As the iconic Pennine Cycles celebrates its 23rd birthday, director and co-owner Sandra Corcorcan spoke with Alex Ballinger to share how she has seen the industry change
This piece first appeared in the February edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
The story of Pennine Cycles is a long and remarkable tale that dates back to the second world war.
Sandra Corcoran, director of the bike retailer and frame builder along with her husband Paul, has been involved in the business for more than 20 years, and sat down with BikeBiz to tell me how the business evolved.
In 1946, the original founders Johnny Mapplebeck and Geoff Whitaker returned from the war to their home city of Bradford and wanted nothing less than to return to their old pre-war jobs. Mapplebeck and Whitaker had fallen in love with cycling and Italian bicycles, and founding their own bike shop, Whitaker and Mapplebeck (cycles) Limited, was a natural step.
Then in the 1950s, Mapplebeck and Whitaker delved into the world of framebuilding, as the company developed over time into Pennine Cycles. In 2003, Mapplebeck retired at the age of 80 (Whitaker had already left the business many years before), and Pennine Cycles was bought by Paul Corcoran, a Pennine Cycles employee with plenty of experience managing the store for Mapplebeck.
Enter Paul and Sandra Corcoran, the owners of Pennine Cycles for the past two decades, celebrating their 23rd anniversary on 1st February. “When we bought the business in 2000, I still had a full time job. I had a career in local government, so I was working but on Saturdays I was in the shop.
“Through that time I was learning about all the chainsets, I did a mechanic course, and I started networking, and got involved in this group called Forward Ladies, which was for women that were starting a business. That got me linked up with UK Trade and Investment [now the Government’s Department for International Trade]. We were working together me and Paul with our strengths, making a team.”
Women in the bike trade
Sandra’s experience of the cycling business world dates back more than 20 years, but her experiences in cycling date back even further, as she was a regular attendee at races in a supporting role. But as a woman in a male-dominated industry, has she seen an improvement in attitudes towards women in the cycling world? “It still is a male-dominated industry,” said Sandra.
“I used to go to bike shows in the UK and they used to ignore me. They didn’t realise I did have a say in where we spent our money. So if I wasn’t happy we didn’t support that business. Over time I’ve had to prove my time in the trade and gain credibility. We went to a show before Covid and it was feeling like that again.
“Maybe new people who had started with the company, or who were normally sat in the office who had been brought out for an exhibition and it felt like they were thinking ‘what does this woman know about cycling?’ which I was quite saddened by really, because you’d think young men are a bit more educated about these things and realise that women do have a place in the world.”
So what can be done in the bike trade to help encourage more women to get into the industry? “There is a smattering of women,” added Sandra. “I suppose it’s having an interest in cycling. You’ve got to be passionate starting out in business, whatever business you do. If you find a good mentor when you’re starting off in business, that helps. And networking: the networking I did was with women only and I prefer women’s only networking.
“I don’t think there’s as much opportunity for people at school to do work experience in a bike shop like there used to be. My daughter started working at Pennine when she was 14 and that’s how she got into it.”
Alongside the progress (or lack of ) in equality, Sandra has also seen how the relationship between suppliers and retailers has changed during her time working at Pennine.
Many of these changes may have also been accelerated by Covid, including how distributor reps interact with cycling businesses.
“Covid probably didn’t help, but we hardly have any reps anymore because it’s all B2B [platforms]. We’re not really keen on B2B, because we want to speak to people. As a business, we want to speak to our customers and we want to give good quality customer service, and I think we feel that we want that from our suppliers.
“A lot of reps have come and gone so you’re always establishing yourself with new people, because we want the reps from the suppliers to understand what kind of bike shop we are, what our passion is.
“When we started 23 years ago, a lot of suppliers were independent. Now there’s not as many suppliers out there. The business has gone through tough times since 1946 and Paul knows the businesses that supported them. Even now those are the businesses you want to keep supporting, the suppliers that are understanding if you have difficult times.”
Here at BikeBiz we’ve routinely been reporting on the challenges facing the bike industry, from component shortages during Covid to the sudden drop off in sales post-pandemic and the resulting overstocking. But how does it look from the shop floor?
“It’s still tough,” said Sandra. “We’re still recovering because people change their shopping habits. A lot of customers who have been cycling for a long time have hung up their wheels because they’ve got out of the habit. A lot of people bought a bike during the pandemic, but once the traffic got back to normal it’s tough to keep it up.
“One thing I noticed this time, was when petrol prices increased phenomenally like they did, normally in the past we’ve had an influx of people coming in and looking for bicycles to buy because it’s too expensive to get the car on the road, they want to commute to work, but that didn’t happen this time.”
Sandra believed that this could in part be due to the spike in bike sales during the pandemic – those potential new customers inspired to cycling by the cost of living crisis may have already bought their new bikes in 2020 or 2021 when lockdown restrictions were at their height.
Pennine Cycles stocks a variety of performance brands, particularly those specialising in the road market, from Fizik, Sidi, Selle Italia, Time frames and pedals, 100%, and Le Col club clothing, alongside the Pennine brand of bikes – Yorkshire handmade steel frames, custom built for each customer.
The Pennine team is also a small unit – five altogether, including Paul and Sandra, and their daughter who handles the social media and some of the accounts. So what next for Pennine? “Keeping our heads above water,” said Sandra.
“Keep promoting, deciding whether we’ll host a bike race again, and start doing some of the evening workshops again, particularly on nutrition and health, as well as cleaning your bike. Getting our name out there [is a priority], because you can’t rest on your laurels.”