Pump Yourself Up

Trending in major cities around the world,
the Forest City gets its own cycle café

Photo: Ben Cowie, London Bicycle Café owner

SPEND SOME TIME talking to Ben Cowie, and you’re sure to get caught up in his enthusiasm and vision for London as a bike-friendly city, where people regularly use pedal power to get around. His focus is on utility cycling—bikes for transportation, not simply recreation—and he wants it to be a family affair.

Cowie has been a bike commuter for years. As a grad student, he needed a reliable and inexpensive way to get around, most recently at the University of Calgary where he was working on his PhD. When he decided to leave there in March to return to his hometown of London, he also made a decision to leave academia.

In June, Cowie opened the London Bicycle Café on Clarence Street to provide locals with a good selection of transportation bikes—and a good selection of fresh roasted coffee. “We are the only shop in town that focuses on utility cycling,” he says. “We don’t carry any sports bikes, and our walls are covered in baskets and bike locks instead of shorts and jerseys.”

As a concept, bicycle cafés are proliferating across North American cities, enhancing the “in the saddle” experience for everyone from urban riders and hard-core cyclists to weekend warriors and tourists. The cafés are thought to be inspired by Europe’s strong biking and café cultures—the traditional café where people congregate has always been part of the European cycling scene.

“I wanted to be right downtown because that’s where commuters need it most—it is quicker to get around on a bike than any other form of transportation and way easier to find parking”
— Ben Cowie

To get up and running, Cowie secured seed funding through the Futurepreneur Canada program. With that money, his own personal investment, mentoring from a friend who owns a bike shop in Calgary and strong ties to the local cycling community, Cowie was ready to launch within a fairly short period of time.

“I wanted to be right downtown because that’s where commuters need it most—it is quicker to get around on a bike than any other form of transportation and way ­easier to find parking,” he says. “Surveys show that 60 per cent of Londoners want to ride bikes more often, and I want to give people the tools to do that.”

Having a shop that sells and services commuter bikes—the upright style with comfortable seats and fat tires that you would typically see in European cities, as well as cargo bikes that have a box in the front to hold children and groceries—is just one piece of the puzzle. Urban cyclists, explains Cowie, are also concerned about safety, theft and being presentable on the job if they cycle to work. So, in addition to running his business, Cowie also ­advocates for changes that will address those common challenges.

“There are things the city can do to improve safety. For example, people drive to the design of the street, so if you have narrower lanes people tend to drive a whole lot slower.” He notes that many cyclists don’t feel safe on major streets, even when there are dedicated bike lanes, and points to Edmonton—where end-to-end concrete parking curbs mark the division between car and bike lanes—as an example of ways to better protect cyclists.

To deter thieves, the London Bicycle Café sells high-­quality locks, and Cowie notes that some employers are ­offering secure lock-up spaces for staff who choose to ­commute by bike. And some employers have installed ­showers that employees can use when they arrive at work. Those kinds of institutional accommodations are the things Cowie hopes will become increasingly widespread to encourage more people to cycle on a regular basis.

And as much as he loves bikes and cycling culture, Cowie also loves a good cup of coffee. When he lived out west, he discovered Rosso Coffee Roasters, a Calgary-based coffee roaster, retailer and wholesaler. “I think it’s the best coffee in Canada,” he says.

Stocking a variety of Rosso coffee beans, the café in the front area of the shop is anchored by a La Marzocco Linea espresso machine, shipped from Italy, and will feature ­pour-over coffees.

“It’s important to me to have a place where people can sit, socialize and connect,” Cowie says, “and I figure that if ­people can get an amazing cup of coffee, it will bring them into the bike shop. We’ll also be open Sundays to serve the biking community, who can use the café as a start and/or end point for group rides.”  Kym Wolfe