Last month we revealed cargo bikes have ‘made it’, revealing John Lewis to have taken stock. But what’s it like to specialize solely in bikes that make everyday tasks via bike a reality. Mark Sutton asks Really Useful Bikes owner Rob Bushill…
Tell us about Really Useful Bikes and what inspired you to startup:
I was always bike minded. I bought an ex-demo Peugeot MTB when they first came out, then got Rory o'Brien to make me one, before spending my college days riding around Epping forest. I commuted in London, always using a bicycle for getting about. When I moved to the west country my employment changed and I ended up selling a portable woodfired hottub from Holland called the dutchtub.
It was when I saw a question answer piece in the Times newspaper about being able to carry two kids on a bicycle that the penny dropped. My love affair with bicycles was rekindled and that bicycle (a Yuba) was the perfect item to sell alongside the woodfired hottub. Since then, the portable hottub business has been taken on by another and bicycles for transport are my biggest passion. The ability of the bicycle to offer an alternative to the car and your own feet is second to none. The bicycle for transport is definitely on its way back, enabling people to move locally, spend locally and meet people again locally. Some dream of the downhill thrill, some the finish line sprint, I get a kick out of pedaling 20 kilos of shopping home.
How’s business? It seems the profile of cargo bikes is growing lately?
Business is good. Over the last few years the number of businesses building cargo bikes has increased, including British brands like Donky and 8frieght. With this increase in builders they are getting a little more sexy too, which helps with getting exposure and grabbing people’s interest. I think even the cycle industry is seeing that bicycles that carry more is a niche that really expands possibilities. The cross over into a more sporty cargo bike is aided with the enthusiast-organised Cargo Bikes Championships cropping up in Europe. Bare in mind that the first two wheeled cargo bike, the Long John, was built in Denmark from at least the 1940s, Dutch 2 wheelers since the late 1990's and only then have they caught the public’s imagination. A slow burner whose time is coming, for sure.
How often does a customer come in store who has previously been largely unaware of cargo bikes?
I specialise in Cargo bikes and Gazelle Dutch bikes, so my customers tend to have done their homework before visiting, but people that come in to browse are often incredulous, then generally get the concept of their utility. We are in a yard that is dominated by engineering businesses, so the bike design details, hub gears and dynamos often create a talking point.
The people that come specifically to see the cargo bikes (and the Gazelle bikes) have read about them, but generally have never ridden one, so when they take a ride around the yard, their slightly perplexed look quickly changes to a broad smile. Changing perceptions is a big part of my business.
With everyday cycling on the rise, how has this translated with sales of practical bikes for everyday errands?
If I’m honest, sales of bicycles specifically for carrying things are fairly steady; those that we sell are mainly for carrying kids, where cargo bikes are an obvious alternative to a car, but really dependent on ‘safe’ routes.
I think sales are more influenced by the increasing drudgery and cost of a local trip by car. Sales of Gazelle Dutch bikes are on the up, with low maintenance bikes offering comfortable riding in your own normal clothes being valued more.
Accessories for ‘normal bikes’ to help carrying things are on the up, crates, baskets and racks are all selling more.
What models are proving most popular and for what reason?
The two wheeled Boxbike is our favoured style of cargobike. They are fun to ride, easy to balance and pretty maneuverable through barriers. We have several models in stock as demo bikes and we have contacts will all the best manufacturers in the world, so can source and prepare any good cargo bike for the customer.
The Bakfiets.NL is the bike that started the resurgence of the two wheel cargo bike and is the benchmark which most people work from.
The Gazelle Cabby is the best bike for a new family with good seatbelts, some Maxi Cosi mounts for a baby seat, a very reasonable cost and natural ride. These two are the best for families, while the Larry vs Harry or 8frieght offer a sportier ride for couriers and thrill seekers. Gazelle Dutch bikes are beginning to find their place in the UK too and we have many more enquiries that even two years ago.
What percentage of your business is custom builds?
We do a lot of custom builds, Surly Big Dummys, Yuba Mundo and Larry vs Harrys are popular foundations. It’s something we enjoy a lot, working with the customer to mix style and function, mainly with Internal hub gears and dynamo lighting at the core. We also improve the original offerings, adapting them to the customer’s needs and environment.
As a cargo specialist we’d guess you do well with add on sales of luggage and accessories?
Well, ironically, the bikes we sell generally don’t need much in the way of add ons. The Gazelle Dutch bikes are completely fitted out, which is why they are such a good offering for a customers. With the Cargo bikes, some need tinkering with to make them more suited to the UK, but unless it’s a customer’s custom build, then most are good to go. Our mail order side tries to stock the best of the sensible European accessories, so we have a range of wooden and plastic crates, rack extenders, child seats, baskets and lots of little useful bits. We haven’t stocked handlebar umbrellas, but do stock tennis racket fork clamps.
Are there any downsides to focusing solely on workhorse bikes?
Well all bikes are workhorses, really. So, no, I think it’s the most exciting part of cycling today. Being part of something that can change the way we live locally is a privilege. As some of our plans to build our own cargo bikes come to fruition, then some of our difficulties with supply will ease and we can push on. That’s exciting too.
How does selling a cargo bike differ from your standard bike?
Some customer’s minds are made up before they visit. The majority are looking for a tool to solve a problem, normally the school run, sometimes a bike for a business and they rely on me to be honest and realistic in order to make long-term ownership a success. Little details can make all the difference. The customer’s environment, whether they have a terraced house or narrow sideway, if they live on top of a hill, number of kids etc. I would rather be realistic and work with the customer to find the right solution to their need than have the customer ring me a few months on and ask me to help sell their ‘new’ cargobike on.
It’s not just cargo bike sales, you can offer frame repair services too? Anything else?
We work alongside a metal worker that can make a failed frame aluminium frame live again.
For us its wheel building for hub gears and dynamos, the servicing and repair of hub gears and the servicing and repair of Dutch bikes, something we enjoy very much. The development work on our own brand of cargobikes keeps us very busy.
How do you tell a quality cargo bike from a bad one – what do you look out for when choosing stock?
Wow, there’s a question... There are some cheaper Chinese bikes out there, some I would avoid, some I think with some looking after they could do the job for a low price. There are also some European cargo bikes that look great, but don’t have the function. I look for a bike with components that will last, will look good for many years and that has good function, but it’s important to have a good relationship with the supplier. It’s a small world and I know most of the builders personally. As much as I would like to have all the cargobikes here that make me drool, you have to be sensible. With bikes offering a small margin and a slow turnover, its picking bikes that best suit your customers.
My Cardiff and Bristol customers are a bit different to those in London. If i can’t find the right bike, we look at making it. That’s the next chapter for us, we aim to launch our sister companies new Boxbike at Bespoked in April.
Photo credit: Jake Wills