Rebecca Morley catches up with Pennine Cycles director Sandra Corcoran on her recent BikeBiz Awards nomination and owning a bike shop for 21 years
The cycling industry has changed dramatically over recent years, particularly with the rise of the internet redefining how consumers make purchases. But bike shops will always be needed to offer expert advice and personal service to customers, and one store that has been leading the way in Bradford is Pennine Cycles, which has been owned by Paul and Sandra Corcoran for the last 21 years.
Originally Whitaker and Mapplebeck Cycles, the shop was established back in 1946 – when friends Johnny Mapplebeck and Geoff Whitaker returned from the war and wanted to do something they enjoyed which also enabled them to ride their bikes, explains Pennine Cycles director Sandra Corcoran. “Johnny Mapplebeck, who recently died at age 101, had fallen in love with the Italian bicycles whilst serving in Italy. His former boss lent him some money to get started. The business evolved into Pennine Cycles in the 1950s as Geoff Whitaker left the business and Geoff Wood, who at the time owned Pennine Accessories, joined with Johnny.
“Over the years, there were various small investors who came and went as that’s how business raised cash in that era. In the 1980s, Johnny asked Paul Corcoran to manage the business.” In the early 90s, Paul Corcoran invested in the business and became company secretary and a director. The business also had to move premises and relocate to where it is now – it has been located at its current site on Thornton Road for over 20 years.
“I was a customer at the old shop and had been to the vets racing in Austria a few times with Johnny,” continues Sandra Corcoran. “In 1999, when Johnny was 80, he wanted to retire to Canada and join his daughter Barbara. I was engaged to Paul at the time and on 2nd February 2000, we became the owners.”
But owning a bike shop was not actually on her dream board, she says. “I’d had a career in local government and took redundancy in 2003 after Paul and I married in Barbados. I then trained as a community health trainer and worked for myself so was a fit for the bike shop too. Paul and I complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the business.
“I had to learn about the technical side of bikes and not just the fashion side. I did go on a bike mechanics course and have the certificate! But I have learned everything about the cycling industry and bike shop from Paul. We recently celebrated 21 years of owning the business, which is hard to believe. It’s been lots of fun travelling on business to Hong Kong, Canada and Beijing as part of UK Government trade missions as well as visiting the European Parliament a couple of times, and dined at the embassies in Paris, Brussels and Beijing.
“Meeting the brand owners of what we sell is always interesting and finding out more about how our distributors and suppliers operate and who they are is important to me as an independent bike shop. I was involved in helping at local races and time trials long before Pennine Cycles and will always continue to do so in my life of cycling.”
Despite being allowed to remain open during each lockdown, bike shops have still faced challenges due to COVID-19 and social distancing restrictions, with many having to adapt operations as a result. “In the first lockdown, we had to learn quickly and Paul was the only one in the shop seeing people a lot of the time outside,” says Corcoran. “We have a car park and we had good weather which helped when people were queuing outside.
“We also asked customers to make appointments and make orders by phone and email for curbside collection and delivery. We had the door locked so people couldn’t just walk in and there was no browsing. We had hand sanitiser and social distancing. We launched our online shop and are still building on that, and recently introduced a subscription cyclists monthly treat box and one for Valentine’s Day. Because our Bradford area has been in restrictions and high tiers all the way through the pandemic, we have seen a fall in footfall. Also, the shortage of bikes has meant we’ve lost new sales.”
December last year saw Corcoran shortlisted for BikeBiz Woman of the Year at the 2020 BikeBiz Awards, alongside Beryl’s Georgia Yexley, Chicken CycleKit’s Lauren Goode, CSG’s Nikki Hawyes, Off Road CC’s Rachael Wight, and the winner, Epic Road Rides’ Clare Dewey. The Award is designed to celebrate any woman who has made a marked impact in the cycle industry over the last year. “It was amazing and meant the world to me,” Corcoran says on receiving the nomination. “It was exciting in these strange times.
“It meant recognition of 20 years in the cycle industry as a woman seeing lots of changes and I am so passionate about the industry and all things cycling. My heart is in Pennine Cycles and the history I am part of. One of the positives about being a businesswoman in the world of cycling is people always remembering ‘Mrs Pennine’.”
On her experiences of being a woman in the cycling industry, Corcoran says what she remembers most is going to bike shows in the UK and men on the stands ignoring her. “Paul was always good at including me and I listened and learned. Over the years, I gained credibility and respect and, like most things in life and in business, you have to build relationships. At the Italian and US bike shows, they seem to like the fact of a British female bike shop owner.
“In recent years, it’s been good to have some women reps in the shop. It was over 20 years ago when I joined the cycle industry, and as in everything, there have been many changes bringing new opportunities and challenges.”
If Corcoran could give one piece of advice to women entering the industry, what would it be?
“Believe in yourself,” she says. “Having belief helps self-esteem and confidence and gives inner strength to go forward and meet any opportunities and challenges. It’s also a good idea to find a good mentor to watch and learn as I did with Paul, and having someone who supports you. I’ve mentored and supported many young female entrepreneurs starting out in business as I have a lot of experience to offer and I’m always learning myself. You have to love what you do with a passion as I do – but that’s in everything we do, not just the cycle industry.”