The upsurge in the number of cyclists on Britain’s roads has led to booming business for bike mechanics, but with demand outstripping supply, are the potential rewards sufficient to attract new recruits to the profession?
That’s the question posed this morning by an article on The Guardian Bike Blog this morning, written by Rick Williams who recently attended a one-day bicycle maintenance course and who has subsequently been inundated by requests from friends desperate for him to fix their bikes.
Most cyclists will be aware that the days of taking their bicycle along to a shop in the morning with a view to picking it up, post-service, in the afternoon, is a futile exercise unless they have booked an appointment.
And often, that booking needs to be made well ahead of time – a previous Bike Blog entry highlighted a London bike shop that had a six-week waiting list, and then only for bikes that had been purchased through the store in question.
Cycle Systems Academy in North London looking to help meet that demand by providing training courses including the City and Guilds VSQ in Cycle Maintenance and Repair, a ten day course aimed at those wanting to become professional mechanics that costs £990 plus VAT.
Director Sean Lally, who previously helped set up the Oxford Cycle Workshop co-operative, told the Guardian: “Cycling has boomed. This year has been phenomenal. There are around 500,000 bike journeys being made a day in London."
However, he believes that in the past, "fixing bikes wasn't seen as a real occupation. It was considered a bit of a Steptoe and Son thing. A secret world that appealed to renegades with little formal training. There was the idea that anyone could do it. That it was something you did before getting a proper job."
But are the job prospects, and the rewards that go with them, worth that initial investment?
The trade website BikeBiz currently shows just four vacancies for bike mechanics across the UK, two of which disclose salaries of, respectively, “£12,100, depending on experience,” and “starting at £14,601+.” Both of those compare unfavourably to official statistics showing that median weekly pay for full-time employees was £489 in the year to April 2009, equivalent to an annual salary of more than £25,000.
The Guardian quotes Ninon Asuni, who owns and runs Bicycle Workshop in London’s Notting Hill, and who claims to break even despite her three decades’ experience in the bike repair business, saying: “"The overheads are so high. And I can't do repairs at an affordable price and pay mechanics a wage that they can't get doing something else which is easier."
She adds that courses such as the ones offered by Cycle Systems Academy don’t always teach the skills that are needed on the ground, claiming: "I would rather train people up myself. We do a lot of specialised stuff and the problem for me isn't so much the shortage of mechanics as the shortage of good ones. For example, people aren't interested in hub gears. No one learns about them any more.”
And evolving trends within bicycle culture also have an impact, she says. “There is also the fashion for customising bikes: taking 80s road bike frames, converting them to be fixed gear. All sorts of things that are highly skilled."
Theresa Webb, who wrote the City & Guilds course together with her husband Alf is, unsurprisingly, more upbeat about its application in the real world. The couple have been teaching bicycle maintenance courses through their business, The Bike-Inn, based in Spalding, Lincolnshire, for more than two decades, and count Lally among their alumni.
Webb says that many graduates of the course use the skills they have acquired to launch their own businesses. "There are definitely opportunities to set up on your own,” she told The Guardian.
“Offering a mobile repair service is very popular, where the mechanic comes to your home or your business. Or starting your own workshop."
But she adds a word of caution to those looking to enter the profession, implying that elbow grease is just as important as bike grease.
"When Alf and I ran a bike shop in Kent, we would have 20-25 repairs a day,” she said, adding: “And if it came to 5pm and we hadn't finished them, well then we just kept working until they were done. People need their bikes."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.