Your local bike shop needs your support, but do they need to do a better job of supporting themselves?

The interior of a bike shop
(Image credit: Sutton Bank Bikes)

Before we go any further, there’s a high risk I’m going to come off like a massive @rse (again) here, but bear with me. I could have had an easy time here by top and tailing the press release provided by Aspire (the PR Firm for the Association of Cycle Traders) with some "yes, go support your local shop, because you never know when you might need them” affirmations. But I think the way the promotion of this excellent idea is a very telling and interesting reflection on some of the big background issues with bike shops.

Local heroes

Don't get me wrong, local bike shops can be great places that need more love than they often get. I regularly drop into my local shops in an emergency – shout out to Chevin Cycles, Prologue and Spa Cycles. In recent months, that's included some mudguards for my wife’s commuter bike. A cheeky charge of the Di2 battery I lost the adaptor for ages ago in return for biscuits. Or to grab easily forgotten bike build savers like star-fangled nuts for fork steerers, split links, or brake hose olives. 

And when I go in I see a lot of genuinely dedicated staff investing time and attention in getting people onto the right bikes, sorting out mechanical issues in the workshop or talking potential buyers through options on everything from kids' bikes to tire sealant or bikepacking bags. All of these local shops have ‘special powers’ that they use to engage with their chosen audience too. Chevin team up with a local brewery to run events on bike maintenance for women, demo evenings with turbo trainers and they even got Sarah and me in to talk about our ‘Time Travel Gravel’ retirement plan side hustle to the local ‘Wheel Easy’ group. Prologue run similar presentations on tech, but also have a race team that compete nationally and even in Europe occasionally, and their cafe has become the cornerstone of the local serious road ride scene. Their showroom – complete with actual Tarmac and Armco crash barriers – is basically an art gallery that makes dropping northwards of £10k for many of the bikes they build a pleasurably indulgent and aspirational treat. As opposed to (hopefully) a place where you’re going to sully the sales experience by haggling. At the other end of the spectrum, Spa Cycles has a global reputation for building their own touring and Audax bikes and stocking the most obscure but brilliant components for distance riding specialists. So if I need something leather or canvas, or my brother needs a hub for a 1970s wheel refurb, I know exactly where I’m going. 

And if I threw the radius of local out further there are loads of other great examples of retailers doing awesome things to engage and enliven their customers. Moonglu’s marvelous wheel building, Sutton Bank’s awesome kids and gravel events

And thank goodness they have evolved and invested their own extra reasons to exist and attract customers far outside their organic footfall. Because me wandering in every few months to beg a battery charge or buy a star nut definitely isn’t going to keep them going. And while I’m obviously an oddity in that I get sent bikes and components to test for free, the model of bigger items being price checked bought online and delivered direct with local shops only being used for emergencies is the default retail behavior of most people.

Summit Cycles staff behind counter

Summit Cycles looking friendly, organised and clearly working hard with promoting local events and riding (Image credit: Summit Cycles)

Local fails

The promotion of Local Bike Shop day has been a real eye opener in why most people are unlikely to significantly change that model too. And yes, this is where I’m probably going to make myself unpopular with some people. But just like iodine and a scrubbing brush, I hope those I’m talking about can see it as the painful intervention and constructive criticism it’s meant to be. 

Looking for parallels, Record Store Day has lots of promo on radio stations and general interest/news websites and has become a real roaring success as a result. In fact, I recently suggested that maybe independent bike dealers should look to music shops as a way to try and survive. However, I only know about Local Bike Shop day after being contacted by Aspire earlier this week and while they’ve done their best the whole presentation and answers to follow up questions I asked, ACT definitely don’t deliver the positive payload they could.

On a positive note, the two lads behind the counter at Summit Cycles in Aberystwyth are doing it right. The shop backdrop looks pro and well stocked (I know where I’m going if I ever want a Continental inner tube in West Wales). More significantly, the whole back wall is covered in posters for the events they’ve organized over the years, as well as their own commissioned artwork promoting riding in the area. On that note, I’ll be breaking off from writing this in five minutes to jump on a call with them about a whole network of gravel routes at Coed Y Brenin that they’ve been a powerful driving force behind. Like many other Local Bike Shop businesses, they’ll be doing offers on bikes bits and servicing on May 4th too, as well as a prize giveaway. 

The other two images supplied to highlight the day hardly reflect retailers that are potentially selling products the price of a car and many times more than a Macbook. It’s awesome that De Ver cycles in Streatham are teaming up with Britain's first black cycling champion, Maurice Burton, for a meet and greet book signing and social ride. And I get that the shot has been taken in what’s clearly a well-equipped bike fitting section of the shop, which suggests they’re a great place to start your journey to being a champion yourself. If you don’t know that’s what you’re looking at though it’s a backdrop of a turbo trainer, with a QR skewer and discarded packaging left on the floor and bars randomly hung on the kind of slat wall you normally don’t see anywhere but in pop up discount shops any more. The crew outside Bicycle Links in Norwich look exactly like the kind of friendly bunch who’d make cycling more fun and welcoming for everyone and their idea of a ‘Yard Sale’ of affordable and second-hand kit is also a great way to lower the cost barrier of riding. However, I’m only guessing they’re outside the shop though as the shutters are down and there’s literally not a single logo or sign in sight. C’mon Bicycle Links, big up yourselves so people know where to come.

De Ver cycles and Maurice Burton

De Ver cycles have some decent bike kit and Maurice Burton is an absolute legend. But while not everyone wants an Apple Store style retail experience, a bit of a tidy up would have worked wonders (Image credit: De Ver Cycles / ACT)

No news isn't good news

While I guess the ACT are trying to keep a positive spin on things despite the widely reported mess the bike industry is in, that seems an odd strategy too. After all, there’s nothing like an endangered species ‘call to arms’ to get people invested in saving whatever you’re promoting. Whether it’s saving curlews or independent music venues nothing spurs people into action like the threat of extinction of something they love. However there’s nothing in the official press release about how many local bike shops have closed recently. So I asked Aspire to ask the ACT, confident that they’d have some suitably demise of the dodo style data for me to create a “local bike shops are dying and only you can save them” clickbait headline. But what did Howard from Aspire actually get from them...? 

“We believe the rate of closures in the independent bike shop sector has been higher than we can remember than at any point over the last 15 years. Whilst we don’t have specific stats, over the last quarter we’ve noted about eight closures a month, which is significant.”

Are you for real? You’re the Association of Cycle Traders yet you ‘don’t have specific stats’ for the health of the people you’re supposed to represent. To add insult to ignorance they followed up with...

“We also know from a new report from the Local Data Company (LDA) that small shops have been more "agile" at fighting Covid sale slumps than chain stores”. 

Brilliant. So not only is this like the World Wildlife Fund saying “we haven’t seen many rhinos for a while, they might be in danger”, then following up with “to be honest though, way more rats have died than rhinos so it could be worse.” And if you look on the official website with a day to go you’ll find a few Facebook page links alongside a Twitter feed that says “Nothing to see here – yet”. Brilliant. And if this ends up being bounced around industry bulletin boards and I get canceled by the ACT on LinkedIn, then so be it. They need a mirror holding up to what seems a massively half-arsed effort to leverage what’s actually a great idea.

Group of mountain bike rider on a moor

Whether it's group rides or events they've organised or services provided, giving your local shop some love on social media or consumer reviews is free for you but worth a lot to them (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Championing the champions

We really do need the local bike shops that work so hard to make a difference and deliver a huge amount in terms of enriching the riding environment. Whether that’s sponsoring local races and trail builders, giving discount to up-and-coming riders, sorting out local rides, or hosting tech and teaching evenings.

With massively rising utility costs, reduced consumer spending, and huge online sales wherever you look, it’s never been harder for them to keep their doors open. And don’t think the demise of Wiggle/CRC has made things easier. A lot of shops relied on getting better pricing and delivery from them than they could from official distributors and brands. Distributors and brands who are getting increasingly desperate to pressure them into minimum orders or long-term credit contracts that choked cash flow just can’t support. So if your local shop is one that you'd like to support, don’t just buy kit from them whenever you can, but do some promotion for them. Every shout out on social media about a job well done, a shop ride you’ve been on, positive reviews on consumer ratings sites, or just word of mouth recommendations is hugely helpful. Certainly, it's more help than some of them and their official trade body seem capable of anyway.

Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg