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Greenwich: How Wizard Works sew a little magic into all their bike packing bags

How co-founders Veronica Lowe and Harry Major run an open-hearted manufacturing business

Harry and Veronica in their workshop at Design District on Greenwich Peninsula

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The author Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, V For Vendetta and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen maintains magic is very real.

It’s just that it lives in our minds rather than the real world.

A visit to Wizard Works at Design District on Greenwich Peninsula, however, does a little bit to confound that notion.

On the face of it, co-founders Harry Major and Veronica Lowe and their team hand-make a range of bike packing bags for cyclists in a bright and airy ground floor workshop. 

Wizard Works is now a team of six at Greenwich Peninsula

But look more closely and there’s a little bit of magic running through the thread on every seam.

That’s because everything this company does has a purpose – design that stems from a real world problem or a lived experience.

When I arrive for our interview, Veronica seems buoyant.

A Crowdfunder prize draw she’s set up is gaining some traction and it’s for a cause close to her heart.

She and Harry had travelled to her native New Zealand at Christmas – the first time she’d been able to see her family for four years, due to the pandemic. 

Sadly, not long into their trip, her father died suddenly. The couple extended their stay to be with family before Harry flew back, with Veronica set to follow on.

But then, in February, Cyclone Gabrielle hit, devastating the Esk Valley where she was staying – the floodwater rising so rapidly she and those in the household where she was staying had to take refuge on the second floor, before being rescued by boat the following morning. 

In a blog post she wrote: “Eventually the rain eased, the water stopped rising and in the morning I was rescued.

“I cried as I was jet-boated to safety, through the vineyards I worked in as a teenager, the valley Dad spent his whole life cultivating, completely engulfed by the little river we grew up playing in.

“The devastation is heartbreaking, there are people and families that have lost everything, including their lives.

“My dad’s house, with all his special things, that only days before we’d organised and lined up in his hallway to collect – reminders of our lovely father – all totally destroyed.”

I mention this deeply traumatic set of events because Wizard Works’ reaction to it says everything about this small, independent company. 

It’s created an AllBlack collection of bags with 50% of net sales donated to the Hawke’s Bay Foundation Cyclone Relief Fund and set up a prize draw to contribute to the relief effort for a disaster that killed at least 11 people, displaced some 10,000 and left homes, businesses and farmland in ruins.

While born of adversity, this latest project is perhaps emblematic of the open-hearted way Harry and Veronica run Wizard Works – a business that grew from a passion for cycle touring adventures, a bout of miserable winter weather and a desire for a creative outlet.

The couple’s business was born of cycling adventures

“We met in London,”said Veronica. “I was on a working holiday and my visa expired in 2011, by which time we’d been dating for a while and so he said he’d come with me when I left.

“We were not strangers to hare-brained schemes, like going round the world with someone you’d only just started dating.”

“We’d been in Melbourne for a few months and we did our first big ride together – maybe one and a half miles from a neighbouring suburb to have brunch in a cafe,” said Harry.

“We realised we’d ridden from there to here – it felt like we could do anything. We thought we might get a rainbow-coloured tandem and cycle round the world. 

“Although we prefer two bikes, the feeling of that conversation stuck with us and we planned our first multi-day cycle around Mornington Peninsula.

“It was awesome and my first time camping – Veronica was the outdoors person.”

Hooked, the couple began planning – reading blogs and making lists – as they set their sights on a year-long journey by bike from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur.

Although they didn’t know it, their experiences on that trip were the foundation for what would become Wizard Works.

Wizard Works makes bike packing bags for commuting and adventuring

“After that trip we got holiday visas and moved to Vancouver to stay with a friend we’d met in Melbourne who told me we were going to need an indoor hobby because the winters in Canada are shit,” said art school graduate Harry, who grew up in London. 

“He was right, it rained every day that October.

“So, having spent most of our trip around Asia talking about the gear we wish we’d had, we decided to do something about it and we bought a little Singer sewing machine and started making bags. 

“I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t – everything I made was terrible, but it was mesmerising.

“I loved that combination of technical problem solving and creativity. We started off making bags for ourselves and they slowly got better.”

The hobby turned into a side hustle with Harry and Veronica back in London gradually increasing the time they were spending on the business.

Finding success through online sales, they hired staff to cope with demand and took space in Peckham before outgrowing that and moving to Design District.

Today, Wizard Works is a team of six producing a collection of core products as well as custom-made bags.

The bags it makes are inspired by the Bike Packing movement, which aims to place luggage within the frame of the bike rather than having to rely on unwieldy panniers.

But it’s not just about function.

Veronica said: “Something that really felt difficult when we were buying things for the trip was that everything was black or brown.

“You could buy bags that were fun, but they were at the lower end of the quality spectrum.

“We wanted to do something which was more colourful and that fitted with our brand name.”

“Right from the beginning we just wanted to make the bags that we wanted ourselves,” said Harry.

“The name partly comes from Veronica’s older brother who used to say: ‘You’re a wizard, Harry, and a thumping good one at that,’ when he saw me because that’s what a British ‘Harry’ is. 

“Wizard Works got a name and went from being a hobby to being a business – but we were always coming at it as the end user.

“We knew what worked, but we wanted it to have an aesthetic that lined up with the kind of bikes we were riding and the stuff we were wearing.

“In about 2017 and 2018 there was a kind of culture around kooky bikes – things people had built themselves. We wanted to be the luggage brand to go with that type of cycling.”

As you might be able to guess, there’s an enormous amount that won’t fit in this article – Wizard Works’ tireless battle to make its Cordura bags more sustainable, for example – but suffice to say it’s a brand well worth checking out.

A SELECTION OF WIZARD WORKS’ BAGS

Shazam Saddle Bag

Ideal for adventurers or commuters who carry larger loads – £195-£205

Alakazam Basket Bag

This bag easily expands and comes with straps for bigger loads – £148-£215

Lil Presto Barrel Bag

Mounts either to saddles or handlebars, ideal for the light packer – £68

All Wizard Works’ bags are made by hand in Greenwich

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Poplar: How SJ Cycles brings bike maintenance right to its customers

Stefan Johnson created a pedal-powered business to help encourage people to care for their rides

SJ Cycles founder Stefan Johnson – image Matt Grayson

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Stefan Johnson cuts an athletic figure on his  cargo bike.

Sourced from a Danish company via the Netherlands, it has to be robust to carry the 60kg of equipment and tools he uses for business.

Raised in Mile End and Forest Gate, the east Londoner created SJ Cycles to bring bike repairs, care and servicing to clients at their convenience via the power of his legs. 

“I’m trying to encourage people to maintain their bikes more often,” he said.

“A lot of people run their bikes into the ground and then have big bills of £200 or £300 or they just buy new ones, which can also cost them a lot of money.

“I’m trying to offer something in between – there are benefits to the customer and to the environment.

“Depending on usage, having a service every six to eight months and cleaning the bike makes a big difference. 

“It’s not just about how your bike looks. Grit and muck on the road can get into the mechanics – the chain, the braking system – and it slowly wears away the metal.

“That can cause long-term damage, which equals new parts and that means big bills.

“It’s also wasteful, so I’m trying to prevent that happening – maintaining your bike more often will save you money.”

Stefan originally wanted to be a car mechanic before turning to bikes – image Matt Grayson

Stefan began riding himself while studying car maintenance at Hackney Community College – now part of New City College. 

“I was planning on being a car mechanic, and after four years of study I went into an apprenticeship, but unfortunately I didn’t find any opportunities in that industry,” he said.

“Instead I got my first job as a sales assistant at my local bike shop – Halfords.

“There was a mechanic there who was willing to teach me after hours about working on bikes so that’s how I started.”

Stefan went on to work at a number of independent bike shops but felt he was often recruited in a bid to broaden their customer base as they attempted to attract customers from a wider range of backgrounds.

A pattern of mistreatment and broken promises left him wondering what to do.

“Being a Christian, I decided to pray about it and start again,” he said. 

“Was I going to accept this behaviour in the industry or would I set new standards? 

“I took a positive leap to be passionate about what I’m doing without sacrificing my humanity.

“My faith definitely played a big part in that. 

“I knew about 10% I could get to the point of launching SJ Cycles – making a Facebook page, announcing I was doing it.

Stefan carries all the equipment he needs with him on a custom cargo bike – image Matt Grayson

“The other 90% was faith that I could sustain it, live off it and make it a part of my life.

“Even though I had less confidence in myself and more confidence in God, I took it forward, made it happen and I’m here now.

“I’d started working as a bike courier, which was a very flexible thing to do and allowed me to make enough money to live on.

“It was very hard work but it made the money so I could buy all the tools and equipment to start the business in 2017.”

Stefan offers a general Tune-Up Service for £45, which lasts about an hour and a half and includes diagnostic checks, brakes and gears tuning, tyre maintenance and a deep clean of the frame and various systems, delivered either at a client’s home or office as convenient.

SJ Cycles also offers a Puncture Repair Service for £25, which includes a new inner tube and the option to be taught how to change one. 

While merchandise is also available online, world domination is not on the agenda.

“I’m a very simple man, so I’m not looking to be a big entrepreneur and expand with different branches and many employees around London,” said Stefan.

“This business is about encouraging people to maintain their bikes more, for me to live off it and remain in east London, take care of my wife and earn a modest living to make it sustainable. 

“If anyone needs support in maintaining their bike, I post a lot of tips on Facebook and Instagram, such as advice on security.

“That’s just to let people know that when they own a bike they’re not alone and can talk to me about it on social media.

“I would definitely encourage people to get a bike.

Stefan can service bikes at customers’ homes or offices – image Matt Grayson

“It’s very convenient – one purchase, you buy your bike and you can go wherever you want. It’s great for fitness as well.

“You can jump on a bus and pay, but for some people – when you add that up – it’s as much as a bike over one year.

“I understand why people may be hesitant, because of the infrastructure of the roads, which may not be the safest, but it’s come a long way since I started.

“Then I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my abilities, but I was very aware of my surroundings, how the traffic flows and where to position myself – my confidence grew over time – it became quite natural to me.

“I do ride for pleasure but it depends on how much I’m working – the business can be quite busy, especially in the summertime.

“After a day of working on people’s bikes I like to go skateboarding, which is my second hobby, as well as bouldering – indoor climbing.

“I’m quite a physical person, so the bikes I ride aren’t electric – that and having a strong metabolism, definitely doesn’t make the food bills easy.”

SJ Cycles’ services can be booked online via the business’ Facebook page.

You can find “the mobile bike mechanic that’s always on the move” on both Facebook and Instagram @sjcycleslondon.

He offers a range of services to help people keep their bikes in order – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Bread And Macaroon serves up treats in Wapping

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canning Town: How the Bamboo Bicycle Club helps its customers build their rides

Fast-growing material offers natural cushioning, offered by the business via kits and workshops

James Marr of the Bamboo Bicycle Club at Caxton Works
James Marr of the Bamboo Bicycle Club at Caxton Works

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James Marr was working in rural Wales as an engineer when he encountered the problem that would lead to the creation of the business he’s now run for 10 years in east London.

“I was doing a lot of commuting and I was really uncomfortable on my bike,” he said.

“I decided I needed a frame that would absorb more of the vibrations from the road and be a bit more pleasant to ride.

“I’ve always been someone who just gets on and does stuff and a bicycle gives you that ability.

“I’ve always cycled – it gives you a lot of freedom, and I really enjoy that.

“I’ve always tried to fix things and build things myself, so I thought I’d make my own bicycle.”

Having lived in the USA and seen people riding bikes with bamboo frames he began researching the material and found it to his liking.

“That’s where I got the original idea,” he said. “Bamboo bikes are about 120 years old now – they’ve been around for a while.

“Technology has obviously progressed in terms of how you build bikes over time and that’s made making your own much more accessible.

“You’re able to create something really decent now, so I thought I’d build one.

“I told my best mate Ian McMillan about it, and he joined in.

“We used to meet up at the weekends – we’d have some beers and build our bikes.

“That was really the inception of the Bamboo Bicycle Club.

“We really enjoyed building them and riding them – it was enjoyable and sociable and our mates asked if they could come and build with us as well.”

Build workshops take place in Canning Town every month

Initially the idea was to open up the club as a social project with James and his friend keeping their  jobs in engineering while continuing to build and teach others at the weekends.

But the idea snowballed and James quit his job to run the business full-time.

He relocated operations to Caxton Works in Canning Town in 2020 after years in Hackney Wick, mostly because rents in the area were becoming prohibitive for a firm like his that needs a significant amount of space.

It’s necessary because the spirit of the original club still forms the spine of the business.

“We don’t sell finished bikes – only kits and building sessions in our workshops,” said James.

“Over the years it has been a temptation to sell finished bikes, but it was that early feeling I got when I rode the bike I’d built which is really key.

“I remember that when I rode it, me and my mate were giggling, because we just couldn’t believe that we’d built these bikes and were riding them for the first time.

“They were functional, they worked, and they definitely planted the seed of what could be achieved. That initial spark from riding them was unique.

“The first one I built was pretty shit, but it made me realise what I’d done wrong.

“When I’m teaching others, the first thing I say is: ‘Make mistakes, but just embrace that and learn from them – it’s a process’.

“This is something that’s not allowed in our society that much – you don’t go to work to make mistakes – but trying to give things a go and learning from doing them is what I believe in and that’s what we do here.”

That’s, of course, because the other thing the club does is build a lot of bikes and sell a lot of kits so people can make them at home.

“Our home-build kits are our biggest growth area,” said James. “We now do a lugged frame with pre-moulded components – it’s the Ikea of bike building.

“You get the bits in a box, slot all the bamboo into them and you’ve got yourself a bike.

“It moves away from the possibility of compromise, but it gives people the ability to use their hands and learn some techniques.

“It takes a few hours instead of the 70 you’d expect using a cottage industry method.”

James assists a client with his build
James assists a client with his build

There’s a sense, however, that James prefers custom builds – clients who want to get their hands a little dirtier by using flax and resin to join the lengths of bamboo into frames that will suit their needs and desires.

“When you have that combination of materials, the frame becomes a bio-composite and it’s a lot more interesting,” he said.

“The initial concept was to build a certain bike a certain way, but some of the bikes we’ve built are completely bizarre.

“Loads of people build crazy bikes with us in the workshop and we also do custom kits that we ship all over the world.

“People build mountain bikes out of bamboo and that just shows how robust and versatile a material it can be.

“We’ve done loads of BMX and stunt bikes as well.

“Everyone is following the same general blueprint here but each bike is different and unique. It’s down to the individual who is building it.” 

A lugged frame from the Bamboo Bicycle Club
A lugged frame from the Bamboo Bicycle Club

Visitors to the Canning Town workshop can see all sorts of machines created from bamboo including tricycles, electric variants and rides with oversize chunky backbones.

The business also sells a wide range of add-ons from gear and brake packs to the simple addition of water bottle holders.

“If you’re into bikes, you know there are hundreds of different types and variations,” said James.

“Basically a bamboo bike is just a bicycle, no different from any other, that you use or may have used regularly.

“The only difference is that you can customise it, create something you want and it’s a lot more accessible.

“If you want to build a custom bike from other materials, you’re talking tens of thousands of pounds, so bamboo bikes are quite affordable to build.

“From a ride perspective it’s also a lot more comfortable because the material naturally absorbs impact.

“We’ve done a lot of work with universities researching bamboo because there’s huge under-investment and naivety about it in the western world.”

Frame build kits start at £410, while one-day frame building workshops, which run once a month and must be pre-booked, start at £695.

Bamboo can be used to make a wide range of bikes
Bamboo can be used to make a wide range of bikes

Read more: How Just Vibez is set to take over Greenwich Peninsula

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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