In an age where the vast majority of our high streets have been transformed into spaces that have become brightly lit bill boards for corporate Britain, you would be hard pushed not to find the presence of a Greggs, a Boots or a Carphone Warehouse residing on any of them. So it is still surprising from time to time to discover an independent trader selling their wares in spite of the difficulty to compete with the big boys.
The butcher the Baker and the candlestick maker are now long gone. In addition to having to deal with rent increases that are easily swallowed up by companies with bigger and deeper pockets, independent retailers now also struggle to exist in a world where the buying habits of their existing and potential customers have gone online. With the certainty of locating discounts that make these online stores something to consider, how has this revolution helped or hindered what we so fondly refer to as our Local Bike Store or LBS?
It is certainly true that in any purchase of a bike part or accessory for our cherished piece of steel or carbon, a general consideration is made toward the cost of that item. Having understood the relative importance of that item and how it might make our machines slightly faster, many of us will then automatically head straight to Google to compare prices from an array of online sources in order to acquire the average cost. It’s very easy and maybe a familiar compulsion to chose the item online that’s £5-£10 cheaper and thus our money is sent out into the digital ether.
A report by “The Cycling Experts website” valued the UK market for bicycles, cycling goods and repairs at £1.5bn. Specialist retailers represented 55% of this figure. However it is worth noting that companies like Evans Cycles and websites such as Chain Reaction and Wiggle were also included as specialists in this category. Outside of the specialist category, Halfords had a 19% slice of the market with the rest being made up of “Primary low-end” shops such as supermarkets and catalogues. Given these statistics, it is quite clear that our beloved local bike shop is fighting for its survival against a tsunami of Internet competition and other manifestations of various retailers doing a bit of cycling stuff on the side.
Many studies have shown that buying locally from an independent source rather than a larger retail/online company, significantly increases the likelihood that more of the money that you spend will be used to make purchases from other local businesses. A recent article in the Guardian found that for every £1 that is spent with an independent retailer, 63p stayed within the local economy compared with 40p spent with a larger retailer. These may sound like small margins, but in an age where we seem to be more aware of the ethical aspects to how we spend our money, this is surely a good thing for wider community and the independent bicycle shops that we should cherish. When we contemplate the term “cycling infrastructure” we usually think of places to ride and cycle lanes (if you’re lucky enough), bike friendly roads and off-road trails are all primarily considered to be its foundation. However, local bike stores are part of that infrastructure too and it should not just be the preserve of concrete and asphalt that gives it its characterization.
The Oxford dictionary defines the word infrastructure as
“The basic physical and organisational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise”
Therefore by that very definition bike shops can be legitimately considered part of that infrastructure and quite rightly so. There is nothing as comforting as leaving your bike in the hands of an individual who has looked after it and nurtured it back to health when it’s been poorly. That consistency is rarely found from larger companies and it is the service and familiarity that makes our local bike shops indispensable.
Most cyclists that I know speak fondly of their local bike shop and are aware of the value it has in their community. There is no exception when people discuss SE20 Cycles in Penge and in particular the man at the helm, Winston Farquharson, or “Winnie” as he is more commonly known. SE20 Cycles opened in 2008, originally residing on Maple Road, just around the corner from its current location on the high street. It is regarded by many as the spiritual home of Penge CC which, incidentally, was started by Winnie and two other Penge CC stalwarts, John Burns and Yvonne Wright also in 2008. The shop is usually a hub of activity at any given moment with regular customers dropping in for an inner tube or a general chat about cycling, life, love and the universe.
Winnie took up cycling after his doctor recommended it to help aid recovery from an injury he picked up whilst playing rugby. After becoming a seasoned commuter to his work place in the square mile where he was training to become a solicitor, his enthusiasm for cycling took off after getting involved in mountain bike racing at the Eastway cycle circuit that is now home to the the Olympic park in Stratford on the banks of the river Lea. Soon, he was travelling around the country competing in races and entering team trials and was then snapped up by TMT racing team based in Switzerland which would see him race competitively around the world.
When he left the world of mountain bike racing he retrained as a sports therapist where he unfortunately had an accident that would see him become disabled in 2002. In spite of the difficulties that this presented and a doctor who said that he would never walk again, he made a recovery. You will still find him out on his bike and active in whatever capacity he can contribute his services to the community that he lives in.
I popped into SE20 cycles to ask him a few questions about the life of an independent bike storeowner and his enthusiasm for the sport he loves.
1. How did you get into cycling?
As a commuter, going back and forth between my home in Abbey Wood and work. It wasn’t until I met Rob Chappell who was the owner of On Your Bike, bike shop in Tooley St in London Bridge when I got into racing via the shop scene at On Your Bike and from there my passion for racing on two wheels was born.
2. What jobs did you do before getting into cycling?
I actually qualified as a linguist, but I never actually worked as a linguist as I couldn’t get a job post my studies in Spain, as on completion of my degree I realised the qualification wasn’t recognised in the UK. I then got a job as an outdoor clerk in the city and became a trainee solicitor through that position, but never really liked it. Later I retrained as a sports therapist and tried to use the occupation to get into cycling, but back then there wasn’t a need for sports therapy in cycling as there is now. This has changed as you see many masseurs and therapists at the finish line at so many sportives these days. I used my training as a sports therapist and went back into rugby, as I knew the game well from playing it when I was younger and did this for a few years. From there I got into working within mental health doing rehab with patients.
3. What’s your favourite race?
My favourite race would have to be the Giro more than the Tour de France as it’s tougher.
Leige Baston Leige is also a tough one-day race and this year it was awesome. But for shear mental and physical strength and endurance it would have to be the Giro. The Tour gets all the coverage and I love it as it brings people into cycling due to the coverage of it. But the Giro is the race that I hate missing, I could miss days of the tour and just catch up with it like nothing had happened, but I can’t bare to miss a days racing on the Giro.
4. What’s your favourite all time favourite bike?
I don’t have one, I love bicycles and I’m just passionate about all of them. I’m not one of those guys that can tell you that I had this bike or that bike from years ago. I just love bicycles!
5. Who is your favourite cyclist?
All time, that would have to be Eddie Merckx as he would ride through pain that spectators couldn’t see and he’d still be smiling and singing a song. Eddie Merckx was the forerunner for all cyclists. I’ve met him a few times on a ride through an Eddie Merckx bike dealer and the guy is such a lovely person to speak with so he’s my all time favourite cyclist. But for a current cyclist it would have to be the man, G, Geriant Thomas. He’s the man, he’s the all round team player. Grafts, sacrifices and doesn’t moan. When you see cyclists out there leaving teams because they are complaining they didn’t get a chance to ride in this or that race, that’s not G. He’s a world champion, he’s an Olympian and he still grafts for other people. He’s still a bit of a lad and he still likes a beer with his mates and will still ride his heart out for his teammates.
6. What’s your best advice for training in between rides?
It depends on the type of training that your doing. I would recommend stretching for half an hour a day. If you can only manage this once a week then fine, but ideally try and do it daily. Cycling is a sport that the body is not used to doing and it makes your muscles contract and get shorter, so you need to make them longer again to make them more efficient. If you cycle 30/40 miles on a weekend and you feel a slight pain in your sit bones sometimes that is mostly down to a lack of stretching and flexibility, as your pelvis can’t rotate properly. So if you are stretching in between rides you will find that this pain will subside.
7. Best tip prior to a big ride?
Stretch, nutrition and make sure your bike is safe. I tend to have a three stage check prior to a ride, I check the chain, I check the brakes and I check the headset. I then check my body to make sure I’m stretched and warmed up.
9. Best tip post a big ride?
After a big ride and if you’re new to cycling, get home, stretch off, eat well with lots of carbs and protein, protein to repair the muscles and carbs to replenish the body from what is exerted during the ride. If your distance is around 45 miles, again the same process, but consume a lot more protein and do a lot more stretching. If your doing over 80 miles and you have stretched and consumed your protein and carbs, make sure you get plenty of sleep as the body will repair itself better when you get some quality sleep.
10. The hardest part of running a bike shop?
Every part! Every aspect of it is tough. Sometimes the hardest part is not having stock available, which can effect cash flow and this can be hard at times to maintain. Long hours, staying late to get things done and getting home sometimes very late in the evening, sometimes in the early hours of the morning. Also the winter can be very tough, sometimes there is very little work during the winter and your trying to maintain cash flow, pay your bills and live! The Internet is ruining the high street. Potential consumers can see independent bike shops as being expensive when we are selling items at retail price which is 20% above cost price and on the Internet these companies are selling goods often below trade price or just above to corner the market. Independent bike shops like me struggle against that kind of competition. In that sort of climate its difficult, as customers will bring parts in that they have bought online and saved a fiver and pay me to do the repair. So as a business we will only get to cultivate income from labour charges and not the additional cost of the part. This is where it hurts independent bike shops. However there are many customers who understand this and will get the part from me and pay the labour costs and are aware that the fiver that would have been saved online is better spent within the local economy to help small businesses like SE20 Cycles remain on the high street as an important part of the community and club.
11.Best part of running a bike shop?
I’ve always told my kids to do what they love to do and not what they will have to do to earn money. Yes I have to earn money, but I’ve been blessed that I’ve done what I’ve always wanted to do as a means of earning that money. So running a bike shop is something that I really enjoy doing and if I was forced to do it then I wouldn’t enjoy it. The best part for me is being around bicycles 24/7 and being around people and customers who have the same ideology as me. Having a chat with a customer who comes into the shop, be they an experienced cyclist or a novice and enjoys cycling in the way I enjoy it is a great way to spend my time. Even if I’ve only hard 4 hours sleep after needing to work late to get jobs finished for customers, I still get a buzz opening up and return to the shop and think what have I got to do today.
12. Proudest moment since you opened SE20 Cycles?
The proudest moment was the day I actually opened SE20 Cycles. The banks had closed on me the day before I opened the business. I went through a charity called Leonard Cheshire who were working with Barclays Bank at the time to help people with disabilities get into business. I’d been liaising with them for a year beforehand and they’d helped me. The next step for me was to find a shop, did that, pay the rent, did that, order the stock, did that and then the day before opening they said that they couldn’t help me any further. The year before, I had met all of their requirements for a loan and then the day before I opened the shop I didn’t meet their requirements for the loan? This all happened when we had the credit crunch come along in 2008 and no one saw it coming. I was due to open in the September and the credit crunch started at end of August that year and the banks turned around and said that they couldn’t help me. So I had £20,000 of stocking coming in that was cancelled, £8000 of tools coming in which were also cancelled. I had no stock, I had no tools but with the support of a loving family and friends I still opened. So it makes me so proud to see what it is now.
I could probably top that with having lunch with the queen (as you do). I was put forward for an award by some local councillors in recognition for some charity work I had carried out through the shop to help young people in the community.
When I met the queen and was sat there talking to her she asked me who I was and what I had done and then she exclaimed, “oh you’re Winnie!” which surprised me!
I then found out that she had personally requested me to sit on her table and to tell you the truth I told her that I still didn’t understand why I was asked to attend the ceremony. She then explained to me why I was there which was for the recognition of the work I had done for young people in the Penge area. I felt very honoured and proud that the work I had put into a community that I love had been honoured in this way.
13. Best advice for anyone who wants to get into cycling?
Best advice would be to speak with people in your local cycle club as there will always be a friendly club near you and just get involved. At Penge Cycle Club for example we have a cycle group for everybody. It’s got a great committee system that runs the club very well, so it’s very well organised. We also have a kids section in the club which started when the shop opened in 2008. So there are many similar clubs around with a similar set up, so just find out where you’re nearest club or cycle shop is and I’m sure they will help.
14. If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t have gone to university to study a degree in Spanish (laughs) and would have become a cyclist straight away. As a kid, Herne Hill was my nearest venue but cycling was for rich kids and I wasn’t a rich kid. I didn’t own my first bike until I was 12 and my mother finished paying for it after 3 years and by the time I got it, it was too small for me and I couldn’t return it. But I rode it proudly so my mum wouldn’t feel bad. The next bike I owned wasn’t until I was 19, so it took me a while before I could afford to get into cycling. All the people locally had bikes, that I would take apart and fix for them but I never owned a bike for such a long time, hence the delay in my career!
15. What are your future ambitions for SE20 Cycles?
To keep growing and evolving in a moderate way. My old business plan was to have a café, that’s now not going to happen because cafes have become a bit too popular and they’re a bit of a done thing. I’m now looking at the event market in the garden of the shop. We’ve got good size space in the garden that I want to eventually tidy up and instead of putting my energy into just selling bicycles and repairs in the workshop, I want to utilise the garden better as a resource for the shop for events like club BBQ’s and that sort of thing. I’ve looked into getting a license for alcohol and I can get one of those but I obviously need to look into this to make it financially viable, so that’s the near future. Long-term future is to keep employing local staff and keep evolving with the needs of the community.
Before we all head off to save that fiver on our next online shopping outing, perhaps we’ll think again about the real value of our LBS, or any other local independent trader and the benefits they bring to our immediate community.
Text and photography by David Ward, Penge Cycle Club.