April 13th 2014.
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.
April 13th 2014.
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.
About three-quarters of the way up the climb the pain in my lower back reached an entirely new level of awfulness. Each bump in the rough cobblestone farm track rattled up and down the body and treated the kidneys to another set of organ-crunching tremors. It was as though someone was hammering out a staccato rhythm on each side of the base of my spine and my poor, bruised insides were sending every sort of pained message that they could muster up to my brain.
With 500m to go on the Oude Kwaremont I had to dig as mentally deep as I have ever done on a bike just in order to ignore the silent screams to ‘make it stop.’ I fixed both eyes on a random rear wheel some way ahead and reduced my world to that one thin strip of rubber until the blessed relief of flat asphalt came to momentarily mute the cries. I looked back for my friend and, after the merest of nods to communicate the sharing of a horrible experience, we carried on to the Paterberg for more of the same.
I have suffered on the bike before of course – shooting knee pains which led to retirement at the nearest train station; returning home at crawling pace unable to change gear with an injured right hand after a crash; epic fringale on an ill-advised ride after a couple of days with a debilitating stomach bug – but I’ve never suffered quite so eagerly or quite so willingly as I did last weekend. In all the cases above I have looked for a shortcut, for a way out, for every slightly easier path that might lessen the immediate pain, but on Saturday, at the height of my suffering, I found myself still determinedly ignoring the option of the smoother path at the edge of the road and resolutely sticking to the root cause of my discomfort. I had come to Belgium to ride cobbles and I would be damned if I wasn’t going to ride every single last one of them.
Fittingly, we spent a night in a mill before putting ourselves through the grinder.
The fear had started the night before, as my companions and I carb-loaded in our idiosyncratic weekend accommodation. Graham, a veteran of a number of previous Rondes, had found us an old windmill to rent South-East of Oudenaarde and, as he, David and I wrestled with both mountains of pasta and the overlapping drawers in the circular kitchen (which clashed every time you tried to open more than one at a time) the discussion had inevitably turned to past difficulties and injuries. “Was that when X crashed and had to get the Broom Wagon?”, “Do you remember when Y’s derailleur disintegrated on the Paadestraat?”, “When was it that the weather was so fucking awful that you couldn’t see?” etc etc. As a novice to all of this cobbled-stuff I stayed quiet and try to quell my jittery stomach with yet more tortiglioni, telling myself it was just blokes talking it up as they are prone to do. But equally I could tell that they weren’t joking about that much and were very serious about what lay ahead by the fact that no-one drank any beer that night.
I had been taking my preparation pretty seriously too. I know we are only talking about a sportive but I had double-wrapped my bars, put on slighter wider tyres and lowered the pressure. I’d picked out my least favourite bidons so I wouldn’t care if they rattled off mid-ride, and also worked hard to put a few extra kilos on my normally slender frame. I had even taking to riding up the cobbled gutters in Greenwich Park to put in a bit of ‘practice’ but in truth I was still feeling very under-prepared by the time we headed up the spiral staircase and through the trapdoors to the bedrooms in the upper part of the mill. I slept well enough but my dreams were heavy-going and juddery - just like the pavé ahead.
The Greenwich Park Gutter – Proving Ground for the Ronde
We wanted to get an early start to avoid the worst of the cycle jams on the early bergs so we were up and eating honeyed porridge before 6am. There had been a vivid red sky in the West the previous evening but when dawn eventually came as we made our way to start line about 20 minutes drive away it was still grey and chilly. The usual debate about clothing and layers was had; too cold now or too hot later? I settled for hot later and, as I imagined the ever more bulging jersey pockets that I would accumulate as the ride progressed, was envious of the pro’s - and their teams cars – for the only time during the weekend.
We were riding the 131km middle distance route. It starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and includes all the cobblestone sections – flat and bergs – of the main race. There’s also a 55km shorter route, and a full 250km route that matches the long drag from Bruges that the pro race does before hitting the more famous cobbled sections in the second half of their race. We saw a few of the riders who had done the long route later in the day, marked out equally by their green coloured ride numbers and their grim-faced expressions.
Our route started with a pleasant 10km up and down both sides of the Schelde river. It was very much a ‘phoney war’ but gave a good opportunity to warm up, loosen up and pause to re-align a back wheel which had shifted slightly on the roof rack journey over from the UK. I was already surprised by the numbers of mountain bikes doing the route – later on it made a lot more sense but at that point it still seemed a bit odd.
I rode my aluminium Cinelli Zydeco cross bike for the Ronde. I have an ancient carbon-tubed Specialized road bike but felt that the parcours would probably shake the glued tubes from their metal lugs so left that one at home. Besides the Cinelli has a compact chainset, which I suspected I would be grateful for later in the day as the hills got steeper and busier.
Condor supplied a handy set of notes listing the cobbled sections.
Due to changes in the route the first berg this year was the asphalt covered Wolvenberg rather than the cobbled Koppenberg, so my first tastes of the lumpy stuff were on the flat roads of the Ruiterstraat – an 800m section at the 11km mark – and the much longer 2.5km Kerkgate. By the time we reached the first cobbled climb at the Molenberg I had got my loose grip on the tops pretty sorted and felt some confidence with just letting the bike ‘guide itself’ over the bumps. Fine on the flat stuff but as the road ramped up to 14% on the Molenberg it was more a case of finding a sweet spot that got enough weight forward to keep the front wheel down whilst remaining seated in order to keep the back wheel from spinning on the smoother surfaces of the cobblestones. For first time – but certainly not for the last – I was thankful that it was dry.
The long flat cobbled section of the Paadestraat at just 28km in hinted at the pain to come later with my kidneys making their first grumbles heard. We were making good progress though and enjoying the atmosphere. The 3 feed stations spaced out along the route were excellent with free waffles, juice, toilets and a Shimano service centre for those in need of it. Roadside mechanicals and incidents has so far been limited to a few riders seen repairing punctures as we went past. The feedstop DJ’s were blasting out a steady stream of Euro-trance music and the mix of pumping beats and bright lycra-clad, energy gelled-up blokes was reminiscent of the morning afters of early 90′s raves. We moved on before the beats took hold..
Leburg, Valkenberg, Boigneberg, Eikenberg. I’m a little ashamed to admit that these four hellingen in the middle of the ride have fused in my mind to become a long single line of cobbled hardship. I big-ringed one but can’t remember which. I did about 15metres on the smooth pavement beside another but instantly realised that dictating my own pace on the cobbles in the centre of the road was a better strategy for me than sitting behind some else on the path alongside. I learnt to say “Links” as I overtook slower riders, and then to shout “Hup!” if they didn’t move quick enough.
I definitely lost a bidon just before the Valkenberg; it slipped through my fingers as I tried to put it back in a tighter than usual bottle cage. It joined the growing stream of detritus that littered the route – the cobbled sections in particular. I saw many lost bidons and bike lights along Paadestraat and Haaghoek, and even a top-cap followed a short while later by a couple of stem spacers on one particularly rough stretch, which was more worrying.
David and Graham had been talking about the Koppenberg long before we reached it at kilometre 74. It had featured much earlier in the ride the previous year and had been a huge snarl-up with everyone forced to walk it due to sheer weight of numbers. The ride organisers had issued 25% fewer tickets this year – stewards and police operated a couple of checkpoints along the route and were being pretty unforgiving with anyone not carrying a race number – so we were hoping for a clearer route. It was not be to though as many of the short route riders joined us in the kilometres before the climb, which averages 11.6% but has a maximum gradient of 22%.
I had stowed my wind jacket some while earlier and was in the middle stage of progressively lowering my arm warmers before removing them when they end up as wrist warmers. With them appearing as like white gauntlets to my long fingered black gloves which were still on, I looked like a Dutch traffic policeman as I started up the slope. By halfway I was certainly acting like one too, waving an arm to implore people to clear a path so that we could inch our way up the slope without coming to halt and being unable to restart. It seemed to be working until a couple of guys on mountain bikes came together in their erratic weaving and blocked the route ahead of me. I unclipped one foot and cursed the lost opportunity to ride the entire course. No sooner had I put my foot down though, a gap reopened and I turned to an unknown rider walking beside where I had stopped. I asked him to push and got the half revolution I could manage with the clipped-in foot going. He obliged and gave me just enough momentum to get the other foot in as the first one came around again. The jam had caused a small section of road to clear ahead and I made the top without another incident.
The Jersey Pocket in full grimace on The Koppenberg.
Just as I was start to feel pretty damn great about my ability to go up cobbles, the Ronde threw something new into the mix. I’m not the best descender at any time but going down cobbles scared me more than anything else that day. The downhill section of Steeneekdries was truly horrible. Brake? Don’t Brake? Loose Hands? Tight Hands? Hoods? Tops? Wide Lines? Tight Lines? Nothing felt comfortable and I went down the section almost as slowly as I had come up it. Again, my mind boggled at the thought of doing it in wet conditions.
Luckily for us the weather was doing the opposite and by the Taaienberg and the Kaperij the skies were blue and the shadows were sharp. It was near there that we passed Joff Summerfield atop one of his hand-built Penny Farthings. I offered a “Chapeau!” as we passed by and the pith-helmeted rider from the Londoner, who is doing all the Classics this year, looked down from on high to return the greeting. There was a lot of carbon road bikes on show of course, but it was good to spot the odd unusual bike along the way. We’d already seen a hand cycle coming into the first feedstop and later saw a solitary Brompton near the finish.
The Kanarieberg was the end of the road for David who suggested that we should not wait at the top of the next climb if he wasn’t there with us. I had looked at the average gradients on the list taped to my stem and somewhat optimistically suggested that there were only 3 ‘easy’ bergs and one ‘tough’ to go but he clearly knew better than I did and found a shorter, smoother route back to Oudenaarde. Graham and I toiled on; the toll beginning to tell on both men and machines. I had to pause at the last feedstop to refill my sole bidon and oil my chain, which had also started protesting loudly about the abuse it was being subjected to. With thirst quenched and squeaking silenced we passed the 100km mark and headed for our Calvary on the Oude Kwaremont.
Having dismissed it less than an hour earlier as an ‘easy’ one, I was feeling full of contrition after painfully hauling myself up that long, tortuous drag. For the first time over the weekend I felt that I understood the Flemish word for the ‘bergs; ‘Hellingen’. Knowing that the Paterburg was the last climb of the day helped the ascent of that one mentally and the steepness dictated that it had to be climbed out of the saddle which lessened the jolting on my battered kidneys. It’s the shortest climb of the route but the top was still a hellingen of a long time coming.
Looking slightly more ‘pro’ on The Paterberg
The run in from the Paterberg to Oudenaarde is often maligned in the pro race and it is hard to get really excited about it. It quickly became an exercise in drafting technique. I had been sheltering behind Graham’s Stijn Vandenbergh-like frame at various points in the day but now it was his turn to suffer and I tried to take some wind off him for a change. We sighted a very broad shouldered man wearing a US Postal maillot jaune in the distance and the goal of catching him up spurred us on for the last few kilometres. The unsurprising discovery that it wasn’t actually ‘Big Tex’ himself was mollified by the fact that he was a better windbreak than the pair of us put together and we rested for a while and planned our big finish.
Actually only I was planning the finish. Graham was more interested in telling me about what happens after the line and kept reminding me that on no account should I trade my race number in for the bottle of Decathlon energy drink that would be offered. “Don’t take the drink,” he kept saying – obviously having been stung by this underhand tactic before. “Don’t take the drink when they offer it, don’t say yes to a T-shirt either. Keep your race number right till the back of the area and you get €5 back.” I began to suspect that he was trying to play mind games and put me off my sprint.
Graham was gracious enough to let me win the sprint before we headed back to our start point in search of David, some large cones of frites & mayonnaise and a couple of beers. When we found him David was holding a bottle of Decathlon energy drink, which caused more pain to cross Graham’s face than I reckon the Paterberg had inflicted. I eventually succumbed to a T-shirt but when we left the finish area and headed back to the car Graham was still clutching his regained €5 note, proud to have beaten a system that was plainly designed to trick you into not getting it.
Flemish Cobbles: best viewed in the evening light, with a beer and a soft cushion on your chair.
We returned to the Oude Kwaremont the following day to watch Cancellara, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke and the others hammer up it three times. I was glad to see that they were grimacing too. After sitting in the sunshine all afternoon, I’d spent much of the evening limping around Geraardsbergen, wondering if we were being a bit rash in saying that we would do the Kapelmuur in the morning. As it was we settled for a very Flemish Sunday recovery ride, being guided home by church bells when we lost our way amongst the identical agricultural roads surrounding the mill.
The Kwaremont turned out to be a good spot where you can almost hear the riders breathing as they brush past you on the barriers, even with the roaring crowds and clattering helicopters. There was a big screen set up in a field nearby so we watched the race between ascents and stayed on for the gripping finish even though our Channel Tunnel crossing was beckoning. When watching the Classics on TV they feel very remote but we were back in Calais in under an hour and a half and I was back at home in good time to watch it all again on the highlights show.
Read Part I of the VeloHouse story here.
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.”
Breaking 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.
VeloHouse 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.”
The 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: 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..
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.
The 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 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
For most there was a carnival-like atmosphere accompanying the return of competitive cycling to the Olympic Velodrome last weekend. The sun shone unseasonably brightly on the crowds who made their way to the fifth and final round of the 2013-2014 Revolution Series and they were also treated to some magnificent racing in the superb building affectionately known as The Pringle.
But not everyone left the venue with that familiar rosy glow brought on by a combination of the sunshine outside and the artificially high heat inside. One person left the venue pale and shaken on a stretcher. Cycling is a tough sport and the heart-pumping thrills are often matched with heart-stopping spills.
The Lee Valley VeloPark / The Pringle
Happy Birthday Zonzon
France’s first post-war cycling hero, the elder and more successful of the two Bobet brothers was also the first rider to win the Tour de France three times in succession. His memory will be eternally wedded to the ‘Casse Desert’ section of the Col d’Izoard climb; a cruel, empty area of white rock and scree on the Southern approach, which he conquered twice to take the Maillot Jaune on route to overall victory.
Olly Stevens is standing in a freezing building site, watching his dream slowly come to life. Off to one side, beyond the usual jumble of site lights, half-filled buckets and strip-out detritus, Juan Antonio Flecha’s 2010 Paris-Roubaix Pinarello frameset hangs rather forlornly on an unfinished wall. Aside from that, and a small poster in the window of what was once Tunbridge Wells’ branch of the National Westminster Bank, there are as yet no other physical clues about what he is creating here. For now it is still all in Olly’s head and on the blueprint drawings taped to the walls. He politely asks the builders to give us a few minutes quiet so we can talk normally instead of having to shout over the noise of the machines working on buffing up the mosaic floor that was revealed during the strip-out in December and which Olly decided to keep.
“The cafe servery will be over here, with the kitchen beyond. There’ll be big communal tables down the middle. The stairs will be over there – where they were originally before the bank took them out – going up to our shop space above. The workshop will be through there, behind the new stairs. Outside, we’ll have seating in what was the carpark and secure bike-parking in the enclosed courtyard at the back..”
Olly showing us around the shop space on the first floor
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