By Robbie Broughton
We’ve been hearing great things about a place called the The Velo House in Tunbridge Wells for a while now. It’s a cycling café, bike shop and workshop that’s been getting some rave reviews so we had to check it out. I got there not a little bit dishevelled, extremely hot and in need of some sustenance having tackled some hilly Kentish lanes that can sure be tough when they want to be. Note to self: check out the elevation profile before attempting a new route.
Velo House was a welcome sight indeed as was the enticing menu. It’s a lovely airy, open space, housed in a former Nat West bank building. These guys have clearly thought hard about how to cater for the passing cyclist. You can park your bike in an outside area with a complementary bike lock, the tables are all covered with maps of the local area marked with popular cycling routes. Then there’s a bookshelf with essential cycling reading - back issues of Rouleur, books on cycling climbs and biographies of riders. Yep, I felt at home here!
While I tucked into my delicious chicken pie with greens, Olly Stevens, founder of The Velo House, told me how it all came about. A big, cheery, bearded chap, Olly is a self confessed "cycling geek and stato bore" who got his first road bike at the age of 11 when everyone else was mucking about on BMX bikes. It was Stephen Roche’s 1987 Tour de France win that got him really hooked though, and he spent his childhood spinning around the stunning countryside surrounding Tunbridge Wells, perhaps dreaming of cycling glory for himself one day.
Olly opened up the Velo House in 2014 after returning home from a stint living and working in Melbourne, a formative experience it turned out. When the very bank branch that he opened his first account closed its doors for the last time he jumped at the chance to set up his dream café and shop in the place he'd deposited his childhood pocket money.
What they’ve done with the place is to create a lovely airy, open café space in the downstairs area. At the back there’s a bike workshop and upstairs is the bike shop. Up another flight of stairs there’s a bike fitting room and an office where Sophie, Olly’s wife, runs an interior design consultancy. It’s a real family affair with Sophie designing the café, their daughter, a nephew and a cousin working in there, and even Mum helping out on the odd occasion.
The menu reflects their happy days back in Melbourne where they’ve replicated the weekend brunch culture with some deliciously sounding breakfasts - the Cyclist’s Breakfast Burrito had my mouth watering. The lunch menu varies between burgers, baguettes, quesadillas, homemade tarts, healthy options like grilled halloumi, and specials like chicken pie and salads. They’ve tried to put a healthy slant on things without spoiling the fun of a hearty meal (grilling the bacon and cutting off the fat on their velo breakfast for instance). There are tasty and nutritious energy bars like the Bocadillo energy snacks and, of course the cyclist’s staple, cakes.
But like the most successful cycling cafes that have sprung up in recent years like London Velo and LMNH, Olly always set out to create an environment where anyone would feel happy and welcome in the environment, cyclist or not. As Olly says, “everyone is welcome – you don’t need to wear lycra, ride a bike or even own a bike to come and enjoy the café.” It’s just a lovely place to pop in for a coffee, snack or full on meal. One review on Facebook rates the coffee here as the best to be had in Tunbridge Wells.
The cafe is an introduction to the shop upstairs. And it’s here that Olly has curated a great selection of bikes and apparel. He has a weakness for Parlee and jokingly confesses to the philosophy that “all bike brands should end in a vowel”. Sorry, Boardman. But there are Condors stocked here as well as Scott so that you can get anything from an extremely high end carbon beauty to an entry level bike.
He’s also chosen his clothing brands really well. I love the stuff by MAAP, Ashmei and Void, Giro shoes and Poc helmets. This guy knows his stuff. The staff Olly has employed are friendly, welcoming and experienced. Back downstairs in the tidy workshop, a couple of trusty mechanics will happily service your new steed when it needs it.
The Velo House leads regular, free, guided rides into the surrounding countryside with a women’s ride on Wednesday mornings and a larger group going out at the weekend. During the Tour Olly would lead out a ride that replicated a section of that day’s stage before returning to the café for burgers, beer and watching the highlights from the day on the projected TV screen.
It’s a social and open environment where inexperienced and new cyclists are welcome – not just for the hardcore. Although Velo House isn’t a club as such, they have a Velo House kit and lots of local clubs use it as a start or ending point. Even Dulwich Paragon come down this far once in a while if they’re up for a long ride.
Olly and Sophie have done a fantastic job of combining a love of cycling with great food, excellent coffee, knockout Belgian beers and a warm friendly family atmosphere. And now that the summer is over, Velo House are opening their doors for evening events. I’ve got 25th September marked down in the diary for ex Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock playing an acoustic set. Sounds great!
The Velo House is at 5 St John’s Road, Tunbridge Wells TN4 9GW
Café and shop open Tuesday to Sunday from 8AM (Mondays – gone riding)
Workshop open from 7AM on weekdays