Growing up riding BMX meant there the majority of my influences in riding came from VHS videos (and then later, DVDs) and magazines. At that time, the dominating crew in the UK was Bicycle Union. The brand utilised modified hardcore band logos used as homages, documented raucous roadtrip’s around Europe and US and even had some of their riders appear on the coveted Road Fools videos.
They were in equal parts exciting and intimidating, and their videos told stories of trips I hadn’t had chance to go on yet and showcased spots that I was unable to ride, mainly out of inability.
At the centre of all this was John Dye, a staunchly outspoken voice in BMX and a champion of the core values of BMX that attracted us all to it in the first place. What is often misconstrued as hate is not the case, John’s views and output are firmly for the love of BMX, and the cherishment of what we hold dear, lest it be ruined by corporate bucks and jock attitudes.
I’m really excited to present this interview, and it’s refreshing to hear someone truly speak their mind in BMX, without fear of sponsor-loss of reprimand.
For those that don’t know can you tell us what Bicycle Union is and how it started?
Union first started much the same as a lot of brands and companies back then, it was just a small group of people who rode BMX in a certain area. It wasn’t a brand then, it was mostly London riders or people that rode in London. Bear in mind at this point in time you had to travel to ride anywhere with others, so London was like a central meeting point for people around the suburbs, there were not many people riding back then in 1993. One of the Canterbury guys printed some stickers in his spare time at work and it very slowly went from there. Now its still got that similar vibe going as it is still just a bunch of friends who ride bikes a certain way, but we now have a range of parts and soft goods. And our team has spread out from the south east of England.
How did the BMX scene back then differ from that of BMX in 2014?
It was really quiet for places to ride and riders in comparison to now, theres endless places to ride now and everywhere is always busy, back then it was a ghost town either things were left over from the 80’s ramp skating scene, old BMX race tracks or old seventies skateparks, there were a few old skateparks left in those days. At that point in time we rode Harrow skatepark a bit and that was around the time a bunch of guys from Harrow and Pinner area had just started building at Pinner trails which was originally a metal quarter pipe dug into a dirt landing, it went from there to one of the first real trail dirt/jump spots in the UK , it started evolving to a full blown set of trails-for then anyway. That place was awesome for back then. But yeah you had to search out BMX in those days.
Are you responsible for the entire company? Designs, everything? Or did you have a helping hand along the way?
No not everything, I mean everyone has help from every one don’t they. I have had endless help from people along the way from many individuals-riders, distributors, CAD man, shops, every one has helped to some extent.
You guys have done a lot of homages to 80s Hardcore bands in your history, which is your favourite?
Favourite homage or favourite band? The Cro-Mags had a huge influence on me-An old London BMX legend Andy Browne gave me the 10″ ‘Age of Quarrel’ on vinyl once, yes i still own that very record, thanks Andy. And my path into good hardcore bands started right there. I liked the Cro-Mags Age of Quarrel tour shirt we done, which was a copy of the original 86 tour shirt they sold with the mushroom cloud on it from the 10″ record.
Obviously the Slapshot logo which we used a lot and later modified. I gave Slapshot some gloves to sell on one of their tours a good few years back. I love Slapshot and the Fuck you attitude they had back in the early 90’s. I was really drawn to that back then, it was like riding a BMX, no one liked it only the people who rode and thats what I always thought slapshot were like, they didnt care what people thought what the latest trend was, they just did there own thing for all those years and look how well its stood the test of time. First time I saw em play in the early 90’s I was blown away. We have also done other bands-King Diamond, Motorhead…a few others.
Growing watching Props videos, especially the one with the Union Germany trip on, it seems like you guys regularly got in a lot of bother, you got any good stories from those days?
I don’t know, we always have trouble with something, its like a road curse of some sort. Van breaks down, get caught in the wrong part of town, some one breaks a bone, some one has a mini tweak out, get unknowingly caught in a riot in france and have to ride through it to get out, some one leaves their pedals in England? Get deported for ferry trip gone wrong, someone loses a shoe, every day stuff though, could happen without the bike too.
Would those sort of hi-jinks still happen on a Union trip now or is it more centred around tea-drinking?
Ha ha, I don’t know what you are on about, its always been centred around tea drinking!
You were the first UK team to get American riders on board. How did you go about getting your name out there in the US without the internet?
I had been to the US a few times to ride and met a few riders who I became close friends with and remain friends to this day. I went to Posh with Stuart King and he was already friends with Sandy Carson. Sandy had just got a house with Chris Stauffer and Sals, I filmed a few clips of them whilst I was there for the Nails in the Coffin VHS we did and after a while and a few trips of them coming here and me going there we became good friends. At that time they were on the way to becoming real well known riders world wide, it was a fairly natural evolution, we liked much of the same things music, riding etc. Through those two I met a lot of other riders who ended up on the team then, in mags and videos/ DVD’s, I’ve always thought the union team was great, and I still think that.
How long ago did Union make the move into producing BMX parts and what prompted the progression from clothing to hard goods?
It was around 2005 or 2006? It was a fairly obvious progression to make I just made it a bit late on our part, would have made sense to do it sooner.
The BMX market can feel crowded sometimes and I’m interested to know what sets Union parts apart from everything else?
Wow, where would you start with this, BMX as a ‘market’ – it’s pretty much impossible for small brands now. Nothing really material separates us from other brands, but its always been that way to some extent, unless you go way back. Every brand is marketed on image – always has been. I mean, obviously some people make a better product than others but that doesn’t mean that brand sells more, usually its the other way round. The brand with the better image will out sell the brand with the lesser image and better product. What i mean by better image now days is latest trends and appeals to the most people. Not the old better image which was core and DIY. Now its purely a mainstream image for 99% of big brands. We try to still be a brand who has character and still portrays things we are into, its not mainstream enough to be popular which is fine cause thats what we are.
A successful formula does exist now, if you have a lot of money or borrow to gather up all the latest teeny boppers or hard hitting superstars you can cobble a team together, put the latest wannabe Apple Mac chic on a product or advert and sell something pretty easily, now seems the less character the brand the more popular most of the time. There are many examples of this out there.
Union is forever known for having pretty dead on sensibilities around keeping BMX core and in the hands of BMXers, whats your view on companies like Nike and Red Bull entering the marketing and using our culture to sell products?
That belief came from the 90’s,when a lot of people had those ideals. The companies you mentioned have done what for ‘BMX’? You don’t need a big company to hold your hand or take over your event, when you used to do it yourself. BMX is not how it was in the 90’s, that was the golden era for BMX health. Everything was good with the ‘new’ wave of rider owned, when riders took control it seemed everyone had the same mindset and things were fresh and new. BMX was left for dead back then by big companies and it was the best thing that could have happened, they didn’t want BMX then and the people that still had fun riding bikes just stuck with it for that reason alone they loved it still, they took it and brought it back up. Mostly thats lost now I think, looking back its inevitable that things turned out as they are now.
In the last few years you opened Volt BMX in Stoke Newington. Why Stokey and why open a shop in what is not the best BMX retail climate?
Theres never a ‘prime time’ to open a BMX store. Ever since I’ve been in it, since the 80’s, maybe the first boom in the 80’s was the one wave you could have made some thing of, but you would have had to move on to some thing else with in a few years cause it really shit the bed then. Realistically BMX was healthier when we opened 5 years ago compared to now, but if you are starting any business you have to believe it can work even though its a scary task and you could loose your money and your time and effort if it fails.
For us it was the fact that riders from London were mail ordering grips and tyres, really basic items you couldn’t even get in London – It seemed ridiculous to think that you couldn’t buy simple BMX parts in this city. We did some research into this as we thought a couple of shops were actually doing some BMX stuff but it turns out they weren’t doing hardly anything, so we jumped in head first.
We choose the location as it was somewhere we were very familiar with, close to the city, good public transport access, 60 seconds walk from the train station and just off the main road. Also we were involved before we even thought of opening the shop in the Clissold Park skatepark development. So we knew there was going to be a close place to ride, so it seemed to make sense, there were a lot of advantages.
How important to BMX do you feel is cultivating a community around a store, giving riders a central location? What role does Volt play in the scene round Hackney?
Yeah its natural that riders end up meeting here, it was pretty good seeing people who would have never met each other become riding pals just through meeting at our shop. Before we were here there’d be someone who rode in Mile End and someone who rode in hackney and they lived virtually right next to each other, but had never meet because one would ride a specific style and the other a certain thing they were looking for, I think its opened some people’s minds a bit meeting others.
Its also pretty cool watching some of the youngsters go from kids learning to roll in and carve turn in to full blown riders who can blast big airs and do all kinds of stuff. We’ve put on some jams here and there, a load of video premieres had some US pros over from time to time, and are actively involved in the Clissold Park skatepark project. There is still stuff that happens and the user group are pressing the council about the next phase.
What are some of the struggles you guys endured while operating Volt?
Operating our shop has its fair share of problems on a daily basis, just like any business, but for the most part the people who ride who come to our shop are pretty cool. Some distros don’t seem to understand their own business it seems. They’ll sell to random bike shops in your post code without even thinking about it.
What advice would you give someone hoping to do the same?
Do it right, think about what you sell, research what you are about to do, and see what you want to achieve. Common sense usually prevails and weeds ’em out, don’t support the UK bike co, Amity bike co’s of the world.
Is it hard to sell hard goods these days when BMX parts are pretty much unbreakable, and all bikes arguably look the same? Or will kids still buy whatever junk the latest pro rider is riding?
Some do some don’t, all depends on the individual and where you’d want to lay the blame for some gimmicks or brands becoming popular. I’d say media has a lot to answer for, any company can come in, buy a couple of pages in a mag or website and gain coverage which to a newcomer puts them directly along side all the long standing legit companies. The big media just doesn’t seem to care or have any structure or know any better. We have always tried to sell proven brands we believe in so that keeps down the gimmick count to some extent.