Words Roland Glasser
Photography Yu Fujiwara
“…essentially it’s just a simple mode of transport, for anyone and everyone”
Eastcastle Street is Fitzrovia’s “gallery row”. Wide glass shopfronts reveal white space after white space, each filled with colours and lines and forms and frames. Number 14 is no exception. But here the brightly coloured frames do not enclose paintings; rather they hold shiny spoked wheels, grasp toothed rings and support gleaming chains. This is Tokyobike. At first glance, you might be forgiven for assuming this is all just eye-candy at elevated prices, fancy design with just a nod to effective function, but you’d be wrong.
In the words of Neil Davis, the brand’s UK director: “Tokyobike is just a simple bike to get around on. And yes, there’s lots of nice details and beautiful colours, but essentially it’s just a simple mode of transport, for anyone and everyone”. That might sound like an obvious statement regarding a piece of technology that’s nearly two hundred years old, but such apparent simplicity often costs a lot of money. You see, if you’re a Tour de France fan, there’s a plethora of sleek road bikes available to suit your budget. If you like to ride cross-country or tear down hillsides, there are plenty of fat-tyred, shock-absorbing beasts available, at a range of price points. And if you want to make like the 1940s, in a gingham frock with a wickerwork basket, there are vintage bicycles galore — most of them, of course, vintage only in look rather than age. But there is a surprising lack of choice for the everyday urban rider who just wants to cruise about town with efficient ease astride something stylish, but without breaking the bank.
Tokyobike was founded in the tranquil Tokyo suburb of Yanaka in 2002, and there are now a dozen stores across the world. In 2012, they opened their first London shop (in Shoreditch), and in 2015 they arrived in Fitzrovia. Both addresses have workshops attached. It is of course no coincidence that the company should choose Fitzrovia for their second store, since the many PR and advertising agencies, architecture and design firms now located in the neighbourhood are just the sort of folk who are Tokyobike’s core market.
The basic Tokyobike model is sleek and relatively compact, thanks both to the frame design and the wheels, which are slightly smaller than one would usually find on a bicycle of this type. The smaller wheels also improve acceleration and manoeuvrability — particularly useful in narrow city streets where there can sometimes be much stopping and starting — not to mention making the bike easier to store at home or the office. And with just six basic models (four multi-speed and two single-speed), as well as a children’s model, the process of choosing your next ride couldn’t be easier. The brand has clearly worked hard to achieve a balance between quality and price, with standard models costing from £490 to £680; and while that certainly seems expensive, it is, in fact, quite good value for the great ride and sleek design you get for your money, not to mention the attentive service Tokyobike provides both before and after purchase. Every model comes in its own range of colours, for as Neil points out: “In the same way as you’ll spend a bit of time choosing the colour of a nice new jumper or jacket, why not choose a nice colour for your bike that you’re going to ride every day?” And there are further options, such as handlebar style, saddle and gearing, to suit each person’s riding style and aesthetic preference. In addition to bikes, the store sells a range of accessories, many of them of Japanese design, from bags to books to clothing to bicycle bells, even a clever rollaway mudguard.
The more time I spent at Tokyobike chatting to Neil and looking at the models on show, the more I began to appreciate the subtle differences between the various bikes arranged around the space. One in particular caught my eye, and I asked Neil what it was: “Oh, that was designed for the Ace Hotel in London, when they opened. They came to us saying: ‘We love bikes, we always have bikes at our hotels, we want some for our guests to ride around on: what can you do?’ So we actually designed a brand-new frame just for them, we chose all the components for it, and then we also produced a limited run of it to sell.”
I asked Neil about what sort of customers come to Tokyobike: “We get two different types of customer. There are those who are new to cycling, they’ve maybe never owned a bike as an adult, but they want to start cycling. This is probably their first bike and they’re not very knowledgeable, but they like the look of the bikes. We’re quite an approachable bike store because we don’t bombard the customer with choice. I think that’s appealing, to girls especially, because traditionally bike shops have been quite masculine, sporty, and focussed on that side of things. But we also get people like one of the guys who’s been with us since the beginning. He owns about ten bikes, a real cycling nut, but he wanted to get a Tokyobike, and that’s how we met him. He was after something a bit different – the wheel size, the shape of the frame. For him it was like another slightly quirky bike for his collection. And now we do kids’ bikes, too, which I think is kind of cool!”
Just then, our chat was interrupted by the ding-a-ling of the shop’s door opening, as a customer walked in to pick up what seemed to be his first ever bike, or perhaps his first for many years. I was struck by Neil’s warm and friendly manner, as he ran through a few basic maintenance tips. And as the man wheeled his new pride and joy out the door, adulterous feelings of desire for those sleek, petite frames surged within me. I hope my battered old beater locked to a lamppost outside didn’t notice…