The Velo House – Birth of a Cycle Club – Part 3

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Read Part I of the VeloHouse story here and Part II here.

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.
 
olly at bar
 
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.
 
cafe crowd
 
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.
 
workshop
 
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.
 
shop shot
 
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’.
 
Ian and Tom
 
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 .
 
table 1
 
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?
 
Laura and Ben
 
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.

twitter: @thevelohouse | www.thevelohouse.com

 

The Velo House – Birth of a Cycle Club – Part 2


the_velo_house-advert croppedRead Part I of the VeloHouse story here.

March 2014.

It’s almost nine o’clock in the evening when I get through to Olly Stevens for a catch-up about how things have been progressing at the VeloHouse project in Tunbridge Wells. The face on our video call looks tired but his day is still far from done. With only a few weeks to go until opening he will be working and emailing until at least 1am tonight. Ours is the second interview he has done since getting back home from the site where up to 16 vans have been playing a daily game of musical chairs in the car park as the building phase nears completion. A new door out to the car park has been completed this week, perhaps easing the congestion a little bit, and it has prompted Olly into a bit of reminiscing: “I used to meet my riding mate in that car park. Fifteen years ago, when I was living in Islington, I’d get the train down on the weekend to do the Ashdown to Lewes run and that would be our meeting point. It was good because it was central and, being the car park of a bank, it was always empty on a Saturday.”

I venture that it must feel good to be coming full circle and to soon have riders setting off from there again, but the difference being that now Olly is the owner of the bank building and the carpark. “Yeah, although we didn’t set out looking for an urban location initially so we didn’t foresee that. Once we decided on this building it really shaped the direction of the project a lot. The building has become a huge part of what the VeloHouse will be.”

car park photo croppedBreaking through a new entrance to the old car park / new bike park

Having recently spent a lot of time out in the car park (which we really should be calling the bike park by now) directing vans this way and that, Olly has met quite a few cyclists who have seen the poster in the window and pulled up for a chat about what is coming. “It’s been a great eye-opener,” says Olly with a smile, “There have been all sorts of people stopping by, not just members of the local clubs; young people, families, seventy-year old guys who want to show you the bike they’ve been riding for the last 35 years.. There is more interest out there than I expected at the start.”

So will the VeloHouse be organising rides from the famous car-park? “No,” says Olly “We don’t want it to be just about the ‘VeloHouse Club Run’ – we want other clubs and other riders to use us as their base to start and finish their rides at. We want it to be open to everyone.”

Although Olly studied Economics at LSE and headed for the City straight afterwards, putting together a business plan and taking the first tentative steps towards the VeloHouse project were not a straightforward job. It took ‘three to four months’ to put the business plan together as he was ‘really starting from scratch’ and still working at IG at the time.

Originally Olly’s vision was for a mid-ride pit-stop place out in the Kent countryside. “I started out with the name Cog & Sprocket and was thinking of it much more like a country pub. We were still going to have the shop and workshop elements but the cafe side would have been more limited” he confirms. Finding the St John’s Road building and re-thinking the VeloHouse within a more urban location let the project grow in scope and ambition. But not before a frustrating game of ‘chicken and egg’ had to be resolved.

rads and lampVeloHouse signature colours on the radiators and lampshades

The VeloHouse has four main investors who are backing the project. In order to convince them of the project viability Olly had to secure a building. But in order to secure the building, the bank providing the mortgage wanted to know that the required investment was in place. Throughout late Summer and Autumn last year Olly battled to get over this single biggest hurdle. “I had originally approached seven or eight potential investors and four eventually came on board. But at that time it was very hard to move things along. It was probably the time where I most thought that it wasn’t going to happen.”

It was a tough time for Olly personally. “I had left a relatively well-paid job and was putting everything into this new thing. [My wife] Sophie has been my biggest supporter throughout the whole thing but it was difficult for everyone around that time.” Eventually the sticking point was resolved and the building was secured. “We first saw St John’s Road in August and knew it was right. We finally got the keys in early December and started onsite straightaway. The builder that we chose is a friend as well so we were able get underway really quickly.”

roubaix wallThe completed Roubaix wall awaits a staircase

The thing that strikes me most about talking to Olly about the VeloHouse is how is had grown over time and responded to new challenges or opportunities. We tend to have an idea that new business developments are fixed concepts which are rigidly processed through to inception but the VeloHouse, like many other dream projects, has had to adapt along the way. “We’ve had to shift some things in terms of suppliers who we wanted to work with.” admits Olly, “We’ve had to respect other cycle businesses in the area and not tread on their toes but we’ve also been able to add in products and suppliers that initially we didn’t think we would be able to offer.”

The bike and clothing range that the VeloHouse will open with is a good example of how things shift along the project timeline. A couple of the bike brands Olly was speaking to at our last meet are still unresolved and won’t be there for the opening, but he has been able to agree some alternates, and in one case, pull off something of a coup.

“I approached brands who I believed in.” he explains. “Ones I have used over the years and who support local bike shops – no high volume brands. Sigma Sport gave me good advice in the very early days and Focus were the first people I spoke to. They were very supportive and we’ve not really had to oversell the project to get people on board. “

“One of the best surprises along the way has been Parlee,” continues Olly with a hint of pride. “I had approached them earlier but they wouldn’t agree to be a supplier as we are a start-up and had no track history. But when the agent came to meet me – he also represents Lightweight – and saw the space and what we are doing, he changed his mind. He came on the Friday and called back on the Monday saying, ‘The VeloHouse fits in perfectly with what we want to do. When you open everyone will be knocking on your door and we want to be here with you.’ It was really good that someone could see the vision even though the place was still a building site.”

parlee allParlee: seriously desirable carbon frames

This means that the VeloHouse will be one of just a handful of places selling Parlee’s gorgeous high-end carbon framesets in the UK. But Olly is keen to set out his vision that the VeloHouse is not just about super expensive bikes. “We will have a full range for all budgets. We wanted to make sure we have bikes from £600 so we are not too niche. It’s great being able to offer the ten grand dream bikes too but we’ve already got Focus, and have now added Colnago and Scott. Scott have a great range of women’s frames so with all those brands we’ll have something for everyone. “

Olly has also been busy on the apparel side and, once again, his personal enthusiasm has paid off. “Gary Vasconi, the CEO of Capo, came over and loved what we were doing so we will be stocking their range too.” I wasn’t familiar with the name so asked Olly to explain more. “They are an American brand – I first saw them in Mellow Johnny’s in Austin – but nearly all their product is made in Italy.” As we have come to expect from the VeloHouse, it’s pared down, graphically restrained and very good quality. Likewise, Olly will be stocking Jersey Pocket favourite Vulpine, which also seems a good fit for the VeloHouse’s subtle approach of restrained design and high aspirations. Vulpine founder Nick Hussey wrote a great blog this week about the contrasting rewards and hardships of taking the plunge of starting your own cycle business. I’m sure Olly would see a lot of familiar things in there already..

capo allCapo’s pared down graphic style seems a good match for the VeloHouse

So what have the next couple of weeks and beyond got in store for Olly and the growing VeloHouse team? I already assume that there will be no letting up in the run-in to opening on Paris-Roubaix weekend but I’m wondering if Olly has taken time to look beyond the light at end of the tunnel, which is looming larger every day, and thought about the wide open spaces of the months ahead.

“My biggest fear is not delivering on what we have promised ourselves; of underwhelming.” he tellingly reveals. “We are fully staffed now with 13 people and training begins next week. We will be having some local businesses come in during the week before opening to test the cafe and the menu, and then we will be hosting Sophie’s cycle club, the Kent Velo Girls, for one of their regular monthly socials to test the evening set-up. There are about 180 of them!”There will be no relaxing before opening, that’s for sure.

menuThe VeloHouse menu’s is big on energy, flavour and choice

And beyond that? Maybe it’s the tiredness in Olly’s eyes, and hearing that Sophie is also working late tonight on a design project presentation for the following day, that prompts me to ask if he has a holiday planned for later in the year. “Nothing concrete,” he concedes in another clear sign of how something like this takes over your entire life, “but Sophie’s family have a house in France and I’ll join them there at some point for sure.”

I’m relieved that Olly can at least imagine taking some time away from his new venture over the summer. At this moment, with the pressure of delivering the project at it’s height, that is probably the farthest thing from Olly’s mind. He will be 40 shortly after the opening of the VeloHouse and has alluded to the project being a classic case of a mid-life crisis. Starting your own business is a big brave step, but starting your own venue should, in theory at least, be something that you can also envisage enjoying taking part in as well as running. Finding that balance could be the next big challenge for Olly.

In Part 3 (read it here) we will see how the opening went and talk to the VeloHouse’s new staff and customers.

The VeloHouse will be opening in April 2014 at 5 St Johns Rd, Tunbridge Wells. | twitter: @thevelohouse

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