummaged for a pair of trousers, pulled them on, then climbed in between my two companions. Ali, before he turned the key, rearranged my Palestinian head shaal ‘… in the arab fashion,’ he said, ‘to keep the sand and cold out’, but my concern was for the bike. It lay on the metal floor of the empty truck, tied to both sides with rope and cushioned by every item I could find, including panniers, a tarpaulin and a two old tyre tubes. This care for a bike bemused Ali, and for a good hour I tried to explain how ‘it and I’ had become a team and as a team we had to care for each other, so to speak. We had a long way to go. 

I had never been sentimental enough to give the bike a name. It was an inanimate object, after all, and I often felt bemused at those who christened their bikes names like Rick or Roger or whatever, yet the more I sat on that Brooks B17 saddle, the more I oiled, greased, tended and repaired, the more I tightened nuts, straightened spokes, coaxed or even kicked it in frustration… yes, the more I lived, trudged, battled and soared with this machine, the more a bond was formed and respect grew. The bike became me; that’s how it felt, like I was caring for myself. If I was to give it any name it would be my own.

and months later in South Sudan, amid a civil war…

‘How differently I saw the bike to them, not as a piece of expertly welded tubing with pedals, carriers, brackets, bars, not as a clothes-horse for my ward- robe, bedroom, kitchen, toilet. I saw it as a hill farmer would his loyal collie or an Egyptian fellah his old donkey, this well built Mercian machine, this unsung hero. What it had been through, and we were only half way there! I was one hundred percent attached to it now, like Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, enough at least to have some private chats, which were many—‘When will we ride again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?…It’s been too long my friend. Bloody hell, if you could talk.’ I longed and dreamed of cranking up the pedals to the limit on a long straight road with a cool wind on my back—‘Surely one is coming, somewhere out there in Africa, surely.’ 

No more need I say about a grá for a Mercian but how our ‘relationship’ ended is another story entirely. 

Originally written for OldVelos magazine Feb. 2020