The modern bicycle shop increasingly serves more than its traditional functions of sales and repair.
The best of the new breed are also a meeting place: the obvious piece missing from the jigsaw of a sport that largely takes place out of doors. The Velo House in Tunbridge Wells, located some distance from the big club heartlands of south London, but home nonetheless to a thriving, if itinerant community of road cyclists, is a fine example.
Boasting a café, a brightly painted and accessible workshop in which mechanics work in public view, and a first floor shop with off-beat, domestic furnishings rather than anodyne point of sale displays, lending it the ambience of a treasured boutique (an independent record shop, perhaps?), The Velo House combines what are rapidly becoming essential features for a contemporary cycle shop.
The Velo House has set out its stall on the strength of its welcome and serves a mixed community of cyclists and non-cyclists in Tunbridge Wells
Banking on it
Few of us can claim to have bought a bank, but owner of The Velo House, Olly Stevens, can – after a fashion. The premises in which he has realised his dream by opening a bike shop was, for about 40 years, a branch of the Nat West; the same branch, in fact, in which he opened his first senior account as a 17-year-old. Modestly, he makes no claim to a teenage epiphany: his wife, Sophie, was the first to scope out the site while her husband (perhaps fittingly) rode his bike in France.
Four months after taking ownership, Stevens opened the doors of the transformed premises, welcoming his first customers inside to watch Paris-Roubaix on the café’s eight-foot television screen. Gone was the giant counter that had barred the way to 90 per cent of the ground floor. Gone too were the carpet tiles that had concealed a floor in part parquet and elsewhere Italian terrazzo, the result of piecemeal expansion by the bank. Disappointingly, the safe had gone too, and with it every single penny in the branch.
Other facilities have been adapted to the cause. A vault with a door that might require dynamite to remove now serves as a secure storage area for stock. A debate over whether an adjacent room should be converted for use as a small-scale wind tunnel or a dry food store was resolved in favour of the food store. The Velo House may not be hosting skinsuit tests for the world’s time-trialing elite, but the ingredients for the home made food served in the café (with menus based variously three nutritional ‘Rs’ – refuel, reduce, and reward) will certainly be fresh.
The Velo House shop stocks a range of bicycle brands, from well-chosen entry level models to the exotic. Fixtures come in most part from a Margate junk shop and make a refreshing change from the more andoyne point of sale displays typical of many bike shops
The Velo House has many cyclist-friendly features (outdoor bike parking monitored by CCTV, for example, and a supply of loan locks), but the most notable aspect is the healthy supply of natural daylight that floods the premises. This, combined with an imaginative décor and considered layout, makes it a welcoming environment.
A friendly atmosphere was top of Stevens’ priorities. Other shops have made a specialty of performance, he explains, but the raison d’etre of The Velo House is to celebrate (and facilitate) the sheer enjoyment of cycling with others. With this in mind, positioning the café on the ground floor, at the entrance, was an obvious decision.
“Walking into a bike shop can be intimidating for some people,” Stevens explains, “but everyone knows how to order a coffee. They can sit here and wait and watch and observe and build up their confidence.
“The last thing we wanted to be was intimidating or snobby. It had to be friendly and welcoming. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cyclist or not: you should feel welcome in the café. Hopefully, it’s a nice introduction to cycling for people.”
It’s fair to say that Stevens had some useful allies when designing The Velo House. His wife is an interior designer, and runs a business from an office on the third floor, next to the bike fitting room. His father is an architect and his in-laws are commercial interior designers whose commissions include cafés for the likes of Marks and Spencer and John Lewis. But what measures were taken to deliver a space of such obvious appeal to cyclists, rather than to high-street shoppers?
The Velo House contains many considerate touches for cyclists. Maps with cycle routes cover the tables in the cafe
A box of inspiration containing issues of Rouleur magazine would have helped, of course; similarly, the Rouleur musettes used as linen holders in the toilets. The tops of the café tables are finished with maps of the area on which Stevens has marked out cycling routes. An entire wall has been painted with the markings of a cycle track, including the deep blue strip of ‘the cote d’azur’ and the red stripe marking the sprinter’s lane.
Elsewhere, the contents of a Margate junk shop proved to be just the ticket, from a row of flip-up seats that at a glance appear to have been lifted from a cinema, but which actually come from a Belgian velodrome, to a large, glass-fronted armoire at the top of the stairs that lead to the shop, containing suits of cycle clothing hung above neatly paired shoes, giving an impression of how a Victorian gentleman cyclist might store his kit if transported to the 21st century.
Stevens admits that there was something of the ‘build it and they will come’ spirit to The Velo House, but come they have. Southborough and District Wheelers and San Fairy Ann aside, Tunbridge Wells does not have large cycle clubs, although the comparatively new and rapidly expanding Kent Velo Girls makes full use of The Velo House (Stevens is a member of the Kent Velo Boys; an off-shoot of KVG he describes as intended for “husbands, boyfriends, and hangers-on”).
Coffee holds a powerful allure for cyclists, and local clubs, including the Kent Velo Girls, are among those who frequent the Velo House cafe
The Velo House was designed principally, however, for the groups of a dozen or so cyclists he would see regularly, gathering at informal meeting places. “I’d seen so many cyclists on the road. I knew they were out there,” Stevens says. “I wanted to give them somewhere to feel like home. If they want to expand that group, we can refer people on, or they can introduce themselves to more cyclists.”
Our favourite shop
The ethos extends to the shop. Well-chosen brands for the new cyclist or rider on a budget (Endura, Kinesis) stand alongside more upmarket offerings for those with greater commitment and/or spending capacity (POC and Parlee).
While it’s not entirely true to suggest that anyone can fill a shop with expensive brands and expect to be taken seriously, the depth of knowledge in The Velo House shop is evident from the breadth of the offering, rather than the flagship products.
Endura’s excellent but affordable FS-260 Pro range is a case in point; winter training bikes from Kinesis with mudguards hold centre stage on the day of our visit. “We look more expensive than we are,” Stevens explains - a nice problem to have.
That said, the Velo House shop does not lack exotica: add Colnago to the aforementioned Parlee as a prime example. The mid-range has been chosen with similar care: Focus and Scott both have hard-won reputations, the Boardman Elite range is respected by those in the know, and Ritte offers something different.
Mechanics work in view of customers in the cafe in the VeloHouse's brightly painted workshop
The traditional bike shop will always command a place in the affections of those who grew up immersed in the sport, and there are many who go the extra mile to make new cyclists welcome, with ride outs and maintenance evenings.
For new shops, however, opening a premises without some facility to serve as the hub of their local cycling community would be an obvious own goal. One suspects that including a café was a ‘no brainer’ for Stevens and his investors.
That he has set out The Velo House stall, in a literal sense, on the strength of its welcome, is, well, to be welcomed. Riders schooled in the club tradition, informal groups of cycling friends, newcomers tempted to the sport, but too afraid to ask…all have found a home in premises that were once a bank. Change is sometimes for the better.