Set up as a social enterprise, Hub and Spoke is a very apt name for what is has become a focal point of the Harlow cycling community.
Run by volunteers ranging Bikeability standard instructors to an eclectic mix of bicycle-enthused mechanics, the not-for-profit centre returns all revenues above its costs into engaging the locals in cycling. That’s anyone from school kids, to the local GlaxoSmithKline’s staff and even a 92-year-old fixed gear rider, among countless others.
Much like the history of cycling in Harlow, Hub and Spoke’s journey has been a bit of a rollercoaster. In the 1970s, Harlow had a strong industrial scene and enjoyed a substantial modal share for cycling, so much so that when it was time for the factories to kick out, motor traffic would often be brought to a halt to make way for the hoards of cyclists leaving. The legacy of this is 30 miles of cycle tracks in the town. Sadly, as the car has risen to prominence, cycling’s modal share has dipped drastically.
It could be about to turn a corner though, according to current Hub and Spoke volunteer director Derek Mullan.
He told BikeBiz: “We had our funding cut in half by Essex County Council in recent times. Though cycling is a force for good and returns many benefits, we were not exempt from some harsh cuts and so we’re currently in the process of downsizing from two neighbouring units to just the one. It’s beneficial in some ways, as we’ve had to become a bit more business minded in our approach and for the past two months we’ve seen a sharp upturn in takings – more than just a seasonal shift.”
With that in mind, retail has become a larger part of driving finances. Bikes typically sell from £25 for recycled kids builds, to £150 for the best adult bikes. There’s a graveyard for donated bikes where frames and components are assessed for safety before either being rebuilt or chopped in half.
“That’s a means to an end though,” explains Mullan. “Our primary goal is the social component. For example, we’ve taken on several people from disadvantaged backgrounds and trained them up to become Cytech mechanics who have gone on to get jobs in the industry. I worked in the NHS for many years and, obesity aside, the next big challenge is social isolation. With that in mind we’re engaging a big part of the elderly community in cycling again. In many
cases they’re engaging us, there’s something going on with the over 50s! I guess it’s because so many used to cycle in Harlow but gave it up.”
As the business becomes more retail focused, new bike sales are an avenue for exploration. However, with one new to five recycled build currently sold, it’s events like the recent CTC organised Big Bike Revival that are giving the business a shot in the arm, says Mullan.
“That helped us actually stick some cash in our volunteers pockets. We did in the region of 250 bikes over the space of two weeks, which has helped out in terms of return custom too. Sadly the high-end market’s just not that strong in Harlow, so much so that on the off chance a high-spec build comes our way we turn to online and eBay – something that we’re looking to develop. What’s particularly fun for a lot of our volunteers and myself is spotting collectors items that have been discarded by those looking to clear relics out of sheds. Every now and then we’ll come across some ancient Campag and be able to revive it for a collector.”
The social effort extends to regular shop rides too, with around one per day at present led by one of the shop’s trained volunteers.
“These are anything from training new cyclists on the tennis courts over the road to 50-mile led rides. We’ve had some great success stories here, in particular one lady who became partially paralysed. When she came to us cycling was a dream. Six months later we have her rehabilitated, able to cycle and leading some rides. Her progress has been immense to watch,” says Mullan.
There’s few operations like Hub and Spoke surviving in the UK, with London’s BikeWorks perhaps the closest neighbour of its kind. Despite the hefty funding cut, income from Essex County Council to develop its social components has been secured for the next three years, bringing at least some future stability.
“Our next task is to crank up the marketing ahead of Ride Harlow in August, which we hope will attract as many as 400 riders of all abilities on a guided cycle of the local networks. Going forwards we also hope to better develop our links with schools. The last round of 30 emails to head teachers only got one response, which we followed up on with free training sessions. With Harlow having an above average obesity rate, it’s important to get kids moving in an active way while they’re young.”
So what does the future hold given the shift in focus?
“We’ll no doubt soon have to be open five days a week, as opposed to the current three,” says Mullan.
“The foundations are now here to take Hub and Spoke forward as a business and to give more back to cycling than ever. We’re run by good people and we’ve hired in some key experience too, so we’re hopeful we can contribute to upping cycling’s share again, locally, at least.”
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