Interview with Mike Polom

Pam: What’s your earliest cycling memory?

Mike: It was falling off my first scooter bike at about two or three years old. And my second was falling off after my bike stabilisers were removed when I was five! My Mum and Dad were adamant that kids should be outside playing, and cycling was a good way of us getting out to see our friends. On our family camping holidays, we always took bikes with us.

P: Have you always cycled since then?

M: No. I did nothing from when I was sixteen for around five years as I got ME and took five years off to get well. Once I was a bit better, that’s when I started cycling again. Compared to other forms of exercise, I could take it easy, and let the bike do the work. After the ME I had problems with anxiety and depression, it was difficult being with other people, but when you’re on a bike you can be part of a social event, you don’t have to talk the whole time. After a while I got into doing stupid stuff – riding ridiculous distances overnight, and mucking around making bikes out of spare parts – so my cycling went from being a health thing to a fun thing.

P: You used to run a bike cafe, how did that come about?

M: I was a volunteer at Re-Cycle during holidays from Uni, and I got to know their mechanics Rich and Matt. I helped Matt get a kiosk at the Waiting Room to set up the Bike Guru, and when he left there was a gap in the market. It was a real shame it wasn’t there any more, but Rich and I got talking at Re-Cycle about the opportunity to build on it. My internship with Marc at the Creative Co-op was coming to an end, and the shop in Church Walk came up at just the right time. We had no idea what we were doing, but we set up Chapeau with lots of support and encouragement from people at 15 Queen Street where Marc was based, and Re-Cycle gave us commercial support for stock. Rich had a reputation as a good mechanic, and we soon built up a network of cycling friends by putting on alleycat rides (fast -paced bicycle check-point rides) as a fun thing to get people into the shop.

P: Chapeau has changed its name to Velo, are you still involved?

M: I was getting more and more work as a freelance web developer and the shop was getting busier, so Rich bought me out and rebranded as Velo, but I’m still involved. Velo is the base for the ColVelo club, with Saturday runs organised by Rob Harwood and Will Morgan. We do 60-150km, at a brisk 27-30kph pace. It’s not heads down, we chat to each other, and have cafe stops. We start at 8.30am, and get back by lunchtime so people can spend the rest of the day with family. It’s a real mix of guys – and it’s not deliberately men only, we’re really trying to get women involved. We also do trips – the club went to north Wales in the spring and the Alps last month, and we sometimes do up to 260km in 12 hours. But our criteria for bike riding is doing it for fun, we’re not interested in racing.

P: You’ve just set up the Colchester Bike Kitchen, what’s that all about?

M: I first came across bike kitchens in Bristol, I had a friend who worked there as part of the Bristol Bike Project. It was an amazing cave of parts and tools that anyone could come and use, as well as socialising with bike-minded people, I just couldn’t believe it, it was the best thing ever! Los Angeles and San Francisco are both fantastic models (LA especially, as it’s “all about the car”, it’s a huge car-driven city), and London’s a great example too. I liked the idea, and we discussed it at Chapeau three years ago, but there wasn’t enough interest locally at that time. Then I went to Wivenhoe Bike Kitchen a few times, and discovered really nice people fixing bikes, and teaching each other. So I talked about it again last year with the Waiting Room and we decided to go for it – it’s on the first Sunday of the month, alongside their Bazaar.

We got off to a good start last month with Andy Woolf of ATW Cycle Repairs on board as a volunteer – the hardest part is getting a good mechanic, and we’re eternally grateful to him for doing that. I really like helping people to do things for themselves and if we can get enough interest to show that there’s a need, then we’ll try and get funding so people can have free training for a useful life skill if they volunteer to help us out each month.

P: Finally, how many bikes do you have?

M: For a couple of years I’ve had nine! But I’m downsizing now as it’s a problem with storage space, and time for maintenance, and I’m aiming for three. I’ve got four useable bikes (and another being built!). I’m going to keep my cyclo-cross bike and road bike, and the one I’m building with a steel frame from Graham Buck in Ipswich. The one in the picture is a Raleigh 20”, I substituted a 27” road bike wheel at the front and added the chrome forks and monkey bars for fun!

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