Winston Farquharson’s 30-year passion for cycling started with a rugby injury.
“My doctor advised me to take up riding to help with my recovery, and I really got the bug for it,”
he says as he tidies his cycle shop in Penge, south-east London, ready for the morning rush.
“I joined a local cycling shop’s racing team, and travelled up and down the country to race. Sadly, though, I never quite made it.”
He retrained as a sports therapist, but a subsequent accident caused him to have a career rethink.
“I got involved with a charity which helps disabled people back into work, and realised what I really wanted to do was run my own business. The charity supported me as I wrote my business plan,” he says.
The result was SE20 Cycles, a repair and custom-build cycle shop on Penge High Street, which opened in September 2008. Since then, SE20 Cycles has become a hub for the local cycling community – so much so that in 2019 Farquharson converted the shop’s waiting area into a coffee shop.
“I wanted to create a friendly place for new cyclists and enthusiasts alike,” he says. “A lot of novice cyclists don’t like to ask questions in case they’re being silly. We wanted to avoid that, and plenty of customers have told us we’re less intimidating than many cycle shops.”
When Covid-19 hit, Farquharson made the tough decision to close the repair shop to walk-in customers, putting his mechanic on furlough for six weeks, and prioritising bookings from local emergency and key workers.
“As we were suddenly deemed an essential service, it felt natural to prioritise key workers in a bid to help the national effort,” Farquharson says. “For the first two weeks of lockdown, key workers could jump the queue and receive repairs at a heavy discount, or for free, which they really appreciated,” he says.
“They could buy bicycles from us at trade price, too, which we started selling as a reaction to Covid-19. It meant the early weeks of lockdown saw us mostly used by NHS and other key workers.”
Later, worried about his customers having to queue alongside shoppers waiting to go into a local supermarket, Farquharson developed an online booking system so they could book a slot for a service or repair, drop their bike off, and go.
“Having two queues running side by side just wasn’t safe, so after two weeks of mayhem I spent a few hours each evening adding to and testing the booking system,” says Farquharson. “Adding stock to the site for sale was also prioritised, so people wouldn’t have to travel to us,” he says.
“Initially, the system created as many problems as it solved – we had to get the message out that we were going online for booking and sales using an A-board outside the shop and social media. Online bookings are also quite hard to manage because we’re busy with the shop, and it means we don’t have the social interaction we used to with customers, which is a shame.”
Customers can book and pay online, or use payment cards in store or at their doors. Other safety measures include disinfecting bikes when they’re dropped off and before they’re collected, and offering collection and delivery for customers who don’t live within walking distance. Both Farquharson and his mechanic have their own sets of tools, and spray down larger, shared pieces of equipment between each use.
Even when lockdown eased, Farquharson kept his online booking system in place, but looked forward to more people being able to visit the shop in person so they could benefit from one-to-one attention. He’s also passionate about encouraging those who took up cycling during lockdown to continue as things return to some sort of normal.
“We need to keep them cycling, so to help with that I’m [planning to] introduce a booking club, where customers can pay a fee each month that will give them access to our services. We’ve got a garden at the back that I’m looking into developing, and I’m going to put some barriers up around our portion of land out front, to help with distancing. A lot of thought has to go into how shops are going to work in the future.”
While Farquharson might have missed the camaraderie of customers stopping by for coffee during the lockdowns, he’s grateful to his army of loyal locals for the support small businesses like SE20 Cycles so vitally need.
“A lot of shops on the high street will struggle getting people back through the doors, and small shops might find it especially hard to adapt. Local support is so important – we can start getting people back on to the high street again.”
But despite having to evolve his business in line with a constantly changing retail landscape, Farquharson is confident it will continue to thrive.
“I have no doubt we’ll come out the other side of this,” he says. “I’m a plucky fella. I started out with nothing, at the height of a recession – and if I survived that, I can survive this too.”