Ride Velo decided to visit the hippest bike shop in London, Brick Lane Bikes. We wanted to find out how and why, ten years on from its inception, this is still the go-to establishment for single speed, fixie and vintage aficionados.
When ex-bicycle courier, Jan and his partner Feya, decided to bite the bullet, stop talking about it, and set up a bike shop back in 2006, Brick Lane was a different place to what it is today. Back then no one had heard of gentrification, beards and plaid shirts were still the preserve of the lumberjack and the area was better known for bagels and bandit territory. Since then it’s evolved into the beating heart of the hipster. Shoreditch urban living has become something to aspire to rather than run away from.
The fixed scene was just about to explode and Jan and Feya were part of it. They decided to move on from a part time market stall on Brick Lane itself to something more permanent. When a space became available just round the corner on Bethnal Green Road they leapt in and started to offer something that hardly anyone else was doing at the time.
Fixed bikes weren’t easy to find in generic bike shops in those days and they soon found that the big retailers had exclusivity over supplying the main brands, so they set about doing what they loved and what they knew about. They started by customizing bikes for individual customers. At the time the fashion was for bright colours and mixing styles, old and new, coloured rims and dark frames. Jan and Feya could put your dream bike together that was individual to you, something that reflected your personality and made you different. Jan would help and advise on a choice of frame for you, source the wheels you were after and give you the freedom to choose handlebars, pedals and saddle. It’d be your ride, devoid of corporate logos, plain, subtle and have that single speed aesthetic that we all hanker after when we see a Colnago Pista or a Cinelli track bike.
To do this Feya explains that, “we had to go beyond the mainstream stuff, looking for independent brands and importing from all over the place.” They soon had other shops asking them where they got their stock and before they knew it, the humble local bike shop had evolved into a distributor and supplier. Soon they were producing their own frame in Taiwan as they sought a stripped down, simple, beautiful design that the customer could put his own parts to. Their brand, BLB, was done for them through social media – their cool customers would use the abbreviation all the time, so it became an easy badge to stick on their frames.
Soon their influence was spreading all over Europe: “Berlin, Paris, any urban hub that had a bike shop started stocking our bikes and parts.” They added the word “London” to the BLB logo “because everyone seemed to want a slice of Shoreditch style.” As a result, BLB has become something of a niche in a mass market and has become one of the most recognizable brands within it.
That market has changed over time. Single speed has gone mainstream and BLB have adapted to that. While they still get their fair share of customers wanting a bespoke bike, a growing number want something that has the aesthetics of the classic urban fixed gear but one that they can buy then and there, off the shelf as it were. As well as their own brand, BLB stock 6KU, an affordable, classic looking and elegant frame. Shock, horror, some of them even have gears if you want them. The look is all stealthy and black – the colour mixing thing that kicked off the fixed scene has gone now although Feya says, “It’ll probably come back!”
Look up when you walk into this shop and the ceiling is festooned with dozens of vintage steel and aluminium frames. Jan’s real passion remains vintage bikes and this shop stocks a vast array of steel frames of all eras. As Feya says, “all the bikes here are really his and he just permits us to sell them.”
He ventures on buying trips to the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy to source the best examples. He tends to avoid the big restoration projects and has an uncanny knack of finding old bikes in incredibly good nick. He’s not giving any clues as to where he finds such gems however, despite variously angled questions to elicit an answer. He knows when he’s on to a good thing and he’s keeping quiet. His biggest passion, “is for Italian road bikes with wild paint jobs from the 1980’s. They have such extravagance…Italy has such a long history of riding and producing. It’s an embedded tradition.”
Not content with cornering a huge slice of the fixed and vintage market, Brick Lane has also developed a clothing range. It all started when H&M approached them a couple of years ago to work on a collaboration that celebrated urban cycling culture. The range ended up being stocked in 180 shops in 43 countries and was a huge success. 300 BLB bikes were displayed in the shop windows and given away as prizes. Now they have their own range of T shirts and jackets that aim to cross the boundaries between fashion and bikes and there are plans to begin stocking in clothes shops as well as bike shops.
What next for Brick Lane Bikes? It seems that they’ve already conquered the world, and all from a little outpost based in East London. But Feya and Jan claim that, “Nothing was ever planned – it all just happened organically, like a natural progression. There was never a masterplan.” The obvious big growth area in the bicycle business is e-bikes but Feya remains a little skeptical of how they would fit into their aesthetic and philosophy. “They need to fit in with our style to be relevant to us…but, as I said, nothing was planned before, so I’m not going to say it’ll never happen!”
Feya and Jan and their little bike shop are a huge success. It’s been borne through a love of and great knowledge of bikes. When time permits they’ll escape to Gran Canaria to ride their bikes. And when time doesn’t permit, a simple ride around town along the Embankment on a vintage De Rosa will do. A love of beautiful bikes and riding them: it’s how they got into all this in the first place and look set to continue doing so for many years to come. Happy tenth anniversary, Brick Lane Bikes!