Cycling is in the blood.
Start, and you can’t stop. The attraction of the machinery, the freedom of the road, and the physical challenge of pedaling fast combine to form an irresistible lure that prompts many to make it not only their passion but their livelihood too.
One such is Luke Humphreys, director of Velobrands, the company responsible for Kask helmets in the UK, who at 32, is a man who has already spent half a lifetime in the cycle industry.
In our series, Industry Insider, we take the temperature of cycling with those who help to shape it, and with Velobrands set to launch a new clothing line, Chapeau, on Saturday (April 13), one that will complement its successful Juice Lubes brand, and UK distribution of Team Sky’s helmet supplier, Kask, we caught up with Humphreys to discuss cycling’s prospects in 2013.
Can it continue the meteoric rise in popularity witnessed last year? With no let up in pressure from the internet and chain retailers, will there continue to be a place in the market for the local bike shop? And can cycling’s role at the centre of the culture of many European nations, from the Low Countries to the Mediterranean, ever be replicated here?
“I’m a huge optimist,” Humphreys says. “I can see Britain winning another Tour de France. I can see us growing as a cycling nation, and cycling becoming more and more recognised and enjoyed by the masses as an activity or sport, however you look at it.”
The bicycle, from its earliest incarnation a marvel of mechanical efficiency, will continue its relentless evolution in 2013, Humphreys believes, satisfying the demands for something “shiny and new” of a group he dubs, ‘Tech Heads’, among whose number he includes himself. Like most in the cycle industry, Humphreys has a bike build project underway. This latest will include an 11-speed Shimano Dura Ace set-up.
It is cycling’s progress on a broader, cultural level that excites him more, however. “Cycling has made incredible inroads into becoming part of people’s awareness, that it’s here to stay, and that it’s great for the UK. We’re embracing a slightly more European attitude to it than we ever have before. To me, that’s the thing that gets me up in the morning, that gets me excited about working in cycling now – that everybody is starting to enjoy cycling.”
Velobrands was born just over two years ago. Humphreys, previously a cycle courier and a sales assistant in a range of independent bike shops, decided to invest in the business of two friends, one that would become Juice Lubes. He describes the company’s evolution as a “like a rollercoaster”. So how does an idea for a cycling product get off the drawing board and make it into your local bike shop?
Having brought Juice Lubes to market, via a process of sourcing laboratories and packaging manufacturers in the UK, and an on-going testing programme on roads and trails near Velobrands Devon HQ, Humphreys and business partner, Will Miles, decided to broaden their scope to a clothing line.
Chapeau developed from an idea to introduce a chamois cream to the Juice Lubes range, a concept Humphreys admits that, while spawning a host of comic names, failed to produce the desired synergy. “We looked at each other and thought none of this really fits. We need something new, we need something fresh for this chamois cream and we’ll take it in a new direction. We were chatting in the kitchen, racking our brain for a warm cycling term that people could grab on to and Chapeau was born.”
An earlier project to develop “the perfect arm warmer” increased to a “compact” collection of cycling essentials including two bib shorts, two summer jerseys, a jacket, gilet, merino sock, cotton cap, and, of course, knee and arm warmers, that will be launched on Friday at Bristol’s Mud Dock bike shop and cyclists café, at the Bespoked Bristol handmade bike show. A winter collection will follow later this year.
Humphreys admits to joining the industry in the absence of knowing what else to do. A love for the sport, formed “from the get go”, and encouraged by rapid progress in 10-mile time trials, one that in its early stages saw him knock minutes off his previous best times, combined with a natural inclination to retail, gained from his father’s career as a market stall trader.
Despite conceding that he has never stopped to consider the appeal of cycling, Humphreys is able immediately to summon a comprehensive list of its attractions, including the liberation of the open road, the increased appeal of such to a teenager unable to drive, as well as the sports’ physical challenge. “I’ve always been somebody who’s good at getting their head down and suffering,” he says. “Cycling is a sport for those who love suffering, really!”
The Chapeau concept has developed to include a parallel existence as The People’s Bicycle Club, one that allows members to take part in races officiated by British Cycling for an annual membership fee of £1 a year. Humphreys concedes that the moniker places an onus on Chapeau to produce reasonably priced products. He describes the pricing strategy as “modest” and “respectful” and pledges that the value of Chapeau products will be measured also by their durability. A pair of shorts that wears out in two years represents a poor return for the consumer, he says. “We felt that if Chapeau has a message and an ethos of The People’s Bicycle Club, we had to live up to that in the way we produce things as well as the way we portray ourselves.”
Chapeau’s development is one built on rigorous research of garments produced by rival manufacturers. “It’s very important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your competition before you embark upon a new product,” says Humphreys. “We do that with everything: we do that with Juice Lubes, we do that with chamois cream, with warm-up balm.”
Humphreys describes Chapeau’s first collection as “a respectful nod” to those he considers the best brands on the market, and pledges that acknowledgment will extend to innovation for its winter garments.
The clothing is manufactured in Portugal in a factory able to work with “multiple mediums”. Waterproof garments are made under the same roof as those from performance lycras; an important consideration, he adds, if a consistent fit is to be achieved.
Chapeau will be sold through a dedicated website, as well as through a network of independent bike shops. The latter, one in which Humphreys has spent much of his career, is under constant threat from the aggressive pricing of online retailers and the increasing dominance of the ‘bricks and mortar’ market by multiples. How can those running independent bike shops ensure they remain a feature of our towns and cities, and do not go the way of cherished and now lamented institutions like the independent record store or book shop?
Local bike shops who survive will do so only by becoming “key, pivotal figures in their cycling community,” Humphreys believes. A combination of friendliness and professionalism will be required. “You’re there as the emergency service of cyclists; you’re their crutch in cycling. It’s becoming that sport; having a friendliness, having a warmth that you can’t find outside of the local bike shop.”
Despite the cycle industry’s growth to one worth nearly £3bn a year in 2011, according to research by the London School of Economics, commissioned by British Cycling and its commercial partner, Sky, the first quarter of 2013 has been tough, Humphreys concedes. The industry is one he describes as changing dramatically, and in which remaining “ahead of the curve” is very difficult. “I think, as cycling becomes much bigger, it’s becoming incredibly commercial.”
He remains fiercely optimistic, however. His own journey in cycling has been an exciting one, and people he has known for years, who have never owned a bike, are now turning to him with questions.
“Cycling has broken down some barriers in the last few years,” he says, “and I firmly believe we can break down some more.
“Let’s hope that continues to grow.”