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Life Begins at 40

We celebrate the 40th birthday of a thriving bike shop that is part museum, part cycling encyclopaedia, a great contributor to British bike racing history, but one with a very bright future.

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Andy Jones

The back streets of a former mining town, Maltby in South Yorkshire, hide a rich slice of cycling history. It’s a bike shop like bike shops used to be, one you’d be forgiven for thinking is frozen in time, but you’d be wrong. Universal Cycle Centre might be celebrating its 40th birthday this week, but its owner has plans and he is bang on trend. He always has been.

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The trend is retro bikes. Events like Eroica have created huge interest in steel bikes from a bygone age, and back when Universal was one of the biggest and best bike shops in Britain, serving a thriving British racing and club scene, its owner Dave Marsh spotted the retro boom before it happened. That’s for later though, let’s go back to how it started.

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“My dad, Joe set me off in cycling. He ran the cycling club in Dinnington where we lived and I was surrounded by bikes for as far back as I can remember. I didn’t just ride them, I wanted to know how they worked and how to work on them. I learned from my dad, he even started me wheel building when I was nine or ten years old. He built wheels, so one day he gave me an old pair, told me to strip them down into spokes rims and hubs, then rebuild them. He showed me the basics and watched me do it, explaining bits along the way,” Marsh remembers.

Total immersion
A passion was born. Marsh joined Dinnington Racing Club, and as well as learning more about bikes he started competing. He had a long and successful time doing so too, winning national medals and racing well into his masters’ years, but racing wasn’t enough, Dave wanted total immersion.

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“My dad knew the owner of Carlton Cycles in Worksop, Gerald O’Donovan, very well and when I left school he got me a job there. Gerald was a bike design genius really. He came up with some very new ideas, but they were always practical and well thought out. Gerald eventually led Raleigh’s special bike development team, the SBDU, the place where the bikes for TI-Raleigh were made.  

Image of DaveMarshBikeShopGerald was good to me, and always a big influence. When I set up my bike shop, one of the first things I did was sponsor riders. Gerald really believed in that, he said it was the best way to show off your bikes. It was what his dad, ‘Don’ O’Donovan did soon after taking over running Carlton Cycles for its original owner. Don sponsored Shake Earnshaw to ride the first of the legendary Carlton Flyers, and later on Carlton had a pro team. I did that with my bike shop, as soon as we started producing bikes I sponsored riders to show them at races.”

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, again. Dave’s cycling education continued when he came under the wing of the head of Carlton’s wheel department, Ted Rimmington. “Ted was a real expert. He didn’t just build bike wheels either, he built spoked wheels for cars and motor cycles as well. Ted taught me all the ways to lace the spokes; tangential, Spanish, Continental, there are a good few more, too. Then he taught me how to build them, and I just carried on from there,” Marsh says.

He learned quickly and earned the trust of his bosses. When still a teenager Marsh was given the job of assembling the Carlton pro team's bikes for the likes of Wes Mason, Arthur Metcalfe and Brian Jolly. "The riders couldn't believe it, this teenager sorting their bikes out for them," Marsh remembers. He made a big impression, and soon Dave was given the job of team mechanic at races. That's a pressure environment, but a great grounding.

New business
All he learned at Carltons was put to good use when Dave started his own business, which is what he always wanted to do. The opportunity came at the start of 1980. “After a succession of strikes at Carltons I got fed up and decided to do it. My wife Liz and I found the perfect shop on the main street through Maltby. We’d bought a house in Maltby after we got married, so it was ideal.

“I put in my notice at Carlton, and we were just getting ready to set up the shop when the estate agent dropped a bombshell. They’d let the shop to somebody else. Luckily a friend of Liz’s told us that somebody with an empty shop on Manor Road wanted to rent it out, so we got that and after hours of work, especially from my dad and a friend called Dave Ward, we opened there on April 20th, 1980. The rest is history,” he says modestly. In truth the rest was hard graft, knowledge, helpfulness, love of cycling, spotting trends and shear business nous.

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“I took the name Universal for the shop because Dinnington Racing Club was in a long-standing sponsorship agreement, one of the first for UK cycling clubs, with a local company called Universal Contractors. Thing is, at that time we were only allowed two lines of advertising on clothing, so we put 'Universal' on the top line, with 'cycle centre' in little letters after it, and 'Contractors' directly underneath 'Universal'. I wasn’t getting publicity for free though. I sponsored the club with bikes and kit,” Dave points out. Choosing Universal showed business nous, but it wasn’t all for personal gain; pride in the club his family had so much to do with played a part.

“I was proud of Dinnington Racing Club, so I wanted good riders in it. We’d had riders who won some big races before, but through sponsorship I got more to join, and Dinnington won more,” Dave says. Boy did they win more; 37 national titles if you include those awarded by the TLI and LVRC as well as British Cycling (BC). Five Dinnington club members were selected to ride the Commonwealth Games, while Neil Miller and Rob Coull were set to represent Team GB at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. A crash in French stage race put Miller out, but Coull went.

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“Rob Coull was my first customer,” Marsh remembers. “He was from this area and joined the Dinnington club, so did Steve Denton. That was when I started designing bike frames and having them built. The one I did for Steve was a time trial special with track drop-outs that had a gear hanger, and it was built in very light Ishiwata 017 tubing. I did him a track bike too, built with Columbus Air tubing, which was quite revolutionary. We had cycling federations from other countries trying to buy that. We did track bikes with 24-inch front wheels after the Americans started using them in the early 80s. I had special aero helmets made when they came out, we were always doing cutting edge stuff for our riders.”

On the back of this racing success Marsh started designing and producing a range of frames for club riders to buy, among them one of the first made with Reynolds 753 tubing. At its height several models of Dave Marsh bike, ranging from standard Reynolds 531 double-butted to 753 tubing, were produced at a rate of about 500 per year. The likes of Wayne Randle, John Tanner, Matthew Charity, Alistair Wood, Julian Ramsbottom, Stuart Morris, Dean and Russell Downing and Chris Walker, all members of Dinnington RC, were winning on them, and lots of club riders bought them

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“Chris Walker even worked for me for a while, which was confusing because we had two Chris Walkers in the shop; one was my permanent assistant and the other went on to win the Milk Race and the British Road Race Championships,” Marsh points out. And because he had help in the shop Dave started racing again, and he started winning.

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“I thought when I started the shop I’d stopped racing, which I was happy with. I’d had a good run and I wanted to focus on the business. But then one year I went on a training camp to Mallorca and ended up getting quite a few miles in. I came back really fit and when we went out I found could keep up with the good local riders, so I had another go at racing. In the end I raced until I was well into my fifties. It kept me in touch with the sport I suppose, and I could do it because I had help with the shop and with the racing team by then. Alan Geldard, who was a British national coach, helped me a lot with the team. I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for helping me over the years,” Marsh adds thoughtfully.

The future
There’s a lot of history behind that modest shop front on Manor Road, Maltby, and we’ve only scratched the surface of it here. A whole book’s worth of history is left untold, but as he celebrates his bike shop’s 40th birthday, Dave Marsh is looking forward to fulfilling the needs of a growing market, both in the shop and through his new website; www.classiccyclesandmemorabilia.uk It was a market he anticipated as it started.

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“It was back in the early 1990s, really. A lot of shops were taking bikes in part exchange, stripping the old stuff off then fitting new Ergo or STI group-sets and selling the bikes. But I thought there’s still a market for that old stuff, and the shops wanted to get rid of it, so I bought the old stuff off them, cleaned it all up and sold it at bike jumbles. I sold a lot of it, too. So much that I started looking further afield. I went to Belgium with my friend Kenny Downing, Russ and Dean’s dad, and we started bringing old stuff back from the bike shops there. We went a few times, and I think they thought we were mad but I just felt that interest in this stuff would grow, although not as much as it has done. That was a surprise.

“And it wasn’t just bike bits. I bought frames, bikes and retro clothing. I’d already sold loads of kit through the shop for the Belgian manufacturer, Nico Sport. So much clothing that they let us use the name Nico Sport North for that side of the business. Nico Sport gave me first refusal on any excess clothing they wanted to shift. They made the jerseys for several of the big European six-day races, and I must have bought hundreds of those jerseys. I just went around collecting jerseys, as well as bikes, frames and equipment. I’ve got so much now I want to sell it, and the best way is to do that nowadays is put it on-line, which we are doing with my new website, www.classiccyclesandmemorabilia.uk

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I can reach more people that way, and there is interest in retro bikes and clothing from all over the world.  People still come to the shop, which is great because I love meeting people and I still love just talking about bikes. Bikes and cycling have been my life really,” Marsh says.

With so many bike shops, individuals and chains, disappearing at the moment, it’s nice to reflect on a story about a successful business built on deep knowledge and a love of bikes. Universal Cycle Centre has survived by adapting, by its owner keeping an open mind and having an ability to spot, even pre-empt trends. All successful business people have those traits, Dave Marsh has them in spades. He’s also got some glorious retro stuff to sell. Keep your eye on the nest big chapter of cycling bike story, www.classiccyclesandmemorabilia.uk because new items go on it every day, and they will be for some time to come. And when this period of social isolation is over, why not come on down and visit Dave at the shop? Corner of Manor Road, Maltby; right?

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