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  • Journal
    Bicycles
    18.12.14

    Emporia: Bespoke Cycling, Jermyn Street

    Uptown at cycling's Piccadilly 'speakeasy'

    Words
    Timothy John
    Photographs
    Timothy John

Cycling’s recent journey from the margins to the mainstream has been well documented, but even Rouleur finds itself surprised to be gliding among the well-heeled denizens of SW1 in search of a bike shop on one of the city’s most fashionable thoroughfares.

Jermyn Street is home to fine art galleries and tailors. It is a sophisticated locale where gentlemen’s clubs maintain a discrete presence, and the address of some of England’s most cherished boutiques; more gilded pavement than muddy pavé. More recently, it has found itself at the heart of London’s private equity community as a district increasingly popular with financiers who have chosen Mayfair in preference to the City. And where the biking banker resides, the modern cycle retailer, provided he is able to offer a level of service equal to his client’s expectations, will follow.

Bespoke Cycling, shop interior, display bikesBespoke Cycling's latest premises is on Jermyn Street in London's West End. A desireable selection from Passoni, Moots, Parlee and Colnago fills the showroom

“It’s like a cycling speakeasy,” Ben Hallam, a director of Bespoke Cycling, says of the company’s latest premises, with a gleam in his eye that reminds us that this is cycling, after all, despite the postcode: a pursuit to be enjoyed, rather than endured, though he has shouldered his fair share of suffering on the bike.

Fit for purpose

Hallam is the nephew of three-time Commonwealth Games pursuit champion, Ian Hallam, and, in his former life, a prodigious cycling talent: a BBAR champion as a junior, and a member of the Team GB squad from 16 to 22, representing Great Britain at two junior world championships and two European under-23 championships. His graduation to the senior ranks coincided with the emergence of two supremely gifted generations: that of Wiggins and Cummings, and, slightly later, of Cavendish, Stannard and Swift. “I was either born two years too early, or two years too late,” he smiles. “It was good fun while it lasted.”

Having taken the “long, hard look in the mirror” in his mid-twenties that he had promised himself, Hallam spent three years off the bike, studying for a degree in sports rehabilitation and injury prevention. His studies, combined with long experience in the saddle, have come to underpin much of his work as Bespoke’s lead on bike fitting, a practice he describes as combining art and science. The Retül motion capture system, for example, one Hallam says was introduced to Britain by Bespoke founder, Barry Scott, is of greatest use to him as a tool for measuring angles; a means, rather than an end.

Fitting service, Retul, fitting area, turbo trainer, computer, cameraBespoke offers a Retül bike fitting service, but for director, Ben Hallam, the shop's lead on bike fitting, it is principally a tool for measuring angles: a means, rather than an end

Hallam is keen to stress also that the bicycle represents only half of the fitting equation. His favourite phrase to describe this cycling art/science is that the machine is adjusted, while the body adapts. It is critical, therefore, that the body is encouraged to adapt to safe and efficient positions, and to this end, Hallam also gives his clients exercises that will help them to attain, and maintain, good form. He sees the bike fit as an on-going process: when the body has adapted sufficiently to attain a more efficient riding position, the bike can be readjusted.

Bespoke by name…

Bespoke Cycling is a business that has grown rapidly from Scott’s first premises in Hoxton Square to the now well-established shop on Farringdon Road. The Jermyn Street boutique, a premises owned, like much of St James’s, by the Crown Estate, and a nightclub before Bespoke moved in, opened in October, and a third shop, to be located in the new Crossrail development at Canary Wharf, will open next May.

If Hallam’s description of the Jermyn Street store as cycling speakeasy is slightly tongue-in-cheek, it is also hard to improve upon. It is a basement premises, located beneath a fine art gallery, and accessed through a small gate in smart, black railings that shield a short stairway from the street. At the foot of the stairs is a wooden door finished with black gloss paint and a buzzer.

Bespoke Passoni bicycle frame, blackPassoni features among an exclusive list of brands stocked by Bespoke Cycling for custom builds

When Rouleur arrives, the door is opened by shop manager, Bobby Whittaker: a self-confessed bike geek whose formative years in Italy have blessed him with the innate good taste of the Italian cycling connoisseur. Not that his tastes are limited to the produce of belle Italia, however enticing they might be. On the day of our visit, the task of building an IF Club Racer, special even by the standards of the breed, is underway. It’s soon-to-be-owner is an established client, based in Jersey, who has tasked Bespoke with building a maintenance-free machine. It will be belt driven, and finished with an internal Di2 hub gear and hydraulic disc brakes.

The slightly exotic, but eminently practical spec is the result of extensive research by the trio at Jermyn Street. What at first glance appears to be a bog-standard, square taper bottom bracket is a unit from Phil Wood that will allow adjustment of the belt drive’s ‘chainline’ to within 1mm. The belt, chainrings, and sprocket have been sourced from German engineers, Gates. Their sprockets, Bespoke mechanic Bart Bakumenko explains, come in various incarnations, for use either in single-speed set-ups, or with Alfine/Rohloff-style internal gear hubs.

Bicycle headtube, Chris King headset, racing green tubingThis Independent Fabrication Club Racer will be finished with a belt-driven transmission from German engineers, Gates, to meet the client's request for a maintenance-free bike

Even in its current state of undress, the Indy Fab is extremely fetching, with much of its attractiveness owed to a subtle, but alluring paint scheme: a deep green finished with creamy white panels capped with discrete gold bands. IF’s box logo on the top-tube has been customised to include the customer’s name. Hallam and Bakumenko attribute the success of the finish to Whittaker’s keen attention to the small details that ‘make’ a bike. He is more modest, however, admitting to nothing more than instructing IF to paint the frame in a shade known to Volkswagen as ‘dragon green’, in accordance with the client’s wishes.

This is far from the only custom build occupying minds at 59 Jermyn Street. Bakumenko is engaged in the not unpleasant task of fitting a Campagnolo Super Record groupset to a Parlee Z5 SLi chassis: the last in its size made before production stopped entirely to make way for the Altum. The harlequin motif that adorns seat-tube and top-tube is of special significance to the customer, a theatre performer and musician, who has emailed sketches of his preferred design to Bespoke, inspired by Picasso’s harlequin painting.

Workshop, bike on stand, mechanic, black shirt, Bart Bakumenko, Bespoke CyclingBart Bakumenko, mechanic at Bespoke Cycling's Jermyn Street shop, builds a custom Parlee Z5 SLi. Note the harlequin motif on the seat-tube

Hallam speaks enthusiastically of a new assignment: building “the ultimate commuter bike” for a client who has specified a road frame, hydraulic discs, electronic transmission – and a flat handlebar. It is evidently a welcome challenge. “These are the kind of lovely, fun projects we get to work on,” Hallam says. “We get to build people’s dreams. People come here, and we take on board what they’re doing, what their goals are, and say, ‘Have you thought about this or this?’ It’s not just selling bikes.” (This analysis is reinforced by a separate conversation with Bakumenko, who compares his role as mechanic to a chef in a good restaurant, engaged behind the scenes with the careful selection of ingredients. “I never wanted to be a racer,” he confides. “I saw the Tour of Poland pass through my home town and thought, ‘Wow, those guys are suffering.’”)

Sell, sell, sell

Selling bikes, however, is clearly something that Bespoke Cycling has a talent for, given the success of the Farringdon Road shop and the subsequent expansion. Hallam describes Jermyn Street as a “smaller, punchier version” of its City sibling, and the stock is almost identical. The range of bicycles starts at around £1,500 and includes some of the market’s biggest players, Cannondale and Trek among them.

Parlee colour sample board, paint selection, hanging on wallThe frames of American brand, Parlee, are a mainstay of Bespoke's custom offering

The custom build journey at Bespoke often starts with frames from Colnago, LOOK, or Pinarello, and reaches its zenith with chassis from Independent Fabrication, Moots, Parlee, and Passoni. Bespoke’s modus operandi, according to Hallam, is to provide the same level of care to customers in the first tier as to those for whom they are custom building ‘dream bikes’.

“Three hours of time in terms of fit and sales are included in the cost of the bike,” Hallam says. “We will try to get the bike to fit you, out of the box, within as fewer millimetres as possible.” He turns to his computer and opens a large and comprehensive spreadsheet with the geometry and details of the contact points of every model from every brand stocked by Bespoke, in each size. “We’re not just guessing at it,” he smiles.

The disc revolution is fast becoming a reality, he confirms, predicting that in four years time, 80 per cent of machines stocked by Bespoke will have them. The Moots DR is already popular among clients building “super winter bikes”, and the shop will soon stock Passoni’s first disc-equipped road bike. “When you’re hammering down a hill and have to be in work on Monday morning, you want the best possible braking beneath you,” Hallam says.

Destination Jermyn Street

The most surprising aspect of the Jermyn Street shop is its space. The doorway opens directly onto the showroom, entered on the opposite side from what appears to be an endless corridor, unfolding like the concertina lens of an old-fashioned camera to a distant vanishing point. The right-hand side of the ‘corridor’ is hung with clothing from Assos, Castelli, and POC, and a small selection of accessories. On the left, are Hallam’s fitting studio and Bakumenko’s workshop, immediately adjacent to one another, with an appearance not unlike concessions in a department store, or, perhaps more pertinently, small boutiques in a Piccadilly arcade.

Corridor, grey carpet, clothing selection along left wall, Bespoke CyclingBespoke's Jermyn Street premises has an intelligent use of space, with clothing on one side of a long 'corridor' from the showroom and fitting studio and workshop on the other

Beyond the ‘corridor’ is another large-ish room, whose perimeter is lined with various exotica, including the flagship Black Inc iteration of Cannondale’s Synapse Hi-MOD endurance bike. A doorway leads to a treatment room decorated with a Chesterfield sofa, and a photograph of the Kappelmuur, blown up to cover an entire wall.

Bespoke gained the keys to the premises after meetings with Crown Estate representatives keen to know how cycling might find a home on Jermyn Street. “They came and saw us in Farringdon, saw that we weren’t just another grubby bike shop, and bought into what we were doing,” Hallam recalls. “They recognised that this fits into what Jermyn Street is all about - giving your client a unique, tailored service.”

Bespoke Cycling, table, information manualsBespoke Cycling has proven a good match for the elegant boutiques of Jermyn Street.

The premises needed work: curing a damp problem delayed its intended opening to coincide with the visit of the Tour de France to London, but the Crown Estate offered a temporary premises at the other end of Jermyn Street while the city played host to the arrivée of stage three on The Mall in July.

Bespoke’s expansion to the West End is a response to the premium placed by its clients on time – often their most valuable commodity, Hallam explains. The amount of it invested in a trip across town to visit a bike shop can be of equivalent value to the bike they’ve come to buy. “If you’re more than a five-minute walk away, you might as well be in another city,” he says of London and his time-starved clientele.

The third premises in Canary Wharf will also serve the banking community, but Hallam is confident that each of the three shops will have a distinct personality. Jermyn Street, he believes, will satisfy the greatest demand for custom builds. Located on one of the capital’s most fashionable streets, one synonymous with the highest standards of service and with bespoke product, his prediction seems more than just a hunch. Cycling now has a home at one of the smartest addresses in the West End. The bicycle’s journey from humble transport to object of desire continues apace.

Bespoke Cycling

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