Tim Gregory is the founder of Smilebikes, a specialist electric bike shop in Norfolk. And he knows more than most just how life-changing getting out on an e-bike can be, especially during lockdown
If there are any positives to come out of this pandemic, our new-found interest in getting exercise out in the open air could well be one of them. And Tim Gregory, founder of Smilebikes specialist electric bike shop in Langley, Norfolk, has certainly noticed that each lockdown has had a positive effect on the popularity of not only cycling in general but e-bikes in particular. And he should know more than most how life-changing riding an electric bike can be, such is his back story.
Tim started his cycling love affair in 1982, at the age of 13, by introducing the sport of BMX racing to Norwich. He can be credited with forming the Norwich Flyers BMX Club – with the help of fellow members, and parents, they built Norfolk’s first BMX track in Costessey that stood for 20 years.
However, after years of living and loving cycling in all its forms, a little over a decade ago Tim’s life suddenly changed when he became ill with a debilitating lung disease. At his diagnosis he was given two years to live – at the most.
Thanks to staff at the Royal Brompton Hospital, his life was saved but at the cost of extremely scarred lungs which have left him with only around 30 per cent usage to this day.
A life without cycling was unthinkable to Tim, but with every pedal stroke making him feel like he was drowning, he had a mountain to climb. After two years of hard-won improvement, he went to France and climbed most of the major Tour de France mountains – over a three-year period and albeit a lot slower than the Tour! This feat garnered him a Norwich City Council Inspirational Sportsperson award in 2011.
But with permanently damaged lungs Tim’s cycling life became a struggle. On his 50th birthday a couple of years ago, for example, he sat with his bike in a heap on the ground, gasping for air, watching his friends have fun on slopes whilst he was unable to ride.
Then he had that lightbulb moment: somebody rode past on an electric mountain bike and within two weeks he had bought one for himself. To say e-bikes have given him a new lease of life would be an understatement. ‘I’d got to the stage where I couldn’t cycle anymore,’ says Tim, ‘and from the age of 12 I had been cycling – so life wasn’t really pleasurable anymore.’
The e-bike revelation has ‘literally completely changed my life.’ And he has turned his new-found love of all things e-bike into a successful business. Smilebikes only opened in March 2019 and a year later, once the first lockdown had kicked in, Tim started noticed a rising interest in biking in general (they also repair normal bikes and never more so than during a year when everyone got their trusty old bikes out of their sheds).
The shop remained open, albeit by appointment only, and although around 50 per cent of e-bike enquiries might’ve come from the ‘general public’, the other 50 per cent were from ‘people with cancer, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis… They were brought here by their children, who could’ve been in their 40s or 50s.’ He adds: ‘Even hard core road bike cyclists are bringing their parents.’
Being able to ride an e-bike has been a revelation for all concerned. ‘Lo and behold they can still ride again,’ observes Tim. ‘Everyone who comes back says ‘it’s changed my life’.’
E-bikes are proving to be the perfect solution for people who would love to get on two wheels, but don’t feel physically able to, as Tim explains: ‘People with rheumatoid arthritis or who have had knee surgery, you don’t have to put the same power in, but you are still exercising. You go longer and further.’
Outside of lockdown, the Smilecafe is usually open, but the café is closed at the moment, partly because of Covid, and partly because it’s full of bikes! With the bike shop open by appointment only, Tim says, ‘we monitor who comes and test rides, to ensure the minimum of social contact. Without being selfish, I’m quite vulnerable.’
What has happened this year has ‘kick-started the e-bike revolution,’ says Tim. The pandemic has ‘been a watershed for a lot of things and transport is one of them.’ In fact, Tim believes the revolution has been ‘bought forward by a year.’ He adds: ‘As far as I was concerned, the e-bike boom was three years away in Britain, compared to if you go to, say, France, Holland or Germany.’
Tim predicts the next big thing will be e-trikes – also available at Smilebikes. ‘You could also call them MS machines,’ says Tim, before explaining that they are particularly suitable for people with Multiple Sclerosis. Again, our European neighbours are ahead of the curve on this.
Lockdown seems to have ‘consolidated the customers’ views that health really is the most important thing, so good sales have continued,’ says Tim. Once again, in lockdown 3.0, the shop is open by appointment only ‘so that we can social distance but still give the customer the personal service that we are famous for,’ he adds. ‘Also, against the current climate, we have lots of bikes in stock and availability is good for the coming months.’
Smilebikes is in a good position to weather the storm we all find ourselves in. ‘We intend to start looking at growth with the plan in mind of second premises by 2022,’ reveals Tim.
He is a firm believer that getting out into the fresh air on a bike is great for both body and mind – and now more than ever – and would encourage anyone to give it a go. When he first started on his e-bike journey, he was doing it purely for the physical benefits. ‘Now I’d say it’s 30 per cent physical and 70 per cent for mental health. In my view it has saved my life – because my life was cycling.’ Tim says: ‘I’ll get out and ride and that’s all that matters.’