In 2015 we - Luke and Lee - started work on a side project that has since grown into one of the country’s most dynamic bicycle companies - Rook Cycles.
In the five years since, Rook has put hundreds of people on some of the boldest and most enjoyable bikes in the business, but now it’s time to look towards the new chapter in the Rook Cycles story.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves - for now - because the story of Rook is as much about our past, as it is about the bikes currently whipping their way around the streets of South Africa.
At the beginning of the Rook Cycles story, each of us had day jobs - but we dreamed of leaving the world of late night deadlines and watercooler smalltalk behind to explore a business that was more fulfilling and rewarding, that could shape a small part of this country’s future, and that we could control ourselves.
The initial decision was easier than we expected. As passionate skateboarders and inner-city bicycle riders, we looked towards a collection of track bike frames that Lee had propped up in his garage and realised they might just hold the solution. They were the kind of striking frames almost impossible to obtain at a retail level in South Africa - but also frames we knew were reigniting a passion for inner-city cycling around the world.
From New York to Lisbon, commuters were ditching the lycra, and high-end bicycles, and clumsy gears, and instead opting for responsive, exciting, single and fixed speed bicycles that were not only cheap to buy and fix, but practical and thoroughly eye-catching.
As we stood in Lee's garage looking at the frames, the answer suddenly seemed obvious. “Why don’t we build a frame?” Lee asked. It was a simple question that would set them down a long path of trial and error.
Although passionate about cycling, neither of us really knew how or where to start building an actual bicycle for the retail market. Even so, we immediately began the search for a frame builder who would take our outlandish ideas, informed by our years in the advertising industry and riding and skating on the streets of Cape Town, and turn them into an eye-catching, practical, cost-effective, and, most importantly, rideable bicycle.
The process took longer than each of us realised - we built and rode multiple prototypes from a variety of small factories. Some were duds, some were just OK. But it was when we hit upon what is now the Rook One that we knew we’d nailed it. We tested the geometry, and it was the perfect blend of cost, simplicity, build quality, and ride.
So with that, we had our first frame! The two of us then sunk pretty much all of our savings into a business account and found a couple of investors to make the first manufacturing order happen.
We took a few trips to Shanghai to visit the production facility and to negotiate deals with manufacturing. We insisted that the two of us conduct quality checks in person, and once we were happy, we sent the first frames into production.
Our dream has always been to put more South Africans on bicycles. Great bicycles. Affordable bicycles. Honest hard working bicycles. And with this, to transform the country’s commuter culture - and we knew that the Rook One was the bike for this.
Neither of us had any idea what challenges lay ahead, but as the frames were welded, painted and packed, the business and brand started to take shape. Our backgrounds certainly helped. Both of us had careers in design and advertising - and both of us grew up in the workshop. We’re self-taught tinkerers and makers, and we revel in problem solving and creativity.
With the first Rook Cycles container packed and shipped, our team of two worked tirelessly on what this brand and business could become. And on the 7th June 2017, two years after the first seeds of Rook were planted, we launched Rook Cycles to the public.
We were immensely proud of our creation. It was finally real, and although an online-only business working from a garage at the time, we knew we had something of our own - and that this was just the beginning.
With our kick-ass online store, you could order a beautiful, often-customised bike and have it shipped out to you anywhere in South Africa - It was a product and an offering that the country hadn’t before seen - until then, the bicycle industry in South Africa was dominated by a few key role-players, mostly dealing in budget mass-produced imports, or high-end, and high-cost, setups. And now we were offering brand new, high quality bicycles that were fun to ride and turned heads on the streets.
From this day, ours seemed like a winning formula. With Luke working on the business full time, and Lee putting in long hours in the evenings from the Rook Cycles garage building the orders for the next day, we started to see the future of the business.
It wasn’t just about fast turnarounds, though. Our bicycles were met with critical acclaim from the outset. Initially they featured on Bike Hub, and then gained more and more popularity as riders took to the streets on Rook bicycles.
Customer satisfaction was also high - with the best bang for buck in the industry, we were changing the way commuters thought about cycling, and what R5000 would get them.
But it wasn’t always a simple journey, and to blow off steam, the two of us would head out for a ride every Thursday evening - a habit that’s turned into one of the city’s most popular free events. It started as just a fun ride to get the blood pumping, and to get some ideas flowing - but customers who also rode fixed gear bikes started to join in. Eventually, this turned into a full blown event - with the Rook garage workshop packed to the rafters with riders each week.
We realised then what we were onto - and we felt the demand for a clubhouse, a bigger space, and a bike shop. The bottle store around the corner from the Rook garage had recently closed down, and we thought this might work. It was small enough to feel homey, but big enough to pack some bicycles in!
So we signed a lease and moved into 295 Long Street Cape Town, the current home of Rook Cycles. We fitted the shop ourselves, and while building the dream, we couldn’t wait to invite the friends, fans and family into the new bike shop club house coffee hangout spot.
The premise at this stage was simple: Not a bike shop. It was to be a space that welcomed cyclists and non-cyclists alike, with great music, excellent coffee, an informal atmosphere, and an open plan workshop. We wanted customers to immediately feel right at home - most would go on to become our friends, and some even join the team.
With the shop open, business started ramping up - and it grew more difficult for Lee to hold down his day job as well as his commitment to Rook Cycles. It was with a heavy heart that Lee decided to pursue his career in advertising, and Luke became the sole shareholder, committed to making Rook Cycles the best it could be over the coming years.
A few staff came and went, but eventually the team grew to five. Zach manages the day to day shop tasks with Aviwe as right hand man, Mthunzi later joined the team as shop assistant, and that team has been running the show to this very day.
We have since expanded the product range - initially with the launch of the RACE2, a lighter aluminium framed bicycle that puts speed front and centre. And after much market research - which included trips to Shanghai bike show and the infamous Eurobike - we launched the Scout. It’s a steel adventure bike like nothing else built locally, and it’s been met with rave reviews.
The shop team hosted many events, and we’ve built the culture of inner city cycling over our three years of operations. We’ve been featured in the Culture Trip, Business Insider, Bicycling Magazine, and continue to get solid feedback from cycling enthusiasts at Bike Hub.
We had our new-business teething problems, but since then we’ve shown true promise with some excellent turnover quarters. Our Thursday night rides are more popular than ever, and we today see them as a way to reward our loyal customers, and attract new ones. We’ve launched several other events alongside it, and our online following is bigger than ever.
This, though, is where the next adventure begins.
Luke, the current director at Rook, has an opportunity to further grow his career as an entrepreneur in Europe. And so it is that Rook Cycles is looking to hand over the reigns for a new chapter of this epic bicycle biz.
It’s a special business built on grit, passion, creativity and determination, and one that has captured the hearts of the South African commuter market. And yet, in many ways, its story has only just begun - with three tried and tested models in our range, a loyal and growing customer base, and a proven track record, the future ahead is bright, with plenty of room for it to grow and develop with the right new person at the handlebars.
So with that, Rook Cycles as a running, growing, business is for sale. If you’re interested in owning and running a unique and successful bicycle business, Rook Cycles might just be your perfect fit.
We'll be considering realistic offers based on business evaluation and brand equity. If you're interested and would like to know more - reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rook Cycles is a Bicycle Brand and Commuter focussed bicycle shop based in Cape Town South Africa. Rook designs and manufactures the Rook One, Rook Race and Rook Scout range of bicycles. The business also runs a bike shop selling these unique bicycles direct to the public as well as all the parts and accessories catering to the inner city commuter or fixed gear rider. Rook Cycles is also the official exclusive South African dealer for Super73, Cinelli, and Thousand Helmets.
Story by Luke Godfrey - Edited and Crafted by Andrew Thompson