Starting from a fixed point of view – the story of Hubjub.co.uk
How entrepreneur Will Meister bounced back from the dotcom bust to surf the wave of the fixed gear scene...
Fixed gear is now a recognised part of mainstream cycling, just as it was way back in the ‘40s and ’50s. However, for a long time it was firmly out of favour with the exception of a few hardcore riders who remembered the benefits of riding fixed through the winter. Among those riders was a guy by the name of Will Meister.
Will grew up in the countryside where his only form of transport was a bicycle but in a concession to modernity he was at least running a Sturmey Archer hub gear. That first bike was to become the start of a lifelong infatuation with simple bicycles. Even now, more years later than he cares to remember, Will still has a simmering dislike of derailleur gears, or as he refers to them, “The work of the devil!”
This love of simple bikes followed Will when he moved to London where he got caught up in the original dot com boom. The boom was good while it lasted, but when it crashed Will was one of the casualties. Enough was enough and Will returned to his family’s home in the country. It was here that everything started to come together for the would be bicycling entrepreneur.
Hubjub.co.uk was not the first cycling site to be created by Will; that honour goes to 63xc.com. First published in 2002, 63xc.com was a magazine styled site dedicated to riding fixed gear bikes off road. With the site Will was able to combine his knowledge of graphic design, Internet architecture, and love of simple bicycles. “It was a cry to an unfeeling universe,” says Will. “Guys, I'm still here!”
Much to his surprise 63xc.com became popular, very popular; at its height it was getting 100,000 readers for each update. There can be no doubt that a large part of the site’s attraction was the list of contributors, which included such noteworthies as US-based titanium frame builder Matt Chester, Andy Corson from Surly, UK custom frame builder Robin Mather, Dennis Bean Larson of Fixed Gear Gallery and Charlie The Bike Monger among others.
Through 63xc.com Will got to know more and more about the advances in fixed gear technology and became frustrated at how little of it was available in the UK. So he thought to himself, “Why don’t I make it available?” The simple answer would have been to set up a shop on 63xc.com but as Will explains, ”I subscribe to that early Internet thing, ‘You own your own words’. The 50 or so people who contributed to 63xc.com did so to make an interesting site, not to help me line my pockets.”
His solution was to stop publishing updates to 63xc.com and establish Hubjub as a site dedicated to retailing specialist parts to fixed gear riders.
In late 2004 Hubjub went live with the assistance of Surly’s Andy Corson who helped Will out by making Surly one of the first suppliers to Hubjub. “He put us on Surly's blog, too, which was huge help,” says Will. It seems fitting that a Jethro Tule that was the first item to be purchased by a Hubjub customer.
White Industries' ENO hub has an eccentric axle to allow any frame to run a fixed gear
When Hubjub started, single speed mountain bikes were gaining in popularity, with mainstream manufacturers starting to include them in their product ranges, but road specific single speed frames were generally only available from custom builders. However, there was a solution. “White Industries ENO hubs were big in the early years,” says Will. “Back then, it was pretty hard to find a frame with track ends, so a lot of people were buying the eccentric hubs to fix road bikes. The hubs are still beautifully made, but I wish White would go back to the old design with a standard cog and lockring, it seems more appropriate for a hack.”
LeVel hubs were an early line at Hubjub.co.uk and have since inspired many competitors’ offerings proving imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Another new design of fixed gear hub that Will introduced to the UK is that produced by LeVel Components. “LeVeL are completely different, always outsiders,” explains Will talking about the hubs to which the fixed cog bolts on rather than the more usual screw fit. “Since they launched, there've been non-thread cogs from the ISO, Phil Wood, Profile, White, plus a couple of others that died. LeVeL are still my fave, partly because the design makes possible the widest possible range of cog sizes but mostly because they are simply unkillable. I have a prototype set that has run for five years on every surface you can imagine; same set of Chinese bearings, one barely worn stainless cog.”
High flanges, sealed bearings and a highly polished finish, what more could anybody want from a front hub for use on a track bike?
As if that wasn’t enough fixed gear hub choice for the discerning rider Will added Phil Wood to the virtual shelves of Hubjub. “It was the 63xc.com connection again,” he explains. “The stuff is impeccable, of course, but more importantly they're great to deal with, which really isn't always the case with the small high-end makers.”
Some of us, of a certain age, remember the fad for purple anodising that was prevalent in the early days of MTBs and now Will has brought it to the fixed scene with his Nitto ‘Colour Project’
However, not everything that is available through Hubjub comes from small-scale specialists, such parts as the line of Nitto bars and stems. Adding bars and stem and moving away from the key fixed gear components may seem strange at first and, indeed, I did remark on this fact to Will. Though I didn’t expect the answer I got, “Don Lancaster, who I read a lot at the start of Hubjub, wrote that businesses tend to grow in ways that you weren't expecting. I got some Nitto kit for my own bike in the late ‘90s and was always getting asked where I'd got the stuff. Soon after Hubjub launched, we became the first UK company to bring over Nitto in bulk. I knew it would pretty much sell itself. That's still the case today.”
In those early days many of the orders Will was receiving were quite small, obvious really given it was mainly hubs, sprockets and chain tugs and this meant he was able to do his daily post runs by bike, with all the parcels carried to the post office in a rucksack. However, that all had to change when a dedicated fixed gear frame appeared for sale on the pages of Hubjub.
The frame that changed it all was Russian-built titanium designed for Hubjub by Justin Burls of Burls Bicycles. Will takes up the story, “The idea was always to have a premium frameset that would sell in small quantities for people who wanted complete builds, and I tried a couple of steelies. But it was very hard to differentiate our stuff in a market that was rapidly getting saturated. I figured titanium might show that we were different. Justin was an old friend of 63xc.com and it wasn't a huge stretch to get him to give us some of his surplus Russian production capacity. I still think the Courier was the best ‘streetfix’ ever made, full stop, and the owners seem to agree. But it didn't take off in the market, and now Justin's order book is full so I can no longer hit the pricepoint.”
With a frame no longer available Will has once again taken a look at the market and adapted. The latest additions to the Hubjub offerings have come about for slightly more personal reasons. Last year Hubjub left its original home in Hampshire and headed off to the deepest West Country. Due to the challenging terrain that now surrounds Will, he has swapped his beloved LeVel rear hub for a Sturmey Archer S2C, which he now sells, to be able to get up the hills.
Believed to be the only 48-spline, 44-tooth BMX chainrings available in the UK, and soon to be used on Will’s personal ride, this Tree products unit give an insight in to what the future of Hubjub.co.uk may hold
Because Will is, among many other things, an eternal tinkerer he has now taken the whole hub gear ethos on board as he told me, “Robin Mather is presently fitting a tiny BMX ring and splined cromo cranks to my ‘70s MKM, because I reckon it's the best set-up for the Sturmey hub.” This new bike set-up also provides an insight into what the future of Hubjub may involve. With the Sturmey Archer S2C already available, Will is now looking at other hub gear options as potential additions to his stock as he attempts to create a simple bike that is also the ultimate commuter machine.
Now for this plan to work the bike needs to be ready to ride at anytime, and anytime means day or night. Not one to have to bother fastening lights on and then remembering to remove them when the bike is parked, Will is looking to dynamo systems; an area he feels is yet to be fully exploited.
While looking at other options for new products Will went back to his 63xc.com little black book and came up with the name of Josh Cohen. Never heard of him? Neither had I, but Will explained, “Josh is a sports medic and the man behind a business called Kontact. He also wrote several pieces for 63xc.com. His big thing is TCOP, a means of assessing blood flow without ticking needles into people. TCOP allowed Josh to analyse genital bloodflow during cycling, and he came up with some pretty eye-watering statistics. The Kontact is his design for a saddle that won't affect your joie de vivre. Also it's a proper racing saddle, not something that belongs on a Dutch comfort bike. Josh asked me for UK distributor contacts and I stepped up myself. Actually the move into distribution is pretty obvious, given that I try to be a bit ahead of the market.”
Don’t forget that mention of a BMX chainring and crankset either; while Will wouldn’t be drawn on the subject it doesn’t take much effort to make the connection between fixed gear components and BMX, especially if you’ve ever taken a look at some of the more extreme fixed gear videos floating around the Internet, or in fact some of the more off-the-wall fixed bikes appearing at events like the North American Handbuilt Bicycle show or the UK’s own Bespoked event.
“I like a good niche,” says Will. Cycling entrepreneurs are always ready to explore new markets and one that is steadily developing is alternative cycling specific clothing.
Not everyone is happy to wear Lycra and by the same token nor do they want to wear over-sized baggy MTB kit. It is an area that Will has taken an interest in too.
The first step on this next stage of Hubjub’s development has been the addition of a limited range of new-old-stock Hypnotic Design clothing. While Hypnotic Design is no more, the company founder was a fixed gear rider as well as someone looking for casual cut cycling specific clothing. I think it’s easy to see where this has the potential to go…