Jonny Sprockets is a Toowoomba based bike shop who have been serving riders from the area for just over 6 years now. Recently when our correspondent Sam Routledge covered the National Enduro Cup stage in Toowoomba he caught up with the owner Jonny Belling for a chat about the shop’s origins, where the market is heading and some of the challenges of running a modern bike shop. Plus Sam was around the trails of Jubilee on a Merida e-Bike which the bike shop stocks for sales and demonstration.
How long has Jonny Sprockets Bike shop been around and who are your crew?
6 years last month. We’ve got to organise a birthday party but we haven’t quite got round to organising one yet! The longer we are in this game the busier we are.
How do you manage to keep doing what you do with a constantly changing marketplace?
We choose our little niche and try to stick to it. We don’t try to be something that we’re not. Family bikes are your bread and butter, it’d be great to be just a mountain bike shop but we need to sell a volume of your $200-300 bikes, scooters, streamers and that kind of thing. Someone once said to me “You can never have too much cheap stuff in a shop”. People just want cheap stuff. It gets people in the doors, and they might not want a $5000 carbon mountain bike now but when they get a bit older, say 15, 16, 17, they get their first job and start thinking about that next purchase. They say “Well i’ve been thinking about an awesome bike for the last 10 years and my mates are having fun on bikes”, so they want their flash bike and they know where to come.
Yeah, it all starts when you’re a little grom…
Exactly, the scooter thing has been such a big thing for kids and it’s taken a long time for mountain biking to become “cool” again for the kids. It’s probably just happened in the last few years that mountain biking has kicked off for young kids. Getting those kids in the door, it used to be via BMX but that’s fallen away a lot recently. Scooters have been something that, as silly as they are, it gets people in the door.
It’s better they’re out being active at least rather than sitting playing computer games isn’t it.
Yeah, that’s it. It builds skills and translates to bikes when they do get there. Getting back to the main question though, we just need to stick to our passion, our core passion is mountain biking and that’s what we love, but we need to be willing to work on a Huffy and sell a 16″ pink girl’s bike but not being pretentious about that. We’ve got 100,000 odd people in Toowoomba so there’s still a big market of everyday people that want service from a normal bike shop that the Internet can’t deliver, and that’s our support base and our bread and butter.
So in keeping that customer happy it comes down to trust and reliability doesn’t it. That customer who comes in and sees that you’ve done a good job and wants to come back next time for the next job?
For sure. You build a client base. When we first opened, nobody knew we were here and it was just the “hardcore” mountain bikers that knew us, because we out there riding with them and we had the time to ride with them back then (laughs). So we were riding and probably built our name off that core crew but it’s definitely been the beginner rider or the family stuff that has built the business and the money in to be able to offer the high-end gear like Santa Cruz.
You mentioned that you still ride now but when the shop opened you and your brother were riding quite a bit. Do you think the scene in Toowoomba has been there for a while and how would you describe it now?
The scene in Toowoomba now is off its face! We’re seeing kid’s downhill races with 5 and 6 year old kids smashing the trails. We’re seeing old fellas on e-bikes going out and doing 50 kays. The trails have grown from 1 or 2 trails in town to an endless number of trails. We’ve seen councils get behind us, the club’s grown like crazy, they’ve done a silly good job, there’s been so much effort and passion put into trail development and racing and that sort of thing. The scene just continues to grow and we’ve seen so much brightness through it and so many young guys coming through. Our biggest selling bike would be a Norco Storm six-hundred dollar hardtail that you can actually mountain bike on. You will probably rip the derailleur off it, you will buckle the wheel but you’ll have a good time and you’ll get keen on the sport. Take it to the dirt jumps, take it to the downhill track and get the appetite for the sport.
That’s where it all starts…
That’s definitely where it starts and where it started for us when we were 15 and that’s the loop. Kids get keen from there and when they’ve got a bit more money they get a better bike, they might get into racing and it just grows from there and hopefully they’re addicted for life.
Like we are, right?
Yep that’s it (laughs)! It’s pretty hard to imagine life without bikes.
What bike brands do you sell at the shop?
Our biggest one would be Norco, next up is Santa Cruz. We also do Merida, Kona and pretty much anything else that someone wants, especially with something boutique and people aren’t sure how to get it, we’ll find a way to make it happen. Pretty much just the big 3 we don’t do – Trek, Specialized and Giant are the 3 we don’t do.
That must open opportunities for the rider that wants something really special?
Yeah, we’re definitely willing to go to that next level of customisation and difference. So if a bike comes with with SRAM and you want Shimano, we can swap that out. Instead of Rockshox you want Fox, we can make that happen. I think a lot of shops follow the “It’s my way or the highway” approach and that just doesn’t work. You have to be flexible.
We’ve got a few mates in South-East Queensland who have got their bikes through you and one thing we’ve noticed is you’re always willing to go the extra mile to take care of the customer’s needs and look after people. Do you think that’s at the heart of what you’re shops about?
Of course, yeah. It’s always been about looking after people. There’s no secret to retail. The only obvious thing is to look after people and they’ll look after you. Pretty simple adage that your mum should have taught you (laughs)! We bat super hard on warranties and I think that sometimes gets us in trouble with wholesalers, wholesalers get annoyed with us for putting warranties on little things that may be a borderline, paint issue or something silly that maybe you could get away with but we want things to be right for the customer and the bike as perfect as possible. I’ll handle a customer warranty issue at 9PM at night and I think that’s just what you have to do to survive nowadays because of online etc, you can’t rest on your laurels and expect people to walk through the door.
What’s the mix of bikes you normally sell?
Of the high end stuff, the Trail/Enduro market makes up the bulk of it. We sell a few cross-country bikes, there’s still a big scene for that but I think a lot of that is taken up by the big 3 brands as they have the following in road cycling and that comes across into the cross-country a bit more. The trail/enduro market customers are a bit more willing to try a different brand bike that’s not necessarily one of those top-3 ones. But we do sell everything, the biggest seller by volume as I said earlier is the Norco Storm entry-level hardtail, we sold a hundred and forty something of them last year.
That’s 140 kids that got into mountain biking last year which is awesome…
And then times that by about 4-5 years and that’s a lot of kids on cool little off-road capable hardtails. Sure they might break a derailleur but that’s the lesson as a young mountain biker. When we were young we pretty quickly went to singlespeed as we had no money for replacement derailleurs. I remember the first time I got an XTR derailleur and I thought “Wow I have an XTR derailleur, that’ll last” and then I got around 6 months out of it before I broke it as well.
What do you think has been your favourite mountain bike build as of late?
There’s been some pretty cool ones and some left of centre ones. We did a really nice Knolly for Brad at Trailworks recently. That was pretty cool as the bike gets taken all around the state to test trails out on and ride a bit of everything. It’s a 180 millimetre / 170 millimetre travel bike that’s just beefcake-as. It’s a little bit old-school but I’m into that old-school stuff, it’s aluminium and doesn’t care about being light weight. It doesn’t have internal cable routing and it doesn’t have this and that, doesn’t have boost and it’s just bad-ass.
There’s no pretending, it’s just bad-ass…
It’s a bike that will still be kicking on in 10 years time with some little grom riding it, riding it hard and it won’t be broken. So that’s pretty cool , stuff like that, the Santa Cruz stuff we’ve done has been crazy, no expense spared stuff. Enve wheels, all the gear, santa cruz wheels, it’s always great fun to build those guys. The pressure’s on as everything needs to be perfect when people spend that amount of money it’s all gotta be bang-on. There can be some stress and then the wholesaler tells you that XYZ part isn’t available for a month so you have to go and find one quicker than that to finish this 15 thousand dollar bike when you’re missing a two-hundred dollar part. So stressful, but the end result makes it all worthwhile, you get a finished bike that goes up on the Internet and everyone oohs and aahs over it, it’s pretty cool. Bikes are an extension of ourselves and becomes something that we live and breath with every day of our lives so it’s pretty cool to make something that someone’s always wanted and make it as close as possible to what they dreamt it could be.
What’s the most rewarding part of working in and owning a bike shop? How do you keep it going day-to-day?
There’s definitely the thrill of the chase, getting that big sale can be rewarding. You have to be a good salesman as well as a good bike shop owner and businessman, there’s no escaping that sales world. Sales are needed to keep the shop alive but there’s definitely a thrill selling an old fella a new wheel for his older 27″ 10-speed bike, it might only be $49 but it keeps you going and keeps the shop alive. Or it could be a kid on a balance bike and I spend an hour selling them a balance bike. There’s no margin or profit in it but seeing the kid and parent stoked is pretty special. Plus getting my own kids out on bikes is pretty special. As nice as it is to sell that really high-end stuff some of my favourite stuff is just dealing with old guys on busted old bikes and they tell you all these old stories about back in the day. Sometimes even working on a Huffy can be rewarding, you can make a piece of junk rideable again for someone. It’s not a job, it’s our life and next to family it’s the biggest thing in our lives so it’s not hard to get out of bed to come to work. I’m sure someday i’ll make the decision to hang it up but I can’t see that happening anytime soon.
Have you found much growth in sales of E-bikes?
For sure. This year we’ve sold 3 or 4 times the amount than we did last year. It’s definitely been a good cream on the top. The Merida offering has been so highly regarded and in demand they’ve pretty much sold themselves. It’s been amazing to have a bike that people are just begging for (laughs). It’s been a while since this happened and the wholesalers catch up pretty quick, if something’s in demand they’re there importing double or triple the next year and the supply catches up to the demand really quick so with the Merida e-bikes the demand has been way, way beyond any expectations. We’ve had people drive from Canberra to pick one up because we had one!
I remember reading that Merida had to import 10x what the expected because of that demand…
Yeah, the initial order was only 25 bikes and we took 4 of them and sold them the day they turned up. The next order was 100 and then 1000 and for next year they’re doubling their total 2018 order. It’s crazy. I’ve been riding mine heaps and you’ll be riding one this weekend and you’ll find out why.
Looking forward to that, pretty keen to check it out…
There’s still the stigma and the stigma will take a long time to go away but if you ride one , you spend a bit of time on one, it disappears quickly.
The mountain bike industry is notorious for change, how hard is it to stay on top of all the changes coming through?
It is hard. The Boost thing was a kick in the balls. We suddenly had forks and wheels that were worth nothing, just because they weren’t Boost. The wheel size change from 26 to 29 and 27.5 wasn’t as bad as you could see justifiable reasons for it. For Boost it seemed like such a tiny improvement. The other one lately has been 35 millimeter bars, OK I get it but decide. If it’s going to be 35 then make everything 35 and be done with 31.8. And then, bottom brackets, derailleurs and headsets, 30.9 and 31.6 seatposts, make up your mind, which one is it, choose one. We’ve got a tray of 180 derailleur hangers and we still don’t have the right one so we have to get one air-shipped and the customer wants a derailleur as well, there’s a hundred-and-fifty bucks.
It’s all funneling to the customer and making it more expensive…
Exactly, the frustration on our behalf is that we’ve got to tell the customer that their five-hundred dollar bike uses a fifty dollar derailleur hanger because we have to source one air freighted ASAP and pay twenty-five dollars in freight. It’s definitely frustrating, you try and stock everything and have everything you need but you just can’t do it. The wholesalers struggle too, they can’t keep up with everything and they end up with a bunch of non-Boost wheels that they’re trying to sell as well. It makes it very hard. I think we might see a bit of stabilisation. If I see the latest bikes coming with Super Boost I’ll be the first to say “Industry. Stop!”. I don’t mind change but bring it out gradually and with noticeable difference in these improvements.
Is 26″ dead?
Yep. In our shop there’s a Santa Cruz jackal dirt jumper, Norco dirt jumpers and I think that’s the only 26″ wheeled bikes in the whole shop. 26″ still has a place but we sell way less 26″ tyres than we used to, put it that way. I don’t know where all these hardcore 26″ tyre buyers are but they’re not here in Toowoomba.
If people are coming to visit Toowoomba as a mountain bike destination, where would be the places you’d recommend?
Jubilee’s the main trail spot. If you’re keen on your enduro type of stuff, you’ll get your fix there. If you’re into a bit of downhill you could check out Flagon, a cool little track that runs right next to a shutteable uphill, that track is running really nice at the moment. We went out and shuttled it the other weekend with about 18 riders and it was awesome. We are always looking for more and more trails and there’s more and more getting built. Jubilee’s got 30 odd kays of trails, it’s pretty hard to get bored out there.
There’s always something happening, the town is quite nice to bring the family as well, you go riding or the family goes riding. You can come up from Brisbane or another bustling city to escape that city life. I go to Brisbane for a weekend and come back frazzled, I can’t wait to get back to the slower pace of life back home at Toowoomba.
You can check out Jonny Sprockets on their website: http://www.jonnysprockets.com.au/ and drool over some of their builds at their Instagram