How the in­ter­net put a spoke in the wheels of Bri­tain’s bi­cy­cle shops

Spe­cial­ist stores are clos­ing as shop­pers go on­line – and younger gen­er­a­tion says cy­cling is now ‘too scary’, re­ports Jamie Doward

The Observer - - News -

It was a small, hand­writ­ten no­tice taped to the win­dow of a shop but it spoke vol­umes. “For 2019 switch off your de­vice, learn to talk to peo­ple again. Use your lo­cal shops. If its [sic] cheaper on­line save up and buy lo­cal, re­mem­ber they are fam­ilys [sic] not face­less com­pa­nies. More con­ve­nient on­line? Don’t be lazy go and get it lo­cal. Do more to pro­tect our so­ci­ety this year.”

The mes­sage from Paul Dun­can, owner of Pauls Cus­tom Cy­cles in Peck­ham, south Lon­don, which closed just be­fore Christ­mas, was picked up by the pre­sen­ter James Cor­den, who posted it on his Twit­ter feed last week with the com­ment: “This is a re­cently closed down shop in Lon­don. I think they may have a point... thanks for shar­ing.”

Cor­den’s tweet, which went vi­ral, spark­ing a pre­dictable row about mil­lion­aire ex­pats lec­tur­ing oth­ers on how to spend their money, is an­other re­minder of the con­tin­u­ing plight of Bri­tain’s be­lea­guered bi­cy­cle shops.

Across the coun­try, cy­cle shops that have been a reg­u­lar fix­ture of their lo­cal high streets for decades are clos­ing down in their droves. The bike­biz web­site reg­u­larly tracks clo­sures, com­pil­ing an in­creas­ingly long list of names. In the last cou­ple of years many il­lus­tri­ous shops have dis­ap­peared, in­clud­ing the 105-year-old Ben Hay­ward Cy­cles in Cam­bridge and M Steel Cy­cles on Ty­ne­side, which had been trad­ing since 1894. In Novem­ber, the old­est bike shop in Bath, Johns Bikes, which had been trad­ing since the Seven­ties and once had a turnover of £1m a year, closed.

It is not just an in­de­pen­dent shop that is be­ing lost when a store closes, ac­cord­ing to Sam Jones, se­nior cam­paigns of­fi­cer at the char­ity Cy­cling UK: “When you buy a bike from one of these shops they’re mak­ing sure you get the right bike for you rather than the bike you want. You get to try the bike be­fore you buy, you get the ex­per­tise. They are a vi­tal part of cy­cling life in the UK.”

But many cus­tomers no longer value these qual­i­ties, it ap­pears. A Bi­cy­cle As­so­ci­a­tion re­port found that for ev­ery 10 bike shops that closed in 2017 only three have taken their place, the “worst re­fresh rate since the 1960s when bi­cy­cle sales col­lapsed and when hun­dreds of Bri­tain’s bike shops closed or moved into dif­fer­ent sec­tors”.

Even the es­tab­lished chains are not im­mune. In the au­tumn Sports Di­rect ty­coon Mike Ash­ley bought Evans Cy­cles for £8m af­ter it fell into ad­min­is­tra­tion and he re­cently out­lined plans to close up to half of its 62 stores.

Those at the other end of the spec­trum are also tak­ing a hit. The Brix­ton Cy­cles work­ers’ co-op in south Lon­don, which has ex­isted at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions for 35 years and com­mands a loyal fol­low­ing on Twit­ter, is strug­gling to stay afloat.

“Up to Christ­mas it was touch and go as to whether we could get the rent to­gether for the shop,” said Jim Sul­li­van, one of the co-op’s nine mem­bers. “We didn’t pay our­selves un­til the 15th and this sort of thing is be­com­ing a more reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence.”

The in­ter­net is largely to blame, ac­cord­ing to Sul­li­van. Bikes, cloth­ing and com­po­nents can be bought on­line sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than in shops, which have con­sid­er­ably higher over­heads than on­line brands. “The rent has be­come quite an is­sue for us,” Sul­li­van said. “When we moved premises it more than tripled overnight.”

Cut-throat mar­gins are re­flected in plung­ing rev­enues across the sec­tor. In 2010, to­tal bike sales in the UK amounted to £1.49bn but these had de­clined to £1.28bn by 2016, the most re­cent fig­ures avail­able and the low­est an­nual to­tal for seven years. The num­ber of peo­ple work­ing in the bi­cy­cle trade in the UK dropped from 15,000 to a low of just over 12,400 over the same pe­riod.

Like many other bike shops, Brix­ton Cy­cles is tweak­ing its busi­ness model in a bid to stay alive. Its mem­bers are dis­cussing pay cuts and be­com­ing more flex­i­ble about when they get paid. Many bike shops are now fo­cus­ing on ser­vic­ing bikes and build­ing them from parts bought on­line – Brix­ton Cy­cles charges £130 to con­struct a full bike – rather than re­ly­ing on sales. “We’ve just re­duced our shopfloor size to in­crease the work­shop – it’s nearly twice the size now,” Sul­li­van said.

The de­cline of high street bike shops, at a time when peo­ple are be­ing en­cour­aged to be health­ier and to re­duce their car use, re­flects a wider prob­lem: de­spite mil­lions of pounds be­ing spent in re­cent years pro­mot­ing cy­cling, the num­ber of peo­ple us­ing bikes has re­mained largely static.

In 2017, 14% of re­spon­dents to a na­tional sur­vey said they cy­cled at least once a week. One fifth also said they cy­cled, but less of­ten than that. Two out of three, though, re­ported that they cy­cled less than once a year, or never. Those fig­ures have hardly changed since 2003, ac­cord­ing to Cy­cling UK, largely be­cause the younger gen­er­a­tion think cy­cling “is too scary”.

Jones drew par­al­lels be­tween the de­cline of the bike shop and an­other in­sti­tu­tion that is fall­ing out of favour with mil­len­ni­als: “Bike shops are like pubs when it comes to main­tain­ing com­mu­nity spirit. In many ways they’re that im­por­tant.”

‘This is a re­cently closed down shop in Lon­don. I think they may have a point... thanks for shar­ing’

Tweet by James Cor­den

LEFT Rush-hour cy­clists on Lon­don’s bi­cy­cle su­per­high­way.

Pho­to­graphs by Andy Hall

ABOVE Pauls Cus­tom Cy­cles in Peck­ham, south Lon­don, which left the mes­sage on its win­dow af­ter be­ing forced to close.

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