William Keith Ditched His Successful Corporate Life – To Open A Bike Shop
It was a big step, at the time; but for 59-year-old William Keith, opening his own bike shop nearly 20 years ago now seems like an absolute no-brainer. It allowed him to immerse himself in his passion, and share that passion and attention to detail with many other riders, both as a renowned wheel builder and as a rider up for almost any two-wheeled challenge.
Now firmly entrenched in his adopted home of Somerset West, Keith was born in the UK, and grew up on military bases around Europe before his family settled in South Africa in 1975. He has single-speeded the Epic, and most recently rode from Joburg to Blouberg over two weeks with a good mate.
As one of the more successful independent bike-shop owners – he epitomises the Local Bike Shop proprietor – he’s seen it all, and is never afraid to share an anecdote or three; and he’s an owner and accumulator of dribble-worthy (to him, and sometimes others) machines for tackling the riding his passion still fuels.
I started my bike shop because…
In the early 90s, I took over my dad’s textile indent agency – and hated every one of the 10 years I ran it.
Thankfully, modern communication intervened, in the form of email, and very suddenly there was no need for experienced middlemen in our industry; the client could talk to the suppliers in the East almost instantaneously. I closed the business overnight, and spent two years racing mountain bikes as a privateer, not knowing what I wanted to do next.
Then the kids started asking for help with their bikes, because I had the time and I’d accumulated some skills working on my own machines. The shop opened on 1 April (yes… April Fool’s Day!) in 2005. I knew sod-all about retail; but there was a local demand, and I loved building wheels, so there we were!
Three cycling essentials I can’t do without
Sense of humour
Hand-built wheels by William!
My favourite solo ride is…
Any singletrack on my single-speed
I have a lot of bikes.
There are 19, in total. The two titanium single-speeds and the Stoemper steel road bike are probably my favourites, but actually every one of them has been, because I love them. Have you seen the 1960 Legnano restoration project I did? On the wall, behind the till. How beautiful is that?!
What’s on my bucket list
I ticked off my ultimate bucket-lister for my 50th: the Stelvio pass, between Italy and Switzerland. I still want to do part of the El Camino in Spain, on a tandem with my wife, Susan.
My comfort zone ends at…
92% max heart rate.
The most famous bike I’ve worked on was…
One of Lance Armstrong’s old bikes, owned by a friend – a Trek road bike, back in the 9-speed days. [Your editor jokes about finding a motor in there somewhere…] Ha! No motor, but the Dura Ace hubs on that thing ran smoother than any I’ve ever come across.
I would love to go for a ride with…
My son. He’s studying in Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
I love building wheels because…
They talk to me. Therapy at the fingertips! And without being big-headed, I am good at it.
Hand-built beats factory because…
You can do the final adjustments to suit the rider and the bike. The magic is in the last 2%.
My favourite bike is…
My Stoemper. The concept of a custom steel was 11 years in the dreaming; I didn’t know the brand, I just knew I wanted a custom steel frame.
And the journey we had was amazing, from concept to finished paint job and every bit in between. I always wanted a 100% Dura Ace bike – and Chris King, of course!
The most famous person I’ve met through cycling
Either Gary Fisher or Tom Ritchey. Or both.
What the bike industry needs to do better
Stop engineering solutions for which we have no problems.
What clients need to do better
Accept the fact that they need to pay for labour. You don’t question your car dealership over an hourly charge to plug in a computer – but you fight over rands and cents for highly specialised skills?
I loved it. We live in a wonderful country, filled with wonderful people.
But I’d be careful who I recommended it to; this is a route for an experienced rider. When you start that ride, the next place with a bike shop is Bloemfontein, 400 kays away. And the next one after that is in Blouberg. You need to be your own technician, and understand yourself and your bike.
Did you hear the one about…
I was standing at the finish of a stage of the 2009 Cape Epic, for which I’d helped on some of the course designs, and was chatting to Tom Ritchey. A local former road pro came and chatted for a while, showing Tom how he’d pimped his machine, with Ti this and alloy that.
Tom asked what the marks on the XTR cranks were. “My guys took a Dremel to them, and took off a whole lot of material – we’ve saved weight all over the bike!”
And in his laid-back Californian drawl, the most technically astute man in world cycling nodded sagely and said, “That’ll make you faaaaaast, maaaan.”
I hate it when…
You bring in a dirty bike. Ingrained dirt, I mean – not last Sunday’s dirt. A bike that’s not loved is sad. And it often covers up things that can’t be fixed, or can let you down catastrophically.
It was the second-best decision of my life.
Marrying my wife was the first, obviously; but even today, I don’t think anything would change my decision to open the shop.
Would I recommend it as a path for others? It’s a difficult business. You can’t just be a rider of bikes; you have to have business acumen and intelligence. You’ve got to be a people person, and deal with every single walk of life.
Owning and operating a bike shop is not working on Instagram products – that’s a perk, if you’re lucky. It’s the normal bikes and normal people who keep your business going, and keep you going. Commuters, kids with clapped-out old bangers… they’re also people who ride bikes, and might be just as ‘into’ bikes as you are; your door and your mind have to be open.
And it isn’t a cheap thing, these days. We started off bit-by-bit, but just our workshop tools would probably cost 2 or 300k to replace now. Just a spoke-threading machine is R40k!
I don’t think you can build something presentable for under two million, and that’s without buying bikes to put on the floor – and you’d have to, because the importers won’t give new guys consignment stock, understandably. It’s a proper business, these days, so it takes proper investment.
And I would do it all again.