Despite all we hear about brands going direct to consumers, specialist chains and the rise of online retail, the humble independent retailer remains a hugely significant component of the bicycle market in the UK, numbering well in excess of 2,000.
By definition, there are a huge variety of independent bike dealers out there targeting different parts of the market, so compared some of them is a little like comparing the proverbial chalk and cheese. So why are we doing it here? Simply to celebrate and name check some of the 20 that have impressed the market.
So how did we arrive at the final 20? We asked a number of distributors and brands to pick out the bike shops they thought were among the best operating in the UK at the moment. So was our panel just aiming to curry favour with their shops or retailers they wanted to work with? No - the nominations were made in private with the understanding that those making nominations wouldn’t be named. They didn’t quite take place in a dark room at an undisclosed location, but you get the idea. Through this process it wasn’t long before we began to hear the same shop names cropping up time and again.
Not only that, but we also turned to our readers online for their views, though we did resist any shops that had suspiciously high numbers of votes, judging rather on the quality of the nominations.
And there you have it. In the spirit of celebrating the independent bicycle dealers of the UK, here’s the list of Top 20 IBDs – in association with Cyclescheme – that we came up with, in no particular order...
This Glasgow independent dealer has been in the bicycle business for over a century and has been in the hands of the same family since 1950s. Despite having sold bikes over the decades it has moved with the times, not least offering a modern 6,000 square foot showroom in the city centre, a far cry from the small shopfront of the ‘50s. In addition, Dales also now has a store in East Kilbride, which punters can get a feel of online with an interactive store visit (as they can with the Glasgow store). Dales Cycles’ office HQ is sited alongside a warehouse close to the Glasgow store.
The retailer is sponsor for a brand new Scottish Women’s Road Race Series for 2014 and last month ran its first dedicated women’s cycling evening with guest speakers, martinis and Indian head massages, supported by Liv/Giant. Not only that, but the shop is no stranger to charity work, having raised hundreds for Movember last year in a team up with Silverfish and Yeti.
This Berkshire specialist bike shop has had an interesting route to market, starting out as a part-time mail order venture back in the olden days (the mid-‘90s). Success saw the retailer struggle with space and when the chance to expand into a garden centre provided the opportunity to open a large shop too, Mountain Trax grabbed it and got physical in March 1996. Since then staffer Chris White bought the shop in 2005 which saw a period of growth and then moved to new premises in 2007, just a few miles from trails in Swinley Forest.
With a self-stated aim of avoiding being a cliquey high-end bike shop and supporting the women’s mountain bike market, the retailer specialises in the downhill market and more recently trials, jump and dual slalom. Opening seven days a week with a workshop operating five days a week. Mountain Trax sponsors its own Race Team, the local Gorrick race series, and TrailTrax Navigation events, as well as supporting local bike clubs such as the excellently named Berks On Bikes.
One Planet Adventure
North Wales’ One Planet Adventure has the Coed Llandegla Forest on its doorstep, together with over 44km of MTB trails. It’s no surprise that this business offers hire bikes and café facilities for visitors, but the forward thinking retailer also runs skills course alongside offering (award winning) bacon butties – as well as a retail and workshop offering. Those skills courses are aimed at novices and experts alike, helping take riders skills up a notch through classroom sessions, a custom-built skills area and video analysis – which sounds to us to be several steps ahead of what other bike shops offer.
Recently the area has been battling the devastation the winds have wreaked on the trails, and the retailer has been doggedly providing online updates to keep the local community informed. Speaking of which, One Planet Adventure even has an online weather cam so rider can check the conditions before they head over. Hosting demo days to lure in customers, the retailer has also formed the One Planet Adventure race team to ride in the UK Gravity Enduro races.
Pedal Power, West Calder
While no doubt many of the bike shops named Pedal Power are fine retailers, it’s the one on Main Street, West Calder, Scotland that has been singled out for praise by our nominators. Pitched as Scotland’s largest concept bike store, the well stocked Pedal Power moved into a larger unit at the end of 2012 with bikes, accessories and clothing spread over three (yes three) floors, providing the kind of choice of product that draws in customers from far and wide. Formed in 1973 and owned by two times Scottish Mountain Biking Champion Jonathan McBain, the store has put in show appearances at the likes of the Scottish Bike Show along the way. This authorized Giant dealer is open seven days a week and boasts Scottish cyclocross champ Gary Hand as an employee.
Phil Corley Cycles
BikeBiz’s own Mystery Shopper visited Phil Corley Cycles back in the mists of time (2009 in fact) and had a very agreeable visit, and in 2014 it seems the shop is still doing great work judging by the nominations it received for this list.
Based in Stacey Bushes, Milton Keynes, Mr Corley first set up shop in Great Linford a few miles down the road in 1979 and moved again before settling in Stacey Bushes in the ‘80s. The store itself boasts three full time qualified mechanics, a refitted website in November last year and an in depth bike fitting service, impressing on customers that bike fit isn’t just for those racing but for any riding, getting them into optimal riding positions and avoiding injury, improving comfort. Support from the retailer for cycle teams is strong, with Team Corley Cycles road cycling team first hitting the road in 2007 and going on to compete in the Tour Series from 2009 to 2012. The retailer also co-sponsors the Body Limits Transition/Corley Cycles team.
Wine tasting and film nights is indeed taking the idea of what bicycle retailing is all about a step further than many bike shops are comfortable with. There’s no shame in that, of course, but it’s one of the reasons that Stan’s is on this list…that and the nominations it received independently. Pushing the envelope with the local cycle community, Stan’s supports local cycling club Paramount CRT and with the club has teamed up to bring cycle racing back to Shrewsbury with the Shrewsbury Cycle Grand Prix in May. Stan’s is another retailer on this list that has been around for decades – since 1951 to be precise. Crucially, it has moved with the times (hard to imagine wine tasting or a fashion show in a bike shop in the ‘50s) and moved into new premises where it serves coffee and bakery items.
Sadly, Roy Swinnerton passed away last year, but it’s a testament to his legacy and that of his mother and father who started the shop in 1915 (whom he took it over from with his wife in 1952) that the Swinnerton retail empire is regularly held up as a fine example of bicycle retailing. Cycle racing has been part of the foundations of the store right from the start, not least with the owners founding the Newcastle Track Association and the Stoke ACCS and the family keen road and track cyclists. Swinnerton Cycles staff won the Corporate Grand Prix at the Pearl Izumi Tour Series last year and will compete again when the Tour hits Stoke-on-Trent.
The firm has employed a variety of tactics to bring customers through the door, including simple but hugely effective SMS texts to remind customers of when their bike service is due.
The Hampton Wick, Kingston-set Sigma Sport has 3,000 sq feet of prime retail space per floor and is regularly held up as a fine example of bicycle retail, famed for leading the way. No pressure then. That reputation hasn’t just come from the modern, clean look of the shop, but also for warm welcome it prides itself on for both beginners and elite athletes alike in the triathlete and road rider sectors. So renowned is the store that it attracts customers from far and wide, according to the world of social media. The Sigma store portfolio includes a nearby warehouse facility for its mail order business and of course the Specialized concept store in Kingston, offering 4,000 square foot of bike retail goodness.
From putting on events like its very recent Triathlon 2014 Launch Evening (offering prizes to lure in customers), to becoming retail partner for events like the HotChillee Dunkerque – Roubaix event, hosting women’s group rides, and far too many other things to cram in here, Sigma shows no sign of resting on its reputation.
It doesn’t occupy the largest retail space, by its own admission, but it’s what it does with it that matters, from retailing to custom builds and a busy workshop. But it’s also what it does outside of the shop that earns it a spot on this list. Shrewsbury’s Trailhead Bicycle Company has a packed schedule of demos and rides alongside its retailing business. Inviting customers on regular fortnightly shop rides, Trailhead also hosts demo days, including in nearby Eastridge Woods and even overseas trips like its forthcoming Trailhead Pyrenees Adventure. Perhaps a sign of a new retailing trend, Trailhead is one of two shops on this list getting into film screenings – last month the dealer presented a premiere of Steve Peat’s film Won’t Back Down at the nearby Silverton Hotel, with tickets selling out well in advance. Then there is seven-strong Team Trailhead too, proving retail might start in the shop, but more than likely it ends up on the trail for this independent bicycle dealer.
Blending online with physical retail is a constant challenge for independent retailers and Oxford’s Ubyk has tackled it headlong with a unique custom build ProBuild offering. Allowing customers to customise their ride, pick out components and watch videos while the weight and price change as the bike is specced out is undoubtedly pretty cool. Given that information, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ubyk has a philosophy of ensuring bikes are tailored for the customer and heavily hints online and social media that its staff will provide expert advice to customers.
In store, Ubyk has its own Performance Progress Lab designed to provide customers with elite level performance testing, analysis and feedback using testing equipment to get to grips with the customers fitness levels and pinpointing key strengths and weaknesses.
Stocking high-end bikes in the road, tri and MTB sectors and bike fitting, Ubyk offers delivery to the door with set up from one of its staff and is highly active on social media too, where you’ll find a fair amount of praise directed at the shop’s of service and advice.
A word from our sponsor
Cyclescheme, one of the best-known cycle to work providers in the UK, teamed up with us to launch the search for the top 20 IBDs.
Not only does Cyclescheme work with over 2,000 independent bicycle dealers across the UK, but also with companies of all sizes to enable employees to purchase a bike (and safety equipment) tax-free.
Cyclescheme’s head of commercial operations Daniel Gillborn said: “We’re very pleased to support BikeBiz and our partner stores by commending great service in this venture. We will continue to promote IBDs to our employers and believe high standards in customer service is what ensures growth in our industry.”
Cyclescheme directs employees of the likes of Tesco, Network Rail and over 50 Government departments and agencies to its network of independent bike dealers through the C2W scheme. www.cyclescheme.co.uk
If it’s going above and beyond standard retailing you are after, then you wouldn’t go far wrong if you looked at Lake District-set Wheelbase – hosting comedy gigs is still a feat we’ve yet to hear replicated elsewhere in the cycle retail sphere. Wheelbase’s huge showroom, stocking over 600 bikes over 16,000 sq ft, has seen it claim it is the largest bike shop in the country (we’ve not visited them all, but we reckon they’re not far wrong). Understandably then, that showroom alone makes Wheelbase a crowd puller, as does the nearby Kentmere Valley with road and MTB riding in nearby pleasurable surroundings. Offering free bike wash, free hot showers and changing rooms as well as nearby Wilf’s Café has added extra weight to its status as a destination store. Perhaps an indicator of its popularity is the fact it is open 362 days a year shows the staff put in the hard work to be on hand for customers. Established in 1992, Wheelbase backs the Wheelbase/Altura/MGB rad racing team, and hosts the big demo weekend.
Criterium Cycles Edinburgh
This Edinburgh shop has earned plenty of praise and positive anecdotes. The Trek Project One-offering shop is another on the list with a keen emphasis on inclusive cycling. The shop itself says on its site: “Most bike shops, in our experience, offer one of two services: a) A huge array of expensive, hi-tech bicycles and items sold by enthusiastic but bike-geeky staff; b) Mass market products sold by sales assistants who don’t care or know very little about cycling.” Criterium is, therefore, self consciously different, aiming to appeal to all kinds of cyclists – not just from different sectors, but of differing levels of familiarity with the cycle world. But let’s not just take their word for it. One paying customer told us: “The staff are really knowledgable and clearly make customer service their first priority. They are the only bike shop I have found that really understands that women and biking do go together both in terms of the bikes they have, the understanding of the differing requirements and the range of bikes, clothing and accessories they carry.” And here’s another: “Can’t recommend them enough and as a female don’t feel intimidated going into there shop and being bamboozled with bike jargon. I bought my last bike from them and saving up for my dream bike which I will go back and purchase from them.”
Otley-based Chevin Cycles has long had its card marked as an interesting bike shop to watch, not least a few years ago when it managed to help host an evening with Gary Fisher locally. With four decades under its belt, the retailer boasts a huge demo fleet, experienced cycle fit technicians, a Shimano service centre and tailored ranges for women. That’s all at a picturesque location (lucky them). Chevin Cycles isn’t standing still in physical or online retail, with a new flagship store opening in Skipton this month as well as a freshly launched click and collect offerings operating from their online site. Here’s some kindy words passed to us, on them: “Big shout out for Chevin Cycles Otley here. Used them for the last five years, great store, good range of bikes and components/ accessories/ clothing and friendly helpful staff. I even travel 20 miles to visit the store all the time.” And some more: “They support Otley Cycle Club and our new and growing social section, they listen to our needs and stock things that we need at a good price with a really friendly attitude.”
C&N Cycles, Redhill
Does the ‘C’ in C&N Cycles stand for ‘community’? Possibly not, but C&N carry out their bike retailing business as if they it did. We’re assured they are engaged in a wide variety of activities in their local community, but before we get into that side of things, C&N’s ‘standard’ retailing business deserves a mention, as one of their customers told us: “I ride regularly and had the misfortune to crack my frame on a bike in October. Within 48 hours C&N had sourced me a new winter bike frame and fork, moved my components across, sized it as per a previous fit with them and got me back on the road to get the winter miles in. I’ve also brought numerous accessories through them as you get the specific advice that is missing from the online retailers.” Encouraging words there, but C&N’s efforts to engage with the local population and school through the likes of Dr Bike sessions, have cemented a golden reputation for the store with locals. As one testimonial said: “They come in to check of all the bicycles in the bike shed and then students are able to have any faults rectified at the shop at a discounted price. I know of small faults that have been fixed for free even. When I get my bike serviced with them I can drop it off in the morning (they even picked it up in their van on one occasion) and pick it up after school in the afternoon – it takes out all the hassle.” Working around customers and engaging with the community? Check.
JE James is one of the largest independent retailers in the UK and has had a busy 18 months, not least with refurbishing part of its Rotherham store to focus on the growing womens cycle market and manufacturer-specific areas with the aim of making it a destination store. Events-wise the retailer has been no slouch, with CycleFest – a free demo weekend designed to appeal to a wide number of cyclists – free children’s workshops and riding skills, among others. The retailer is going the extra mile with workplace sessions to explain cycle to work and how to integrate cycling with their businesses. And then there’s JE James’ formidable online offering. Having seen investment in systems to ‘bring the in-store experience to online customers’, emails are being personalised to appeal to their cycling tastes (rather than a ‘catch all’ blanket email campaign). Also online, JE James is developing a ‘how to’ area where there will be video tutorials to help customers get to grips with their bikes and also, in the future, it has plans to develop safety videos for families.
Gloucester’s Eastgate Cycles has built up a strong road community through Breeze rides, weekly rides and the quirky Eastgate Runway Rumble, established last year. The latter deserves a few words of explanation – a four hour endurance challenge taking place on the main runway and taxi ways of Gloucester Airport, Staverton, riding from 8pm ‘till midnight with trophies given out for individuals and teams that ride the furthest. Clearly the madcap event has caught the local imagination – last year 125 rider took part and this year they’ve had to cap it at 250 riders. According to one of the testimonials we received, the weekly rides have been popular too: “With 75 riders doing weekly summer rides brought together by the shop, they have introduced a healthy road social scene. There wasn’t normally less than 30 turning up all through the winter, and female friendly too.” The pundit adds: “They seem to know all the regular customers by name. A cuppa available free too if needed. Friendliest shop ever.”
Aire Valley Cycles
Aire Valley is a name that came up a number of times from our trade pundits. The Keighley, Bradford independent bike dealer has been in the retail business for over quarter of a decade, aiming to deliver high quality cycles coupled with a high quality service. The firm started out almost three decades ago and is on its third premises, with around 7,500 square footage of space over more than one floor dedicated to bikes and accessories tailored to the road, mountain, BMX and cyclocross markets. Also packing in Cytech qualified mechanics in its service department, Air Valley boasts plenty of trade and racing experience in the form of ex-pro cyclist Bernie Burns and employs the tactics of demo weekends and social media prize giveaways among others to lure in the local community.
This retailer isn’t shy about shouting about itself, which is absolutely meant as a compliment. How else would it let customers know about its numerous weekly rides and events designed to build its community, like Breeze rides, mothers and tots rides, nature rides that take advantage of the (very) nearby beauty spot that is Rutland Water. That’s not to mention its support for the likes of CiCLE Classic and Tri4life. The growing retailer recently secured £2.8m investment, so it must be doing something right, and plans four more stores, the first of which will launch this year. It’s picked up a trade award or two over the years, has installed a revamped bike fitting offering and hosts a Santa Ride at Christmas…and that’s not to mention the huge hire bike offering, again taking advantage of its location, that might just spark a few love affairs with the world of cycling. It first opened back at the start of the ‘80s and few would deny it has come a long way.
Giant, St Paul’s
When Giant’s flagship outlet opened in the city of London at St Paul’s, the independent owned shop made a big impression. Boasting the first of the Liv/Giant areas over 150 square metres, it features the complete ladies bicycle offering from Liv/Giant, as well as a huge selection of ladies clothing. Word is that it’s the largest women’s cycle section in a UK bike shop, but admittedly we didn’t get the tape measure out to check it was the case. Covering two floors and a 950 square metres of prime retail space, Giant St Paul’s offers Power Fit - Giant’s professional bike fitting system, as well as a charity cycle cafe, providing those city types with yet another reason to cross the threshold. It’s open seven days a week and has a store layout that has come straight out of the ‘this is how to lay out a modern classy looking bike shop’ book.
Dave Kane Cycles
There’s a lot you could say about Dave Kane Cycles of Belfast. You could mention the fact that the retailer has two shops alongside each other, one offering bikes and P&A, the other a more boutique-y affair. You could also mention the fact that the retailer has jumped whole-heartedly into celebrating the Giro d’Italia, which will be passing by its door in May, appearing in the local media and news to bang the drum and whip up local enthusiasm. You should definitely mention the fact that Dave Kane Cycles is also another of those shops that aims to be friendly and helpful to those not only at the top end of cycling, but also those just getting into cycling. And it would certainly be remiss not to mention the cycling heritage that the family run shop has. Owner Dave Kane and his son Mark are both Olympians and multiple World Championship competitors, while fellow rider Debbie Barclay (nee Kane) opened the ‘clothing boutique’ part of the store way back in ’82, significantly ahead of the trend. Youngest son Paul also raced to a high level in Ireland and his son is now starting to race at underage events. Cycling is clearly in the blood, and, as one testimony put it: “Passion is what makes a bike shop.”