(Photos © Jim Merz)
In 1972 Jim Merz and Virginia Church set off from Portland on an epic bike ride. That alone isn’t groundbreaking or especially newsworthy, but Merz and Church (his wife at the time) aren’t just any bike riders. They both spent their lives in the bicycle industry and their collective work has had a local, national, and global impact.
Beyond that, the main reason I want to share their trip is because of the wonderful photographs Merz captured along the way. But before doing that, a bit of background is in order.
Merz was one of the first custom framebuilders in Portland. After honing his craft here in the early 1970s, he went to work for a guy named Mike Sinyard in 1982. Sinyard had just come out with a bike called the “Stumpjumper” one year earlier. It was the first mass-produced mountain bike and it would change cycling forever. Today Sinyard’s company, Specialized, is one of the most well-known bike brands in the world. Church is also a bike industry veteran, having worked at Cycle Craft bike shop in downtown Portland in the 1970s and then opening The Bicycle Repair Collective with her brother Gary Church. She was co-owner of that shop for 35 years until it closed back in October of 2013.
A few months ago I came across Merz’s great photos of that 1972 bike tour and asked him a few questions about the trip…
BikePortland: How old were you when you left?
Merz: I was 25 and Virginia was like 27.
BP: Why’d you pick Panama?
Merz: Well, the trip was sort of around the world. It was also an experiment in serendipity. We started off heading south, if something changed this path that was OK. I had alway been fascinated with the building of the Panama Canal. Panama is the end of the Panamerican Highway. We tried to go to South America, Columbia would not give us a visa without a return air ticket. That and other things contributed to our decision to go to Portugal instead.
BP: What type of camera/film were you using?
Merz: I used a Topcon Super D. Not as well known as Nikon, but similar. The lenses were 35mm, 58mm and 105mm, all Topcor. Film was Agfachrome. This was a mistake, it faded over time. I should have used Kodachrome.
BP: What can you tell us about your bike?
Merz: At that time, early 1970’s, good bikes were had to get in Portland. I got the top model Raleigh Pro racing bike from Phil’s Bike shop. Not something most people would consider a great touring bike, but it had fender eyes and clearance for fenders. Virginia rode a Raleigh International, a bike with frame design more like a traditional touring bike. Both bikes had tubular tires. I built the racks for both bikes. These racks were very nice, never had one give any trouble. Main bags were made by Gerry. I put mine in the front, the other bike did not have room for this so it went on the rear.
BP: What was your route?
Merz: Started in Portland. Rode through Burns and south east Oregon to Winnemucca. South to Highway 50 east to Utah and Bryce Canyon. South to the north rim of Grand Canyon. Walk across Grand Canyon! South to Tuscon and Nogales. The rest of the way follow the Pan American Highway. In Portugal at Lisbon south to Seville. Gibraltar to Ceuta in Morocco. We tried to spend the winter in a small town called Asila. That’s it for the ride.
BP: How many miles was the route and how long did it take you?
Merz: This was before any cyclo computers, and I did not keep a log, so the total miles is hard to say. But probably around 6,000 to Panama. This leg took about 5 months. One more month riding in Europe and north Africa.
BP: How were you received by people? I imagine there weren’t many bike adventurers back then.
Merz: People in the USA were fine, although we were in the boonies mostly. Mexico was wonderful. Neither one of us know one word of Spanish! Baptism of fire, we learned how to get along. Guatemala was having trouble, it was in State Of Siege. People were fine, but the authorities were pretty bad. This was true of all the countries in Central America. The other thing is every country is different. We did meet other world traveler types along the way. Very few on bikes, but some.
BP: What do you think about the recent surge of interest in “bikepacking” and adventure riding?
Merz: It’s good! My son Jesse is talking of riding to Brazil. I am not thrilled with that!
BP: What are you up to these days?
Merz: I spent my life in the bicycle industry. I built custom frames in Portland, I was the first in fact. in 1982 I went to work for Mike Sinyard. Specialized had just come out with the Stumpjumper bike. I was the main technical guy for about 10 years. The bike touring and frame building I did was very helpful in allowing me to bring high quality bike to many more people. I can say we had a big part in changing the bicycle world.
You can view more images and learn more about Jim at his Merz Bicycles page on Facebook.