Go behind-the-scenes at Look Mum No Hands: meet Alex

In Interviews, London by Claire

Look Mum No Hands is one of London’s best cycling cafes. It’s one of the few inclusive spaces where any type of cyclist or non-cyclist can rock up and feel at home. Bluntly, in the sport of cycling, that can be a rarity. After launching their first cafe in East London’s Old Street, they’ve opened a second one and launched a pop-up by the Thames. Behind the scenes, Alex looks after all their marketing and social media bits and bobs. I went to ask her questions about life at the city’s ‘most inclusive cycling cafe’, about her gorgeous bike, what exactly a fish & chip alley cat race is, and what it’s like to grow up cycling to school on a tandem with your Dad.

Claire: LMNH does an amazing job of opening up London adventure culture and cycling for everyone. I’m interested in the people that are part of that movement to open it up, and who they are and what they’re doing. What’s your cycling story?

Alex: I grew up cycling. I grew up with a tandem. My Dad would take me to school on it and I used to get taken the piss out for it. It was kind of awful but I loved it, and we’d go on tandem holidays. If you’ve ever done it: it’s a completely different kettle of fish. You have to be syncronised. So it’s a really good way of having a connection. So me and my Dad had this connection on a tandem. You have to coast at the same time, you have to work out when someone else is tired. As a kid, I didn’t really think about how amazing it was.

Since then I’ve always cycled, because that’s how I knew the get around. Then I went to Uni in Leicester and I gave that up because no one cycled – it just didn’t really happen. Then I moved to Cambridge seven years ago and that was a fantastic cycling city. So BAM, I got straight back into it and met an amazing group of fixie cyclist who worked at the picture house and they all did things like fixie polo and all that. I just used to ride a ladies bike frame – you know, with a big basket – that’s what got me around. I guess my main thing with me and cycling is that I can’t drive so that’s how I like to get around. I’m quite evangelist about it – it’s free, you’re outside, you’re exercising. Why would you want to drive, why would you want to get the tube or the bus now in London?

After Cambridge I had to move back home. I’m from Colchester in Essex. That’s actually quite a big cycling town. We haven’t got decent cycling lane but there’s a massive cycling scene. I got involved in that. My ex-boyfriend set up a cycling cafe inspired by LMNH and I helped out with that. Especially now, working at LMNH and seeing how powerful it is in being so inclusive and catering for so many kinds of cyclists. The shop was called Chapeau. It’s now called Colvelo. But that was just for road cyclists, and that was kind of annoying because I’m more into the fun stuff, people getting together and just going somewhere.

So we did a few alley cats which were inspired by alley cats – but a joke compared to what real ones are like. There were only like twelve of us and my friend would just make up funny little questions like “what’s the colour of the door on house number 12 on Buck Road,” or something. We’d have to cycle there to answer the question, which alley cats – real ones – aren’t really like that. They’re more like going to a checkpoint and going as fast as you can.

That sounds more like a scavenger hunt.

Ours was like a pub quiz/scavenger hunt on bikes. We had a good one where we had big syringes, and one had vodka in and one had water, and you had to pick when you arrived. That was so much fun. We’d all cycle round and it wasn’t who the fastest one back was, it was who had the most questions right. There was the guy who always took his time to get the questions right and some of us were rushing and writing the answers wrong.

That’s how we got into the fixed thing. Because there were loads of fixie boys and I was like ‘I’m going to get one’ and see what it’s like. And I’ve had a fixed gear bike for two years now and I’ve just never gone back. My other bikes broke or something and now that I’ve started riding it, Im just so used to it. There’s so much less to think about, not changing gears. The bike’s super light so it’s easy for me to carry around. I kind of got into it through the natural streams: I thought it was cool and I’ve actually stayed in it because I find it an easier form of getting around. I do feel bad sometimes because LMNH don’t want to be associated with fixed gear cyclists. They want to be inclusive.

So, I moved from Colchester to London and I love cycling here. I moved to London nine months ago. I have no idea what I’m doing half the time. I didn’t know any routes or stuff. Cycling round Old Street roundabout, I’m always just smiling because there are so many different people on so many different bikes. It’s so exciting. [Makes loud squeaking noise]

Do you make that [loud squeaking noise] when you cycle round Old Street roundabout, too?

The first few weeks I was like that. I was all “hello!” and of course no one wants to say hi. So now I just smile to myself, because it’s just great. It’s so much more customisable than cars, everyone can have what they want.

Where do you tend to ride? Do you ride much outside London?

I’ve done a lot of cycling in Mersea, which is pretty cool. You can get the train to Colchester, then on to Mersea and that’s an island. That’s where the best oysters in the world are from.

I went there! And it’s really strange because when the tide’s out, you cross that weird little road that’s normally flooded. You’re surrounded by mudflats and it’s completely odd.

Yeah! I did a funny cycling camping holiday over there. I loaded my bike up with a tent and front panniers and cycled to Mersea and camped there. I did laps of it. It was SO NICE. It was freezing, and I got all my friends to come out and see me on different days and we drank wine and all went to the pub. I loved doing that. It was a good few years ago. I went in late March/April. It was one of the those weird years where it was like super sunny and lovely, but the minute the sun went down it was like ice. I remember having everything – like sleeping bad, and all my clothes and hats and gloves – and being so cold.But the minute the sun came up it was like the best thing ever. I just tied my bike to a tree, and I had a gas stove and made little breakfasts. It was really idyllic, and I was like “yeah, I want to live like this.”

How big is Mersea Island?

It’s not that big. It takes about two hours to cycle round it. There’s an East Mersea and a West Mersea. East Mersea is where all the cool shit is like the shops and stuff is, and then West is just camping sites. I was in West and I’d go to the East to eat. There’s a place called The Shed which is like the best seafood place. I’d cycle there on different days to get food. It was amazing.

So I want to do more cycling holidays but like I said, I don’t like doing too many miles – like being broken up by going to a pub. I used to be part of the Campaign for Real Ale. They’ve got an offshoot club in Colchester called Psychale, and it used to be twelve old men and me and my friend Pam who was in her 60s and we’d cycle to five or six pubs, all Essex area. Cycle round together, get a bit drunk and get the train back. I want to do more of that.

Tell me more about your cycling in London.

I did a track taster recently but I haven’t done any serious cycling, and I don’t really wear lycra. I felt like I needed to get a serious bike because obviously you can’t do ‘serious stuff’ on a fixed, and I’ve got a single speed Disco Dawes Racer. It’s a Dawes bike, like an old 90s bike. It’s called a disco version. It’s like a nice Canadian dark red to light red. It’s like a five speed. That’s nothing really because when you’re on a road bike you’re meant to have .. more. I guess if I was going to do anything serious, that’s the one I was doing it on. I was wondering if I should just get a really nice racer. Anyway.

disco dawes
How was the track taster at the velodrome?
”I was like “NO, I WILL NOT BE FINE.” They just get you on the bike, and clip you in and you’re just clutching on to this handrail as they say ‘“go!” I fell over before we started.”
I 100% recommend it. It’s £30. You get the bike, you get the helmet and you get an hour on the track. it’s SO different to road cycling. You’re inside, it’s covered, it’s lit. The track’s clear. And there’s a line – the three lines that you follow. Really hypnotic ones. So you start going round and after you get past the barrier of going round that massive curve – you have to power through it – she was like you just have to cycle faster and it makes it easier. Just don’t slow down. It’s an amazing feeling, as you’re cycling round it, it looks really cool. You kind of feel like a professional. There weren’t people watching. It’s so amazing, and the wind as you’re going round – from the speed.! I did that and was like ‘I have to do it again!’

For the first ride you get a certificate. I felt like a happy child when they were handing it to me! I squeaked. That’s the first step of being accredited in being a track cyclist. I think this is what I want to do – not professionally, maybe not to race. I don’t know! But that’s something I want to do, I think. To do it again with other people. maybe not have my own bike but to go back, and baby steps!

So do they guide you through the first session?

I was really scared and stressing out. They gave me cleats and I’ve never worn them before. They were like “it’ll be fine!” I was like “NO, I WILL NOT BE FINE.” They just get you on the bike, and clip you in and you’re just clutching on to this handrail as they say ‘“GO!!”

I fell over before we started. I started sliding. There was a woman from Total Women’s Cycling in front of me, who I’d been chatting to. As I was chatting I just really slowly started to fall over. And because everybody else is clipped in, no one can help you out. So I just fell over, and then I was like “cool, I’ve fallen over now. That’s the worst bit over.” It’s like real chucking you in at the deep end and watching you struggle. They just put you on, and there’s a real comfort in “yeah I’m doing it, and actually, it’s not that bad!” So, that’s how they do it, which is quite scary but do it!

What does being accredited actually mean?

It means you can go back on an open day and rent a bike or take your own, and go round it. So when I turned up there were people – people and some kids – just going round. I was like “that’s what I want to be doing!” They looked so cool but they weren’t racing. So, it was that really interesting blend of serious cyclist and not, because you’re allowed to do what you want.

What do most people wear?

So I forgot to wear lycra. I wore a dress. Quite a long, knee-length dress. I just didn’t think! I don’t know why. I turned up and was like “err..” because that’s what I cycle in normally; a skirt or a dress. So I was cool with it. The women was like “are you going to be alright?” I was like “no, it’s fine I do this all the time.” I was just embarrassed that there were 15 other women with the full cycling shoes and helmets. It was cool. I really wish I’d gotten a photo.

I want to go back and wear some gear and look cool. I’m really into this cycling anime called Yowamushi Pedal. I wear a cycling outfit – the kit from the anime. You should watch it, it’s so good. It’s a story about a guy who just has like a Mama Cherry – which means a ‘mum’s bike’ and that’s what he rides. Someone challenges him to a race/ Someone with a super-up bike, and the main character nearly beats him. And this someone encourages him to become a proper cyclist and it shows his descent into the world of cycling. It’s all about him getting in with a group of people. They have all the different types of cyclist, like climbers and sprinters, and it’s all very Japanese. They kind of power up when they’re trying to win in the race and there’s all this teamwork. Me and my friend just watch it all the time, and so we have this kit we bought from it. It’s really exciting. It makes me really happy. You should watch it – it’s really fun and captures the essence of how everyone has their own cycling story about how they got into cycling and what cycling means to them. So I want to go back to the track wearing that Yowamushi kit. It’s called a Sohoku jersey. I’ll look kind of professional but it’s actually from something totally ridiculous.

alex at track day 2
What type of kit are you into?

I really like most of the stuff Kinoko do. I like the blend of serious and fun. Thats what LMNH does. Similarly, the wave kit that Kinoko released does that – it’s black but Japanese print work looks really nice. And they’re always standing by lakes looking moody in the pictures. And I really liked the Warsaw top you put up.

Yeah, the more I get into cycling, the more I appreciate silly kit. Like the Ten Speed Hero tops or water bottles.

Exactly. You think “I want to be a part of this serious thing, but I want to be a bit silly.” It’s such an interesting blend with cycling, I think, because there’s so many people who go down the serious route. Getting the in-between is great.

Bike of choice?

It’s my fixie. It’s a Fixie Inc Blackjack model, it’s a limited edition bike. I got it on ebay really cheap because of the size – I need a 50” frame, being a short woman. So it’s gold and black, with playing card symbols on it. I just had the frame and built the whole bike up to match that. I gave it bulldog black handlebars, but I haven’t got matching wheels anymore – one of them I bashed in and now I’ve got odd ones. But the whole bike, I love it. Just the way it looks, and I’m really proud of it.

Previously to that, I used to have like six bikes. Then moving to London I had get rid of them. You need a different bike for different occasions! I called them mini wheelers, but I had one of them – an old-school folding bike with a hinge in the middle. You pull one pin out in the middle and the entire bike collapses. I had one of them, and it had a really nice saddle box on the back. I had a ladies basket bike, which I’d always give to friends.

Yes! I had a bike I lend out like that. I plan to convert my friends into cycling one by one.

I also had this really lovely Dutch-style bike with big butcher handlebars that came round and had a coaster. That had really beautiful white-walled tyres. That brakes system [of breaking by pedalling backwards,] is really strange. I find that with it, the hardest part is getting your pedal in the right position to start. That’s really awkward.

I used to have an actual Dutch bike, too. I used to date a guy who lived in the Netherlands and I was like “well, I have to buy a bike for when I come to see you.” So I had this floating international bike as well.

I loved having lots of bikes because there was that beautiful choice: what kind of bike do I feel like riding today? What kind of mood am I in? Now I’ve just got the fixed there are days where I just want to coast, because I’m really tired. I still enjoy powering through, though.

I dream of having space to keep lots of bikes in.

That’s the thing about bikes. When you get one and start to appreciate them, one doesn’t always do the job. But I don’t know what my dream bike would be.

I think that’s the problem though. Once you find out what your ‘dream bike’ is, you’re compelled to buy it. A while ago that was the reason why I wouldn’t go near Condor Cycles, in case I fall in love with a bike. But I don’t know if that’s still the style I’d want now, and I’m not impatient to buy a new one now – I love what I’ve got.

That’s a great feeling when you’ve got a bike you love. I feel such a connection to mine. When you’ve ridden on it for a long time, you think ‘I’ve done so much!’ When I got rid of my bikes I only gave them to people I knew because I wanted them to go on to people who were going to look after them – who cared about them. I couldn’t just flog it. They have a kind of little soul, however sad it is to say that.

Tell me about working at LMNH.

I started at LMNH around ten months ago. I was still working on Colchester and was commuting. I realised commuting was destroying my life and soul. At LMNH there’s so much going on, so much to do! Time’s going really fast. I look after the events, press, communications and social media, supporting new products and brands or collaborations – and anything else we have on. It’s kind of scary amazing.

LMNH’s got an amazing brand. You almost can’t put your finger on how they cultivated it. It’s three guys that own it: Lewin, Sam, and Matt. Lewin used to run a Pret, so he’s got the cafe experience. Sam is the mechanic and used to run a bike workshop before, and Matt used to be a Swiss banker so he’s got a great level head. The three of them together are perfect. They’re a triangle that manage all the aspects of LMNH and they’re really good friends. They cycle and race. All three of them work in the cafe – Sam runs the workshop. It’s great that they’re really stuck in and involved. That’s a big part of why it all works so well. It’s all from passion.

Coming in, I want to be really careful about not changing too much. I want to keep letting it be organic and independent. Once you start to structure things, that’s how it might lose its free or interesting side. It’s like being a person.

look mum no hands adidas shoot
Has it changed much in the last ten months?

We’ve been trying to support other aspects of old Street. We’ve been talking about Southbank, where we have a pop up, and we’ve been supporting Mare Street more. It’s only a year old but everyone really knows LMNH at Old Street. We want to talk about Mare Street without diluting how people know LMNH at Old Street. We don’t want to lose anything. When you come here [to Old Street] there’s a definite LMNH vibe. We’re still growing Mare Street and Southbank’s. [Old Street] has got five year’s of love and passion poured into it, and its just making sure that those other two locations have that as well, or their own identities.

Do you think Old Street and Mare Street have different vibes?

Yeah, definitely. Mare Street’s a lot more laptop kids, it’s really chilled out. In Old Street it can be a bit hectic. Mare Street doesn’t have a workshop, so there isn’t that same flow of cyclists psychically coming in with punctures, but we hold a lot of the events there: the films and the dating.

In our Southbank pop-up this year we want it to be even more cycling focused. We want to make cycling activity things – like bike wheels that are mobiles, or really good bike parking, or having inner tube dispensers for your punctures. So when you go there you know it’s for cyclists – before it had a few bikes and some cycling memorabilia but this year it’s more about capturing what LMNH has, which is being a real space for cyclists and non-cyclists.

It’s making sure each new project has a strong cycling essence. As with all the other cycling cafes that have popped up, it’s easy to have a soft nod to that. I think at LMNH we’ve got such a strong one, it’s about to keeping it.

What have you got coming up in the next year for LMNH that you can talk about?

The Southbank, we’re super excited about – that’ll be from May to September. We’ve had the confirmation. We’re like [makes happy excited grunting noise]! The Tour de France in July, too. Making sure we’re creating a fun space for people to enjoy it.

It kind of makes me sick how much they can cycle. The whole peloton and the way they cycle together – can you imagine? How do they do it? I went on ‘Bristol’s Biggest Bike ride’ in June and they close all the roads – all the big main roads as well. It goes under the suspension bridge. It had this apocalyptic feel in my mind, where suddenly cars didn’t work and you had to get around by cycling because everyone was on a bike: families, trailers. People were going fast and slow. There were thousands and thousands of people all cycling together. I thought “this is what it should be like!” It was just really great and everyone was clapping and shouting. That was probably the closest I’ve got to cycling in a tight group. I can’t get my head around how they do it in the Tour de France and how they charge up the hills.

I cycled from London to Bath with my friend, and we were really pleased with ourselves until we realised that was a standard distance in the Tour de France day. We’d stopped loads for cake and beer, and they just powered through. And they not only do that, but they do it for days in a row?

Part of me doesn’t enjoy watching it – it’s just too much! How do they do that every day? Like oh my god.

They’re still cycling!

They still want to do this?

”You had to cycle to all these fish and chip shops. Whoever go there first from 1-10 got points, and if you were the 11th, you had to eat a battered sausage or mushy peas.”
With Bristol’s biggest bike ride, did you go over specially?

I did it with a guy I was dating, who I met on a bike ride. I was doing the ‘Fixed and Chips Alley cat’.

Tell me about this fixed and chips alley cat please.

There was a guy who made an amazing film called BÖIKZMÖIND about Bristol’s fixd gear culture. You watch it and it’s a beautiful feel good film. It asks: Why do they like cycling, why do they liked fixed gears, do they do it in a town that’s just hills, why do they do that? It explores the fixed/cycling scene in Bristol. The guy who made the film was a brilliant graphic designer and creative.

He set up this fixed and chips alley cat. You had to cycle to all these fish and chip shops. Whoever go there first from 1-10 got points, and if you were the 11th, you had to eat a battered sausage or mushy peas and you’d get a point via that. So it was whoever was quickest – or whoever ate the most – and got back would win this amazing beautiful bike. He announced a second fish and chips alley cat, but we broke up. So I went anyway.

I was training, and cycling up and down hills, and eating a lot of fish and chips [laughs], and was all set to go. I got the train down there, and a week before they said they couldn’t do it because the police were a bit nervous about cyclists bombing it up and down roads trying to go as fast as they can. But I’d already booked it, but it turns out they actually have a weekly club so we had an informal ride.

They have an awesome vibe. A bit like what Little Wheels are doing – people that just want to meet up and go for a ride. It’s not serious and you can delve in and out. I love that it’s a bit like when I used to run a craft club- you’re preoccupied with something so if you want to talk you can, but if you just want to cycle then that’s fine too. A strange comparison, but that’s what I like about group rides.

FIXED 'n' CHIPS 2012 from BÖIKZMÖIND on Vimeo.

Have you done any other weird rides in the UK?

chapeauTiny Fixed, I think they’re called – I used to be so inspired by them. They did a house party alley cat – well, all their friends happened to be having house parties on this one night so the challenge was to ride to five different house parties and get a stamp.

Then they did a ladies poker one. You had to ride around and at each checkpoint you got a playing card, and whoever had the best hand at the end won. I loved that it wasn’t about skill – it didn’t matter how fast you were, it was completely down to luck.

We did a Supermarket sweep alley cat. We had a list of what you had to buy. The first group there hid a bunch of the things that you had to find, which was great for the person there: us all going “where are all the mars bars?” and they’d be wondering “why are all these sweaty people coming in looking for mars bars?” There was also a secure mystery prize for whoever bought them for the cheapest, but we didn’t know that. It was really good. I’ve still got a little playing card for that with Richard, who ran the cycle cafe with Mike, on the card as Dale Winton.

There’s something brilliant about being in the outside world and lots of people cottoning on that lots of people are doing something.

We have a big carnival in Colchester and anyone was allowed to submit a float. We decided to submit a float as Chapeau. There were five of us on different bikes. I was on a fold-up bike wearing a fix kigu, and was on my fold-up bike. I’d made us all little Chapeau flags, and somehow we got put next to Colchester CC with 20 lycra-d up serious professional cyclists. None of them wanted to talk to us. It was great because there were such serious cyclists and we looked completely odd. It reminds me of LMNH – a group of people, all on completely different bikes, having so much fun. A lot of the group rides from here have had that vibe.

Those sound awesome. Thanks so much for chatting.
ClaireGo behind-the-scenes at Look Mum No Hands: meet Alex