Three touring bikes go head to head
The most intriguing for me was Thorn's flagship big-wheeled tourer, the Mercury, a Rohloff-equipped machine with drop bars. Quite an uncommon sight in the touring world, the brand new alloy shifter from Gilles Berthoud is the first of its kind to fit a drop handlebar which works with a Rohloff hub. To make it even more special, Thorn has designed the handlebar itself, making sure this bespoke item fits perfectly.
Frames come in eight different sizes, with four sizes specifically for use with a drop bar, and another four to use with a straight bar set-up giving plenty of options for even the most choosy of riders.
There are seven different front forks to choose from, each one turning the Mercury into a different style of bike. On our model, we went for the Reynolds Super Tourist steel touring fork, which gave me the option to include a very solid-looking front rack and a strong V-brake. At the back, there's an Avid disc brake to help control your speed on the big mountain descents.
Putting together your bike could be very confusing. But thanks to Thorn's spec sheet, all you have to do is give the team your measurements, tell them what parts you'd like, explain what type of riding you want to do, and the process becomes a lot simpler.
Built to last
The Mercury needs to be seen to be appreciated. The paint job is simply wonderful. All five designs are real paint jobs, with not a sticker in sight and the finish is absolutely first-class. We went for a traditional British racing green, mixed with cream.
Very classy. Looking closer, you'll see some very nice touches. That neat alloy shifter we mentioned earlier really catches the eye. In use, it feels industrial, but I'd take that solidness over a flimsy plastic shifter any day. On the rear seatstay bridge, there's a special brake adapter, allowing you to fit a deep-drop caliper brake. With two different brake options on the rear (ours had the disc, of course), you know you're dealing with a versatile machine.
You don't often spend time admiring the underneath of a bicycle, but you will with the Mercury. Thorn has designed a special bottom bracket that it calls a mini-eccentric BB shell. I trust Thorn when it states that this saves considerable weight. The flipside is a shorter service life for your chain, as it will need to be replaced more regularly. Before this gets too complicated (with details of sprockets, rings and chain links), it will suffice to say that, as long as you replace your chain before any epic tours, your ride should be trouble-free.
By now, I'm desperate to take the Thorn out for a spin. As you probably expected, the ride matches up to the hype. It's very smooth. The wheels do their part to soften the lumps and bumps of the road. They're neither the lightest nor the fastest rolling, but they are built with strength and longevity in mind.
Taking into consideration, for the purposes for which they are intended, they are excellent. The Schwalbe Kojak tyres are chunky but slick touring tyres designed for tarmac roads. The Schwalbe Marathon, on the other two bikes, is a better compromise of off-road grip and rolling resistance, but if you're sticking to tarmac, the Kojak's ideal.
If you haven't used one, the Rohloff hub can be a bit of an unknown quantity. When compared to a cheap groupset, I can understand why you would wonder about the high price. But it's bombproof. Stories of these hubs lasting 100,000 miles without a service might be a little bit exaggerated, but it helps you understand why they are so well-loved the world over.
There are 14 gears to choose from, with a range of ratios similar to that of a mountain bike triple. What's great is the ability to completely change the gear while stationary - a perk if you stop mid-ride and forget to change down to an easier gear.
It can take up to 1,000 miles just to wear in, so I'll be forgiving to the brand new one on the Thorn, which was a little bit noisy in a few gears. Once up and running, the shifting is fairly quick, though not as instant as the Koga's Deore XT set-up. But then you could argue that what's lost in terms of performance is easily countered by the long term benefits of such minimal maintenance.
The Thorn Mercury is the most expensive bike in this test by some margin, but what you're paying for is everything that I've mentioned above. A bike built from real experience to the highest standards possible. It's a real gem to ride, and always a pleasurable experience. It's not cheap, but this bike is worth every penny. What we're talking about here is a bike that can handle anything you throw at it, and corners shouldn't be cut when it comes to this type of touring.
Don't just take my word for it, though. Thorn is so confident that you'll love any of its Rohloff-equipped bikes that if you ride one for 100 days and aren't, "totally satisfied", then the firm will give you your money back. That's true confidence in an outstanding bike.
Reynolds 853 steel
Rohloff Speedhub 14, Gilles Berthoud alloy shifters, Avid/Shimano brakes
Mavic A719 rims/Rohloff & Shimano hubs