Thursday, March 05, 2015

Francis Hoen, Johnsonville Cycles

It's 11am on a Saturday morning at Jville Cycles and a guy walks in off the street with a flat tire. A mum shopping for junior's first bike is asking a multitude of questions and the people who have turned up to drop off and pick up their bikes are starting to fill up the tiny shop. For me it would be like being the first medic at the scene of a plane crash but Francis Hoen is as calm as the Dalai Lama. It's what he has done for years. The subconscious load balancing and priority setting is a skill that only comes with experience.

Francis tweaks a wheel that has seen better days.

I first met Francis in 1987 when I had mostly weaned myself from my motorcycling addiction. I had tapered down to a 1973 Yamaha 350 that was so old it had two sets of ownership papers. My attempts at keeping it roadworthy had me visiting a place in Lower Hutt called the Bike Spot.

Bike Spot was run by a guy called Al Heinie with the front desk being manned by Francis. A few years later as the mountainbiking scene hit critical mass in Wellington I was to come across Francis again as the proprietor of Johnsonville Cycles. The scene in Wellington back then was like the wild west with shops popping up all over the show as the local appetite for mountain biking exploded. The Kennett bros and Brent Hoy's Muddy Trails made sure that there were events on continuously pretty much throughout the year. Wellington differed from most places in that the events were managed outside of a bike club which worked well for a long time.

I asked Francis for sponsorship help in 1996 before the MTB Worlds in Cairns and have been a Jville Rider ever since. Francis manned the shop with a fiery red haired sidekick called Blair for many years until Blair went off the grid and moved down to the west coast with his lady where they still live. I recall a rumour that Blair would hide the "Jville Cycles" sign that used to sit on the corner of the street, to stop a steady stream of punters coming in to hassle him.

Unlike most of the other local bike shop owners at the time Francis was a competitive MTB rider and was usually on the podium, winning the master 2 category outright in 1993 and podiuming many other times. This is no mean feat as a bike shop operator with all the travel that was involved at the time. With the best 4 results from 6 races from all around the country counting, it was quite a commitment. Francis raced at the MTB Worlds in Vail, Switzerland and Canada from 1994 to 1998. He also has the record at the Karapoti Classic of 25 finishes on the full course.

The bike industry went through hard times with online sales but somehow Johnsonville Cycles  survived. A few helpers came and went over the years, but eventually Francis went back to working by himself for the most part and has reached that delicate balance. Some days he is run off his feet and other days he has time to sneak in a bit of work on his beloved VMX (Vintage Moto cross) bikes.

His old school approach is the antithesis of the modern "concept store". His solutions often don't come in branded packaging but more likely from a greasy box in the corner of the workshop. I can't count the amount of times I've seen him give a pre-loved item to a customer with the line "Nah there's no charge for that" when he could be selling them a new high dollar item off the rack instead.

A home-made tool for a job that needed doing.
He's not someone to have the latest high-tech gizmo-tools but he will find a way to do what those tools would do, using alternative techniques. I have seen him using what I presumed was an antiquated technique on something and said, "There's a tool for that now Francis". He goes "Yeah I've got it, but it doesn't work as well as this home-grown method".

When I see him dealing with a mum who would otherwise feel out of place in a shop staffed by youngsters I know his concern is bonafide. No matter what kind of newbie questions she is asking she gets his full attention. One of Francis's regulars was telling me one day how when she first came in to see him she was well over 100 kgs and since she had been biking and working out she has shed about a fifth of her body weight. Another woman I met on Sunday while helping out on "Bike the trail" told me she'd go back to see Francis at Johnsonville because he was lovely. She was a solo mum riding with her daughter and didn't know I was a Jville rider.

It's a hard way to make a living and there has to be a fair bit of passion involved as the financial rewards aren't great. I'm sure Francis's BA in Philosophy was a great help as he weighed up his decision to soldier on in the face of online competition. He adapted his business to excel in the areas that the online competitors can't compete in; service. His wife Kathy is also a small business owner; this is one very hard working couple. Francis is a very rare person, a business owner with socialist leanings who would give you the shirt off his back.

The bicycling industry is full of hype with products that fail on release, as the consumer beta-tests them to short-term destruction. If you want to know what works, and lasts, check out what Francis runs. The Jville Cycles "shop rides" go rain or shine Wednesdays and Saturdays and if a component fails it will likely fail on one of these rides, and it won't be used again. So if you are keen to ride some trails around Wellington in places that you didn't know existed, give Francis a bell or pop in to 11 Burgess Road and join the shop ride. Everyone is welcome at Jville Cycles.