Visit Sideways Cycles, a bike shop located in the East Cheshire town of Alsager, and you’ll soon discover that proprietor Tim Johnson backs up his first rate mechanical skills with a considered viewpoint on a range of cycle culture topics.
Headset Press sat down with Tim to discuss current trends in cycling, why he’d choose the Peak District over the Pyrenees and his thoughts for enlivening the Tour.
How long have you been established as a business?
25 years. When I wanted to open a bike shop, there was this vacant storeroom on the side of the existing motor spares business. So that’s how we arrived at Sideways Cycles. Originally I was an electronic engineer and then was made redundant.
And if you hadn’t been made redundant, would it have still happened?
Probably not. I looked for jobs in the industry but nothing was happening. A friend of mine – his Dad used to run a bike shop up in Manchester – he suggested I come and work for them as I’ve always been into bikes. I didn’t think that was for me but after 6 months of not getting anywhere, I rang him up and said, ‘Go on then.’
What was your role in that bike shop?
A bit of everything but mainly as a mechanic.
So how did you move from working for someone else to opening your own bike shop?
It was a gradual process. I used to do repairs from home with a little sign up in the window. I worked in the garden shed out the back. And then we had a family discussion to see whether we could turn that into a viable business.
Is this a job, a passion, a bit of both?
It’s everything really. It’s my life. And I certainly don’t do it for the money [laughs]. I suppose it’s easier than getting a proper job.
Were you self-taught in terms of bike repair?
I used to mend all the other kids’ bikes at school. From a young age I had an entrepreneurial spirit.
So you can turn your hand to most practical tasks?
If it’s broke, I can fix it.
Who are your customers?
Not necessarily local. I have my regular customers – they’re the ones that make the effort to come to the shop – but that’s the way we do things. And it’s changed over time. Pre-internet, I was into BMX; used to race as a kid. We were one of the best shops in the country building custom BMXs.
So people used to seek you out?
They used to get in touch from all over the place but I was known on the circuit. I’ve even built bikes for people in Japan.
Has the way people view bike ownership changed over the past few years?
It depends on what type of bike and what type of customer. In my experience, the average man in the street will buy a bike and then spend a few quid to keep it running. It’s basically something to get around on. The enthusiast – who wants the latest thing – with the internet it’s very easy to be tempted.
Is there anything that cyclists should or shouldn’t do to keep their bikes running?
Stop slapping so much oil on the chain. You end up with this black sludge that eats away at your cassette. And another thing is people using degreasers thinking that it’s wonderful because everything’s so clean but it strips all the grease off your wheel bearing seals leaving the internal parts dry.
Some of the latest road bikes have no external cables. They look very clean but I imagine the average cyclist would struggle to start figuring out how to fix a problem?
They could make a right balls-up of it, though. But then, as it’s all hidden, if you can’t fiddle with it you can’t make it go wrong.
Do you also do sales?
Not a lot. We used to sell everything to everybody. Now you have manufacturers selling direct to the customer and that’s pretty much the model most of them will start to follow. They can cut out the distribution and dealer side of things.
Doesn’t that mean that when people do buy directly from the manufacturer and have problems, they take them to their local bike shop? Isn’t that annoying?
Not really. The bike shop is going to make far more putting the problems right than selling the bike in the first place.
And the latest innovations in bike design and componentry?
It’s a natural process, these incremental changes. Nothing stands still. And everything is great as long as it’s working.
The current trend for people having bike fits – with them sometimes paying up to £200. Is that money well spent?
If you feel you’ve benefited from it then, yes, I suppose it is. But it’s the same as anything; it’s the Emperor’s new clothes. My take on bike fit is if it feels right, it probably is right. If you’ve got a particular medical condition then you might need someone to take a look at your position but at the end of the day, if you enjoy riding and it feels comfortable, then your bike fit is right.
We’re told that only a tiny proportion of journeys made to work are by bike.
I used to ride 25 miles to Manchester but when you get to work all you want to do is eat and sleep. And winter isn’t easy. Dark when you set off, dark when you ride back. Commuting isn’t glorious or exciting. People who really commute use their bike to get to work. Full stop. And people who do commute on a bike tend to do it because a) they can’t afford an alternative or b) it’s quicker. From that point of view there’s lots of commuting going on but magazines aren’t always interested in it. And enthusiastic cyclists that like riding and use that as a means of transportation are not commuters. They’re just out enjoying a ride. They’re doing it because they want to or need the training miles. But they don’t have to and that’s the difference. And they’ll be the ones riding to work on a three grand bike.
Do you follow bike racing?
Doesn’t it interest you at all?
Not remotely. I like watching the BMXs in the Olympics.
But the professional road racing scene?
If I had the money I’d enter a Fat Bike team into the Tour de France. Just for a laugh.
What do you ride?
A mountain bike. That’s about it. I’ve got an old Kona that had 25C tyres but I whipped them off and put on something more sensible.
38s. Rather than rattling your bones you can ride in relative comfort.
Is there a dream bike?
No, not really. I’ve been there, done that. Donkey’s years ago my dream bike was a titanium Merlin. It was great and I built it down to silly pounds and it had all the ‘right’ components . But now I look at my riding habits and ask myself, ‘If I break the rear derailleur, do I want to replace a £35 piece of kit or £350?’ For me, the £35 piece wins out every day and usually works just as well if not better. If you look at Dura-Ace and 105, for me it’s 105 every time. Use the money you saved to go somewhere nice to ride your bike.
Your take on the current interest in independent frame builders?
I don’t think it’s a sudden focus. It’s more apparent now, perhaps. People like to be individuals don’t they?
And will pay royally for the privilege?
Not really. You’ve got one person making the frame and they have to factor in that time in the pricing.
Do you think shows like Bespoked have helped these framebuilders?
Their approach is to showcase the less well-known brands but they were there anyway. That kind of show attracts the sort of people that are looking for a unique bike build. So everyone is happy, I suppose. People will travel a long way because they want to talk to one particular frame builder about why a dropout is made in a particular shape. It’s a cracking show but it’s not caused a renaissance in frame building.
From a custom frame building point of view, it’s a fashion thing. And fashions change as the next new things come around. It’s like gravel and trail riding – or touring as it used to be known – it’s another way of justifying a new bike, encouraging you to get out and sleep in a ditch. But nothing is new. We used to go touring with the kids. We had two tandems made with a trailer behind one of them.
Speaking of touring, you’re planning a day’s ride. Where do you go and who with?
The Peak District. Usually with people I know are going to be slower than me.
Not the high mountain passes in the Alps or the Pyrenees?
I don’t want any of that nonsense, thank you. I like bumbling around in the woods. Bearing in mind that I never ride on the road. Maybe for 10 minutes it’s OK but I’m soon bored. I’m thinking, ‘Where’s that go, what’s through those woods?’ For me, cycling is all about going out, enjoying yourself and having a laugh with your mates. I’m not interested in beating them to the top of the hill or stopping every five minutes to have a chat because that’s what you do in the pub afterwards. Go out and ride for as much or as little as you can.