In retrospect to what may have been published in previous interviews, the boys at Oslovelo are not ‘Doing this to be cool’. The cycle shop / cafe / bar had it’s beginning just a few blocks away in a backyard workshop where they became known for their bike knowledge and host capabilities. During that time of fixing up bikes, selling parts and throwing parties they gained a following, reputation and enough financial backing to open up the spot they now have in Birkelunden. Here they can do the work they love during the day and then hang out for a beer afterwards, without leaving the building. After a hot summers day stuck inside we snuck out into the backyard to speak with Simon, Thomas and Zak about life as a bike mechanic, cycle culture in Oslo and the daily grind of being a small business owner.
Canadian natives Simon and Zak have known each other since they were 13. Later in life Simon moved to the UK and then back to Canada before eventually ending up in Oslo with his wife Christina, prompting Zak to visit one summer. One thing led to another and he ended up staying. Shortly after, the long time bike enthusiasts Simon and Zak started their first business together ‘Skids & Bros’ back in 2011, which became the initial concept for Oslovelo. Skids & Bros consisted of a website and an apartment, which they used to customise bikes. At this time there was no other company doing single speed, fixie and vintage bikes in Oslo, however, the culture was coming. They quickly sold all the bikes they had purchased and were forced out of the DIY apartment workshop and into a bigger space. ‘It was small scale, we didn’t really have any budget and weren't ready to do it serious yet, but the initial sales were a very good sign’.
Moving into a bigger space (which they shared with another bike workshop) gave them the chance meeting with the third ‘brother' Thomas. ‘He heard us playing some rap music, he was listening to some rap too and we started to chat a little bit’, says Simon. ‘Then I breakdanced’ laughs Thomas... ‘Now we all breakdance and do graffiti together’ he laughs again. Clicking immediately their chats naturally moved on to the direction they wanted to go in the bike business. ‘It feels like I have known those two since I was 13’ says Thomas, ‘I feel like we are all brothers’ and at that moment, it was the right time for them to open the concept of a bike bar / bike cafe with humble beginnings as a workshop with ‘Epic parties’ in a Grunerløkka backyard. ‘Now we are more legit’ they laugh, ‘It takes a while to build a reputation and specifically if you sell bikes, to get the people to trust you and your knowledge…especially when you are lacking the budget to look more professional with Tote bags’. We joke about the Norwegian presence of Thomas and if he is the ‘face of the business’. All jokes aside Simon and Zak both agree that it has been helpful to have a local, as Thomas's grandfather was a bike mechanic and Thomas knows a lot about the local industry and history. ‘There is a lot of times when he is the one talking to the customer and he knows what he is talking about, Simon has a lot of knowledge on the technical side and I was part of it because of my background in carpentry' says Zak.
Coming to Oslovelo, minus the bicycles hanging in the window, the vibe is not that of a bike workshop. It is more a hub of creatives working away during the day and laid-back local bar in the evenings with DJ’s every Friday and Saturday. ‘It is a vibe created by the same music we listen to and people we hang out with…It has become this place where everyone knows a little bit of everyone and is connected’. The spot also plays host to a number of events, including art and photography exhibitions, snowboard premiers and skate afterparties to name a few ways they are including the local community. It is more ‘Normal people’ they laugh, and the interests that they have in the place, not really in bikes. ‘Everyone bikes, but it is not all enthusiasts, our customers have bikes and we fix their bikes...basically’. Upon opening it was a concern that lead to lots of debate around how heavy they should go on the bike decoration, with the fear of scaring away the people that were not super bike enthusiasts. In the end they did what they felt comfortable with and ultimately the base is a lot of people they have dealt with over the course of 6-7 years. ‘For us it is kind of a nice, the idea of fixing your bike, going for a ride and then coming back for a beer. We all grew up with bikes and everyone has been touched by a bicycle at some point in their life, so running this place is natural for us’.
The boys laugh that they have done a few interviews in the past and say ‘Please stop us if we are drifting’… I decided to let them go for it. The trio love to chat and it doesn’t take much for them to spin off and reminisce about one of many stories. I ask about some of the previous interviews and they mention many of them including one Simon did for a Chinese journalist... ‘We call him Mr Worldwide since then’ laugh Zak and Thomas… ‘Yeah, i’m known in China’ laughs Simon. One of the worst ones they recall was were they called Thomas, Zak in a (Now) ‘Famous picture’ they like to joke about and how the interview was full of content like; ‘These guys are doing it because they think its cool... Some hipster kind of guys’. They laugh that most of the interviews back when they started were bad and that there has been many learning curves when running your own business.
The bike scene is developing very very fast in Oslo. The ease of cycling around the city has changed rapidly and in terms of nice little bike shops ‘When I moved here there wasn't really many at all’ says Simon. It hasn't always been like this and Thomas says ‘In Oslo, 30 years back, there was around 40 bike shops just on Oslo’s East Side, but then it just stopped. I don't think it was one thing, but there was the oil boom and a number of big chains opening up, so the other independents couldn't survive anymore. The modern era of the cycling industry happened’.
As we discuss the history of cycling in Oslo the boys mention that local legend, Einar Bowitz, had just passed away. ‘He had his “Museum” in Bislett, it was beautiful’. For the cycling community Einar was a pillar that you couldn't really miss and when it comes to speaking of Norwegian bikes, he had everything and all of that knowledge. ‘Stepping into that place, you see it and you feel it. He was trying to build a museum for 20 years, but the state wouldn’t pay. He tried constantly and was refused constantly. He kept collecting bikes and was obsessed with keeping these treasures. It is sad for the community and I always remember the times we would go there for one thing and end up staying for hours because you couldn't leave once you got chatting. He had so much interesting things to say about the bikes and the culture’.
Oslovelo has also been trying to do their part in the cycle culture by teaching courses in the schools as well as taking part in local events, but really what they enjoy doing the most is being in the shop, fixing bikes and helping customers. It can be quite pretentious in the cycle community and there is a notion of that from the public, which is another reason why they have the approach they do. ‘Bike shaming is a real thing! You can go into some bike shops and they will laugh because your bike didn’t cost 40,000. We are the opposite, we welcome everyone and it is cool…except cargo bikes, (Laughs)...But that is only because they are just too big’. Part of this movement of supporting anyone getting on a bike is an ongoing recycling project they have involving ‘neglected or abandoned bikes’. Just like a shelter for animals, Oslovelo takes in these bikes, fixes them up and finds them new homes, selling them for 1500,-, or 1000,- for students. ‘It’s just a rat bike, there may be some rust or dirt, but you get a working bike for 1500,- and we’re all about that’ they say. It’s not about shaming, they have a wall of (shame) second hand parts where they sell everything for next to nothing. ‘We have Racoons in there everyday’ laughs Thomas, ‘Shuffling through’ but, sometimes the boys have exactly what you need and they are currently one of the only shops doing that.
Everybody knows that running a small business is a lot of work for the reward and you really need to believe in what you are doing to continue to push yourself everyday. The guys say it is difficult to compare themselves to big companies and although they are growing, the rules and taxes of large companies apply to them as well and they say you need to have a very high revenue before you have any breathing room which is a struggle for a number of Norwegian small businesses. They say it would be nice with some tax cuts, especially with the recycling they do, for example. ‘It is a constant challenge, but we are here cleaning in the morning and trying to do a bit of everything. We are your typical independent shop and even though we are a bike shop and bar, it is just one place. If we need to chip in we do, we are a unit and we are here in the trenches everyday’. One of the strengths of the bar is in the staff and they laugh that some of those who work there, used to be regulars who hung out there, until one day they were on the other side of the bar. ‘It is a very local feeling in this place and we are family. It needs to be like that to justify why we work so hard’. The atmosphere they have created in Oslovelo has attracted this type of staff, ‘We have artists, photographers and musicians working here, who also like hanging out here. If you maintain that, it always comes back to you and, eventually, they introduce you to someone who has a project which ends up being good for the business’.
The vision behind how they carry themselves in the workplace also comes from the misconception that a bicycle mechanic is not really a trade, like an electrician, it is more like a job and all they really do is tighten a few things here and there. Anyone who has ever fallen off a bike due to bad upkeep will tell you otherwise and the years of knowledge they have between them helps to run an honest business that keeps customers coming back. Unlike bike shops with the sport attitude, where you will get bike shamed the fuck out of, Oslovelo takes everyone. ‘We wanted this to be our place and be our own bosses, in a place we wanted to hang out’. The boys laugh that they learnt very quickly that once you are your own boss, everyone is your boss. Although they take everyone they want to put out a quick PSA that if they are expecting something other than the truth it is tough for them and some people expect a lot more than what they can deliver... Simon makes an analogy similar to buying blenders:
There are 6 on the shelf and one of them is for 200,- and one for 4000,-. You choose the cheapest, then expect high performance and it to last forever. When it breaks shortly after purchase, you get shocked and can't believe this is even possible, so you take it to get repaired. The repair costs three times more than what you paid for it and it is still never going to be a good blender no matter how much money you put into it. This rule applies to bikes as well and we do get people that come in and try to fix these kind of cheap bikes and we have to tell them that, really, it is a bad bike. It does get personal and they can feel shamed, but for us it is using our knowledge and being realistic. There is a limitation as to how good I can make their bike and they want a great bike, but whatever I do to it, it will still be crappy and expensive to fix…We don't judge that, if you do ride on those bikes, that’s cool, just don't try to fix it, take some duct tape and ride it rugged...We have loads of friends that ride like that and we were riding like that and dreaming of better bikes before this (Laughs). There is no judgement with that.
This kind of honesty has people coming back and they now have a steady bank of customers. The boys laugh that it is funny when you see these customers who initially knew nothing coming back and telling them ‘I have been good, look I washed my bike and oiled my chain’. For them it is about being honest about what you are consuming. ‘We are the independent shop and we want to have that local, friendly and straight up approach to what we are doing. We like that honesty and we want that vibe. It is relaxed and thats how we like it’.
I asked the guys if they still get out to cycle often and they collectively sigh NOOO… It is, however, how they originally clicked and I was treated to one more story:
We took a bike ride with another friend of ours and we were going to this concert at Blå, but on our way down he crashed in the tramline with his face straight into the asphalt. We had to take him to the emergency room were the queue was massive and only one doctor working. There was some Gin in our backpack and bought some soda from the vending machine and we just drank. We had a wheel chair and got wasted in the emergency room, it was pretty priceless. This was from between 2-7am and then we biked down to Tjuvholmen for a swim. The original plan was to go to Bygdøy and make a fire, maybe even fish a little, but then Thomas got a flat tyre at Aker Brygge which stopped us. We think it was a sign and now it is just party and bullshit everyday…mostly bullshit they laugh.’
The journey to where they are today has been filled with stories, learning curves and meaningful moments. They like to keep the place moving and changing as an evolving thing and again laugh, ‘If it does turn to shit at least we can run some seminars on what not to do!’
All photography by Ronja Penzo