In the early 1930s a young William Laker would cycle the 50-odd miles from his home in Kent to Crystal Palace in south London to visit the woman who would, half a century later, become my grandmother.
There is every chance Grandpa would have popped into the small bike shop at 3&5 Central Hill in Crystal Palace. That very shop remained open for about 97 years, serving generations of cyclists, but in July the current custodian of what is now called Blue Door Bicycles, David Hibbs, announced it is to close its door for good.
It’s not the only centenarian cycle shop closing this summer. The shop my first childhood bikes came from, and the one I still used, Ralph Colman Cycles in Taunton, closed abruptly in July after 94 years of selling and servicing cycles.
What we lose when we lose a bike shop depends very much on the shop. It could simply be a trusted place we take our bikes for servicing – but it can be so much more. It may be a core part of the community, a place for invaluable advice, a planner of events and even holidays, a sponsor of the local cycling club – and a meeting place that also serves cracking coffee.
When you ask people what a bike shop means to them, responses range from overt enthusiasm for well-loved local shops and their staff, to apathy about so-so retailers, to tales of bike shops that helped riders far from home. To many, a sign of a good shop is somewhere that has a “little box of weird spares”, or a place that can repair ailing parts, rather than replacing them. Somewhere you get to know and trust staff, and somewhere they turn around servicing in a day “because they know you ride your bike for transport”.
While some shops appear to be thriving, others clearly are struggling. Hibbs cited rising rents and the stranglehold of internet discounts in the shop’s closure – a familiar refrain.
As he put it: “We tried to do it properly, we have been open seven days a week, from 8am to 6.30pm during the week, so we could provide people with a service. We had some great, loyal customers but not enough to pay, sadly.”
No one keeps track of how many bike shops are closing, but bicycle import figures, a reliable sales barometer for a country that no longer builds cycle frames en masse, suggest the industry is having a tough time.
In 2018 the UK imported 2.2m bikes, which the Bicycle Association’s Steve Garidis describes as a “substantial contraction” from the 3.5m imported in 2014.
“The bike industry is basically the same as it was 20 years ago,” says Garidis. “Five years ago, it was 3.5m, so you’re really talking a massive drop.”
Garidis says with the number of cycling enthusiasts fairly static over time, an obvious possible growth area is cycle commuters. The problem there is most people are too scared to cycle on Britain’s roads – mainly citing a lack of safe infrastructure and fear of motor traffic.
What’s more, a recent Bicycle Association report says the UK is largely missing out on the e-bike boom seen in Europe due to a lack of product knowledge and the absence of government incentives for green transport that many European countries offer.
We may be able to buy cheap parts, trawl through reviews and find a product we think we will like online, but it’s only in a bike shop you can hold items in your hands, try them on, and ask (hopefully) friendly, knowledgeable staff about them.
Conversations can lead to useful nuggets, from local events and routes, to cycling news. One well-loved bike shop I spoke to even recommends tailored servicing schedules based on customers’ individual mileage and the type of riding they’re doing. You can’t get that online.
Hibbs suspects many shops may be struggling on in silence. “It’s embarrassing to say you’re losing money. Why would you want to admit to carrying on when you’re making a loss?”
Garidis wants to see VAT on servicing and maintenance reduced to 5% – the lowest rate permitted under EU rules – because that’s one area bike shops can be profitable. You can’t replace a broken spoke online.
There’s a risk if we don’t have a trusted place for repairs, more bikes will languish in sheds after a puncture or minor mechanical problem – meaning fewer people will cycle, and still fewer will know the comfort of a friendly local bike shop.
• What would you miss about your local bike shop? Post your comments below