Let’s get the prejudice out of the way first. Even if you have little time for pricey bespoke motorcycles, beards, modern Brit cuisine and jeans which retail the wrong side of £350 – all of which can be found at the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club’s generously appointed Shoreditch HQ, the commercial heart of urban hipsterdom – the phenomenon it all represents is worth examining.
Because what lies beneath the zeitgeisty surface is a story which has changed both motorcycle culture and the machines which fuel it. Forget the yard builds: we’re talking about production motorcycles brought by real bikers in large numbers.
The key narrative is woven around one man, Bike Shed founder Anthony van Someren – aka Dutch von Shed. Bikerglory met up with him recently at the aforementioned Shoreditch premises. Apart from being situated under railway arches, the place is about as far removed from a traditional MC club house as it is possible to imagine (see pix below).
Dutch has a reputation for loquacity, in keeping with his former day job as a successful media consultant, and he lived up to it. But there was little spin on offer: much of what he had to say struck me as being authentic, insightful and relevant to the current state of play on Planet Bike.
DvS: Going back seven years or so I was a fairly typical biker of the time, full leathers and lid, bhp orientated, with a penchant the latest must have: performance was the holy grail. I was into KTMs, especially the Superduke, and every time the model was upgraded I’d be there, buying the top of the range contender. If I hadn’t lived in central London it would have been sports bikes, but the Superduke was a kind of urban sports bike, albeit one equally suited to Alpine hairpins. And then around that time a series of events happened which utterly changed the way I thought about myself as a motorcyclist, and bikes in general.
My wife Vikki and I were due to meet up with a mate and his girlfriend at Bar Italia in Soho. Vikki rides too, so we went on our bikes, togged up in all the gear, and they rock up together on his old Bonnie. He was wearing denims and an open face lid, she was wearing a skirt. In comparison, we looked ridiculously out of place. I realised that my friend had managed to reconcile his biker persona with his social life: here was a real world way of having fun on motorcycles, stylish and practical, in that it interfaced with whatever else you were doing – the opposite really of the type of rider I had become, hermetically sealed and set apart from everyone else. I could have worn what he was wearing pretty much anywhere. I tried an open face lid and apart from being able to communicate with other people, peripheral vision was vastly improved. All my senses felt more alive.
About the same time it was becoming obvious to me that high performance bikes were surplus to requirements an awful lot of the time. You just can’t use all that power on the road – it was like going out with Claudia Schiffer and putting a bag over her head. Today all that shove is muzzled and managed by electronics, which sort of tells you its own story, but even back then I knew people with well over 150 brake at the rear wheel. Turn that up to the max on a regular basis and one way or another it’s going to end in tears.
I talked about all this with Vikki – she was getting pissed off with my road riding, often characterised by aggression. So she did something about it. I was very lucky: she gave me a Ducati Sports Classic. Aircooled, 80 odd brake, sublime handling. I took it a track day instead of the Super Duke and I was actually faster on the Ducati. I was able to ride it far closer to its limits than the KTM and felt like a God on a Bike for the first time ever, riding out of my skin. It was an epiphany, but looking back it all started in Bar Italia.
I shared some of this stuff in a blog, and unsurprisingly discovered that there were other people out there thinking along the same lines – people looking for another way, a fresh approach. For many of us the social side of biking life had been pretty much divorced from the rest of it. Up to that point biker gatherings – online or out there in the real world – were dominated by endless discussions about sticky rubber or oil, and people who weren’t technically proficient or boasting big ccs were often excluded. Traditional biker clubs were very hierarchical. Biker world just felt reactionary in every sense.
There were alternative takes: I love the attitude of the rat bike scene, but even they have their own codification. The 59 club, the Mean Fuckers and the rocker outfits – even punky rocker outfits like the Fuckers – were very retro orientated and my thing has never been purist retro. I wanted the spirit of the seventies without the handling…. I was into that hybrid feel: old skool style with some modern substance. Like brakes….
I’m interested in people’s emotional response to bikes, and style, aesthetics is a big part of that. I don’t really give a shit about componentry in detail. I respect it but it doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is why did you do this? How do you like to ride? Does the creation of this machine equate to some kind of art practice?
Anyway, I met up with a few like minded souls and suggested we should put together a new kind of club, not modelled along the old hierarchical lines. Gentlemen rogues and crazy women. That was the demographic. People who weren’t identified with a scene just coming together from time to time.
We did that, and started doing pop up shows and events and became identifiable as a kind of sub culture. Almost from the word go people suggested that we should have a permanent base, somewhere to hook up that would always be available. So eventually I decided to try and make that a reality.
I did a kind of posh, offline crowd fund. Bike Shed started as a blog and we have an online presence, but this needed personal persuasion: so the only thing that wasn’t social media driven was the raising of the money. I approached friends of friends, people with an interest. We had some form, a constituency – the pop ups had gone down really well. And in a strange way the fact that Bike Shed is an emotional thing helped – people could identify with it, get a handle. Anyway, some were willing to come in on funding something more permanent.
We have thirty three backers and they all took a punt. No one person owns a big chunk. They are non voting shareholders – I have the final say. We have different revenue streams, we retail product, there are the bars and the food, and manufacturers pay us to exhibit at our shows. We control every single aspect of that. A Bike Shed event isn’t the NEC. So – specials only, no data capture, no promo girls, no shit. And a level playing field. If you built something and we wanted to show it, the rules would be the same for you and Yamaha. Or Triumph and Ducati for that matter. Those three have embraced the scene. They realised something was changing. They are genuinely excited by the stuff they are doing now, informed by shed culture, real world bikes with style.
NB But doesn’t all this position you as mainstream?
DvS Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’d prefer that to becoming niche, disappearing up our own backsides. It’s up to us how we react to things. I’m a brand strategist –
N Is Bike Shed a Brand?
N Is that a good thing?
D I don’t see it as a bad thing.
N Are there any dangers ?
D Only if people react against it.
N (laughs) Good answer, but some people have kind of reacted against it.
DvS: There are always going to be people who are disenchanted with the consumer aspect of Bike Shed, just like there are people who pine for the old days when Shoreditch was, quite frankly, a bit of a dump. I was here then, I lived on Hackney Road, I’ve done before and after. But the reality is that Bike Shed and biking in general desperately need to address a new, younger demographic. We’re putting that into practice by embracing change and the results speak for themselves: the average age of the people around us right now is early thirties, tops – compare that with what you see at your local bike meet.
We’re still a club because all bikers are, like it or not, part of a club by virtue of our common experience – what we’ve all been through, the rites of passage, the spills and thrills, the good and the bad. So why not use that commonality of experience to create something where we’re all welcome, including young people, including women. And we’re getting loads of young people on bikes. We sell 125s. We’ve had people buy their first bikes here. If you’re a woman and you ride a bike you come here because you’re accepted: there are as many women as men in here right now. If you’re under 25 and you ride a bike you come here and you’re part of the scene. You have two vital sectors right there, both of whom had been marginalised – when I was a young rider there were very few places where you were simply accepted. At Bike Shed you can come in and chew the fat, but at the end of it all we never forget that it has to be about the bikes, real bikes that real people ride. Every bike in here, including those on display, has a set of keys and can be ridden away. This is not concours. This is real. It may be a one off, but it must be rideable. I come to work every single day on a bike. Plus we ride together. We do the dirt, we do track days, we go to Brighton for an ice cream or Box Hill for a cup of tea. We bugger off together.
The unifying factor is two wheels and open minds. We have a city boy here who rides a Kimura special, serious serious money, and the other night he was chatting to my mate Dave who has an old shonker – a CB 350 with about a million miles on it and minimal maintenance only. But they were talking about rides, journeys, you know? They both have the commonality. We all do, it’s just that for years there was nowhere where we could all share it. And if one way to promote that and survive and is to be a brand, I’ll take it.
It’s very easy to be cynical about Bike Shed and the culture that surrounds it, to portray it simply as an elegant example of entrepreneurial thinking, which took its chance and is reaping the rewards, as have the businesses which have emerged alongside it. A decent custom job by one of the new breed of builders who have sprung up around the scene is never going to compare favourably with a production bike in terms of costs, and more problematically – as Dutch agreed – it may not compare in terms of ride quality either. But the other side of that same coin is worth thinking about: the kind of bike you can now buy in the showroom which combines style and performance with economy of scale – like Yamaha’s XSR 700, for example – owes its existence to the burgeoning yard scene.
The reason why Dutch was ahead of the curve in the first place was because he recognised the emotional dynamic inherent in biking as a shared experience, identifying a need that wasn’t being met elsewhere. Let’s hope emotion remains a key motivating factor. Because what started as fringe is now the dominant biking culture, and popularity inexorably steers you towards the mainstream. Dutch may not see that as a problem, but how Bike Shed handles this development will be the key to its future.
Meanwhile, the fact that a few non industry blokes with a shared passion have been partly responsible for more interesting production bikes – while simultaneously bringing youngsters back into the fold – is an end which justifies the means. Most of us would surely buy that, even if the jeans remain out of reach…