In depth: The bike trade in Wales and the South-West

A look at operating bike businesses in the region
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From Colwyn Bay to Penzance, Wales and England's South West have a number of bike trade stalwarts and start ups alike. BikeBiz takes a look at a small cross section of these to glean some insight and opinions on working in the bike trade in the region...

Manufacturers
Among the P&A firms to have set up home in the South West is Muc-Off. Based in Poole, the firm was set up in the early ‘90s by Rex and Marilyn Trimnell. Now Muc-Off is steered by Rex’s son, MD Alex Trimnall. “We are certainly experiencing the boom in the cycling industry first hand,” Trimnall tells BikeBiz, adding that retailers in the region are tapping into wider trends. “We have found that local IBDs are adding value to their services and choosing to invest in bike fitting and workshops. There are also a number of cycling inspired cafés running their own cycling clubs and rides, which is creating a thriving community.”

Muc-Off says it is well represented in stores across the region and it dedicates time and cash to local events and teams.

“A huge benefit to being in this area is the fantastic riding that is right on our doorstep. The Purbecks and Canford Heath are perfect for our in-house product testers,” adds Trimnell.

Wales also plays host to a number of P&A manufacturers, including Fibrax, creating brake pads, cables and components at its Wrexham location in North Wales. Set up in 1902, the firm has been serving the market since the ‘70s. 

When it comes to bike manufacturers of scale, the South West lays claim to hosting one of the three largest in the UK, Bradford-on-Avon’s Moulton.

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Moulton was set up out of a research team created by Bradford-on-Avon rubber manufacturer Spencer Moulton. The team – including Dr Alex Moulton CBE – helped develop the suspension system used in over 12 million cars (including the original Mini) and then onto the small wheel, full suspension Moulton bicycle in 1962. In 2012 Moulton produced a limited edition Jubilee 50 bike to celebrate the milestone and promptly sold out within days of release. More recently the manufacturer joined the Prime Minister on a trade visit to China, resulting in a special £500,000 contract with the nation to supply a special Moulton bike.

Temple Cycles is a smaller scale manufacturer operating in the South West. Pitching itself as a maker of “simple, practical and stylish bicycles” Temple specialises in bespoke builds, usually for people in the South West. The firm, founded last year, is aiming to keep as much production in the UK as it possibly can.
The firm has been establishing itself through events, as founder Matt Mears tells BikeBiz: “We have been doing a fair amount of street promotion and events and have met so many people who are interested in cycling. Our bikes attract quite a lot of attention, so we have inquisitive customers asking about all the finer details such as what sort of paint we use, who makes our head badges and what sort of steel we use.

“One of the aspects of our bikes is the classic style. Many bike shops seem to think that this isn’t so popular anymore, but we cater for a different audience. Our customers care about the aesthetic as well as the ride, quality and spec. I fell our bikes cover all these bases well and that’s why we think people buy them.”

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Sticking with smaller bespoke manufacturers, the South West plays host to the UK’s handmade bicycle show, Bespoked. Aside from last year’s Lee Valley location, the show has been based in Bristol since it was set up in 2011. Set up by Phil and Tessa Taylor, Bespoked got underway with 40 exhibitors and last year attracted over 120 with local exhibitors and also from further afield, including USA, Australia and Taiwan. This year the expanding event is taking place over two venues – Brunel’s Old Station and the Arnolfini Gallery.

Events
Generally the pundits we spoke to felt that cycle events were on the rise in the South West and in Wales alike, including Cambrian Tyres’ Shelley Childs. He tells BikeBiz: “Wales is nailing the events sector with some superb international and national events taking place annually, including a host of sportives, IronMan Wales, Velothon and the hugely over subscribed Dyfi Enduro.”

The brand new Velothon Wales has been generating plenty of column inches: Set to take place in June, riding through Cardiff and surrounding towns and villages, it looks set to welcome up to 15,000 recreational cyclists on either a 140km or 50km route, while pros will tackle a 194km course, taking in The Tumble and Caerphilly Mountain. The same weekend sees Etape Eryri in Caernarfon.

South Wales will also see the brand new Change Gear Sportive, running June 21st in South Wales, covering the Vale of Glamorgan beginning in Penarth. Featuring The Bwlch mountain pass, Cardiff and Swansea bike shop Tredz is supporting the ride.

Welsh retailer County Cycles has played a key role in cycle events in the country. Co-owner Peter Jones has branched into events with sister company ‘Merlin Cycle Sport’ with colleague Phil Edwards. The brand was behind the Merlin Sportive which regularly takes over 800 riders over the Black Mountain on the edge of the Brecon Beacons every June. The firm raises a lot of money which is fed back to several local charities and in 2014 Merlin Cycle Sport held the first ever ‘Welsh Cycle Show’ at Newport Velodrome. While judged a success the show sadly got postponed this year. Due to health issues with both Peter and Phil over the winter, prep time for the 2015 April show was so diminished that the show was knocked back until 2016.

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Down in the South West, July’s Bontrager TwentyFour12 is hitting its tenth year. Taking place at Newnham Park near Plymouth, live music is coming to the show this year as well as live screenings of the Tour de France. For the riders, it promises the same ‘something for everyone’ mix including the marathon 24-hour race and two hour options – starting at midday and the Torchbearer at midnight.

Meanwhile SkyRide continues to be popular, closing off Plymouth’s city streets for the fourth time this year. 13,000 have turned up to Sky Ride big bike events in the past. 2015 will see the first edition of the South West Cycle Sport Show. Hosted at Falmouth University’s Penryn campus, the show has been organised by Derek Heelis and will be combined with the South West Urban DH Championshops, now in its third year, organised by the Carrick Riders.

POLITICAL
The Active Travel Bill is a key piece of legislation for cycling in Wales. Passed in 2013, the bill, branded a world first, makes it a legal requirement for local authorities to plan and deliver routes that link up hospitals, schools and shopping areas with traffic-free routes and cycle lanes. Streets ahead of anything Westminster has brought in to date, the bill closed for public consultation last year, prompting Jane Lorimer, national director of Sustrans Cymru to say: “For too long simply painting a small section at the edge of the road a different colour has passed as providing for cyclists. This new design guidance clearly signals the dawning of a new approach where high quality and continuous routes, separated from traffic, will start to become the norm.”

In the South West, perhaps one of the most eye-catching positions of power is that of the Mayor of Bristol, a position currently being filled by George Ferguson CBE, who also happens to be founder of sustainable transport charity Sustrans. An independent candidate, Ferguson won the role with 31,321 votes (his closest rival at 25,896) and he is a keen cycle advocate with a self-stated aim of making Bristol ‘the most liveable city in the UK’. His commitment to improve the cycle network towards best European standards, cut commuter congestion and reduce emissions has led to him being spoofed about his ‘war on cars’ with a tongue-in-cheek song just last month.

SPACE TO CYCLE
Thanks to high profile recent launches like Bike Park Wales and plenty more smaller scale entries over the years, trail centres are synonymous with cycling in Wales, but they’re only half the story according to VAM Performance’s Audrey Jones: “We enjoy some of the finest cycling country in Britain, stretching through the mountains of Wales to the coastal routes beyond. The variety of the terrain reaches across the various cycling disciplines. Over the past few years the existing trails and MTB visitors have made a massive difference to the economic health of North Wales. The pursuit continues to grow with new cross country trails and improved facilities planned at Coed y Brenin and a downhill specific area being developed at Llechwedd Quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog.”

The Tour of Britain’s return to Wales, with Wrexham hosting the finale of the race, is the third successive year the world’s top cyclists will be racing on the region’s roads, helping to pump millions of pounds into the local economy. Last year’s 124-mile stage, which finished on the Llandudno seafront, attracted 110,000 visitors with an estimated gross visitor spend in North Wales of £3.3m.

While the region’s landscape is a boon to local cyclists and tourism, it also provides advantages to staffers from the industry – if you’re in the trade, there’s a good chance you like to get on two wheels yourself every now and then.

Shelley Childs of Cambrian Tyres provides his take on the local riding in mid-Wales: “The terrain, both on and off road, means we have some great trails here in Mid-Wales on our doorstep and the roads are nice and quiet and in a good state of repair compared to other parts of the country, that’s according to visiting cyclists!”

EMPLOYMENT & INFRASTRUCTURE
While the riding is a positive, the region does present challenges for cycle businesses. Cambrian’s Childs explains: “Attracting staff [is a challenge] as the region has one of the lowest average wage in the UK. We like to think that quality of life more than makes up for that!

“In terms of bums on saddles, the road scene is healthy with a nice influx of new blood, yet the infrastructure doesn’t do much to attract commuting and I’d say that this needs to be the main focus in the coming years as current levels seem very low. The region hasn’t benefited much from any kind of Olympic legacy. There is no closed road circuit in Mid Wales, meaning that just in our town, we have 100 kids each Friday night doing circuits of a car park, when ideally we would have them on a circuit or outdoor velodrome which would self-generate further interest with parents and peers via structured competitions, not to mention the opportunities for the budding amateur too.”

In terms of infrastructure, cities in Wales are like those in much of the rest of the UK that jealously look to the kind of cycle facilities London is set to offer with extended protected cycle lanes and the like. Childs says: “We face the same issues as many parts of the UK on the infrastructure side of things, even down to the outdoor velodrome idea. How much would that save the NHS in years to come? These sporting venues need to also be targeted to the GP referral systems so that cycling is used for health rehab like any other exercise. Also, long term strategy is needed to build some more cycle paths to run between major local towns to kick start our commuting sector. This is probably the biggest difference in cycle usage compared to cities like London.”

Media hotbed
Are you a budding cycle journalist? Aside from the obvious benefits of heading to London in search of a job, you wouldn’t go far wrong if you upped sticks for the South West, a true hotbed of cycle media, largely based in the county of Gloucestershire. Why? Aside from the picturesque riding, which to be fair you could find in many parts of the nation, it’s probably largely down to the presence of Future Publishing. While the media publishing behemoth now has no stake in the cycle world having sold its cycle assets to Immediate Media last May, its enviable portfolio has blooded many of the nation’s best known cycle journalists who have naturally stayed local and gone on to set up their own companies, whether media agencies or rival sites and magazines. Gloucestershire plays host to Immediate Media (including MBUK, What Mountain Bike, Procycling, Cycling Plus, 220 Triathlon, BikeRadar and Cycling News), then there’s road.cc, Shred, Boneshaker and Shift Active Media, among others.

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DISTRIBUTION
While the Midlands is probably the first place you’d look if you were searching for distributors, the South West lays claim to a few famous cycle businesses. Probably furthest south west of them all is Silverfish. The 16 year old firm has moved and expanded three times but has never been tempted to up sticks to the distribution heartlands of the Midlands or basically anywhere near the M1.

MD Darren Mabbott tells BikeBiz: “We’ve fairly quickly expanded in the last few years and we’re still focused on committed to the South West and staying in Cornwall.

“I think it’s a good place to work – people enjoy it.”

“We’re very conscious of being a Cornish business. It’s not a hotbed of cycling, but it is getting bigger quite quickly. There are a lot of events down here and it’s getting even stronger.”

While being close to the coast might not be top of the list when you’re locating a bike business, it is definitely core for Silverfish, as Mabbott explains: “For us, the beauty of Silverfish being in Cornwall is the beach. Genuinely. When you move down here we joke about a lifestyle tax. I guess we all pay it, there isn’t much industry down here. We’re a distribution business. We could be in Milton Keynes or in the Midlands and for certain aspects of the business it would be easier to recruit, but our location is actually a big part of who we are – we used to close early on Friday to go surfing, we’d disappear off camping in Cornwall. That’s where Silverfish came from.”

The local riding is good too for a company that includes a fair few mad keen cyclists.“As you get bigger you can’t all be mad keen cyclists, but the core team is very much all into cycling and one of the beauts down here is it is phenomenal cycling. It’s straight up and down. There’s great MTB and road biking as well and some cracking south breaks. And we all like to do some break and wake boarding as well.

“It’s challenging for retailers in the SW, but it is a beautiful part of the country to live. As a distribution business we can do two day delivery into Germany and next day delivery to anywhere in the UK.

“We wouldn’t be any quicker if we were based further up the line.

“Obviously we spread our risk throughout the country, so a retailer will be more affected by the local economy.”

“Sales meetings generally end in wake surfing,” Mabbott reveals. “I guess we have always had that South West/surfing/pasty eating reputation…I guess it is right!”

Moving further inland, other key distributors serving the trade include Cycling Sports Group UK, Paligap and Saddleback, among others. When taking into consideration the global brands they represent, including the likes of Marin, Yeti, Cannondale, GT and Felt, it’s probably fair to say the region is punching above its weight. It’s worth noting that many of those distribution houses have in-house design teams producing product (if not manufacturing it) that will go on to be used over the world, including CSG UK’s Fabric design team. 

Dorset also plays host to business management software firm EVOPOS. The brand has just launched a new upgrade for its EPOS software, pitched as its ‘all-in-one cycle dealer solution’. Covering quick and easy to use POS, comprehensive stock control, workshop organiser, hires, accounts and state of the art automated SMS and emailing marketing, the new version also enhances eBay integration along with new eCommecre integrations for BigCommerce, Magento and nopCommerce.

UP NORTH
Meanwhile in North Wales a younger distributor on the block, VAM performance, plys its trade. VAM was founded in 2013 by family team Alexander Jones – former racing driver – and Audrey Jones, from the marketing and business enterprise sector. The firm brings in a number of US brands like Cadence cycle clothing, Inside Line Equipment handmade luggage, No.22 Titanium bicycles and – from Italy – Spada handmade wheels.

“The business focus is on discovering and marketing new products that bring a new dimension to the existing range of sporting goods in the UK and Europe, Jones tells BikeBiz. “Top of the VAM agenda is quality product with great customer care and after-sales service.”

Retailers operating in the North Wales area must be acutely aware of the local economy’s high retirement population – the economy of North Wales was last year worth £10.6 billion, representing £15,500 per person – just 72 per cent of the UK average.

Wales’ relationship with the North West of England is crucial too, says VAM Performance’s Jones: “The economy has a cross-border influence and interest with the areas of North West England. Many people in NW England work in North Wales while many people from North Wales work in NW England. This cross-border working is of high importance to the economy and to individual businesses.”

RETAIL FOCUS
A number of industry players believe Wales is undergoing a strong period for bike shops. Shelley Childs, brand manager at Cambrian Tyres of Aberystwyth, says: “Certainly there is IBD expansion in terms of bricks and mortar with two local dealers to us either extending premises or moving to bigger plots. They both see the need to offer the customer more than just the products on the shelves with plans for increased social activities based at the shops coupled with café/hang out areas.”

One of Wales’ biggest industry players, Wheelies, thinks the signs are positive for retailers in the region too. Director Keith Jones tells BikeBiz: “In general we have found more cycle shops are opening in the region lately as opposed to three or four years ago when shops were closing.”

In Carmarthen, Cranc Cyclesport opened in a purpose-built premises in 2014 and is already experiencing high levels of demand and a loyal customer base. Situated out of town with a private car park and within close proximity to great road riding and the Brechfa Forest MTB trails, owner Andy Rowlands explains that there are a number of reasons he believes that have contributed to the early success: “We are not just a bike shop. We are the only official Retul Bike fitter in Wales and we stock only the very best products that our customers are asking us for with a focus on custom builds and high levels of customer service.

“On top of this our first floor coffee shop has proven hugely popular with the locals. From business people wanting meetings away from the office to local social groups and, of course, to the local cycling club and cyclists passing by from across the region.”

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South Wales’ County Cycles has been established for 30 years in Carmarthenshire. Originally started by the late Jon Antoniazzi, it has been run by husband and wife team Peter and Sandra Jones for the past nine years. When the duo took the business over, County Cycles was focused on MTB and hybrids, offering only one road bike. Now the shop’s balance of MTB/road product is very different – in 2007 it was awarded dealer of the year from Wilier and ATB Sales.

In 2011 they took on James Walker who has several years experience in the cycle trade with different retail businesses.

“As a store we have not risen to the call of the internet and web sales yet,” says Walker. “We do have a website and keep up to date on social media but we all enjoy the face-to-face customer experience and by the amount of returning customers and regulars we have there is still a place for personal interaction in retail.”

For the past four years County has been the sole distributor in Wales for Condor Cycles of London. The shop’s frame building process has gone from strength-to-strength and has now taken on Ceepo triathlon specific frames. “This has tied in nicely with the Welsh Ironman event just down the road in Tenby as many of our customer travel from that area to our store,” Walker tells BikeBiz.

Now the retailer feels it has outgrown its premises in Cross Hands and is currently in the process of moving onto the local business retail park. “It’s a large retail unit giving us almost three times the working space all on one level with a decent sized car park and (because we like to move with the times) an in-store coffee shop to help cater for the caffeine needs of the modern cyclist.”

Like Wales, the South West is full of well known cycle retailers, not least in Bristol and further south west, the latter hosting Rockets and Rascals. The 2,300sq ft shop and café (serving locally made café and snacks) opened in Plymouth’s Barbican district in 2013, followed up by a second Rockets & Rascals in Poole, Dorset.

You don't need BikeBiz to tell you that this article, albeit generously sized, only scratches the surface of the bike trade in Wales and the South West. If you've a perspective on operating a bike business in the region that you'd like to share, let us know in the comments box below or email us at bikebiz@nbmedia.com

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