Situated on Lee High Road, in South East London hotspot Lewisham, Pedal It is something of an anomaly. I talk to business owner Markus Blanshard, who has been working to revitalise Pedal It’s heritage by growing the space into a community initiative.
In an area that is known for performing inadequately on education indicators, with employment opportunities few and far between, Pedal It’s staff strive to give back to Lewisham wherever they can. Opened in the 1940s, the shop has a long heritage in south east London, and has been known by many names. “I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a social worker at heart,” says owner Markus Blanshard. Since buying the business in 2014, he has offered experience to as many disadvantaged young people as possible. “I work with the BEP in Lewisham. They tend to have a group of kids in their network who have fallen out of mainstream school. They’ll ask if we can take someone for work experience – we’ll have them on for the next year or so.”
Following recovery from an assault that left him badly injured, local BMX rider Jamie McKechnie took a job at the shop. “When we first met Jamie, he had recently moved into the area. He walked in, scouting the shop and people, mostly to see who we were and what we did. He enquired about doing voluntary work; his brain injury had left him with limited communication and movement. Ever since he has been with us, he has had a lot of local support. Customers love him, and his condition has improved. We’ve seen him being more mobile and actually riding his bikes.” McKechnie had been on track to become a professional BMX rider before the assault – a number of UK riders and magazines were already aware of his work. “He just wanted to be around bikes and those who love them as much as he does – we wanted to give him that opportunity.” He now runs his own brand, Ghetto BMX. “Jamie wanted to have something that he could call his own. Although currently a small sideline, he does sell Ghetto BMX t-shirts and stickers.” McKechnie has now become a major part of the team. “He helps build boxed bikes, and enthusing young riders into BMX riding by doing what’s in his blood.
“It’s not always about what goes through the till. For me, it’s about helping people. We’re a business, but it’s about giving back.” The company also accommodates unemployed individuals where possible: “We’re trying to facilitate job seekers who want to come down to the shop and borrow a bike so that they can get to interviews. It’s something we want to do to get people back on the road, and get them mobile.” Pedal It has certainly been blessed with a longstanding history in Lewisham, which has allowed it to service the community. But the fact remains that Pedal It is still a business. “We’ve got really good connections from the time that [the old owners] were here. We’ve built networks with businesses in the area. If you look at the schematics of the area, there are Halfords and Compton Cycles nearby, but if you look at the way that people travel, they’re not competition. They’re on different routes. It’s about trying to bring something in from that. And we know we can’t beat the internet, so we try to be as active on social media as possible.”
Developing customer relations is at the heart of Pedal It’s business side. “We generally try to be approachable. We always try to give impartial advice where we can. We won’t give a hard sale – instead, we ask someone what kind of bike they’re after, and try to fit them with the right one. If it’s a bike that we don’t stock, we send them off to Evans, or tell them to have a look in another shop. If we find you the right kind of bike, you’ll come back for a helmet, or a service package. Spread it over two years, you’ve got a loyal customer.”
Blanshard talks about plans to bring in more hire bikes, in order to facilitate a loan scheme for Lewisham residents. “Something like a library card,” he says. “It does help to offer hire. Especially during the summer.” Indeed, in a London borough, storage space doesn’t come cheaply, limiting fairweather cyclists from having a bike of their own. Alongside that, gentrification is sweeping the South East, increasing the number of hotels in the area and bringing in business for hires from nearby Greenwich.
Alongside workshop classes, Pedal It offers a 24-hour service; as long as the necessary item is in stock, one of the staff will stay late to get a bike in order. This amenity is usually used during bigger events, when customers might have a race the next day, and need a part fitted immediately. But occasionally, they get a client who desperately needs work done. “It’s steady during the week, but we’ll find that often somebody needs their bike for a Monday morning to get to work. That’s when we stay late. It’s funny really, because we’re quieter during the week and,” he gestures at the printing business sharing the shop floor, “they’re really busy. On the weekend, it’s the other way round.”
Late last year, the company launched a Crowdfunder campaign to transform the surplus shop floor into a cycle café. The original aim was to offer work experience to young people looking to start a career in hospitality. Ultimately, however, the plan fell through in lieu of a better offer from the printing business. “It just seemed like a really good fit,” says Blanshard. It’s undeniable that the two shops working side-by-side contributes to Pedal It’s welcoming, quirky appeal.
On the subject of workshop services, Blanshard continues: “If you come in with an electric bike, that can be more of a problem. We’ve had to diversify the business. We’ll always send someone off with a loan if we’re servicing their bike, but we can’t really do that with e-bikes. We have a few, but it’s not a massive market for us yet. It’s something we’re looking into.”
“Even though we started out working on a shoestring budget, we’ve brought up a lot of community awareness. I suppose I’ve been quite active with contacting people, local clubs, schools, which has helped to build bridges and get people in the know. It’s taken some hard work, not just myself but from the staff. But we’ve had more reviews in comparison to any other bike shop in the area.
“So, it’s about the professional side of it: ensuring that the shop can exist, but also helping people whenever we can. They’ll always remember when better fortune comes to them. And then they come in and buy something.”
As I step outside, Blanshard motions toward a man seated on a sleeping bag across the busy high road. “He’s my next charge. He’s been there for a few days. I’m going to go see what we can do for him this afternoon.”