Cycling with conscience; how a North London bike business is helping vulnerable youngsters

Theme cafés are the new craze spreading across London; while book cafés have become an alternative to libraries, other establishments have opened to satisfy more specialist and unique tastes. The Cereal Killer Cafe’ on Brick Lane offers a menu of breakfast cereals, and in the Cat Emporium in Shoreditch customers can enjoy a cuppa surrounded by thirteen resident feline friends. A non-profit bike cafe’ however had been unheard of, so I travelled to north London to investigate.

Bikes For Good Causes is a charitable venture in High Road N22 which incorporates a bike and a cafeteria rolled into one. Managed by Sue Wade who commutes to the shop from her house in Balham, this 80 square feet space accommodates a variety of second-hand bicycles which are sold to the public at discounted price. All BFGC’s vehicles are donated by the general public and go through scrupulous checks and reconditioning before being re-sold. The two-wheelers on offer range from light racing bikes to road bikes, BMXs, kids’ bikes, electric bikes, folding bikes, virtually any model of bike the shop receives; accessories like helmets and chains are also available, in addition to repair services and bike washes.  

Towards the back wall of the shop a counter decorated with graffiti delimits the Graff Cafe’, where a selection of snacks including fruits, gluten free and healthy bars are displayed; a fridge and a coffee machine provide hot and cold drinks that can be consumed on the two large central tables, next to a shelf filled with a variety of books. By the way, their cappuccino is lovely and at a very reasonable price of £ 1.60 per cup (Ed.)

The main focus of the shop remains its commitment to charitable causes such as Action for Kids, an organisation which looks after a group of 16 to 25 years old with learning disabilities.  “We are a social enterprise”, Sue explains.  “Kids from the charity come to the shop three days a week to do work experience. They learn transferable skills: making coffee, cleaning, having interaction with other people… They are always supervised in the coffee shop which provides a safe environment for them.“ Through Action for Kids Sue has been able to reach out to other charitable trusts who support young people in north London; a boy from the Treehouse School in Crouch End which welcomes children with autism and related communication disorders already works in the Graff Cafe’ once a week; Sue hopes that other similar organisations will allow more work placements.

BFGC has an in-store part-time mechanic called Gaetano who deals with the maintenance and repair of the bikes;
another mechanic will be employed soon so that the shop is covered six days a week. “We do not buy the bikes and we don’t know where the bikes come from. Any donation is checked over, providing it is liable for us to do so; we road test the bike and put it for sale. If it’s not viable for us to do so, we strip the bike to keep some spare parts. We sell whatever bike we have donated and never know what we are going to have coming in. Some bikes have been donated by the police, we had a big collection of abandoned bikes once, or when people sort out their garage and have spare bikes we would happily take them. We would never turn a bike donation down, as long as it’s a bicycle and there is no engine involved.”

According to the National Travel Survey, in 2015 twenty-five million people in England owned a bike. At a particular time in the UK when the media campaign to increase interest in fitness and nutrition to fight a rise in obesity and weight-related conditions, cycling has become a popular alternative to gym subscriptions. The NHS website reports cycling as one of the easiest ways to fit exercise into our daily routine as it is also a form of transport that besides saving us money helps the environment. Cycling is considered a better form of exercise than running or other high-impact aerobic activities because it is easier on our joints, although it still manages to get us into shape.

People hoping to build their fitness with cycling are advised to ride a bike for at least 2.5 hrs every week. Sue attributes the popularity of cycling to the current economic climate. “For a lot of people it’s financial,” she says, “they are watching the pennies, although London needs to get its pollution sorted out; my eyes are watering, my mouth is dry for whatever is in the air… a lot more people are wearing masks.”

Now Sue is focusing on building and promoting the shop’s profile to make it widely known so that more Londoners are aware of the services it offers. Ideally, she would like the space to be used as a community hub for a variety of activities, like the knitting club it accommodates on Thursdays evenings, and as a stop-over for locals during their errands. “Now that we have done our refurbishment we have completely changed our look. We want to make more people aware of what we do and reach more networks like Age UK. We would like people to come and use it as a book club, or to host birthday parties for kids. Yes, it is a working bike shop but the tables can be used at the same time as it is not a frantically busy shop.”

It is clear that besides a love for cycling Sue really wants to make a difference in the community: “We are working so hard but i absolutely love it!“, she claims with a big smile. “It has been a massive learning curve and I have learnt a lot about bikes.  My goal is to have each day young people to do work experience and raise their confidence level; you can see their progress and how their level of confidence goes up!” Luckily the local council is lending a hand. “Haringey are very pro-cycling. They organise a bike festival every year which this year will fall on 18th June. Local police also come to the shop to give tutorials on bike security; this will be the third year that we are doing it.”  

The marriage between charity and cycling seems to be a winning formula for BFGC, as Sue confirms: “Cyclists do like a nice cup of coffee, and a nice treat or a healthy snack that they can have while they relax, or while they think about buying a bike, or while waiting for a puncture to be repaired. Once costs are recovered, any money over and above from the sale of the bikes is put back into the charity so that it can grow further”. May this partnership long continue.          

Customers can check the shop and the bikes available for sale on the BFGC’s website

BFGC can also be followed on Facebook.