Saturday 1 September 2018

52 Cycling Voices - 20: Alex Davis

Meet the woman behind all the cool events that happen at Look Mum No Hands! café, in London. Alex Davis, events manager extraordinaire, joint presenter of the WheelSuckers Podcast (with the London Bike Kitchen), and Alex does a bit of burlesque on the side too.

I first met Alex a few years ago, when she kindly donated prizes from Look Mum No Hands! for a cycling competition that myself and a few colleagues organised at our workplace.

As someone who has seen Look Mum No Hands! evolve from its larval stages in 2009 I am very impressed with how the outfit has become a well-known hang-out for cyclists in London and beyond. That's thanks in no small part to Alex's tireless work. This is what she has to say about her work (and her play).

Alexandra Fanny Davis, Aged 32

From: Colchester

Lives: London

Occupation: Social Media, Marketing and Events Manager at Look Mum No Hands! café

"I got into cycling as I grew up on a tandem with my dad, in Colchester. He used to take me to school on one. I used to crap myself, it was awful. People used to sing at me and shout at me. I don’t know really why he did it. We also went to Tandemania, a tandem cycling holiday in Wales. There were over a hundred other people on tandems and I was there with my dad. It was funny really.

I always rode a bike as a kid, but when I went to uni I stopped cycling. Then I moved to Cambridge, a cycling city, and it made sense to do it there. It was quicker and easier to get round the city. So I got back into cycling then really, and I've never really stopped. Cycling is fun, and it’s easy to get around.

I am more of a commuter cyclist, really, and I love Victoria Park. Today was beautiful. I had to come in really early, and as I rode through the park at around 6.30 this morning it was full of wildlife – squirrels and pigeons, but there were also wild parakeets. I saw a whole pandemonium of them among the flowers, in the sunshine. Victoria Park is great.

Never without my backpack
I never go cycling without my portable charger and my backpack. My backpack is really stupidly big. There was a period when I got annoyed with it, but now I love it, because it’s massive and I can fit everything in. I always have that with me.

I guess what I like about cycling is you get to meet some really fun, weird people around the place. Sometimes you end up with a group of people and everyone seems a bit odd! But they are all super super nice.

The cycling scene back home in Colchester was tiny when I lived there. I think there were just five of us! I don’t hang out there anymore now, but a lot of people I know from Colchester live in London, including Ben Broomfield a photographer from Bespoke. 

There’s a good scene in Cambridge though. I met a load of fixie kids there. They were all there wearing their little shorts, riding bikes with no brakes, looking the coolest thing ever. All of us bikers get into cycling in different ways and I find that a lot of us never really stop. Why would you stop cycling? Why would you get the tube or drive a car in the city? OK, I get the tube once a week so I can listen to a podcast.

I’ve been at Look Mum No Hands! for four years now. I got the job when they tweeted that they were looking for a PR. The job description basically said, “Just don’t be a dick”, and they kept tweeting that a lot.

I was living in Colchester at the time, and my friends had had a cycling café inspired by Look Mum No Hands!, where I helped them run their Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was a small café called Chapeau but it’s not around anymore, and one of the owners went on to become a bike framebuilder. 

I thought Look Mum No Hands! was the coolest thing ever, and so I really wanted to go for the PR job when they were looking for one. My interview was quite funny because Sam (Humpheson) and they guys just kept saying, “We don’t want a typical PR bellend or dick. We just want to keep it real.”

I got the job, along with a guy, Sam Brooks. He was very much more of your typical male road cyclist, where I was just a woman that likes cycling, but not a racer. He left, though I am still friends with him. I guess I’ve stuck around because I just like cycling in general. Look Mum No Hands! has been supporting women’s cycling and doing stuff that’s inclusive, but in my full-time role this has just grown and grown, as the owners have been giving me more and more things to do.

Full house for a Specialized event featuring Dame Kelly Holmes
To be honest, I don't have to come up with ideas for the events held at Look Mum No Hands! these days. More and more, people are coming to me proposing events to host at the café. They approach me saying what they’d like to do, I say yes and after that I just put up the microphones, set up the chairs and advertise it on-line. We hold talks, exhibitions, book launches, maintenance workshops, even dating events and knitting. 

For instance, Kat (Jungnickel) messaged me about her Bikes and Bloomers book launch about two years ago. She'd been working on her book for years, and asked if we would be part of it, and we said “Of course!” It's kind of mad now that this has actually happened. We had 153 people signed up for that event, which was amazing.

Models at the Bikes and Bloomers book launch
The weirdest event we've done was Bike Smut, which was basically porno with bikes. It was a worldwide film festival of full-on hardcore porno made by people who love bikes and sex. They’ve been touring all over the world doing it. 

Some people were doing porno stuff with bikes, on bikes, maybe turning into bikes. It was fun, but really weird. We had to tape and cover up the windows, it was 18+ only, with ID on the door and we made sure everyone who turned up had paid. I was so proud of that because it was so weird but more than 100 people came.

At Look Mum No Hands! I also look after social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and their website. I am also proud of how we have used social media to promote diversity. At Christmas we did our Gifs that keep on Giving campaign. We used Jools Walker (aka Lady Velo), and my friend Dario’s, friend John Ku. Jools is a woman of colour and John is Korean, and I  did a photo shoot with them, producing gifs, to launch a campaign featuring people that you don't always see in cycling.

The campaign was triggered after I did a podcast with Jenny from Bike Kitchen, and we met the African American cycle racer, Ayesha McGowan last year. I remember her saying brands should include more diversity, and that really struck me. I thought, "Yes I need to do more of that." So that’s what I’ve been trying to work more on. It’s not hard to get a camera out and ask different people to get their picture taken and put it on social media.

I really like Look Mum. I see it as a space where plenty of non-cyclists can come to. We get a lot of people who ask, “Am I allowed to come in even though I don’t cycle?” and I’m like “Yes! Of course!”

We get a real mix of people coming into the café. You get the cyclists and they come in wearing their Lycra, leaving their bikes in the doorway and that’s a bit annoying; then you get the non-cyclists and they come in and they’re all a bit nervous. I think it’s really fun that everyone fits in the same space. You can be in an area shared with someone that does something you’re not really used to, you try to work it out, and then you peak into the workshop, ask questions, and look at the bikes on display.

All the time we hear about bike cafés being set up and modelled on Look Mum. There’s one in Leicester that's just started up (Café Ventoux). A lot of places now have a Look Mum No Hands!-type café. One thing is that we do have a fully functioning workshop with four full-time mechanics, and it is a full-on café; we’re banging out coffee in the morning, we’re doing lunch, food in the evening, and beer. It’s great how they’ve managed to merge all that extremely well. A lot of other cafés have just taken elements of what we do.
We weren’t the first type of café like this – I think the first one was called Lock 7, in Hackney – but we are one of the longest standing, as we have been going since 2010.

I know it sounds like a stupid name for a café, but I love telling people I work for a cycling café. They ask which one, and when I say the cafe is Look Mum No Hands! I enjoy the looks on their faces, when they look quizzically and say “What?”

Looking to the future we have to think about how we stand out so that we can keep going and survive! There are so many cafés opening up nearby now, and I think in London good quality food and drink is not a standard, it’s a given. And even though Look Mum have been doing quality food and drink since the start, I think that that no longer makes you stand out. But we have a workshop, and we have to work to keep the place strong, and be on top of our game. There are so many moving parts to manage.

Outside of cycling and working at Look Mum No Hands! I do burlesque shows, which I’ve been doing for five years now. My niece, who is older than me used to be a Suicide Girl. It’s an on-line lifestyle brand where you can be an alternative pin-up with tattoos and piercings. On their website you have your own profile, and you can make money from having people look at your profile and she was really into that. She then said she wanted to get into burlesque, so I said, “Cool, me too!”

We were in Colchester at the time and advertised for members to join our group. Two other women turned up, one who used to be a stripper, and the other one was a burlesque dancer who had moved up from Cornwall to Colchester. The four of us formed a troop, and we did a show. Loads of people came, and it was fun even though we didn’t really know what we were doing! Then we did more shows for about three years.

Women at the forefront - Alex (right) does Burlesque  
When I moved to London I had a break from it, as it is very hard work and you don’t earn a lot of money. But I have restarted it, combining it with video games and I really love it.

At the Bike Smut evening I did a routine that was based on a suffragette theme in which I have a really big dress on, a hat, carrying a “Votes for Women” sign, and I can’t get on the bike because of my outfit. So I take my clothes off and am naked from the waist down – then I ride the bike. 

It was inspired by Poppy Cox, organiser of Bike Smut, who I saw doing a similar routine. In her version she gets off her bike and talks about how women and the Suffragettes wanted to ride bicycles and have independence. Taking their restrictive clothing off was a way of gaining that freedom. I tell a lot of people that bikes were the vehicle that helped a lot of women gain more independence.

It’s really fun to do an activity where women are at the forefront of the scene, and not objectified. The funny thing is that in my day job I champion women, trying to get more women into that scene, while with burlesque, I am championing men and trying to get them involved. You hardly get any male burlesque performers. It’s not frowned upon, but men just don’t feel it’s for them.

At my last show I did have two guys – one I'd met in a strip club, who was in drag, and the other is a friend of a friend who came to one of my previous shows and begged to be a part of it. They had never performed before, and I gave them the stage and they were amazing. It is really fun how my work and my play manage to alternate with each other." 

Upcoming events at Look Mum No Hands!:

Interview with Ned Boulting - 5th September

"I like Alf" book launch - 26th September

Cycle Speed Dating - 14th October

Alex's next Burlesque event:
Video Game Burlesque: Show Me Your Moves - 6th September

Twitter accounts:
Alex Fanny Davis - @Singyamatokun
Look Mum No Hands! - @1ookmumnohands
WheelSuckersPodcast - @WheelSuckersPod
Helles Belles Burlesque - @HBBurlesque

Other Cycling Voices
Helen Wyman

Sarah Strong

Rebecca Charlton

Ayesha McGowan

Geraldine Glowinski

Emily Chappell

Hannah Bussey

Maria David

Specialized event photo from Look Mum No Hands website.
Bikes and Bloomers event photo by Maria David.
All other photos from Alex's facebook page.

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