Posted: Fri 11th May 2012
"I can ride 100 miles no problem but I can't walk half a mile without being in a lot of pain," sighs Chris Puttnam, founder of cycle-clothing company Velobici. "With cycling, I can feel great for the rest of the day. But if I walk, I feel bad for the rest of the day." Like a small number of people in the UK, Chris suffers from ankylising spondylitis, an auto-immune disease that causes vertebrae to fuse together. Like an even smaller number, it's led to a variety of associated conditions, including iritis (inflammation of the eye), bronchitis and - because of the anti-inflammatory drugs he took for years to treat his back pain before a proper diagnosis - colitis. The colitis was so severe, in fact, that Chris had to have his colon removed in 2008. He already suspected he may have to give up the hard graft of the double glazing business he had started as a teenager. But 80 nights in hospital over the course of three years and a major operation confirmed it. "The business was always good to me and I got a good name as far as quality was concerned," he recalls. "But I was very hands-on and it's difficult to continue with a business that you can't really be involved in like that."
Chris was at a crossroads, with what appeared to be limited choices. However, he had grown up in a family where he and his brothers were encouraged to make the most of their resources and follow their interests and talents. His father runs a knitwear factory in the Midlands; older brother David was a professional footballer who played on the wing for hometown club Leicester City, among others; younger brother Mac is a successful restaurateur in Market Bosworth, where Velobici is also based. And Chris himself, of course, had had the gumption to start a life of self-employment at just 18. "Working for myself had always seemed a natural thing to do," he explains. "I was never frightened by it or apprehensive about it. But if I were to try to work for someone else, I'd find that very, very difficult." Starting another business seemed the logical step. But what?
Chris grew up around the clothing industry and he's always loved classic cuts. In his late 20s, he discovered cycling and brought the same regard for style to his new passion. You might say he's mildly obsessive - Chris currently owns 12 bikes, all classic racers from the 70s and 80s. Most of these come from the hand of legendary Italian bikemaker Ernesto Colnago. "I love my Colnagos," he laughs. It's the fine lines and elegant styling he likes, as well as the high-grade traditional materials. Restoring them is a joy that takes vision, care and unrelenting attention to detail. More than anything, though, Chris loves to ride the lanes around Market Bosworth on a beautiful bike, in sharp kit. "Looking back at things, when I was at my poorliest the only time I could escape and feel ok was when I was riding my bike," he remembers. In a hospital bed or on a bike, time and again his mind went back to bikes and clothes, bikes and clothes. As any cyclist with a sense of style knows, the 'look' is almost as important as the bike itself. "I was thinking about things a lot. I just thought 'You know I can do something. Why don't I create a label and a brand?'. I thought about it and thought about it. I had this name - Velobici - and I thought 'Why not? What's stopping me?'. And there was nothing stopping me. "So I approached Tara Love, a knitwear designer I knew who's now my business partner. She basically said I was mad. But I needed help because even though I had a certain amount of knowledge from growing up around the knitwear industry, I didn't know the day-to-day running of a clothing business. I persuaded Tara and blindly gave it a go!"
There are a lot of cycle clothing brands emerging in what's becoming a crowded market. But Velobici is among a small handful that stand out for their quality, style and distinctive branding. Chris's concern with detail infuses everything from the designs to the choice of materials and even packaging. The company uses fine merino wool and all the clothing is manufactured close by in the Midlands. The look is classic and stylish and the clothing is designed to be cool off the bike, too. "We're about to launch a new roadwear range and we must have created 15 sets of patterns , but we're now we're now happy with the final design. We've got 25 different samples of our latest jersey," Chris reveals. "It drives Tara mad, but you see the design evolve from sample to sample and it means the finished article is fantastic because I know that I've done everything possible to make it work how I want it to work. We get a lot of repeat customers, which is fantastic, and we've only had four returns since we started 18 months ago - all for sizing, not quality. We're really pleased about that. "But it's down to the process we go through to produce the best we can before it's despatched. Even the packaging matters - you don't buy something from us that arrives in a plastic bag. It's boxed, with our logo on the box."
It appears that Chris has found his metier. The business, he says, is "like a runaway train", but it's also given him "a new lease of life". As for his condition, it flares up but is under control ("You remember the good days and try to forget about the bad days," Chris acknowledges) - and it doesn't stop him from dreaming. He has big plans to create a cycling hub around Market Bosworth - cafÃ©, a shop, a hotel, races"¦ "We're in the middle of the country here - it's such an accessible place. If you can create something that people want to come to, it could work. But it's got to be done right"¦" Simon Wicks, Enterprise Nation editor
FreeRange Friday is a celebration of homegrown businesses and the people behind them. We love to write about the inspirational, innovative and downright interesting things you do. If you have a story you'd like to contribute to Free Range Friday, then please email Simon, the Enterprise Nation editor. In the meantime, here are some previous Free Range Friday stories:
Photo credit: Lady Velo