Woodstock Cycleworks mysteriously appeared overnight somwhere in 2012. Upon entering their new premises on Searle Street in Cape Town you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve “arrived” in a room where everything is either an unfinished puzzle or a nostalgia-inducing two-wheeled toy. I sat down with Nils Hansen and explored the mechanics behind his mind and shop.
INTERVIEW: RUAN SCOTT
PHOTOGRAPHY: HAYDEN PHIPPS
Please give us a description of your life up until now?
I was born in Pretoria, and moved to Cape Town shortly thereafter, where I grew up in the southern suburbs, close to the Baxter Theatre. My early days were spent running around the neighbourhood and playing in and around the Liesbeeck River. Later, I studied a bit of Engineering at UCT, and then went on to study Product Design at Cape Tech. I worked in the industry until late 2011, when I decided to open Woodstock Cycleworks.
What was your first bicycle and what are your earliest memories of bicycles?
First bike – an old skedonk of a mountain bike that I got when I was about ten years old. I remember appreciating it wholeheartedly. That very clichéd idea that a bike gives you as much freedom as a child can have is true. I was able to explore further and take longer trips. One standout memory is visiting my aunt in Higgovale in Cape Town CBD at age 11. We were living in Newlands then. I decided to cycle to my aunt rather than ride with my folks. I planned the route in my mind, packed a backpack and set out. My mom even took a photo of me as I left – probably thinking it was the last time she would see me in one piece. Peddling around Hospital Bend and over to DeWaal Drive, the excitement of freedom flushed over me. I was going at my own pace, stopping when and where I wanted to, and looking at the views I had only experienced from the car window.
I also was one of the first kids to commute to school – Rondebosch Boys. My mom sent me to riding school before I was even allowed. Strangely, my bike got confiscated when I rocked up at school, and the principal actually phoned my mom to tell her she couldn’t let me ride to school.
What paved the way for the opening of your own store?
Back in 2010, I was working at a product design agency, which was a very cushy job. I enjoyed the work but the company started retrenching staff and unfortunately I was one of them. It didn’t bother me too much – I’d been plotting my own business in the back of my head for a while. A small avenue opened up working for a friend, again as a product designer, but it was very informal and I found I couldn’t deal with that. At first, I was working from my house, which then switched to working at his house. It was too casual for me, and I was really unhappy.
So it was your unhappiness that facilitated the opening of a shop as opposed to having spotted a gap in the market?
I spoke to my stepfather, and he offered to help. First, we looked at buying an already-established business. There was an old cycle shop on Woodstock Main Road, neighbouring the police station. It’s a shop I had frequented, being a cycling enthusiast. It’s a semi-sad story, actually. It was a family business that had stood for 30 years, owned by Mr and Mrs Davids and their son. Mr Davids passed away in 2010, and Mrs Davids wasn’t living her best life, drinking and smoking behind the counter, with a son who was constantly in and out of Polsmoor Prison. Her health was retiring and her shop was backfiring. I started negotiating with the family to buy the business. I was still working as a production designer so trying to start a business and work full time was hectic. I made an offer and they had a price, and we’d kind of cut a deal, but then the landlord didn’t want to extend the lease. It was all just a bit of a disaster. So I trolled Gumtree, as one does, and found our original space, 99 Sir Lowry Rd. The initial idea was to share the space with a lady doing babywear, but I sharked her out. She was stalling the whole time, so I signed the lease and got the space. She was a bit pissed, but got the unit next door. Woodstock Cycleworks went from an idea in December 2010 to opening its doors in April 2011. I really didn’t know if it would work, or if people would come. I had bought the tools and some stock from the Davids family after losing the opportunity to buy out their business. In the end, I guess I was lucky to have a fresh start.
What exactly does WCW do? Looking across the entire space, I don’t see conventional supermarket mountain bikes.What exactly am I seeing?
WCW is a bit of a conundrum, in that it’s made up of many different ideas. We basically cover everything to do with bicycles. If it has two wheels you can bring it in. We prefer to stay away from the more modern mountain bikes, as they are way too expensive for me. They are so far removed from what a bicycle actually is that it irritates me.
But “houding” and “gees” is not what the man on on the street sees? They see old or “outdated” bikes from the 70s, and “hipster” bikes or “fixies”. What exactly is a classic bike and what kind of bikes does WCW focus on?
I know, and I think in a way I have created this place almost for myself. So much so, that when people come here, I expect them to know more than they do – sometimes even more than I do. I don’t always have the patience to go through “why we are the way we are” in terms of look and feel. That’s what I mean by I created this place for myself. I expect people to know when these bikes were made and why we carry them. But people don’t and that’s where I need to educate them. Most of our bikes are classic road bikes from the 70s and early 80s; during the global height of steel frame production. In fact, back then, we had a thriving local industry. During the Apartheid years, manufactures and retailers weren’t allowed to import complete bikes from Europe and America, so they got hold of the raw materials and started manufacturing bikes themselves. Names like Le Jeune and Gotti Hasen were stalwarts of the local industry. Today we are not only supporting this old-time ethic of meticulously crafting and creating something special and unique that was produced locally, but we’re also showcasing stuff that has stood the test of time. You know, things that still work today. It’s not often that you find equipment from those eras that still works perfectly, and is often better than its modern-day equivalent. This is the case with bicycles from that era.
Your stock is varied but mostly consists of the old 70s steel-frame bikes. How do you acquire these bikes?
As a bicycle shop you are the first port of call for people with bikes to sell, so I generally buy them off people or trade them for something else. Some of these bikes on display don’t even belong to us. They’re just being displayed for customers who don’t have space to store them, but at the same time don’t want to let go of them.
Starting this business, did you tap into the cycling and commuting culture, or did WCW create this bicycle craze?
When I started WCW, there was a very small culture of commuting and fixies and all that. We’re always like four or five years behind Europe in terms of equipment, size of the scene and levels of experience. Guys who were racing and traveling abroad knew about bicycle culture overseas, and brought some of that back here. I was lucky to be involved and befriend people like that, so moving in that fringe circle and then having a shop started a little bit of a fire. That fire still grows. Very slowly, but it’s getting bigger. By no means is the mindset of commuting by bike or just cycling for fun on a regular basis reached anywhere close to tipping point, but I believe WCW has definitely aided in terms of what is is right now.
Cape Town likes to think it has a culture of cycling and commuting. You see 4000 riders once a month at Moonlight Mass. Why aren’t people commuting with their bicycles, especially in a city like Cape Town?
I don’t know. I have tried promoting it and getting in with council to aid in the situation, but people still seem to steer clear of cycling. A lot of people blame infrastructure, which I think is rubbish. Within the Cape Town CBD, you should be able to ride to work without it being a problem. You should be able to take your bike into your office or find secure lockup space without it being a problem. Maybe people worry about the hills in town, thinking that they ‘re going to get sweaty. Some worry about negotiating traffic. I don’t see either of these as problems. I think people like to make excuses. Once they actually dedicate a week to trying it out, it would make sense to them. There are more bicycle commuters from the Milnerton and Table View areas who work in the CBD than bicycle commuters who live AND work in the CBD. I really don’t know why more people aren’t cycling to work, or even just for fun? Maybe we’re just too reliant on cars, or maybe maybe our fuel is too cheap, and parking never an issue.
What’s the most common email you receive?
“Do you have cheap bikes?” Man, that breaks my back. You need to come in so we can look at your height and weight figure out what you need. Is the bike a showpiece, or are you actually going to use it? Every rider has different requirements, and every rider has a different budget, so for the best response to an email like that is: “Just come to into the store..
How many bikes at home?
36 bikes. Mostly old mountain bikes that can be converted into cool city bikes. I just like them. They don’t have much monetary value, but they’re worth more than money to me. I’m sure a few of them have a price, but I simply can’t sell them. The stories behind them mean too much and the sentimental value is too high. Yeah, they’re priceless.
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