Interview: Fullcity Cycles

This is the first post in a series of interviews with some of our clients and friends, aiming to highlight the triumphs and struggles of running your own business. Where better to start than the spiritual home of London cycle couriers: Fullcity cycles.

A small bike shop located on Leather Lane in Farringdon, every inch of Fullcity is stuffed with bikes and bike parts, but it’s more than just a shop. It’s a mecca for cycle couriers who gather during summer nights and often begin races from just outside their doors. We went to meet Janine and George to get the lowdown on how they came to be.

We sincerely hope every interview in this series is as interesting as this one.

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How did you get into the industry?

George
I’ve always been into bikes and bike riding, and this particular bike shop was an opportunity to get a bike shop going without reinventing the wheel. This is just a continuation of what I do. The courier association was part of the shop and we wanted to maintain that, we wanted to keep that going and improve on it, shepherd it along.

How did you come across Fullcity?

George
There was a friend of mine who I’ve known for a long time, Emma, her father was a cyclist and I used to fix his bikes. She knew about the shop and worked here and that kind of arranged the possibility of carrying the baton, and that’s what happened.  We got a group of people together; some friends  and associates and we went ahead and took over the shop about 2 ½ – 3 years ago.

So what’s your ethos here?

George
Well I’m the crazy bike person, so I was always the person who was gonna make the bike thing work, my interest lies in everything pedal powered. My reason for being here is to connect people with their bikes. Make more people ride bikes. thats kind of the core basis for what I do and why I’m involved.


What attracted you to Fullcity?

George
Part of it is, that there is really nowhere to open a truly independent bike shop, in my opinion it’s kinda saturated, a lot of high end bike shops are opening but it’s whether they stay open. We felt that we wanted a place that had potential and had something going, something that had character and persona. This definitely, Fullcity, that’s the place. Its about location, it’s about the people associated with it. And so yeh, it’s one of the very few places that I would’ve ever considered getting involved with. The market is saturated and opening a bike shop is kind of a non-starter in many ways in London. This was already here and turned out to be a really interesting place as well.

What were the first things that you struggled with when you took over here?

George
Besides the lack of space, it’s trying to integrate the needs of couriers that are a part of the place with the commercial needs of just a regular shop in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. They’re at opposite ends, they are at odds with each other, The couriers want something cheap, fast, simple and easy, maybe something second hand. So we’re trying to create the recycling ethos, the green environmentalist ethos of reusing parts that are safe to reuse. We want to work with the couriers, keep em rolling – who live their lives on the edge, and at the same time run the shop like a regular bike shop, on a high street in London, which is a very expensive proposition.  That’s what we found difficult, the main problem is integrating and streaming the second hand, the recycling part of our product range into the mainstream bike shop.

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More struggles?

George
Virtually no working capital, we were crazy, we still are, so it was seat of the pants stuff, and it still is, is that a British expression? Flying by the seat of your pants? Lifting one’s self by one’s bootstraps? So yeah, we basically had no working capital, it was and is intensely difficult, ridiculously, crazily, preposterously difficult. We tried to remodel while still open for business. which is crazy, but we had to stay open for business immediately, and so trying to remodel while fixing bikes is crazy. Really the word is crazy. Our catchphrase; we are crazy. Crazy cyclists; that’s what we’re about.

Give me a little insight into your history.

Janine
I’m an indoor cycling instructor, a spinning instructor, I train instructors, I’ve been in the fitness industry for about 25 years, and I’m only 35! I’ve always been into biking and road bikes, I’ve always ridden but somehow riding bikes, being on the road, became my life. I got to know the shop before George bought it, I was a friend of the shop, initially, a customer of the shop, and somewhere along the line I ended up being a friend of George’s, I’ve known George pretty much since he took on the shop although I’ve only been properly involved with the shop over the last 18 months.

George
She’s a guardian angel.

How did the relationship with the couriers form?

Janine
Early on in the shops history they kind of just pitched up, one by one, like cats. One of them pitched up and stayed, and then a couple rolled in and hung out together, then it was like they all kind of found their way here, we didn’t invite them, we didn’t stop them, we didn’t encourage it. We didn’t discourage it.

George
It was unwittingly encouraged. It was about being friendly, wanting to help them out. Which is always difficult to do, it’s not an easy thing.

Janine
We had a little core that used to come and hang out, just to get out of the cold.

George
The place was unwittingly a bike kitchen, It evolved into the perfect bike kitchen, a sort of bits place where people might find a deal, and not be kicked out and can maybe borrow a tool and borrow the pump without being made to feel uncomfortable, like if you walked into some fancy chi-chi bike gallery.

Janine
We wanted to be the opposite of chi chi, and I think we’ve succeeded pretty well..

George
[laughing] That wasn’t necessarily intentional..

Janine
I think we should stick with it, we should say that we wanted to be the exact opposite.

George
Thats who we are, we all have a little bit of hillbilly in us. There’s a high genetic hill billy content. My hill billy gene is quite strong, so definitely trailer parks and hillbilly’s – that’s where I come from. That fits in with the couriers, moving from one squat to another, their bikes always breaking down. They never have any money, and so that kind of thing that fits together. Thats a good fit.

The bike is like a tool and they’ve gotta keep their running costs low, that helps. There’s only a few chi chi couriers – like Atis… [Atis is a courier who’s been standing around in the shop with us. He’s well known on the scene for riding a hot pink bike and wearing tight lycra shorts come hail, rain or shine]

Atis
I don’t even know what chi chi is… you’re like an older incarnation of the 80’s.

George
80’s ok, I thought you were gonna say the 60’s. I’m glad you didn’t.

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Do you have any plans to work even more closely with the couriers in the future?

Janine
I would like to think that we will have the time and the facilities to do a blog and maybe have a joint project with merchandise, so that they can use their logo and our logo and we can continue to work together, because they are a very creative and unusual bunch of guys.

George
Not all the guys are like that, this is a tough game. Most of them will flip from one side to the other. And some can be pretty damaged goods.

Janine
[referring to couriers] Guys like Atis and Mark and Neil, they are good characters, and being a courier suits them, but it’s what they do, rather than who they are, if that makes sense?

George
You need to have a high tolerance level to merge the demands of these guys into a place that needs an element of regularity to it. Otherwise you would be lurching from one incident to another. That’s the flip side of it that people don’t realise.

Janine
I would love to think that we could continue to develop an ongoing relationship with someone like Clarence and James [couriers, the same James that we chatted to about building a fixed gear bike], they’re very creative.

George
There is so much creativity, people like Clarence and James, Thats why we like it, they bring the fun into the bike shop. They add the fun element.

Janine
You’ve been here on a Friday night? The guys they all come down, hanging around, They’ve had a stressful day, they don’t get paid that much and have done so many miles to earn any money, and they just wind down and they hang out here and this feels like a comfortable place for them, they know if they’re in trouble George will help them out.

George
I try to, yeah. We try our best, bikes are difficult, bikes are nasty difficult items to fix. We’re trying to be a bijoux bike shop that caters to everyone. Offering a good service whilst still being a courier friendly place.

So you guys, hang around on Friday’s and create a place for the couriers to meet how did that come about?

Its just way we work, the couriers come down to meet up, hang out, wait for jobs, and you know it’s a lot to do with the street itself. Pedestrianised street, its safe to be in the street, there is no roaring traffic, its pretty amenable, there is car traffic, people are allowed to come in a car but people don’t. It’s kind of like a street would have been in the 20’s or 30’s; people walking, because it’s a market street and that’s really important, you can stand out there and you can hear yourself speak. There’s really no other bike shop like this, with this kind of location. It’s pretty unique. Brick lane’s kind of cool but it’s on a busy street. Anywhere where there’s cars, cars create dead zones and the fact that there’s always a crowd of people drinking at the pub next door. Thats all fundamental to a place like this. Thats why its all worked out – it just turned out like that.

The Oakley shop down the road, they’ve tried to pick up on that, the little pop-up.

We aim to provide a little community, I mean we haven’t even finished with our remodel. We’ll have a little workstation for couriers tools and everything will be a little more accessible. We had to make money straight away. We had to start fixing bikes, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to close down for a couple of months and remodelling, we depend on our daily takings. Some of the stuff that we had planned like better facilities for the couriers, more space and a better selection of second hand parts, that’s still kind of phase 3. Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be up to speed with better tooling, a workstation and organised second hand bins.

We’ll have to lay those out in a way that they don’t interfere with the shop. When we took it on, there were plastic trays all over the ground and you had to have hover boots to get around. So there’s still a little bit to do.

Our plans for the future are to finish our refit to create the environment thats a little more comfortable, and better organised. We wanna finish our rearrangement so we can accommodate more people to hang out, and then there’s bigger plans but you know I’m not really much of a chess player.

We aim to improve the environment for both couriers and the biking community. I would like to teach courses, like wheel building, that kind of thing. 2 or 3 students at a time. Evening courses and learning evenings, and a better bike kitchen experience – like a bike kitchenette. Thats in the immediate future. And improving our coffee situation; we want to be like a counterpoint, we’ll offer cowboy coffee for like one buck  and then we plan to donate ten pence from every pound into the London Courier Emergency Fund. That’s our plan. Everyone is selling four or five pound coffees. We wanna sell courier coffee for like a pound, we’re kind of like trucker-friendly.

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[At this point a guy walks in from the council]

Council guy
I manage all the shops along here and on the clerkenwell road, so strictly speaking, because you have a private landlord presumably, I just thought I would pop in because I’ve had a complaint, although strictly speaking it’s not my domain.

The complaint relates to late drinking of alcohol outside of normal shop operating hours, I dunno whether it relates to you or the pub, but they said that the noise and some abuse came from people drinking outside here, is that going on at all?

George
Well, my own observations are that by about 9 the couriers are gone and there’s still a crowd in front of the pub. It goes in ebbs and flows. For all I know there could be one odd incident. I’m in close contact with the manageress with the projects next door and with both PCSO’s and local police officers, and they’ve been very happy. People have been heading home earlier, from what I’ve seen from the pub. People associate with us just because they choose to travel on two wheels and use their legs to power them rather than gasoline.

Council guy
Just answer my question. Is it friends of yours that are coming here drinking? Or is it nothing to do with you? Factually what is the position?

George
Well, the shop has always had an entourage of people that ride bikes and at the end of the day some of them come here and they sometimes hang out in front, and they sometimes drink, we have a bit of coffee on the go, a lot of them drink red bull.

Council guy
Ok well i’m just trying to head off any potential difficulties for you.

George
Well, we have the signs up and there’s a couple of couriers that are quite responsible and they got some pull and I can speak to those people. They’re well connected and I can have them chat but I have no responsibility for those people they are all grown-ups. My job is to connect this chain [pointing at a chain on a bike]. [The customer’s] been waiting a couple days, I’m not recruiting drunks to go hurl abuse all day.

Council guy
Ok well I just wanted to get the facts.

George
I mean do you ride a mountain bike? Well we are drawing up a code of conduct a bit like the IMBA. But the fact that I am taking that on as a responsible citizen shouldn’t implicate me with criminal behaviour. I’m terribly sorry that it’s happening. What exactly happened?

Council guy
There was a few complaints about noise and ‘some abuse’ was the quote, coming from a ‘Litany of people’ outside these premises drinking.

George
That’s pretty vague.

The times I’ve had the most fear. When I’ve feared for my life and my family are times when I get like 6-7 rugby guys on a saturday and I thought I was not gonna be waking up the next day and it’s gonna be me or them. It’s like take ‘em down or get taken down trying.

Living in this city and worrying about waking up the next day. Those fears aren’t caused by those guys out there [referring to the couriers]. Those people will protect you. But the day that you turn your back on those 5 assholes in pink shirts is the day that you get the shit kicked out of you.

This is bullshit, if I’m gonna get fucked up and die it’s not gonna be because of those guys [still referring to couriers]

[To me] There you go man this place is like hardcore, you flip from just fixing a bike and everything’s hunky dory and then you’re risking getting the place shut down.

George and Janine clearly bring the heart and soul to the Leather Lane courier scene, should you need help with your bike then you could do a lot worse than go down and pay them a visit. www.fullcitycycles.co.uk