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by Paula Towers
posted 20/02/2019

Wooly’s Wheels: Sydney’s One-Stop Bicycle Shop

Steering a small business through 40 years of successful trading is noteworthy – particularly these days! Behind this leading Sydney shop, popular local Michael ‘Wooly’ Kamahl is the driving force.

As well as Michael’s nickname referencing a ’70s hairstyle he once sported, the current store site is the same location of his first retail space in 1979 – which saw him trade $7 on his first day! And he also celebrated his 21st birthday in this building. “We had a bonfire in the backyard here in Paddington,” he told Eastside FM.

Along the way, Michael has contributed greatly to the profile of Sydney cyclists through enthusiastic community involvement.

A friend started the Wollongong Ride in the ’80s – a one day ride that has been going now for 38 years and raises funds for MS. “I rode it around 25 times,” Michael said.

With fancy dress a theme, fun was the order of the day. “Before helmets were compulsory, we’d ride down in top hats and do fashion parades in the middle of the national park!”

Michael was also strongly involved in long rides such as Bicycle NSW’s The Big Ride. “We used to support that ride by helping the riders and I used to go on the ride myself,” he reported.

That was no mean feat: Running from 1991 – 2008, The Big Rides attracted up to 2000 cyclists each year for a nine-day tour covering 500 km – 600 km on different routes across the state. These large group rides introduced many people to cycling and brought much-needed tourism revenue to regional areas – the sudden influx of riders and support crew often outnumbering towns’ populations.

In the ’80s, just as the industry was starting to slow down, titanium bicycles came on board and attracted a new market. “Suddenly we got people who didn’t used to ride interested in cycling. So we got a different kind of athlete. It was exciting!” Michael observed. “One could be good at swimming but not cycling so we could share that enthusiasm. Riding bikes for them was something new.”

And what is it about Wooly’s itself that has retained its attraction? “We like to be the all-rounder,” Michael observed. “We’ve got the athlete who wants to aspire to do better but, being in Paddington, you also have people who want to commute.

Some other shops may concentrate on only the athlete or only the commuter; Wooly’s caters to the range of different customers and demands: “That’s what makes it interesting for us – we get different people coming in for various reasons,” Michael said. “We may have someone who just wants to get fit, someone who wants to lose weight; so we get excited because they just want to ride a bike – but for all different reasons.”

Three years ago, the workshops were moved up from the basement to street level. This has worked very well – achieving better engagement with customers. “Now when the riders come through, they talk directly to a mechanic about servicing issues instead of talking to a staff member who used to write it down then relay it to a mechanic…

“Now the workshop has much more energy because you can see bikes and movement.”

On that topic of building movement, electric bikes have taken on momentum, with people buying them in growing numbers, not just hiring them as the various bike corpses littering roads might suggest. “They’re much bigger in Europe than in Australia now but I think people are slowly going into the e-bike market,” Michael said. “Engineers are always trying to find the niche they haven’t covered before.”

Gravel bikes are the latest innovation. Not a mountain bike but designed to ride gravel, they can go off the beaten track. “They’re always coming up with something they haven’t thought of,” Michael observes but sounds a note of warning: “There’s not a bike for everything – some people come in and say they want a mountain bike but still want to commute to work. You want a bike to be good at one thing but it can’t be good at everything; to get into it you actually need to have a couple of bikes.”

And how else has the bicycle world changed? “When I came to Sydney in 1973 I could ride a couple of hours and not see another cyclist. Now there’s definitely more cyclists out there!

“And back then you either raced or rode around the block – there were no in-betweens. And you didn’t commute much. Now you ride for many different reasons.”

Children’s bikes is another growth area – albeit a difficult one as many don’t take kids’ bikes seriously. “You have kids coming in and then you have adults coming in,” Michael observes, so it’s a drawcard. “It’s really exciting.”

Also exciting for him is Eastside. “I’ve been listening to Eastside since around when it started – I’m always listening.”

Michael doesn’t follow particular programs but enjoys the thrill of discovery that the different programs offer: “I flick it on different times and discover different things.” A most appropriate endorsement of one successful eastern suburbs’ brand by another.

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