The London hub riding the custom motorcycle craze

The thriving custom-motorcycle scene has galvanised one enthusiast to create a hub for bikers who appreciate quality, style and individualism way beyond two wheels. Simon de Burton reports

Founder Anthony “Dutch” van Someren (seated) greets the clientele
Founder Anthony “Dutch” van Someren (seated) greets the clientele | Image: Mihail Jershov

It’s 2pm on a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in a club armchair being served leek and prosecco risotto by a decidedly chic waitress who deserves to be awarded a PhD in customer service. Opposite, a sharp-suited City type swipes at his tablet and savours a perfectly presented flat white, while a genteel couple of retirement age relax nearby on a leather sofa, perusing the contents of an interiors magazine.

Off to my right, a European woman on a shopping trip from her home in China flicks through a rail of expensive waxed-cotton jackets, and from my left comes the muted buzz of electric clippers and the rhythmic snick of well-oiled scissors as a trio of immaculate, tunic-wearing barbers give wet shaves and haircuts to a seemingly endless stream of style-conscious punters.

The Bike Shed’s Old Street façade
The Bike Shed’s Old Street façade | Image: Mihail Jershov

Around the corner, four chefs in an open kitchen studiously chop, mix, grill and steam in a bid to keep up with the demands of a 90-cover restaurant that appears to have drawn patrons from across the globe. And in all directions, dotted artfully here and there, are custom motorcycles, most with a planet-friendly recycled-paper label dangling from the handlebars explaining what they are and revealing their not insubstantial prices in flowing, hand-penned script.

Oddly, the scene makes me think of a typically succinct line in an article by the late, great journalist WF Deedes about the rise to fame during the 1930s of the original celebrity golfer. “Henry Cotton,” wrote Deedes, “brought golf from the tradesman’s entrance right around to the front door.”

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And sitting there amid 1,100sq m of vaulted ceilings, sand-blasted brick walls and polished concrete floors, watching the quiet bustle of the afternoon’s varied toings and froings, I realise that motorcycling has made that very same tradesman’s entrance to front-door journey – and that the man I’m interviewing has helped it on its way.

His name is Anthony van Someren – better known simply as Dutch – and this is the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club, which, just 18 months ago, was a dingy row of railway arches in London’s Shoreditch that provided a dry venue for occasional five-a-side football games. And in the furthest of the four arches – now sleek, warm, well lit and lightly styled with industrial-chic furniture – sits a white Ducati motorcycle that, says van Someren, represents the original seed from which the Bike Shed grew. It’s a Sport Classic, a limited edition, retro-look model from 2009 that his wife bought for him as a means of encouraging a gentler approach to riding.

A “Triumphal arch”
A “Triumphal arch” | Image: Mihail Jershov

“I began to lightly modify it at the start of an emerging zeitgeist that was all about making machines that were individual and in the style of flat trackers, bobbers, café racers and so on. It was a time of transition, when people were moving away from sports and performance-orientated bikes to this new-wave custom scene, which has since exploded,” explains van Someren (referring to the genre reported on in October 2013’s “Comeback of the Café Racer” piece).

“Building the bike led me to look at various websites on the subject, the leading one of which was Bike EXIF. It was filled with great photographs of hand-built machines, but left me wanting to know more about the narrative. Why had people decided to make these bikes? How had they done it? So I decided to start my own blog, which was very much about the ‘why’.”

The Bike Shed shop is one of the club’s attractions
The Bike Shed shop is one of the club’s attractions | Image: Mihail Jershov

With a 25-year career in media behind him, variously as a creative director at MTV, a VP of Cartoon Network, and group director of marketing and PR at a global publishing house, van Someren knows how to pen a line – and his blog quickly picked up a following of enthusiasts who were also discovering, and forming, motorcycling’s new world order. Among them were Kevin Taggart and Tim Rogers, who run a highly successful customising firm called Spirit of the Seventies; Adam Kay, formerly in the fashion business and now the co-owner of Untitled Motorcycles; and Barry Tavner, the one-time art director of UK motorcycle magazine Two Wheels Only.

“We all had blogs and websites about motorcycles, and we used to meet at either The Flask pub in Highgate or the Landseer off the Holloway Road,” says van Someren. “One evening we came up with the idea of getting everything together and making it into one big blog feed, which we decided to call the Bike Shed, because it was inspired by the idea of all these people quietly working away in sheds around the world, building amazing-looking motorcycles.”

Live music and a Kawasaki W800 in the restaurant
Live music and a Kawasaki W800 in the restaurant | Image: Mihail Jershov

Soon the Bike Shed was being bombarded with often-mediocre images and indifferently written descriptions of such motorcycles, which, left as they were, would have attracted little attention – but van Someren quickly became adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff. “I took all the reject images and text, called up the people who had supplied them and talked them through how to set up a picture, how to crop it and grade it, and then, when necessary, edited and polished their stories into interesting, readable articles. And suddenly the Bike Shed blog erupted on Facebook and really began to gain traction.”

Within six months of that, van Someren had become sufficiently well known on the custom scene to be able to consider staging a modest motorcycle exhibition. “It needed to be different from the typical bike show,” he says. “It had to be in a really cool space, it had to serve great food and great coffee, the bikes needed to be beautifully displayed and not be behind ropes. We decided to put art on the walls, create inviting seating areas with interesting things to read, and limit the selling aspect to the people who were offering the motorcycles and just a single retailer, clothing firm Urban Rider.”

A Ducati displayed in one of the arches
A Ducati displayed in one of the arches | Image: Mihail Jershov

That initial show at Shoreditch Studios in May 2013 cost £12,000 to stage, with UK-based motorcycle builders being charged a small stand fee and overseas ones given space for free. It drew 3,000 visitors and was sufficiently successful to warrant a second event five months later, to which 5,000 turned up.

These shows followed hard on the wheels of some major motorcycling developments: “2012 seemed to be the year when the whole custom scene really took off,” says van Someren. “It was when the Wheels and Waves festival was launched in Biarritz, when Dirt Quake [a fun, open-to-all race weekend] started and when the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride global charity event began too.”

The bar forms a focal point
The bar forms a focal point | Image: Mihail Jershov

But it was as a result of a third show in May 2014 that van Someren realised the Bike Shed had the potential to become something considerably larger and more far‑reaching. “We were meeting thousands of people who were interested in the same motorcycle scene, but there was nowhere to go for bikers who appreciated good quality, had good taste and were interested in individualism – which is what really inspired the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club.”

Having spent six months writing a detailed, 72-page prospectus, van Someren attracted a group of investors who included Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Stella McCartney CEO Frederick Lukoff, television presenter Charley Boorman and property entrepreneur Nicholas Cowell (brother of music impresario Simon). With their financial input assured (plus support from 27 other stakeholders), van Someren found and secured the Shoreditch premises, collected the keys in April 2015 – and opened the doors seven months and £1.4m later on a dramatically remodelled space that was almost unrecognisable from its previous incarnation as indoor football pitches.

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“We attracted customers immediately, but it was 10 months before the business became profitable,” says van Someren of the Bike Shed, which is open seven days a week and has now become a destination not just for bikers, but for anyone who wants to spend time in an interesting, tastefully presented, slickly run venue. So yes, it’s possible to buy everything from a £20,000 custom motorcycle from one of the world’s top builders to a £40,000 original by street artist D*Face or a hand-finished crash helmet, but you can also enjoy a plate of lovingly prepared huevos rancheros or get a haircut.

“Shoreditch has proved to be the perfect location, not only because several bike builders are based here, but because it’s an area where art meets tech meets money. We’re just around the corner from Shoreditch House, the Ace Hotel and the Old Truman Brewery, and at the weekends we get people who have come to visit Columbia Road Flower Market, Brick Lane or Spitalfields, for example. It is a truly vibrant place,” says van Someren – who is now seeking a further £2m in funding to open a second branch of the Bike Shed in Los Angeles.

And, just as at the Shoreditch venue, I bet you won’t find any motorcycles at the tradesman’s entrance. But plenty parked outside the front door.

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