Having just moved into a fresh, two storey 17,500 square foot plot, a minute down the road from the Dark Star Brewery to which it was formerly adjacent, Upgrade Bikes is preparing for a new chapter in the business’s history. Mark Sutton talks to the team about brand additions, service and expansion…
From the humble beginnings of creating a pedal that riders throughout the world would come to swear by, Upgrade Bikes is a different animal today, importing brands from around the globe, each added in response to the changing bike market as years have passed.
“We’re still those friendly blokes on the end of the phone. We’re bigger, but the soul’s still very much there,” insists marketing manager Rory Hitchens. “You’ll speak to a human every time you call. Upgrade has always hired the right people for the job – each passionate about the products and getting out there on bikes of all shapes and sizes.”
If you’re familiar with the team, now 22 strong, you’ll not be surprised to hear at the time of BikeBiz’s visit and despite having only been in the building little over two months, the staff have all been eyeing up a small plot of land at the side of the warehouse and gently whispering ‘pump track’ whenever co-owner Damian Mason is in earshot.
It’s obviously not all fun and games, though, as having grown some 30 per cent in terms of sales volumes year on year, Upgrade is thriving – a key reason for the move.
“We moved at the end of March. Typically it snowed through the entire process, but luckily we haven’t had to move far. From the inefficient two-warehouse operation that we had previously, we’ve landed on our feet in a pre-decked out former aeroplane parts warehouse,” adds Hitchens. “The shelving was already in place, as was a high-tech air conditioning system installed to keep ‘aviation components at the right temperature’ – it was a perfect fit. With no need to make daily trips to a second unit the warehouse is a happier and far more efficient place.”
Though still with space to fill, the shelves are much busier too. It won’t have escaped the attention of those in the trade that Upgrade has made some stunning additions to its catalogue in the past 18 months. You’ve the likes of Praxis, who, Shimano aside, are the only company to offer cold-forged components. We were also told to be aware of much more from this label by the end of the year.
“They make solutions to bike industry- created problems,” explains Hitchens. “They’re known for the precision shifting offered by their chainrings, but as demonstrated at CoreBike, there’s much more to the brand. The new bottom bracket adapters have been very well received. We’re thrilled to have spotted them at Taipei and struck up a relationship.”
Then there’s ISM Saddles – a must have brand that took some chasing by co-founder Matt Ryley. Having been preparing for various Ironman challenges himself, he’d tried many saddles and binned most. Then came along a trial of an ISM saddle, to which Ryley describes himself as completely sold.
“It was a totally different experience. I contacted ISM because I’d been so impressed and though they didn’t agree right away, a few months and numerous emails later and we’ve now got stock of what I think is the best saddle on the market for endurance cycling. Try this saddle and you’ll wonder why the other products on the market are designed the way they are.”
Another significant scoop for Upgrade a few years back was suspension label X-fusion, for which the deal included a commitment to become the UK service centre as well as wholesaler to the trade.
Gradually Upgrade has become known not just for its roots on the dirt, but as a challenger in the road and cyclocross arenas too.
Hitchens said of the tarmac business: “Long- term the balance will even out even further. When people think of Upgrade they immediately think DMR and other off-road labels. But our other in-house designed label – Kinesis UK – alongside ISM and others have put us very much on the map with road cyclists, triathletes and in many other disciplines too. ISM sold 500 saddles in the first month with next to no promotional activity, so the strength of our labels speaks for themselves.”
Kinesis has stormed the cyclocross world in particular and we’re told, will continue to develop bikes created for very specific needs.
Having been so active over the past few years, it’s no surprise to learn that the distributor regularly turns down requests from brands to carry their product.
“Being in demand is nice, but we have to have a strong reason to adopt a brand,” says Hitchens. “To be honest there’s a lot of buzz around DMR in-house again. We appointed Olly Wilkins last year, who had previously spent nine years on the team. He’s a talented graphic designer and understands the product inside out.
“We’re not stopping Olly from getting out there with the products, but it’s great to have his expertise and passion in-house.”
With decoration and showpieces yet to go on the walls, you’d think the staff would be winding their activities down temporarily in the coming months?
“Not at all, we work ourselves a bit ragged, admittedly, but it’s worth it. Mountain Mayhem’s at the weekend (at the time of the interview) and we’ll be there. Then there’s RideLondon, something we are incredibly excited about,” explains Hitchens.
“When we’re out and about on rides we’ve come across so many people in training for their first 100 mile ride. It seems like long distance sportives are really taking off and thus we’re really getting involved in RideLondon. The industry stands to benefit from events like these and the media are all over it too. We’ll be making sure our product is seen by the crowds, in particular things like TRP’s three road discs, which we’re 100 per cent sure will be a hit this year.”
Organising a Spin Up in a Brewery
It’s no secret that Upgrade has long held a special relationship with Dark Star brewery, which until a few months ago was just over the road.
BikeBiz was fortunate enough to see first-hand the brewer’s operation and we were told: “Since the Spin Up in a Brewery event held here a few weeks back we’ve discovered that cyclists are very fond of beer. There were hundreds of riders here, the place was full to the brim and the atmosphere was fantastic. In fact we think we’ve seen a sales spike since then!”
Declared a success, the event will return on Saturday May 24th, 2014 and will once again host roller racing and much more.