April 13th 2014.
After two years of planning and four months of building, blue skies and Spring sunshine welcomed the opening of The VeloHouse cycle cafe & shop in Tunbridge Wells last weekend. I was more than happy to coincide a visit to the completed project with the chance to take my family to watch this year’s edition of Paris-Roubaix on a big screen with some good food and a few beers close at hand.
We drove down from Blackheath after cheering on the London marathon runners leaving Greenwich Park on their long, hard journeys around the capital. Having spent the last few months following owner Olly Stevens’ own long, hard journey towards this moment, it was hugely gratifying to walk through the doors a little after noon and not be able to find a free table to sit at. The ground floor cafe, bathed in beautiful sunshine, was packed to the exposed concrete beam ceiling with lycra-clad cyclists, coffee-loving couples and a fair few family groups. Olly, manning the cafe’s bar, with a large team of helpers in the kitchen all decked out in their new VeloHouse uniforms by Vulpine, looked to be in his element.
Despite being brand new, there was no hint of awkwardness in evidence amongst the staff or customers and the cafe buzzed with an ease-inducing atmosphere. The large, communal main tables and lightly industrial decor lend a welcome informality to the place. The mix of various chairs and banquette seating also set the relaxed tone straightaway. As some of the Sunday cyclists moved off to finish their ride we eventually bagged a smaller table beneath one of the bikes hanging in the main window – a Ritte with a striking paint job – and settled in for the afternoon. Our two boys were quick to spot the day’s free WiFi password – a nod towards Bradley Wiggins’ most famous year – and settled down to amuse themselves until Roubaix really hotted up. They re-surfaced a couple of times with requests for frites, sausage sandwiches or apple juice but were quickly at home in what is a pretty child-friendly venue.
Southborough Wheeler’s – one of the many local clubs – were much in evidence and, judging by the beers on their tables, they had already completed their ride for the day. Most were staying on for the race and the sense of the existing friendships that they, and many of the other customers brought, provided a warmer, more approachable atmosphere than is usually found in London’s cycle cafes.
As the Pro Teams hit the Arenberg we began the similarly tricky task of picking a way through the food menu and extensive (mainly Belgian) beer list. We paired a non-alcholic Jupiler beer with a Beetroot superfood salad, and a large frosted Blanches De Bruxelles with the VeloHouse club sandwich and a cup of twice-fried frites with the inevitable dollop of mayonnaise. All were excellent. The cakes on display looked equally tempting and, if I had earned them by riding down, I would have been able to give a verdict. Next time maybe..
The cafe works really well. There are a few nice simple touches – like the lending library of books and magazines in the corner – which work alongside the more sophisticated things that Olly had envisaged from the start such as the CCTV showing the bike park at the back. The local area maps printed on the larger tables have also been thought about too and some route suggestions have been included on them. GPX data of the routes – which range from the easy 38km ‘Enchanted Evening’ right through to the arduous sounding 143km ‘Beast of the East’ and the 106km climb-fest that is ‘Olly’s Revenge’ – will be available on the VeloHouse website when it goes live in a couple of weeks.
At the back of the ground floor, The VeloHouse mechanics were hard at work in the eye-catching workshop. Simultaneously building up new bikes for the shop upstairs and already with customer’s services and repairs booked in, they looked to be very busy far beyond the opening weekend. The space isn’t hidden away like so many bike shop workshops and they were happy for me to look around and watch them work. Like everything else it’s an integral part of the concept and the workshop in particular will provide a valuable link between the cafe downstairs and the shop space upstairs.
With the first and second selections being made in the pave of Northern France and the leading group being whittled down and down, we had to wait for a quiet moment before popping upstairs to check out the shop. There is the well-balanced, tasteful range of bikes on show (which have been covered in previous articles), a sophisticated set of accessories and apparel including some nice bits from POC (which, having laid eyes on some of the kit they are making Garmin-Sharp wear, I never expected to hear myself saying) and also a quieter area with another TV so you don’t miss the action whilst having a browse. We found Olly’s wife, Sophie, chatting with the shop manager and picked her brains about the clothing range and checked out on how the test evening hosting her Kent Velo Girls group had gone earlier in the week. She felt that it had gone really well and was very useful to the VeloHouse team who were sharing their vision widely for the first time.“They know us well so they felt able to give a lot of honest feedback and we are taking that onboard already. Getting more women’s bibshorts is a definite must!” As well as talking about the POC range we also admired the Cafe du Cycliste ranges, which Olly and Sophie had stumbled on during a trip to Nice. “There was this one guy in a little room selling this brilliant clothing,” she says. “We asked who made it and he looked surprised, ‘C’est moi, naturellement.'” Sophie reckons that their Madeleine gilet is one of the best products in the store.
As the afternoon goes on and the secteur numbers count down one by one, more and more people turn their attention away from their food and concentrate fully on the screens downstairs. The whole place momentarily falls silent as Trek’s Hayden Roulston blunders off a kerb and seems to wipe out half the peloton. Greg Van Avermaet’s fall at Bourghelles brought a similar set of winces and groans from the group of assembled patrons. Ian and Tom, a couple of guys clad in full OPQS kit at the table next to us are clearly rooting for Boonen, Stybar or Terpstra but in the main the crowd are happy to see Thomas and Wiggins giving good accounts for the British contingent and just want to witness an exciting race. Ian tells me that he has given up a trip to Roubaix itself to come to The VeloHouse opening, which is a mark of how important it is being viewed in Kent cycling circles. Ian and Tom, who works for Quick-Step flooring here in the UK, are already planning their Grand Tour watching in what they describe as their new ‘local’.
Somewhere around the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Olly was finally able to extricate himself from his hosting duties and, in between beaming smiles, tells me how they ran out of milk a number of times on Saturday, necessitating multiple trips to the local supermarket just to keep the coffees going. “Fifty litres!” he says proudly. All family hands have been to the pump throughout the weekend too, with Olly and Sophie’s teenage daughter Izzy helping out on the cafe. She has also contributed to the project with a few design ideas. One of the first things I noticed on my trip upstairs was a light-hearted set of symbols under the hooks in the fitting rooms indicating Yes, No or Not Sure for possible purchases. “That was one of Izzy’s,” says Olly. It’s a perfect distillation of the un-precious VeloHouse style and is, as with everything almost else, done with an assured graphic sensibility that grounds and links everything in the place.
As expected, the realisation of the project did go down to the wire with a predictable last minute rush on the final day enabling the opening on Saturday to happen. The flag went up after dusk on Friday and the European satellite service – making viewing of the increasingly frenetic race possible – was also a last minute install. There is still much shop stock in the basement waiting to be unpacked and I suspect Olly will be tinkering with the layout and presentation of the elements for some time to come. The memorabilia hanging up in the cafe is a little sparse at the moment and needs to be fleshed out a bit in order to make a better contribution to the overall scheme. No doubt this will happen in time and, as mentioned before, the website will follow shortly along with the bike fitting service .
By the time Nikki Terpstra churns himself off the front of the leading group and starts his open-mouthed, gulping assault on the final 6 kilometres Ian and Tom are in full celebration mode. Indeed, as the Dutchman hoves onto the famous banked slopes of the Roubaix Velodrome, no-one seems unhappy with the result. Geraint Thomas’ last, short-lived burst in pursuit of Terpstra was of course greeted with an approving cheer but there was no sense of disappointment from anyone with either the day or the race. We had been treated to a magnificent race in an excellent venue and (although it is the the most cliched epithet imaginable) cycling was the real winner on the day.
After the race we head outside to take advantage of the tables which are still enjoying the fullness of the late afternoon sun. There we find Laura, a Kent Velo Girls rider, and Ben who are are quick to praise Olly & Sophie’s achievement. “I can see me spending a lot of time here.” says Ben, only half jokingly, “I live and work near here so it will be very tempting.” Laura is equally enthusiastic. She works in the world of cycling retail and knows all about the potential pitfalls of brand building and market position. So, has The VeloHouse got it right for it’s target customer?
I canvassed another cyclist friend, also called Ben, who dropped by a few days later, for his opinion. He was impressed; commenting on the good bikes, the stylish staff and even on the fancy loo’s. He reckoned the hot chocolate was the best he had tasted in years but also felt that the all-important cake needed a little more work. The bottom line though is that The VeloHouse is the best cycling cafe for many, many a mile and our rides out from London into Kent will now need to get a bit longer in order to make this our regular pit-stop.
After the rush of the opening weekend, there will inevitably a settling-in period for The VeloHouse and the team. The menu will no doubt develop and the shop inventory will adapt to the needs and wants of the customers. I suspect that the late nights – currently limited to Thursdays – will grow over time if the successes of the Rapha and LookMumNoHands cafes are anything to go by. Olly is planning to show old races and cycling films on these evenings which is great but I’d also like to see special events like talks from the workshop staff or ex pro’s. Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to be asking for more when the place is only a few days old but I do think that Olly still has a few dreams up his sleeve and I’d like to see some more of them.
The VeloHouse is open 8-7 weekdays, (workshop from 7), late till 10 on Thursdays, 9-6 Saturday & 10-5 Sundays & Bank Hols
5 St Johns Rd, Tunbridge Wells.