THE TIRELESS CYCLING SHOPS OF HACKNEY
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY KIT CALESS
Stereotypes tailgate London cyclists wherever they go. A study by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed how London cycling was perceived to be a white and male domain. These same attitudes also apply to bike shops. Most bike shops appear to cater for the kind of people who set bike shops up – namely white men. Putting a café in the shop and stickers saying "we are a female friendly bike shop" won’t do anything to change this perception.
A bike shop is part of an invisible fabric that keeps the gears greased and the people riding, an integral part of a complex system. Yet when urban planning and cycling infrastructure is discussed, bike shops rarely get a mention, even less so in surveys. Given that Hackney has the highest number of cyclists in London it arguably represents what cycling might look like for the rest of London in the future. The next Cycle Super Highway is set to open in the borough and new bike shops seem to spring up every second Sunday. Some of these spaces may cater to the “Lycra Lads”, but many do not. What better way to find out the changing nature of city cycling than to talk to shop owners who serve their community?
A bike shop is part of an invisible fabric that keeps the gears greased and the people riding, an integral part of a complex system.
MiCycle East: Sam Jacobs, manager of MiCycle East says he set out to create “a nice welcoming environment for people to come with their bikes and not to be talked down to.” MiCycle has positively discriminated to hire female mechanics. “Shops were run,” says Sam, “by a certain type of person, historically, and I suppose they didn't think it was appropriate to have female mechanics. It was plain old sexism.” MiCycle doesn’t advertise or use social media much, but it has a good reputation for professionalism and honest service. “For the most part people will go to their nearest bike shop,” says Sam. “I'm not interested in marketing. I'm just fixing local people's bikes.” Sam thinks most of the community that cycle in his area wouldn’t consider themselves “cyclists”. MiCycle doesn’t sell hundreds of bikes, but plenty of bike riders stop by for repairs.
Sam is also very popular with local young people from the estates nearby. It’s easy to forget that bikes are a huge part of childhood independence and mobility, and when we think of the cycling community, we can often ignore young people’s needs. Sam lends them tools for free and lets them use his space to mend theirs and their friends’ bikes. “They treat me well. I'm pretty relaxed about things but my mechanic is a bit more uptight about it. One of them stole a multi-tool, and he got quite upset about that, but we worked it out. The police couldn’t believe I don’t have CCTV here. They saw the kids outside the shop and told me that if I put CCTV up the kids wouldn't come back. But I don’t want that.”
MiCycle East, 58 Southgate Road, London. Phone: 020 7249 1212
Barclays Bikes: Owen opened his bike shop in Dalston 24 years ago. Since then, the area has changed almost beyond recognition. Owen was a musician in his early adult life and only set up Barclays after getting tired of life on the road. Barclays is a bike shop with no frills, but a lot of returning customers, and if anyone has seen the changes in cycling demographics, it’s Owen.
“It was always a community shop from the day I opened it up,” says Owen. “I served people in the area that I'd known for years. I served them and now I serve their children. It's only since the area has changed that I've started getting a new set of customers. They've uplifted me a little bit though, because they've got all this disposable income.”
Like Sam, Owen refuses to do any marketing. He doesn’t even have a website, yet he says he’s busier than he ever has been. Owen sees the number of women cyclists rising right in front of his eyes. “Five years ago there would be 30 men's bikes come in and three women's bikes. Now it's half and half. When I stand outside the shop there's a row of 10 cyclists waiting at the lights and at least four are women. Years ago you wouldn't even find one in that bunch.”
“I served people in the area that I'd known for years. I served them and now I serve their children.”
Owen has just signed another 10-year lease on the building and will hand over the reigns to his nephew when he retires. Longevity in a small business, especially one being passed on through the family is rare in modern London. It shows that a bike shop can remain rooted in the community in which it was formed but also adapt to changing circumstances.
Barclays Bikes, 515 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AR. Phone: 020 7241 3131
London Bike Kitchen: The London Bike Kitchen is a “Do it Together” workshop, rather than a DIY one, which teaches you how to mend and service your own bike. Paying to do the work yourself may seem a little counter intuitive, but on the weekend the Bike Kitchen has queues snaking down the street. “As people's knowledge grows,” says manager Jenni Gwiazdowski, “they want to know more. Bikes are really popular, especially in Hackney, so once they get a taste, they really want to keep learning.”
Originally from America, where Bike Kitchens are part of a larger leisure cycling community, Jenni thinks the reason it works in London is due to space issues. You can’t house a bike stand in a two bedroom flat, and you certainly can’t put a parts washer in your kitchen.
The Bike Kitchen runs a women and gender-variant night twice a month. Jenni said she was lucky her dad taught her a lot of basic tool use. “Most women are not encouraged to do this. The WAG night is a safe space where people can feel like it's okay to know absolutely nothing. The atmosphere is all about asking questions. It's okay to not know!” She also reminds me that the bike was a symbol of women’s emancipation 100 years ago. The WAG nights are really popular and feature female guest speakers such as ultra cyclist Emily Chappell and Dr. Sheila Hanlon.
London Bike Kitchen, 28 Whitmore Road, London N1 5QA. Phone: 020 8127 3808
While I was visiting each of these bike shops, a genuinely diverse range of people came through the doors. Perhaps this reflects Hackney’s multicultural make-up, or perhaps it is indicative of how open and welcoming these spaces are. From local kids learning for free and old community ties still intact to inclusive, open workshops, if these parts of Hackney are anything to go by, urban cycling is pedaling past its stereotypes into a new future.