Although there’s a lot of political noise around cycling at the moment, with an all-parliamentary cycling group report recently published called ‘Get Britain Cycling’, the fact is that Britain is not yet a cycling country.
Unlike in mainland Europe, there is no strict liability law that presumes in favour of the cyclist because of the inherent weight and danger of the car driver in the event of an accident. The resulting road culture appears to presume in favour of the motorist, and driver behaviour reflects this.
The recent furore over a young Briton from Norwich, calling herself Emma Way, who bragged via Twitter that she had knocked a cyclist down, ("Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier – I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax #bloodycyclists”) is a perfect illustration of British road culture. Such an event would be unthinkable in France and Germany because the underlying cultures around cycling are completely and utterly different.
The only exceptions are Oxford, Cambridge, and — in some respects — London. In Oxford, the bike reigns king and motorists have been strangled to within an inch of their lives by one-way systems, eternally banished to semi-permanent gridlock on the ring road.
The odd side-effect of so many riders and their bikes, however, has always been a bike shop culture defined by utility, exactly like the cycling culture you find in Munich, Lyon or Geneva.
As a student, I quickly became acquainted with the particular geography of Oxford’s bike shops. First, I discovered Walton Street Cycles, then Warlands on the Botley Road (still a very fine, family-owned affair), and subsequently Beeline bikes on the Cowley Road just north of the Plain, very recently moved up the road a hundred metres. There are others, but these are the serious ones. ‘Serious’ meaning utilitarian.
Beeline saw this predicament and opened a second, racing-bike only shop, having understood that there are very distinct cultures within the broad world of two wheels.
Only now, in 2013, however, has someone taken a clinical view of Oxford’s bike culture and gone for gold by opening up a super-high end bike shop where there are no baskets and pumps in view — just featherweight, carbon-fibre steeds with car-level price tags, circled by highly desirable clothing and accessories.
The man behind UByk (pronounced ‘You Bike’) is James Heath, formerly a software and marketing specialist in London. He’s developed bespoke software so that customers can specify a bike component by component, and he’s carrying high-end brands not readily found elsewhere, such as Eddy Merckx, De Rosa, Cinelli, Lapierre and Look – all Belgian, Italian and French brands that have lots of desirability wrapped into their carbon fibre frames and glamorous associations.
The shop opened on April 20th on a beautiful, sunny day, at 272 Abingdon Road. A month later, he told me that it was going well, with a successful appeal to three distinct groups: mountain bike riders, roadies and triathletes.
One thing that struck me is the back yard he has. It’s yet another beautiful space of the sort you regularly encounter only in a place like Oxford, with space, light, an ancient fruit tree and an enclosure of walls. The plan is to open a coffee shop in this garden space — a major theme if you haven’t noticed, the view being that even serious cyclists are allowed their caffeine.
It might say something about our time that people are happy to pay over £6,000 for a bicycle, compared to the rusty old jalopy we all remember riding — and later abandoning — somewhere in Oxford. But then the bicycle has risen in status and might presage a return to a broader cycling culture of the sort that was normal until the 1950s, before William Morris, initially a keen racing cyclist, took the world by storm with motor cars.