The battle waged by independent bike shops in the face of competition from online retailers has been well documented.
The lower overheads and greater buying capacity enjoyed by virtual bike shops has presented a significant challenge to those trading from traditional bricks-and-mortar establishments.
For the cyclist, this shift has not been an unmixed blessing. While few of us complain at the lower prices offered by online retailers, many would rue the loss of face-to-face advice and the sense of community offered by local bike shops.
An interesting attempt to combine the best of both worlds is being made in south east London. Frank Beechinor and Ray Vella opened the Cadence Cycling Performance Centre in Crystal Palace in March.
In two months time, they expect to break even. The café in their premises on Annerly Hill, a former car showroom, has become a meeting place for one of London’s biggest road clubs, their fleet of Tacx Genesis turbo trainers-for-hire is matched only by a shop in New York, and the shop’s record for the number of Retul bike fits completed by a staff of freelance fitters is 15 in a single day.
Their ultimate ambition is a collection of about five shops around the country, and their “ultimate model” a series of subscription-based services from maintenance to coaching to power meter rental where the customer avoids upfront costs and the business receives a regular revenue stream.
“Where we see ourselves ultimately is focusing on the service rather than flogging you the product,” says Beechinor.
A native of Cork, where he was a county standard schoolboy racer and contemporary of Sean Kelly’s brother, Vincent, Beechinor entered the bike trade as a teenager fixing bikes for club mates. Unable to afford university fees, he opened a bike shop, and later paid staff to run it while he went to geology lectures at University College Cork.
He returned to cycling two years ago at the age of 46 and weighing 18 stone. Three bikes later (he describes a ‘trajectory’ shared by most cyclists), Beechinor rides a Colnago C59 and on a local climb that once nearly finished him, has the fourth fastest Strava time from a cohort of about 400 riders.
Cadence offers five key services: the café, a workshop, independent sales advice, bike fitting, and fitness, the latter covering everything from coaching to a turbo training session.
The idea for a café was born before the shop opened, on training rides that would include a pre-9am coffee stop in Westerham, where the only coffee shop open was Costa. He marks the difference with the Cadence café by the conversations routinely struck up between strangers united by a passion for cycling.
Cycle sales advice is offered from the standpoint of “unbiased advisor”. Beechinor describes a customer he advised to buy a Boardman Air from Halfords. “He bought it there, brought it to us for his fitting, bought shoes from us, comes to bike maintenance classes, and uses the turbo trainers. He’s probably spent more with us than if he’d bought the bike, and he’s ended up getting good service,” says Beechinor.
Cadence offers four levels of bike fit from ‘line of sight’ to the Retul motion capture system used by several WorldTour teams. The fitters who conduct the tests are freelance specialists. The service has proved popular, says Beechinor: 15 were completed on a recent Saturday.
The Cadence customer base is comprised of three typical customers who are “very, very new to the sport”(Beechinor cites the customer with the Boardman Air), enthusiasts seeking advice, mainly professionals, likely to be sportive riders and who might pejoratively be termed MAMILS, and club riders, the majority of whom are members of Dulwich Paragon and Brixton Cycles, many of whom start and finish their rides at the shop, using the café as a meeting point.
This month, Dulwich Paragon, a club Beechinor says has 500 members and no club house, will host a club event at the shop when it closes at 8pm. The synergy is not lost on him. “By accident rather than design, we’ve become a club of clubs, which is great,” says Beechinor.
The in-store workshop allows customers to watch their bikes being fettled. Beechinor highlights the synergy with the café, where customers drinking coffee can watch machines being worked upon and ask mechanics for tips. Bike maintenance courses have proved especially popular with the absolute beginner element of the shop’s customer base, he says.
The workshop is another area where services paid for by subscription are offered. Beechinor contrasts Cadence’s £140 charge for a full strip down and rebuild with a soon-to-be-introduced £30 monthly maintenance subscription that includes two full services a year, plus “intermediate fettling”.
What Bechinor terms “fitness” is another significant component of the Cadence offering. The most striking feature of the shop as you enter is the line of four Tacx Genius turbo trainers set up in front of four flat screen televisions to display the virtual reality courses with which the trainers are packaged, and rented at £10 an hour. After a slow start, they have proved so popular, Beechinor is planning a club league. It’s a service that fits the Cadence subscription model: £10 an hour compared to the investment in trainer and flat screen television.
Another offering under the ‘fitness’ umbrella is a range of scientific tests, including V02 Max and lactate threshold testing. Beechinor compares its position on a scale of evolution as a service with that occupied two years ago by bike fitting: the coming thing. He concedes it’s a large investment, and, without supplementary coaching advice, little more than a “statement of fact”. His aim is to bring the service from the science lab to the high street, and offer it as the foundation for a range of subscription-based coaching services, paid monthly, backed by face-to-face appointments with freelance coaches operating from the shop and plans produced with Training Peaks software. He talks of “getting across the point that you don’t have to be going flat out all the time to get the benefits.”
Training with power (measuring effort in watts) is another growth area, Beechinor predicts. A full power management service is planned for autumn, where, for a monthly fee, Cadence will supply, fit, and calibrate a power meter and integrate with a training programme.
Group rides are held from the shop every Saturday morning and riders guided on routes of up to 60 miles, attracting anything from two to 30 riders.
Cadence has a small retail offering focussed on the bike fitting service (pedals, handlebars, stems, saddles, and shoes) and the workshop (essentially, the drivetrain). Beechinor concedes that product sales are the most challenging area for contemporary high street retailers competing with internet suppliers. The shop has five full-time staff members, and a small team of specialists (coaches, physios, and bike fitters) who employed on a part-time basis.
Advice on custom builds is offered. Cadence has accounts with “most of the big guys”, Beechinor says, citing De Rosa as an example. The custom build offers a synergy with the workshop. The bike is on the premises and the customer invited to watch the assembly.
Cadence is, says Beechinor, a work in progress. After just five months trading, he estimates the business is two months from breaking even. “We’re focusing on ‘high value add’, rather than trying to be a ‘me to’ bike shop,” he says. “For us, it’s a question of how we surround and keep adding to those core services. Just because we thought it was a good idea, it doesn’t mean people are going to come and spend good money on it. They key thing is not to get locked in to anything.”