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Culture

Oxford's bike gurus

Samuel Morris of Summertown Cycles and Honour Tomkinson, Walton Street Cycles talk to us about the mode of transport you can’t escape in Oxford


"Balance came naturally."

Name: Samuel Morris | Age: 32 | Lives: Kidlington | Shop: Summertown Cycles

 

How old were you when you got your first bike (was it a birthday or Christmas present?) And what sort of bike was it?

I remember my first bike as if it was yesterday. It was a hand me down bike from my brother which my parents brought from a car boot sale. It was a dark blue girls Raleigh, rust spots on the frame, shiny steel rims (with some more rust) and terrible calliper brakes that no child could squeeze unless they had huge man like hands. The bike may have been tatty and only cost a few quid but as a 3 year old it was by far the most exciting object in the world.


How long did it take you to learn to ride a bike?

It didn’t take long. The tatty blue girls bike had bent stabilisers. The quicker I cycled the easier it seemed to balance. Soon the stabilisers came off. My parents would run around the garden holding onto the saddle as I pedalled franticly to go faster. Lap after lap after lap. The next thing I knew they had let go of the saddle and I had done a lap on my own without knowing they had let go. This was followed by the first time falling off a bike...

Can you remember the exact moment you fell in love with bikes?

I can’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with bikes. In fact, I wouldn’t say it's the bikes themselves that I love. For me it's about the places, the people, and the adventures. Bikes are more than just an object to get from A to B. They build lifelong friendships, take you to destinations roads can’t lead you to, provide you with your fix of adrenalin, push you to your limits physically and mentally. And then there’s racing. That's a love hate story that any cyclist who races can tell you about.

Have you ever had a serious accident on your bike?

It depends on how serious you class as serious? I’ve been an avid mountain biker for the past 20 years or longer. Broken bones, internal bleeding, dislocations and being knocked clean out are a few things on a very long list of injuries that have happened to me. I’ve been knocked off by cars a couple of times, nothing serious, just drivers pulling out of junctions.

When did you decide you wanted to work in a bike shop (and how long have you been doing just that)?

I started working at Summertown Cycles when the shop first opened, 11 or 12 years ago. Back then it was just part-time work whilst I was at college. I then went off to University and came back over summer and easter breaks to work. I’ve worked at the shop since I finished my degree. It’s not the job I originally set out to do but It’s a job that I love and have a real passion for. If your job involves your passion, the less it feels like a job.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Being around bikes all day and likeminded colleagues is a bonus. All our staff at Summertown Cycles are passionate about cycling, be it road cycling, mountain biking, BMX. You name it there’s a staff member that's into it. So it's great to know that all our staff are knowledgeable about what they are talking about. For me though, it’s our large amount of regular customers, from your average Oxford commuters to your weekend warrior mountain biker. We have lots of regular faces that appear through our door. For some reason as well, we appear to receive A LOT of cake...

What do you hate most about your job?

It’s never nice dealing with customers and their bikes that have been knocked off by a car, and it happens all too often. Even worse when you find out the driver hasn’t stopped. Also hearing of bike thefts is upsetting. You CAN have a nice bike in Oxford! You just need to use a good quality D-lock and be a bit streetwise as to where you park your bike. All too often we hear of bikes going missing using cable and combination locks.

There one bike you'd really love to own?

The Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL. At £6,000 it’s a dream bike - the vast majority of parts are carbon fibre, Trek Iso Link frame design decoupler (look it up, its 'rad') makes it super compliant and stiff. Treks lets you customise the look of the bike, custom paint jobs and even spec options. It really is a race ready machine of the highest calibre.

Summertown Cycles is situated a couple of miles North of Oxford City Centre. The shop serves as a popular local bike shop for residents of North Oxford, Summertown and Wolvercote, and also attracts custom county-wide and further afield due to the wide choice of bikes and ease of access.

Name: Honour Tomkinson | Age: 37 | Lives: North Oxford |Shop: Walton Street Cycles

How old were you when you got your first bike (was it a birthday or Christmas present?) And what sort of bike was it?

Being the youngest I didn’t get my own bike until I was at lot older, since there were plenty of family bikes to use! The First bike I remember clearly was an old family Raleigh shopper, with 20” wheels. My father held the saddle and I just sat there perched up high. We went round and round the garden until his hands dropped off (and he is not a man to complain). That went on for a good six months and didn’t really teach me how to cycle properly, but it must have done some good as I cannot remember falling off when I first tried to balance on my own.

My first proper bike – that wasn’t a hand me down – was a mountain bike, steel frame, 80s Day-Glo paintwork, 24” wheel, and it's still kicking around in my hometown as my very short friend brought it off me when I was 21 (that’s how long I kept it). It was a birthday present and I remember feeling so grown up getting it, as they were the only bike to have when I was growing up. Even though the mountains were far away from the suburbs we certainly gave them a run for their money at the local multi storey car park...

How long did it take you to learn to ride a bike?

I trained as an ice skater in my youth; my parents say I could skate before I could walk as a baby so anything with balance came naturally. Probably five minutes.

Can you remember the exact moment you fell in love with bikes?

No, not really as I’ve always been around them. My dad had one of those garages where bikes and vintage cars were always being rebuilt. I was his Tom Boy daughter, always being sent out to the garage for being naughty but it wasn’t really punishment as I loved watching him in his boiler suit continually fixing things and that’s how I learnt to use a spanner. He was a good role model and would cycle 16 miles a day to work-and-back so cycling always seemed like the natural form of transport to me.

Have you ever had a serious accident on your bike?

In Oxford I was driven into; the car had a blacked out windscreen so I couldn’t see the driver wasn’t looking, it just kept coming towards me. I tried to jump out the way at the last moment but it was head-on and I was stationary so it was pretty bizarre. She ran over my bike and my foot and ankle took the weight of the bike but luckily no broken bones. She was very apologetic – apparently her husband was a cyclist and he wasn’t going to be happy she had run me over.

Falling off, off-road, is just part of the deal and I’ve had many bruises from that; the best time I rolled down a massive sloping forest at a bike centre called Cwncarn in Wales after a group a lads stopped dead in front of me. It was pretty spectacular and the bike landed on top of me (the lads were nice enough to lift it off and let me me go in front for the rest of the descent).

How many bikes have you owned (and how many do you own now)?

I can’t really put a number on the past bikes. I feel sad when I think of the ones I have passed on or sold but it's probably around 20. Currently I think I have 10 (I'd have to clear out the garage to tell) but some are restoration jobs as I love vintage bikes. Each one I currently have has a different job - one folds, one goes off-road, one carries my step-daughter, one carries the dog, one allows my husband to ride tandem with me and then there's the one that takes me on touring holidays.

Obviously I have a “pub bike” but it’s a 1940s Royal Enfield that I'd be heartbroken about if it got stolen. I get a bit fanatical about accessories when I get a new bike and my latest Kona single speed has had its bars changed for Renthal BMX racing bars and is about to have a Selle Royal drifter saddle put on it (it's bigger than some motor bike saddles).

My bikes are a bit like marmite, you either love 'em or you hate 'em. I even went so far as to have Chris King marmite coloured hubs on my cross country mountain bike!

When did you decide you wanted to work in a bike shop (and how long have you been doing just that)?

I’ve been running Walton Street Cycles since 2010. Before that I had a less conventional type of bike business that didn’t rely on a shop front and had me in a lovely, damp garage fixing bikes. I’m much happier now I have central heating in a proper shop. And I love it in the shop; I’m not one those shop owners who spends all their time on the paperwork, I’m happy at the forefront of the business speaking to customers, it works well as I always know what my customers want so our stock can reflect their needs.

The decision to work in a bike shop was the best decision I have ever made and the trade is crying out for more enthusiastic people to come on board. It may look like we just run a shop to the outside world but between us my team has so much specialist knowledge there isn’t a bike we couldn’t fix.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love buying stock, it's probably a womanly shopping thing at the end of the day, but I am not scared to try new products and introduce our customers to them. I love hearing about their experiences and seeing them return to buy their loved ones the same thing. I am a bit mad on quality control however and I expect products to last. I can give our suppliers a hard time if they expect me to stock something that will break within the year but I think they respect me for it, since it's really how every product should be sold. I am incredibly proud of my workshop as well, we have some very experienced mechanics who don’t shy away from “difficult” jobs but actually thrive on them. I love hearing a customer thank them for restoring a family heirloom.

What do you hate most about your job?

I don’t hate anything really; however, I don’t pretend to love the paperwork that goes with running a business. As soon as you have this form filled out someone sends you another that needs doing. There is far too much bureaucracy for small business owners. One thing we probably all hate in the bike trade is a BSO, that’s code for a bike shaped object. The alarm bells ring in your head as soon as you see a customer walk through the door with them. They are cheaply, mass produced bikes selling for typically under £150 by supermarkets and we hate fixing them, they don’t work properly and must be depressing to ride every day. Unfortunately, the UK is not as clued up about bikes as the rest of Europe is and the quality of bikes here is vastly inferior to the likes of Germany, Denmark and Holland. At the end of the day it’s a vehicle not a toy and must keep you safe on the road.

Is there one bike you'd really love to own?

I'd like a Pederson and it's now possible as they are being produced again, but they are so big I don’t think I'd be able to ride one since I’m only 5”3. They were designed by a Dane but in the English town of Dursley in the early 1890’s. They have a distinctive hammock style seat and a pure cross frame, not a big seller back in the day but quite a beast to behold. Today they have been resurrected in Denmark and they cost around £1500 for a fairly basic 3 speed version but you can upgrade with many extras taking your bill much higher. Failing that I'd have a custom built Robin Mather’s frame; he specializes in beautiful steel frames but his waiting list is ridiculous as he is so good.

What is it about bikes that you, personally, love so much?

I love all intelligent, beautiful forms of transport but the beauty of the bike is that it is obtainable, unlike a sports car. As a kid, the feeling of freedom the bike gave me was wonderful and today it is still my first and foremost choice for travelling. Visiting places by bike is like gaining entry to a secret club, you see more than others do on foot and see things you would never see by car. It is such a utilitarian form of transport. The world would certainly be a different place without the bicycle, and when you think about it, it could be a better place with more.

Walton Street Cycles, in Jericho, is an Aladdin’s cave of bikes and parts, who regularly import from Holland to provide quality utility bikes. The ethos of our shop is to keep customers on their two wheels no matter what. They also own another arm called Bainton Bikes, offering hire bikes, tours and holidays into the Cotswolds.

 

- Jeremy Smith

 

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