Never too old to enter the MTB sphere
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast here on Old Mutual Live. It’s wonderful to have you with us as we explore this beautiful sport from every angle. We speak to riders, we speak to trail builders, event organisers and we speak to everyone who has a passion for this great sport of mountain biking.
Today we’re going to speak to someone who has a passion for this sport of mountain biking, perhaps a little late in his life. He’s found this passion and like so many and I think we’ve met a few on our podcast over the last couple of months, who have turned this passion into their business and their life. Chris Norton who has now got a wonderful shop in Stellenbosch called BMT, But Mountain Biking. Chris, thanks for joining us, wasn’t your first sport was it?
Chris Norton: No, I actually arrived in Stellenbosch as a rugby player and that’s where the whole sporting story in Stellenbosch for me started. After overstaying my welcome at the rugby club for many years, needed another sport to get into. It started off with triathlon and Ironman and after the rugby knees gave up, then it became mountain biking, so that’s where we are now.
Why mountain biking is a good fit for rugby players
GDK: That’s a path trodden by many rugby players over the years, just for that particular scenario. What is it about mountain biking that makes it accessible and a sport to go to for the rugby players?
CN: I think the issue is it’s a very welcoming sport. It’s not seen to be an individual sport, there’s a lot of team events and stories like that. I think a lot of the rugby players enjoy the outdoors of mountain biking, of the camaraderie of mountain biking. The fact that in many events, it’s a team sport. It’s not an individual type of getaway and the camaraderie in the events is fantastic.
GDK: And they’re able to push themselves into pretty dark places, something they’re maybe used to when playing rugby.
CN: Correct and I think for many of us who played rugby, we probably made contact with the earth many times in mountain biking. It’s probably the closest thing to a contact sport in many respects. I think the guys enjoy the challenge of it, the technical aspect of mountain biking. The fact that you can really push yourself, as you said, into dark places and train probably even harder than what we did as rugby players.
GDK: That’s a journey that’s fairly well trodden, one sport to the other. You’ve made quite a quantum leap in terms of business as well, from boardrooms and corporate business to running a shop. It’s a cycle shop, but it’s essentially a mountain bike shop in many ways. There’s not too many things other than mountain biking here, so that’s quite a big step. What made you take that?
Dropping corporate life to run BMT
CN: Basically, I was the sales manager for a big medical scheme, Fed Health. I was really entrenched in the corporate world, but at the same time, BMT was my side passion. It was a business that was growing on the side and as the business grew, so it needed somebody to come into the business. It just got too big to leave it on its own.
It was a great decision for my family because I was doing a lot of travelling. I was in Jo’burg for two weeks at a time. So I jumped into the business and with my poor long-suffering wife’s blessing, I came into the business and I haven’t looked back and it’s been fantastic. It’s really been a growing business, it’s been supported by the wider Stellenbosch community and I’ve really enjoyed it. It continues to grow.
GDK: That’s interesting because it’s a great growth sport and also Stellenbosch is well renowned as one of the great mountain bike destinations. But there are other players in your field here, competitive enough, how do you see the market here?
CN: I think just in terms, that’s a very good question because you’ve got to grow with the times. You’ve got to grow with the business and we’ve kind of branched off into many aspects of the business. It’s not only mountain biking.
We’ve also got a big triathlon element. We’ve got a big duathlon element. We’re doing skills training with the Paul Roos children. Our Head of Workshop, Mark Bassingthwaighte is an Olympic Cyclist. He’s doing a lot of training and skills training with the children, with individuals.
Then we’re also now branching into other aspects of biking, like eBike. We’ve suddenly found that a lot of people are buying eBikes. A lot of people, I think, are going to get into cyclo-cross. There’s all sorts of parts of the biking industry that haven’t been touched in this country yet and really growing. I think in terms of mountain biking, we’re going to see a lot of off-shoots of the business. Cyclo-cross, eBikes, all that sort of thing is growing and we’re growing with it. So that’s really where I see the business going.
GDK: A lot of people who start a bike shop are cyclists or sportsmen, but you bring a sense of business acumen to it. Do you think that’s an advantage to you here?
CN: I think definitely, you’ve got to look at world trends. You’ve got to see where things are going. Female biking is exploding, so you’ve got to cater for that. You need to understand bike fit and that’s why we’ve got a biokineticist now in the shop, with an SRM bike that does a proper bike fit. So you’ve got to look at the trends in the business, see where the thing is going.
It’s not just like in the old days where you just jumped on a bike and pedalled. Now you’ve got to understand body geometry, how that fits into biking. Different bikes for different people, does a person want a trail bike? Do they want to race? So there’s huge aspects to the business and you really do need to understand where this thing is going.
Personal relationships with your clients is important
GDK: It’s a smallish community compared to Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, and quite a personal community, particularly the mountain biking here. So building those personal relationships, do you go on morning rides, do you have club rides, that type of thing?
CN: Basically what we’ve done, we’ve got group rides that go off every morning. We’ve got a road ride and it’s always with a safety van. I think, obviously, people at the moment are really worried about road safety. So we’ve always got the van behind and security. If you’re riding in a group, then at least you know that the likelihood of something bad happening is down to a minimum.
Then also mountain bike rides from the shop as well. We do both and we’re also doing a lot of tours now. For corporate clients and for people who just want to get out. They can come and rent bikes with us, we can take them on the road, a mountain bike tour, even a wine tour on bikes; which has become really popular. We do town tours.
We’re using a local lady, Hannlie Hill, who is a registered tour guide. So if people just want to go and explore the town on a bike, Hannlie is there to take them around. Or if they want to do mountain, road or even a wine tour on bikes, which is great, we’re available.
GDK: You started out your shop in a different venue, position is so important, isn’t it?
CN: Absolutely. We started off in Dorp Street and a lot of people who come and visit the town have a quiet chuckle because they say, you were just a small square, which we were. We’ve gradually grown into half of the centre, as the business has grown. Dorp Street is really important. It’s like the main thoroughfare into Stellenbosch. It’s where a lot of the tourists are. So we’ll never move.
Dorp Street is growing dramatically. We’ve got all the restaurants, our oldest pub in town has been redone, probably most important. So Dorp Street is really becoming fantastic and a lot of the tourists are saying it’s becoming like Europe. There’s a café on every corner and we’ve just built our own next door as well, so we’ve got good coffee. I think the street is growing with the business.
Great to be immersed with such great riding
GDK: It’s a broad business, you’re touching on every facet of the sport. We talked about you moving from rugby to mountain biking. I know you’ve just completed another Epic this year, you’re riding more than you did when you were in the boardrooms?
CN: Absolutely. I think in the boardroom I was lucky enough to have a job where part of it was entertaining clients and actually going on trips and doing things like that. I did do quite a bit of riding, but definitely now that I’m in the shop I’m doing more riding than ever.
The Epic was a fantastic experience and I think people like Glen Haw as well, with joBerg2c and Sani and all the stuff that he puts together. The sport is just growing with so many events. With Still Water around here as well, it’s just fantastic. There’s truckloads of events that are happening and it’s really exciting times. I think just as the sport grows, so the events are growing and there’s something to do every weekend.
GDK: Are you find that transferring to good business, are people buying bikes and parts and so on?
CN: It’s definitely not slowing down. We are finding there are different trends at different times of the year. So summer there is quite a lot of road biking. Obviously as the Argus approaches, then a lot of road biking happens. Around winter, obviously the mountain biking then is massive. Even through winter, even through the rainy times, we’re still finding a monstrous amount of people doing mountain biking and buying the bikes.
GDK: The community around Stellenbosch, and obviously there’s a well-known community upliftment scheme going on in Kayamandi that has been set up. But there’s a need here isn’t there, and cycling does play a role?
Using bikes to try help communities grow
CN: There’s a massive need there and what we’ve done is we’ve teamed up with Qhubeka and we’ve put bicycles into Kayamandi. We work very closely with the school in Kayamandi called Vision Africa. We’ve just put 50 bikes into Vision Africa.
Our plan there is to get local kids, to train those kids how to ride bikes, road safety, etc. The bike has become an incentive. Instead of just giving people things, which we don’t believe in. What’s happened is the child must earn that bike. He needs to attend school, he needs to do community work, he needs to come and do work at the school. His marks need to be good and he needs to have attendance.
If he ticks all the boxes, he then earns his bike within, or she earns her bike within six months, and we’ve got another child that’s mobile. That’s going to become an entrepreneur with that vehicle. We believe it’s a really exciting way of encouraging people, making them better and Qhubeka a fantastic organisation. Putting these bikes into these previously disadvantaged schools.
GDK: There’s a trend in the bike retail space for shops to specialise in one particular brand, what’s your model?
CN: Our model is generally we’ve gone with a couple of brands. We’re currently with Trek and Yeti at the moment. We’ve just branched into eBikes with BH, so we’ve got quite a lot of choice. In terms of the other brands we’ve got in the shop, we’ve got everything basically in terms of apparel.
So we believe in choice and I think that’s how the business has really grown. As we’ve got more choice into the shop, so people want that. I think gone are the days of people expecting to buy one product in a shop. We follow trends of our customers, so we often ask them what would they like. They give us feedback and so we buy the product according to their needs.
Chris’ favourite local trail
GDK: You’ve got so many trails in Stellenbosch as a rider, some on your doorstep, some you have to ride a bit. If someone said take this trail with you to heaven, which one would it be around Stellenbosch?
CN: I think Stellenbosch Trail Fund has done an amazing job around Eden and around Coetzenburg. We never used to have proper trails around that area. Now you can just ride straight from town into Coetzenburg, into Eden and into Paradyskloof.
So it really is stunning for a visitor who wants to just travel around here. Then again there’s also Jonkershoek which is a little bit of a travel out of town, but it’s not too bad. Jonkershoek trails are fantastic. I think between the two of them, there really are growing trails.
People are putting money into it and I think just around the Trail Fund it’s been fantastic. Because it’s a community based project, it’s a non-profit organisation and it’s basically saying to people, put the money in and we’ll build great trails and maintain them for you. Things are growing and developing.
GDK: Right, you’ve done the big Epic this year, what’s next on your riding list?
CN: Next on the riding list for this year in Tour de Tuli again. Always a fantastic trip, not a race, just a tour. You have to try and get through the evening, so make sure you take a lot of Essentiale with you. But the riding is spectacular.
Riding through Zimbabwe and Botswana is a complete privilege, the animals that you get to see are phenomenal. The people that you get to meet, it’s a typical mountain biking event where the camaraderie is unbelievable. You get to meet different people from all walks of life and really a fantastic trip, so that’s my next one.
GDK: Good luck with that and well done here and good luck in what is still a relatively new venture for you.
CN: Absolutely, I think with the change in brand and with the way things are expanding, it’s definitely a new business and it’s a growing business and it’s very exciting to be part of it.
GDK: Chris Norton who is now the man who owns BMT here in Dorp Street in Stellenbosch. Everything you might need or think you don’t need, it’s all here in BMT. A passionate man about life and about mountain biking, come pay them a visit. Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, until next time, cheers.