The bike industry is full of skilled individuals ferretting away in workshops, but John Lee has turned his expertise into a highly specialised business. Daniel Blackham spoke with Lee about his niche
We all know the feeling. A customer has brought in their prized possession, and you’re about to adjust the seatpost to load it onto the stand and…it doesn’t budge. You’ve tried all the lubricants at your disposal, soaked it in lemon juice and are on the verge of reaching for something slightly more industrial. What now? Well fortunately, there is a business venture out there that might just save time (and maybe even the frame).
John Lee, aka The Seatpost Man, thrives in scenarios like this at his workshop in Chorley.
After hearing that Lee has successfully removed 2,000 stuck seatposts, BikeBiz sat down with Lee to learn more about his trade.
A homemade tandem and a Haro Freestyler
Bicycles and engineering have been a cornerstone of John Lee’s life. In the late 1970s, at the age of 13, he turned up at his father’s fabrication yard with two bicycles and asked him: “Can you stick these together and make a tandem?”
“He said ‘nope, but i’ll teach you how to braid, so you can do it’,” explained Lee.
“So somehow that day, my friend and I rode home on a tandem, it was just appalling.
“Over the years it got developed and the final 1981 version had French moped wheels, drum brakes and telescopic forks.”
As BMX took hold across the country in the early 1980s, Lee focused his attention on racing and had a successful stint competing for the Factory Raleigh BMX team.
After leaving school, he joined the family business in a concrete manufacturing firm, but always tinkered with motorcycles and bicycles on the side.
Fast forward to 1995 and the first stuck seatpost was presented to him by a friend, in the frame of a Haro Freestyler
“He’d done what everyone would have done,” said Lee.
“Stuck it in a vice, twisted the top off, chewed it up and got some grips on it. There was basically nothing left of it and then he said ‘John, do you think you can sort this out?’
“So I did.”
Many years later, another friend came along with a carbon road bike and a stuck aluminium seatpost posing the same question: “John, do you think you can sort this out?”
“I looked at it and it was a different animal altogether,” said Lee.
“I thought about it for a long time, came up with some ideas and then took that seatpost out.
“Then I was thinking ‘that was a lot of work for one particular job, I wonder if there’s mileage in that?’”
After speaking to some local bike stores, including Paul Hewitt Cycles, Lee realised there was a market for his services and before he knew it he was working with commercial and private customers.
“I didn’t wake up and say ‘hey, this is a good business idea’ because it is so niche,” said Lee.
“How many seatposts are stuck? Who is going to pay to have them removed? What are the logistics? Is it worth it? Well, it turns out it is, because there are a lot of nice bikes and a lot of stuck seatposts.
“In reality, the alternative to removing a stuck seatpost is to get a new frame. When you look at a frame swap on a bike that is three or four years old, you then consider getting a new bike. Suddenly you have gone from wanting to adjust your seat to looking at a new bike.”
As the value, quality and quantity of bikes has risen, the demand for services such as The Seatpost Man have also increased: “We can’t just be throwing these things away,” said Lee, “In the 70s and 80s with a steel frame you would stick it in a vice, give it a twist or maybe use a blow lamp and if it didn’t work just throw it away and get another one.
“But if you’ve got a nice Pinnarello then you go ‘oh dear.’”
To have successfully removed more than 2,000 seatposts from a variety of frames, including a wooden Twmpa Cycles gravel bike earlier this year, relies on more than just luck.
Lee has personally engineered a full complement of tools
“Everything in my toolbox, I’ve made,” said Lee.
“When I open the toolbox, every single thing in it is bespoke and manufactured in-house.
“But even now something will come in that is really unusual and i’ve got to get back on the machines, but it’s rare that something that comes in I’ve not seen before.”
Although the name of the business is The Seatpost Man, Lee’s main task when tackling a job is to protect the frame.
“When you think about what I actually do, I save frames,” he explained.
“Imagine a £2,500 frame, with a £50 aluminium seatpost, what do you want to save?
“I wouldn’t want to risk a frame for a seatpost.”
Although there has not been a seatpost Lee hasn’t been unable to remove, there have been a couple of times where the repair is no longer financially viable.
“If someone sends me a bike with a very damaged frame I will have a look at it, contact the customer and say ‘were you aware of this?’,” he said.
Don’t DIY it
If you Google ‘How to remove a stuck seatpost?’ a plethora of DIY theories are presented depending on the material. These include traditional methods like lubricant, creative ideas like lemon juice and a more brutal option of reaching for the hacksaw. Lee believes a DIY attempt is fine, as long as it doesn’t go too far.
“I normally say to people that if you really want to try, do anything non-destructive. Why not?,” he said.
“If you want to put Coca Cola in it, lemon juice, whatever. I get frames with ammonia, lemon juice and I just have to take it out.
“Obviously for some people it has worked but the reason it’s worked is they were lucky and they’ve managed to catch it just at the right point of seizure.
“But it didn’t do any harm. Just don’t pick up a saw or drill.”
The trade secret
Understandably, the real tricks of the trade will remain closely guarded – although Lee has been accused of witchcraft which he assures us is not the case.
However one thing that continues to stand Lee in good stead is to handle each bike the same, irrespective of age and value.
Read more: A bleak picture? Why children’s bike sales have dropped so dramatically
“I treat everything as though it’s my own,” explained Lee.
“It’s important to me – it’s my business and it’s my reputation.”