Singletrack Magazine 121: The Not So Nutty Professor

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Sanny takes a step into the alternative bike world of Ben Cooper. What he finds is that it isn’t just about the bike. Not even close.

Words & Photography Sanny

I first came across Ben and his Glasgow-based shop Kinetics many moons ago when he started plying his somewhat-removed-from-mainstream bikes and accessories in a small row of shops just down the road from my parents’ house. Aside from his infectious enthusiasm, I was struck by just how much of a practical problem-solver he is for all things mechanical and electrical and by his love of engineering and industry. While some of us lusted over the latest Deore XT-sporting, Tange Prestige ultralight race frame from some obscure US manufacturer, Ben was already into gearbox hubs, dynamo lights and recumbents coming out of Germany. While most bike shops would be offering fairly standard servicing and repairs, Ben was getting acquainted with a welding torch and soldering iron. Not for him the standard puncture repair and gear adjustment. Rather, if you had a problem that nobody else could solve, like The A Team, Ben would be the man to call. Fitting discs to a Brompton? Sure, no problem. Want to cut your frame in half and fit S&S steel couplings for pain-free flights? He could do that too. Long before drones were a thing, Ben was already building and piloting them himself. You get the picture.

Enter the kingdom.

Stepping into Ben’s shop, ostensibly for the purposes of an interview, I was immediately drawn into a world far removed from the standard cookie-cutter bike shop that sells the same stuff as pretty much every other bike shop. Where there would normally be a workstand, there is an entire engineering workshop. And I’m not just talking your bog-standard hammer-action drill and bench. No sir, this is a world of precision-engineered lathes, spoke threading machines, frame jigs and an industrial drill that could probably be used to build a second channel tunnel. As heavy engineering works have gradually disappeared, Ben has been quick to snap up old machinery destined for the skip. They say they don’t make things like they used to. Ben’s workshop is proof positive of this. Under his supervision, I try some of them. Their smoothness of operation and feeling of built-to-last quality is nothing short of incredible. When they were designed and built in the early part of the twentieth century, the throwaway culture of today simply did not exist. What would have cost perhaps tens of thousands of pounds new were snapped up by Ben for a few quid. Recycling done properly, I think to myself.

With old signs, heavy munitions boxes repurposed for storage, and what can best be described as urban bric-a-brac visible in every direction, I suggest to Ben that it feels like a museum. He smiles and takes me through to the showroom. Stepping through the door, I feel like I have just found Charlie’s golden ticket. There are bikes, but not run of the mill bikes. On the wall, a Birdy takes pride of place while below it there is a beautifully crafted Moulton Spaceframe. A couple of Bromptons that have received the special treatment from Ben and now sport disc brakes and a Rohloff drivetrain catch my eye. Turning round, I am greeted with pretty much every type of recumbent on the market. Two-wheeler, carbon race bike – tick! Three-wheel, low-slung speed machine – tick! Electric off-road recumbents – tick, tick, TICK!

In the opposite corner rests Ben’s collection of memorabilia and artefacts from his urban exploration adventures across Scotland. Liberated from skips as old factories close down or found on eBay, it is a veritable cornucopia of eclectic, steampunk cool. On one wall, a fully operational electronic board from the old Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. “Why do you have that?” I ask. “To go with the scale model of the brewery I have here!” Ben replies with a grin as he pulls open a drawer for the big reveal. Opposite, a fully operational scale model of an opencast mine sits while against another wall is a small, but perfectly formed, working paper press model. I feel like a kid in a sweetshop. Add in the likes of a Geiger counter, Nobel explosive boxes and memorabilia from the Empire Exhibition and it is hard not to want to spend time poring over these little slices of industrial history. Every piece comes with a story and Ben is generous with his time.

Sanny: So Ben, tell me where it all started for you?

“This sounds a bit like my life story – first I was born, then things went downhill from there!

When I was a student, I was into mountain bikes. That started in school; actually it started with my parents buying me an early copy of MBUK to keep me quiet on a long car trip. But when I was a student I rode my Kona Cindercone everywhere, and also built up another bike using bits out of the small ads. Then one day I passed a wee bike shop up the road called Harper Cycles, and in the window was the most amazing bike – it was laid-back and streamlined and it just looked fast. I had to have it. I ended up spending my first student grant on it.

Folding bikes came a bit later – I ended up working for Harper Cycles in my spare time. It was an odd job – I wasn’t actually paid any money but I got to hang about and tinker with bikes and ended up running the shop when Adam Harper was absent, which happened pretty often. He was a dealer for Brompton, so I saw quite a few of them, and fell in love with the things.”

Sanny: So how did you end up starting your own shop, Kinetics?

“Adam was what you would call a bit of a character. He drove taxis and the shop was more a hobby for him than anything. He had an interesting approach to invoices where he would just ignore them for the most part. When he stopped turning up, I decided to see if I could make a go of it. I already had the premises and the contacts so I thought, why not? Looking back at my business plan, I think I may have been somewhat optimistic in my approach. I set aside £100 for tools and £100 for stock. [Ben laughs at this point.] The shop was pretty bare to the extent that when Jim Houston, owner of Dales, Glasgow’s oldest bike shop, popped in and saw the shop, within half an hour he was back with display cabinets for me.

Despite my lack of experience, I quickly realised that I had tapped into a niche market to the extent that a couple of years later, I had to move to larger premises in Switchback Road before moving 12 years later to Garscube Road where I now have both a showroom and framebuilding workshop.”

Sanny: What inspired you to get into gearbox bikes?

“The first time I saw a Rohloff was when an early Kinetics customer brought me a 1930s tandem he’d found under a compost heap. He wanted to tour North Africa on it, but everyone he talked to said he was mad. I needed the money so I offered to sort it out – he’d read about this incredible German gearbox, so I imported one (number 250ish) and fitted it to this old tandem along with disc brakes. He did the tour, and as far as I know is still riding the thing.”

Sanny: Well either that, or he got eaten by lions… Do you regard the bikes you sell as superior to traditional diamond frame bikes or have you spotted a niche that a select group of people appear to be into or even understand?

“I would say the bikes I build and sell are superior, of course! But really, I think conventional bikes are great for most people – the problem is that most people think that the conventional bike is all that exists. I think what I do is often about finding bikes that work for people who can’t or don’t want to use a conventional bike. Plus they’re fun – recumbent trikes are like go-karts, it’s just a different riding sensation.”

Sanny: Would you say that you have a typical customer type?

“I don’t really have a typical customer – I think I have a much wider customer base than many bike companies, just because I’m helping people who wouldn’t go to a conventional bike company. I don’t do serious customer data breakdowns, but the mix is pretty even male/female, age ranges from 10 to 100, and income ranges from unemployed to millionaire.”

Just to cement this, as we are talking, Ben’s window cleaner comes into the shop with a problem for him to solve. His steel trolley for carrying his kit has cracked and a transformer he owns has stopped working. In typical can-do fashion, Ben immediately sets about welding the trolley before getting the soldering kit out and fixing the transformer. He is clearly in his element as he regards it as just another problem to solve and doesn’t consider it as anything out of the ordinary.

Sanny: So you build frames, you weld, you know your way around electrics. How did you get into that?

“I started welding (well, brazing mostly) when I was at Harper Cycles – there was a night class on at North Glasgow College, taught by an ex-shipyard welder called Willy Bell. That got me into the idea that if you wanted something, you could just stick bits of metal together until you had it – I started off by building a recumbent frame. Most of the rest of the inventions come about by not saying no to people – someone asked me if I could get a Rohloff hub into a Brompton, and I thought it’d be an interesting thing to try, and now that’s a reasonably big part of my business.”

As I look around the room, on the wall I see an old Kona mountain bike with S&S couplings, the first he ever did, while in another corner, a Rohloff and disc-sporting Brompton sits awaiting delivery to another satisfied customer. But then the oddest of things catches my eye. “Is that a stretcher?”

“About four or five years ago, I was approached by a customer who asked if I could adapt a stretcher for use by the Network Rail Incident Response Unit. Sadly, when trains and people meet at speed, the end result is inevitable. The customer wanted a stretcher to be adapted that would make dealing with such incidents easier and with dignity. I set about manufacturing handles and a roller assembly that would allow the stretcher to be pushed by two operators along the rail track. It was an unusual request but safe to say that I am probably the only bike shop that is also an approved supplier to the UK railways.”

Sanny: So what other unusual requests have you had?

“The bathtub trike I recently completed was certainly a strange build! There have been plenty of other interesting things – racerunners, a tandem trike with two front wheels, a recumbent tandem trike, bicycle blenders, a four-person bike for the Royal Bank of Scotland, among others.”

Sanny: What are your predictions for the future?

“I think electric bikes are, finally, going to become really massive to the extent that they might kill off some other types of bike. Electric bikes have been the next big thing for as long as I’ve been working with them – and I’ve been doing electric bikes for longer than any other company in the UK I think. But finally we’re at the stage where the technology has caught up with the hype.” 

Sanny: How do you see the electric bike market developing? Will there be a move to less powerful but considerably lighter motors and batteries?

“The biggest challenge with the power output is the law. The maximum speed of electric bikes is limited and I don’t envisage the law changing any time soon. From a power output perspective, physics dictates that you can only go small with a battery pack. If you consider range, the ability to go 30 or 40 miles is probably what most people need, while the average user is unlikely to have to lift the bike over a gate. I reckon that the big focus and the place where we will see the biggest developments will be in the reliability and durability of batteries and motors.

“In terms of users, traditional cyclists tend to only get interested in the market when they are too old to ride at a reasonable speed without a motor. At that point, they aren’t interested in lightweight but lower power bikes.

“For me, the big thing is going to be non-cyclists. The no longer in business Powerbike surveyed electric bike users. They found that while traditional cyclists might only ride once a week, electric bike users would ride them most days. Reasons given included being able to get to work without being warm and sweaty. Fundamentally, electric bikes remove excuses not to ride.

“I don’t describe myself as a cyclist. I’m someone who loves playing about with bikes. I think the term divides us from other people. There are a lot of cyclists out there, but an awful lot more non-cyclists like me for whom electric bikes are an option that normal bikes aren’t.”

Sanny: Gearbox bikes and recumbents are still a bit of a novelty here in the UK. Do you think our European cousins embrace things that are not the norm more than we do?

“I’m not sure the Europeans do get recumbents and gearboxes more than we do – I think at the moment they’re better at setting up manufacturing companies to make things like that, but European suppliers I know also spend a lot of time moaning about how traditional and stuck-in-the-mud most cyclists in their countries are. Good cycling infrastructure does help of course, and they’re a long way ahead of us with that, so there is a trickle-down effect – good infrastructure leads to many more people cycling, which eventually leads to some looking at more unusual bikes.”

Sanny: Now the big question. What do you ride for fun?

“I don’t have an awful lot of time to ride just for fun, but at the moment I’m using a R&M Load for commuting and work trips – it’s a full-suspension, electric-assist load carrier. I now use this instead of my Volvo estate, and it’s like the Volvo in many ways really. Can carry lots, weighs a ton, but can get up to a pretty decent speed – I love it. On holidays, I take my old Tomac Revolver Ti – it’s an antique in mountain biking terms, but it’s lovely.”

And with that Ben had to get back to work on building his railway stretchers. If you happen to be in Glasgow, take some time out and head over to his shop. Rather like Gruber’s Antiques in Paddington, you can be guaranteed that something will catch your eye. Just don’t expect to be in and out of there in five minutes!

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