Bike and Coffeeshops

What’s the difference between a bike shop and a coffee shop? About five years’ time.

A growing number of bike shops seem to resemble stylish coffee bars with designed interiors that cater for a lifestyle rather than the rude tasks of transport or competition. This trend isn’t everywhere but visit London, Hong Kong or Sydney and you’ll find places selling cappuccinos alongside cogs and cleats.

Bike shops come in all shapes and sizes from a roadside stall in India selling tubes and tires to a more typical outlet selling kids bikes and basic “mountain bikes” for adult transport. Instead what I’m talking about here is the kind of shop readers of this blog might visit, a place that’s road-cycling orientated.

Cicli Falavigna in Sestri Levante

Visit such a shop in, say, Italy and frames will hang on the walls, bikes are arranged in rows, there will some shelving for clothing and components are housed like museum-pieces in glass cabinets. Behind the counter there’s a range of spare parts on the shelves and out the back, a small workshop. Maybe it’s run by an ex-pro or a former team mechanic. You know the place.

But there’s been a trend for new metropolitan bike shops that have carefully designed interiors that often feature wooden flooring, exposed brick work. I’ve been enjoying The Bike Lane and it’s been filmed in Northside Wheelers, a shop in Melbourne – pictured above. You might have heard of the Rapha Cafés in New York, London and Tokyo.

By now you get the picture. But what’s behind these shops? We can look to another sector, the book trade. In many countries this is dominated by Amazon, an online retailer. Some book shops carry on regardless but others have responded, perhaps by carving out a niche in a particular specialism to become a hub. Many are trying to turn a visit to a book shop into an experience with literary evenings or book clubs and offering coffee and snacks for visitors to enjoy whilst shoppers browse. In other words it’s no longer a visit to browse shelved publications followed by a transaction on the way out.

Concept shopping
Some bike retailers have responded in a similar way. Like books many bike parts are commodities that can easily be ordered online. You know the deal: a warehouse is cheaper that an urban shop with its rents and taxes and more savings come from the economy of scale. Even shopping for clothing and shoes is easy given returns policies designed to ease anxiety about ordering the wrong size. As more people go online to shop for their bike parts, the less shelf space demanded in your local bike shop for inner tubes, bar tape and other basic items… and the more room to install a vintage espresso machine and hang evocative decorations on the walls. What remains are the things you can’t buy online:

  • advice from experienced staff. You can buy a frame online but getting the right size, geometry and position on the bike is another matter. Online retailers are countering with consumer reviews but generally intangibles like advice and experience cannot be put into a virtual shopping basket
  • a comprehensive workshop, often in full display. Like some restaurants where the cooks can been seen working, the mechanics are not hidden in the back but work in front. Obviously skilled mechanics can’t be replaced online and if many people do work on their bikes at home, many prefer to trust their bikes to a professional
  • there are parts you can buy online but sometimes you need them quick. Customers can get a tube, a tire or a replacement brake cable from their local shop faster than 24 hour delivery allows. This lighter stock isn’t all bad for the bike shop who might have had to sink a lot of money into a lot of components and spares only to wait for the occasional sale
  • a “lifestyle” concept with books, clothing, free WiFi and maybe a hub for local riders as a place to hang out. Bikes and bike parts may be commodities but the experience of cycling remains intangible

Metropolitan novelty
Far from every bike shop is like this. Typically they’re reserved for large cities, the kind of place where there’s every kind of shop going to be found. I keep seeing these new shops in the media but they’re hard to find in France or Italy, even in urban areas. Instead they seem more prevalent in places where cycling has enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity, a phenomenon that has gone well beyond the traditional blue-collar clientèle seen in much of Europe.

bike café
“Can I get a ten speed cassette and a cappuccino to go?”

Indeed this trend has gone so far that you’ll find cafés opening to serve cyclists, offering hot drinks, a floor pump and if you need it, a bike tune-up. One of cycling’s attractions can be the exotica, the Euro-aspect and newcomers are keen to buy in to this foreign culture that sits alongside the urban hipster element with fixie bikes. A coffee is a cheap way to buy yourself a quick dose of Euro culture. Café Roubaix anyone?

It’s not all new and linked to the e-commerce. Motorcyclists have known café racer, a bike designed to go from café to café in ostentatious style, a means to allow like-minded riders to meet although the destination was more about the social experience and the consumerism comes from building a custom ride.

Once upon a time a bike shop sold bikes. Most still do but the rise of online commerce is prompting changes and there’s a trend around the world for shops to move away from stocking every part under the sun to selling services. Some are going beyond this as they sell coffee and a concept that means they’re not competiting on the basis of price or stock.

It might look fashionable but if online sales continue to grow then expect the aroma of coffee to gradually replace the smell of rubber and grease in the coming years.

49 thoughts on “Bike and Coffeeshops”

  1. Nice read.
    I think it’s a common theme throughout retail.
    Retailers need to give the client more than buy & sell in order to compete with prices online. They need to offer an experience or a community of sorts where they don’t mind paying $8 for a tube they can buy online for $2, because they go there regularly and like the staff/service.

  2. Thanks, Sir. As always a great read. Thank you for the many, many great posts throughout the year. As I read this I was thinking that you may want to consider to do a story on Canyon who have chosen an altogether different path. They are unbelievably successful and deliver by far the best value for money in the industry. Full disclosure: I own 3 Canyon road bikes but have no association to company or staff! Happy holidays…

    • Can’t argue with Canyon’s german quality & value for money. Especially the old CF SLX line, which Gilbert rode his most successful year on.

      Sadly, mine got stolen whilst locked onto a rack with an Abus U lock under 3 security cameras in Central London. The Mat police said that they can only check the camera footage if I can identify an 30 minutes window and the responding officer on the bike squad obviously know nothing about bikes.

      I think it really is a culture problem with bike theft. Police forces around Europe does not take bike theft seriously. My good money for value Canyon CF-SLX still costs hundreds times more than your average car break in lost. Yet, police often treat the latter much more seriously than a high value bike theft.

      When I saw and reported a wanderer reaching into somebody’s car (the owner forgot to wind up the drive side window) the other day, the police sent a patrol car within minutes of my call, take exact details of the wanderer and get in pursuit in the direction he disappeared; When I reported my bike loss, they told me to wait for the bike squad officer to call back. Two did call in. One did a day later, the other did so after a week. I had to repeat the story and the description of my bike to both of them. They probably did nothing apart from taking my frame number and advise me to check ebay & other online places to see if somebody was selling my bike before closing the case.

  3. In Britain, coffee shop culture is growing rapidly in all retail and social sectors. Most large shops now include a coffee bar and the high street is now full of coffee bars from cool independents to the big chains such as Costa, Starbucks, Nero, etc.

    It isn’t just cycling, cafe culture is on the rise generally in the UK.

    For retailers the added experience of the coffee bar helps pull in customers and away from their internet shopping. Also many larger premises also screen cycle races and films.

    All in all, the links between cycling and coffee is a good thing 🙂

    • Cafe Culture in Australia is unreal, I live in a suburb on the North Shore of Sydney and in the Village area, if you can call it that, there are 6 Cafe’s and 1 Patisserie all within 500m walk to each other.

      We have a Rapha store in the Surrey Hills in Sydney as well, not been to it myself though yet.

  4. The problem with bike shop retail is a combination of consumers and retailers. Customers like me are not served by the majority of shops and, truth be told, they don’t want to. The viable financial model for a bike shop is either volume or soup to nuts. There is no viable financial model to serve a customer that can and will do the majority of their own work and setup. In addition, unless you are high end, “expertise” has gone the way of the dodo … I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten terrible advice from the part time biker wanna-be’s a the LBS.
    I think the future of bike retail is exactly as you have laid it out. Without building a community it is a commodity and one ripe for abuse by the internet trolls who will go to the LBS to try stuff on and then order online. The trend here, however, is not coffee but free beer 🙂

  5. I used to work in the bike trade in Britain and one additional problem is the rise of chainstores like Halfords moving in as competitors. They suck up a lot of trade as well leaving the local bike shop with another headache. This pushed my shop to specialise more with fit sessions and forged new links with local clubs.

    • Walked through the rain there to buy Rouleur but there wasn’t any. Still caught a glimpse of Giro TT.
      BTW I was utterly amazed how cycling exploded in London, endless stream of cyclists

    • When I went to England for LEL I made sure I went to Look Mum No Hands in London. Such a great place that we went there several times. Why not combine the two cultures – cycles and good food/coffee. Atelier De Velo in Sydney, Australia is another good example but more weighted towards bikes than LMNH.

  6. Portland Oregon has a thriving and diverse independent bike shop community. Many of the shops have followed the trend you describe, combining beverage culture (coffe, beer) and cycling culture. Some have enough space to host events. Some specialize in recumbents, or cargo bikes. One of their biggest strengths is the quality of their service departments. While I’ve built and maintain all of my own bikes, when I do need service there are only a handful of places I trust to work on one of mine.

  7. >selling cappuccinos alongside cogs and cleats.

    Oh INRNG, I’d have expected better from you of all people. Cars and watches have cogs, bicycles have sprockets; the two are mechanically different. See my pic right: a lovely sprocket, the ‘valleys’ between the teeth are beautifully round to accept the rollers of a chain. A cog on the other hand has valleys which mirror the shape of the teeth such that teeth on another cog can mesh together.

    Here endeth the lesson.

    (Welcome back by the way, hope you had a good holiday!)

  8. In Bristol we have the recently opened Roll For the Soul

    A bike cafe and workshop, and refreshingly it is a cooperative operation.

    The cycling boom in Britain has kept the LBS business healthy, despite the onslaught of the Internet and big traders like Halfords.

    Once the boom is over the LBSs will have to be more innovative to stay in business. Workshop, cafe, events, as well as niche bikes and accessories.

  9. INRNG – sorry to sully the place with the outburst, I was going to post a review of the place on tripadvisor this weekend but STB’s comment was timely enough.

    I saw the headline and ironically was just about to post about how Bristol’s Roll For The Soul was how not to do a cycling coffee shop. It is as much a bike shop as a pub with a shamrock on the wall named O’Donoghans in the middle of some foreign land that shares no common language is an “Irish Pub”.

    I spent an hour in there recently and saw some of the worst customer service and staff behaviour I’ve seen in a long time. Being openly rude to other customers about the one you’ve just served is just bizarre.

    STB I don’t know if you work for them/own the place and you’re drumming up business or you’re just a fan but to me it’s a coffee shop with a few bikes hanging up, there’s plenty more places that I’d take a bike to in Bristol for work, and plenty of better places to drink coffee.

    Having watched a member of staff laughing in a potential customers face and being dumbstruck as to why they stormed out and slammed the door it just made me feel like if I hadn’t already got my order I’d have followed them.

    If you do work for them then you might well be the person sneering at clients for wanting something different to what they offer, for shame. If you’re just a regular tell them to grow up as there’s a few places to get slightly better coffee while looking at bikes within 2 minutes ride.

    Support your local Bike shop!


    • Careful, Dizzy – mcboo will have you down as a ‘hater’.

      I’ve been in a couple of these places and I too feel that there is an atmosphere of the clique about them. They seem to be frequented by people who, rather than riding, like to sit around talking about it instead; strange.

      Me? I just enjoy getting out there. And not growing a beard.

      • I probably came across as a “hater”, especially given that the ideology of the place puts it in a place that it is easy to dismiss criticism as such (vegetarian, not for profit etc), to be honest I don’t give a flying one though – it was a massive disappointment to go in there and it would be no different if their ideologies were different.

        I’m just frustrated as they are getting some good media coverage but the “casual” or “non-hipster” (tongue sort of in cheek) who wants to sample the culture may well decide it’s too cliquey and not for them.

        Mud Dock used to irk me but guy who runs it is superb and the staff are all friendly enough to make the cost of things in there much more tolerable. The difference is that MD has successful bike and coffee operations which could easily run independent of each other.

        If you want somewhere with a bike on the wall and good coffee without the attitude then Gusto on Queen Square has bike paraphernalia on the wall.

  10. Even Giant are getting in on the act. Their huge new store in London has a cafe upstairs with a screen showing races. Maybe they could fabricate coffee for smaller bike shops that don’t have the facilities.

    • Not sure how much traction it’s getting tho if it’s the London Wall branch you mean. It’s a bit of an odd location. I work nearby and on the few occasions I’ve been in you can practically see the tumbleweed blowing across the cavernous floor space!

  11. Bianchi Café & Cycle in Stockholm opened more than three years ago…

    And in Italy, too, they have a shop in Bergamo (not exactly a big city) that looks quite different from Cicli Falavigna:

    Anyway, it’s true that in Italy there are lots of “traditional” shops (inrng’s description is impressively perfect): they take advantage of the fact that generally if you’ve bought your bicycle THERE, you get a special treatment… You get it repaired with priority, they may offer you a “courtesy bike” if you need it while waiting for the fixing up, any kind of customization is easier, you come to know if there’s a good deal around with second-hand bikes or accesories, it’s really easy to get anything changed in case of problems and so on, they help you a lot with any warranty issue (the shop can apply some pressure on distributors and sometimes even on producers).
    All this, in addition to what inrng already said about “physical” shops.
    Somewhere, you can easily find 5-6 shops within a distance of 3kms or less. And new ones are always opening, in spite of the harsh economic situation in Italy!

  12. Here in MA I saw one shop start with the coffee shop concept & now it is spreading fast. One of my local shops added a spin studio add on to its normal shop. I love the different looks.

  13. As an architect for 15 years and an avid cyclist for over 25, I can attest to this trend myself and in a very practical way. At this very moment I’m designing and managing the refurbishing works for two bike shops here in Sao Paulo (Brazil), both under this “café bike” idea. This is a concept I’ve been proposing for some time in fact. Though it’s not my main line of work , I’ve been doing projects for the bike retail and industry here for a few years but only now it seems to be catching, as cycling grows and gains momentum here.

    This one shop in special (Pedal Power) is perhaps the most traditional and recognized bike shop in town and they’ve been into this idea for some time, as they’re a social hub and a very good LBR with a high-end, prestigious workshop. As such they’re a reference here, other shops expect them to innovate and lead trends so this has become a very important project indeed. I travel a lot and see this happening in some places, IMHO it’s a good proposition as the bike shop adapts to the changes in habits of the consumer and changes in the market to keep serving and thriving at the same time!

    • I forgot to mention that I might donate my cycling book collection (about 100 titles in many languages) to Pedal Power, to start a small cycling library – the first of its kind around here. I always wanted to make the books available to others, and the idea of doing it on a bike shop seems like a way to make it happen. The books would serve others as they have served me, and this could get other people to follow suit and increase the collection too.

  14. In Bristol for nearly 20 yrs we ve had Mud Dock.first rate indie bike shop and cafe/resto above. There are w/ end rides and ,opportunities to watch races and v friendly staff. You can keep your on line shopping the lbs will always look after you.

  15. Love your description of the typical Italian bike shop! My local bike shop, here in St Niklaas (Belgium) is virtually the same! In fact, that photo could be of my local shop, Verscheuren Sport, owned by Theo Verscheuren (multiple Euro and World champ on the track many years ago)! The resemblance is uncanny!

    Our group training rides always start and finish outside a bike shop in Beveren, and even though it is almost 10km from where I live I did go there recently for a new bottom-bracket. Service was not so friendly and price was a little steep, so in future will be back with Theo!

    I have read about the bike cafe concept with much interest, wondering what kind of people and conversations frequent such a place. Is it mostly bike geek talk, or is it more Peloton Magazine content-like, more than just about the bike?!

    The ‘Lion of Flanders’, Johan Musseuw will be opening such a cafe soon in Lokeren, not far from where I live. Will have to stick my nose in and sniff around! Will probably be a mix of real riders and celebs!

  16. I build and maintain my bikes, and mostly drink my coffee at home. But, in one small city (66k) that I ride in and around often, there are 10 different shops. Each has it’s own personality and I try to spread the love around when I need the odd part at the last minute. One shop; a little crustier than the rest, “eclectic” clientele, two younger mechanics (one hops trains for vacation adventure), the coffee’s free.

  17. It’s as simple as this. The coffee shop has always been the cycling clubhouse. Why not put the clubhouse in your shop? The longer people hang around the merchandise the more likely they will buy something.

  18. I rode past the Rapha shop in Sydney today, doesn’t appeal. They are trying to organise bunch rides which is makes sense but why anyone would choose to ride out of that shop and not in one of the many established bunches in Sydney. Style boys on $10k bikes. The coluzzi bunch which rolls out from that cafe is less than a km away and has been going for many many years. Pace can be brutal though! CJ Sutton from sky was out last time I joined that group.

    Agree with previous poster who said it’s better to be out there than sitting round talking about it.

  19. I rode past the Rapha shop in Sydney today, doesn’t appeal. They are trying to organise bunch rides which is makes sense but why anyone would choose to ride out of that shop and not in one of the many established bunches in Sydney. Style boys on $10k bikes. The coluzzi bunch which rolls out from that cafe is less than a km away and has been going for many many years. Pace can be brutal though! CJ Sutton from sky was out last time I joined that group.
    Agree with previous poster who said it’s better to be out there than sitting round talking about it.

  20. You need to take a couple more steps back and look at retail in general. Plenty of “bricks-and-mortar” shops here (in Australia) are crying foul about being outdone by internet sales. Last time I looked , retail has always been about competition. Bike shops are not the only ones that need to exhibit some agility to remain relevant.

    The fact that only now it is being noticed by cycling media that bike shops are diversifying, means that they are either:
    A. a bit behind the eight-ball. Or;
    B. cycling is just reaching a critical mass, where there is the demand that can drive such mash-up type stores.

    I’m thinking it’s the latter. Large (generally stand-alone) stores such as Ikea, Bunnings, Myer, David Jones have always had cafes (of varying quality) built-in. Kmart used to have cafes, but took them all out about 10 years ago. But that’s probably because large shopping centres where they are located are built on this idea. That’s why there are cafes placed right next to shops selling linen. People want to go there and get an *experience*. Otherwise, they could just sit at home in their undies, peck their credit card details in and hit ‘checkout’.

    I always see people on the internets saying ‘support your LBS’. Well, I try to – I really do. But unless they can give me something I can’t get elsewhere, I won’t go there. I hope to see more of this in the future.

  21. Seems to be pretty much a “new world” idea. The Bianchi thing being an exception though they’re now owned by a SWEDISH concern, so the new world (at least in cycling) idea still applies. What Italian is going to fool around with caffe in a bike shop when just next door is a proper bar with much better quality drinks…who will at least tolerate if not celebrate cyclists? In the USA anyway, the bike retail industry has reaped what it has sown over the years by rarely employing competent techs (I know there are exceptions like Vecchio’s etc. but those are RARE exceptions) and stocking little else than what Trek, Specialized or Giant force upon them, whether it’s bikes, components, shoes, etc. They must do something to compete with internet retailers, so turning their shop into a cafe is certainly one way – especially to capture some cash from those who merely hang around and get in the way instead of buying anything – at least they can sell ’em a drink or two!

  22. @ Larry T: It is correct that Bianchi is owned (since many years now) by a Swedish concern but, to give everybody the full picture, that concern is owned by Italian immigrant and self-made man Salvatore Grimaldi who actually also often visit the Café Bianchi in Stockholm. Mr. Grimaldi is definitely a businessman but I just want to explain to all Bianchi fans that the company is not owned by an anonymous investor.

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