Friday 10 February 2023

Farewell Look Mum No Hands!

The downturn in the economy really is biting. Many businesses have gone into administration - shops as well as service industries. A café in my local area, Joanna's, which had been a fixture in Crystal Palace since 1978  had to close down. One of the local bike shops in Penge was helped thanks to a crowd-funding campaign by local cyclists when the proprietor received an astronomical fuel bill.

Very sadly, we have now received the news via an Instagram post from the owners of Look Mum No Hands! Cycling café & workshop that this establishment, a mainstay of the London cycling community is closing its doors. This was quite a shock.

I guess it was something that we could have seen coming. Businesses affected by the loss of revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic had previously received subsidies from the government. However, this could only have been a short-term fix, particularly as many businesses in Central London were slow to return to their pre-coronavirus level of commercial activity, if at all.

In the case of the Look Mum No Hands! café and bike workshop a lot of business came from people who worked in the area - whether they were taking in their bikes for repair or to eat at the café. The effect of the pandemic had been for people to change their working patterns, notably by working from home instead of in an office at least part time, if not permanently. 

Sam Humpheson, the head mechanic, and one of the co-founder and owners of the business had told me at times about the decrease in footfall in the area. 

Furthermore, the café had previously hosted events and presentations almost on a weekly basis - be it product launches, parties by cycling clubs, group meet-ups, celebrity interviews, and film screenings. Since the pandemic this level of activity had dropped after people became reticent about attending large gatherings.

To add to that, all businesses have been feeling the pinch over increased business rates, fuel bills and other running costs.

All of the above created the perfect storm which ultimately led to Sam and fellow co-founder-owners Matt Harper and Lewin Chalkley deciding to close the doors on the famous Old Street premises.

This has been a real blow to the cycling community, as could be seen by the thousands of messages across the social media channels. Look Mum No Hands! was a well-known institution not just in the London area, but also in many parts of the UK and beyond. A number of cycling cafés that were set up during the thirteen-year existence of Sam, Matt and Lewin's joint modelled themselves on Look Mum. I remember interviewing a café owner in Harrogate who had the London café in mind when setting up his own establishment. Even more impressive was UpCycle, a Milan-based café-workshop which cited Look Mum as its inspiration in a local newspaper. 

So it is all the more ironic that this cycling café & workshop in Old Street that spawned a new trend in cycling hubs, has now received its own last rites.

My first experience of Look Mum No Hands! was in 2009, almost six months before they opened. A group of local women cycle racers, including myself, Maryka Sennema, Rebecca Slack, Liz Rice, and Charlotte Easton (Sam's then girlfriend) were setting up the London women's cycle racing league. At that point Sam, Matt and Lewin proposed to sponsor our fledgling project. Initially I was as sceptical about the offer as I was about the name they'd be giving to their new business! I had heard about cycling sponsorship deals that had fallen through and I was concerned that we may leave our league exposed to risks. 

Lewin Chalkley (2nd right) with competitors in the London Women's Cycle Racing League in 2010. (L-R: Emma Patterson, Maryka Sennema, Claire Beaumont, Elise Sherwell)

But everyone was excited about this prospective partnership, so we agreed a deal and we had a very fruitful inaugural year with the London Women's Cycle Racing League. So I will always remember the guys at Look Mum No Hands! as having played a significant role in helping local women's cycle racing. 

The cycling café also became very well known very quickly after it opened. I remember attending some pretty fun parties there too. I must also add that Sam is a very competent mechanic, as I found when he serviced my different bikes.

So I am going to miss Look Mum. I am glad to have been there, and been part of that history, and I hope that Sam, Matt and Lewin can feel comforted that with their café-workshop they did make their mark in cycling culture. 

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