Jack Dowle: starting East London Fixed and growing the community

In Interviews, London by Claire

Jack Dowle’s worked in a handful of London’s top bike shops and was one of the co-founding members of East London Fixed four years ago, wanting to grow the fixed gear scene and make new friends. I asked him about himself, his bikes and ELF. He’s usually getting lost bumping into friends at a race, taking photos of his Look collection or refusing to use the word ‘tarck bike’. When I met him in East London’s Hackney Wick on the day of Red Hook Crit London, he was doing one of these and about to start another.

Hey Jack. I wanted to ask you about East London Fixed and you and bikes. So, I started doing these interviews the more I started getting into cycling when something definitely clicked..

Cause you do ‘get into’ cycling. Everyone knows generally how to ride a bike or they have some sort of experience, then something will set you off and you get into cycling. For me it was culture – fixed gear culture, courier culture. I started off as a courier, for only three months because there’s no money in it – how are you suppose to live? So I did that, and spent a lot of time in Full City Cycles on Leather Lane, which was run by another guy at the time, and he was another old school bike shop owner. Really nice, but a little bit mental.

So when you were getting into cycling, what did that actually look like?

Have you ever seen the evolutionary scale of bikes? It goes kid bike, BMX, mountain bike, dirt bike, road bike. I literally went through that.

I started off working in an Evans, riding hardtail dirt bikes and BMXs that I’d been riding since I was a child. My friend got a Cinelli Vigorelli and I thought it was a wicked bike – it looked really good. Working at Evans I got my first fixed gear and turned that into a fucking Frankenbike and a half. By the end of it, I had it with a 26” front wheel. It was a 700C frame so it was like dropped down. It had really large bars on it so you could do so many tricks on it. It was so good. I miss Wilson, but he’s gone to a better home.

I left and came up to London, and started at Peloton and Co in Spitalfields. A really small brand that was trying to get started. It didn’t work – what they were were trying to sell was just not right for the target market.

“Brick Lane Bikes was really the entry to everything fixed gear for me”
Jack’s Look outside Brick Lane Bikes

So I started at Brick Lane Bikes (BLB). BLB was really the entry to everything fixed gear for me. It’s a great store for the concept that they have and the stuff that they have. They had some really unique stuff to sell, some really interesting history – I learned about most of bike history and what was what. Knowing the difference between what a Campagnolo Nuovo record is and a super record from different years. It’s all small details, very difficult. I moved on to Condor where there’s a certain clientele – guys go in there and drop 15k on a bike like it’s nothing, so they’re really good as giving hard information. Then I started on the Skinny Eric’s project, and that was my last attempt [at working in a bike shop].

When I worked at Brick Lane Bikes I met the ELF guys from over the counter.

Tell me about the start of East London Fixed.

I think my main aspect of cycling is in the hearts of the community. When I got involved there wasn’t really one. There was the courier community, there was LFGSS, there was St Paul’s Fixed Gear and that’s about it. There wasn’t a massive wealth of teams or ‘personalities’. So we started East London Fixed (ELF). We wanted to do social rides and I was always the social-aspect guy.

It was really based in the roots of the community. The one thing I’m really proud to have accomplished is to have expanded the community. Joining a few links together and bringing people together from different groups really made a difference to everyone. My mantra was very quickly to be like: it doesn’t matter what you’re riding, as soon as you’re riding you’re enjoying it. The selfish reason why I did it is that I wanted more friends. I wanted to see more people on bikes, riding, and have a big group of mates whilst doing it. And I got it.
 

East London Fixed

On Brick Lane, shot by Matt

What kind of stuff did you guys get up to?

We started with Tuesday Night Training – TNT – which is still going today. It’s more of an un-run meet up. That’s the access to racing and training, and pushing yourself on the bike. I fell out of that because I couldn’t keep up with people. I’m not fast enough.

Originally, when we started that, we also had Howl At The Moon. Howl At The Moon was the social ride, the idea we’d come up with and wanted to push. We had some really cool rides and I did a couple of food-orientated ones where I was trying to do collaborations with business. Howl At The Moon ran for a year before we stopped it.



We did the little female tracks skills sessions, we’ve done tricks competitions, we did our own little [cross-London event]: North-East-South-West where we did hill climbs up north, we did a tricks session at Cutty Sark, and there was a race somewhere else. So we have branched into a lot of different things.

The thing I really wanted to see though was more women. I mean, I did I think two fixed gear classes for women at one point. For anyone who wanted to know how to track stand or a bit more about how to control a bike. We got a couple of people track standing, like Vroni who went off to do Fixed Beers. Seeing now the influx of women in cycling is [brilliant] because it’s so misogynistic everywhere. It’s still the way that people talk behind the scenes [in bike shops] – the way they talk to each other. There are exceptions, like Jenny (of London Bike Kitchen) – she’s always got a smile on her face – or Paradise Cycles that’s a new shop on Roman Road. All I’ve ever heard from people is that they’re super helpful, super nice guys. That’s what I believe bike shops should be. Everyone knows this but we live in a world where we may all know this, but the people above don’t give a fucking shit because it ‘doesn’t sell’! I can’t necessarily be a part of it, but I want to help. I think brands need to look at equalising everything out.

We basically started as a community project and we still have really big ties to it, but we are focused on racing and that’s what the team wanna do. We spanned off, and started racing. Everyone wants to get on it. It’s the new thing, the new fad. It’s not fixed gear freestyle, it’s not like just riding your track bike around at Critical Mass, it’s racing. There’s a lot of reasons to do it and that you’d want to do it.

 

ELF’S Brooke Philips at Red Hook Crit 2017 riding a hand-built Quirk Cycles frame

How do you feel about the crit scene? What is a race day like for you, or Red Hook Crit London this weekend?

I love going down to the races but that’s not because I’m like ‘I want my fucking team to win.’ I want everyone to win. I want to see everyone having a good time. I did that at Thunder Crit – when I got to Thunder Crit, John Mack just pulled me off my bike and was like “right do QRs!’ And I was like ‘Okay!’ and started checking through people’s bikes. Like I’m not getting paid for this. It was more the ability to access another group and let them know that I personally, or us in general, will help asked. Okay, you’re part of another team but that doesn’t make you anything different.

[If I was racing] I’d be like “Oh yeah, do you wanna overtake me? Go on then!” I would suck at it, I would suck so bad. I think if I ever raced, I’d do time trials. I like trying to beat myself. That’s the sub-story of my life, beating myself and trying to push others – because it’s much easier. That’s why I don’t race – and I know it takes a huge dedication of mind, soul, body and training.

But like today [at Red Hook Crit London], I’m going down to speak to all the people I know there, which is my favourite thing. Someone’s got to smoke for the team, someone’s got to drink beers for the team. That’s me! I’ve got that covered!

Do you watch Francis Cade’s videos? He does a lot of work across the community and he’s doing really well on that front. Every time he asks me to do an interview, he always asks me for an after-race review of whatever we’re doing. I’m always like: ‘Yeah! Good people, check. Had a nice time, check. Don’t know what else to say – think I love everyone.’ It is kind of what I’m like.

Have you always felt like that?

If we crunch down to it, when I was a kid I was always trying to get social acceptance of other people. I was bullied really heavily. I was really enthusiastic and wanted to be friends with people. This is also my problem, that I care far too much. It’s only now in the last four months that I’ve got a really good attitude towards being honest with people and helping people, but also taking no shit now. It’s quite a hinderance and quite a pleasure to be able to care about everyone but it’s a nice happy medium now. It’s definitely been a full circle of being able to care about people but not have to put myself out on a massive limb. I have to actually think about myself for once.

Yeah, if you’re not looking after yourself, you can’t help anyone.

I’ve been trying to care for people since I was a kid and when I started in the cycling community it was important for me to care about people there too. That’s where a lot of my social anxiety and my depression issues had stemmed from: trying to be the superman. It’s the same with ELF. And I kind of did. I’m really happy.

So I’ll be supporting everyone, going from tent to tent and seeing international friends and wishing them good luck. I like the fact that we have got really good friendships with everyone across the board.

“Man, your enthusiasm is intoxicating but it’s also making me feel like I want to throw up”

Like Owen came to our rides – an amazing guy. Dan Coops, I got him into Fixed Gear – I remember when he came into Brick Lane Bikes and he was a road rider, asking about bikes. I gave him some advice and sorted him out. He got a fixed gear and got into it. Or Matt from ShootMoreFilm. He made a vine and I nearly cried when I read it because he mentioned me personally in it and the first page is a picture of me and the last page is a picture of me. I thought that was really symbolic. There’s so many people I’ve gotten into it. And I thought, if I’d had a different attitude, things wouldn’t have turned out the same way. If I’d been a dickhead like “your bike’s shit, it’s not good enough’ or like ‘Bro, it’s not a tarck bike.” Like what is a tarck bike. Fucking tarck bike – what does that mean? I get what you’re trying to explain but why?

[When I’m working in a bike shop] I always gauge people off what their level of enthusiasm is, if someone walks in and is like ‘I’ve got a super sweet Carlton!’ I’ll join them for that, like: ‘okay, cool! That’s an old English frame’ and in the back of my mind I’m like ‘weighs a tonne, I’d never want to ride it’ but if you really like it and you’re passionate about it, and you’re passionate about your bike then I’ll support you for it. Then I’ve had guys come in [to the shop] and as much as I have time to be caring and enthusiastic, it’s always the people who come in and have no idea.. I’ll take them through it. You need to look at your own bike and go ‘phwoar.’

You need to be able to bore other people shitless about how excited you are with it.

Exactly. To the point where they’re like ‘Okay, shut up! Just get out of my face!’ I know that. I’ve had that before where people are like ‘Man, your enthusiasm is intoxicating but it’s also making me feel like I want to throw up.’ I know, I’m sorry!

Okay, so on that. Tell me about your Look collection.

I’ve got a fucking Olympic bike! You should hear me when you hear me talk about Look – I won’t shut up: “I’ve got a 1992 Look KG 196 Pista from the Barcelona Olympics ridden by the Spanish blah blah blah.”

It’s now my official vintage bike. I was a bad parent because I had four bikes and I wouldn’t ride them. That’s why I only have three now. It’s okay to have crazy bike but the one ones you’d better be riding. I got to a point where I was like, ‘I’ve got three track bikes – what am I doing? This is stupid.

I built one at BLB that I got as a leaving gift from Peloton and Co, a Chris Boardman TK20 with disc and 5 spoke – a really beautiful bike – and then when I finished it, I literally took two steps back, took a photo and thought: what the fuck have I got this for? I’m never going to ride it. Ever. I have a job where I can’t go to the velodrome. Why have I even got this bike?

At that point I thought, if I’m ever going to build another one of these, it has to be a vintage bike. Something that’s amazing. That’s my kind of direction and passion – that whatever I put my hands to, I want it to be as good as I can possibly make it and as interesting a story.

Boardman bike, sans front 5 spoke, plus 1 beer

Some of the Look obsession

If I collected Colnagos, for example, it wouldn’t be the same. There’s loads of people doing it, it’s a big culture. But Look is the underdog. A beautiful brand, the stuff that they made and that they did in their time period – they were really taking technologies that weren’t really developed. The first electronic groups was not Shimano, it was Mavic. The Mavic Zap and Mavic Techntonic. It was shit. It was fucking shit. The second it rained, it was broken. It didn’t work. It’s a good old-fashioned ‘90s polymer fucking rubbish. But it was innovative and amazing. I’ve searched my whole life for a Mavic 3G – I follow them on eBay all the time just to find them. Going off on a bit of a tangent here.

I like it. You sound happy. So the culture and community is the main reason you ride?

One thing that I’ve really noticed is that a lot of people cycle because of mental health issues. I suffer from really bad mental health – I suffer from depression, passive suicide, when I was younger I tried to kill myself. I was not a very happy person. I was bullied quite heavily. I didn’t have any friends. It’s a huge turn of events – I’m very popular now, I have lots of friends, a good wealth of people who support me and I support them. It’s come a long way but it’s because I definitely have an access to my social anxieties through cycling.

That’s made it really amazing because you go out for a ride with your friends, and everyone’s riding bikes. It’s really good fun and everyone’s on the same terms, and we’re just riding.

Something that seems to be apparent in the online cycling world is trash talking. I’ve been a victim of bullying before and I know how bad cyber bullying can get. People can be vicious. You see them in real life and you’re like ‘Hey!’ See them in real life and they’re like ‘Wuh! Huh!’ [Rough translation: ‘Oh no!’]

Just be nice.

Just be nice to each other man, for fuck’s sake.

 

Everyone’s got their own thing to say about it. I think the people you’ll find that you’ll love and like the most love cycling for reasons that aren’t why everyone else does. It’s being able to be proud of what you’re doing, without being ‘fixie famous.’ I think people spend too long thinking about how they look, how they are perceived, rather than creating stuff. I get not everyone’s into that. But I think the people who are really interesting in life are take a risk, and take a passion that they want to [create] something from. Live by decent tenants and care about each other.

I’m sure Jenny [of London Bike Kitchen] loves cycling because she just wants to help people and be a bit like ‘fuck you capitalism.’ Tim and Sarah at Isambard’s are two of the nicest people ever. They got a hard time when they started off.

People like that really matter. Everyone’s trying to turf out the small dog, that’s the saddest thing.

That’s one of the reasons for me leaving. Everything’s getting demolished, everything’s getting too expensive for people to live. I’m sure you understand this, living in Berlin. You probably get a much better quality of life than you do here. I mean this is why I moved to Hackney Wick. We call it the Republic of Hackney Wick – walk down the street smoking a joint, no one cares. It’s got two parks on either side of it, a motorway, a canal. It’s so isolated. It’s like a little slice of heaven. You can go off and have a ride in the Olympic Park, or you can go off into Vicky Park [Victoria Park] and you’re surrounded. It took me four years to get here. Now they’re closing the whole place down.

I’m not running away from London, I’m walking away and I made a massive impact. I don’t care about the free stuff. I don’t care about having a name for myself. It’s being able to be proud of what you’re doing, without being ‘fixie famous.’

I find my favourite people are the ones who do amazing, bizarre things but don’t always spent their time talking about themselves. It’s only when you chat with them and they casually mention these epic things they’ve done. I find it a lot with couriers.

Couriers are very interesting. One thing that I’ve studied into quite a lot is the different demographics of cycling because obviously through sales and knowing what a customer really wants by what their stereotype is or what they’re into really gave me a gauge. Couriers are both quite arrogant in a lot of cases but they’re also amazing people. They struggle very hard on a daily basis to make next to nothing, cycle more miles than most of us would do in a week, and go off and do these amazing rides. They will always be very [casually] like ‘Oh yeah yeah, I just did that. Oh I went to Dunwich the other night, whatever.’ I like that. Of course I’m going to response like ‘Woah really?’ They’re a very interesting sub-division of cycling. Couriers, who have been riding fixed for a lot longer, must be looking at scene going: ‘fucking bunch of twats man. We’ve been doing it for a lot longer and we don’t even talk about it. We just ride.’

 

One interview, two coffees and a lot of hopping about waving about bikes in Hackney Wick, on the day of Red Hook Crit London

Find Jack on Instagram, and East London Fixed on Instagram, website and a bunch of photos through the ages on Flickr.
ClaireJack Dowle: starting East London Fixed and growing the community