Bonding over bicycles: from Quest to collaboration

Open Quest stories

Leaders’ Quest

07 May 2019

In 2015, Helen Hopper, founder of business consultancy HCubed, met Jim Blakemore, founder of NGO Bikeworks, on our India Quest. They bonded over a mutual love of cycling, and their friendship continues to bear fruit – for clients and community. We caught up with them to hear their news…

It was a hot, dry evening in Mumbai. The LQ bus had an airplane feel to it – dimmed lights, the darkness outside throwing reflections on the windows, the hum of soft conversation. The group – about 30 in all – was on its way to the historical splendour of Jaipur, for the movement experience of 5Rhythms in the Desert.

This was Helen Hopper’s first Quest, and she felt a school coach flashback as she picked a window seat. “Who’ll sit next to me? Will they like me?” A moment later, she was joined by Jim Blakemore. He had a headache, so they kept intros brief, but it turned out they had something in common. A fanatical interest in cycling.

Jim runs Bikeworks, a London NGO that gets vulnerable Londoners onto two wheels. It mentors them, builds their confidence, teaches them teamwork, offers them vital social interaction, and even finds them job placements as bike mechanics.

Helen used to cycle competitively, and her husband rode in the Caribbean Cup. That’s one of the things about going on a Quest, says Helen. It reminds you of things you used to do, before you became a mother, daughter, wife or business consultant. A Quest is about being there as the person you really are. Talking about incredible subjects, meeting incredible people. Stepping out of your bubble.

Helen and Jim found they had another thing in common: they both have a lot of ideas, and they like to get things done. It’s more than networking. It’s about trying something to see what happens. Says Helen: “Things come to life; it’s surprisingly easy to do.”

As they chatted, Helen kept thinking “Jim has done something useful.” She started wondering about her client list at her business consultancy, HCubed… and about synergy.

A few months later, they reconnected when HCubed held its annual party at London members’ club and homeless charity, The House of St Barnabas. As a hundred or so clients and friends mingled, disadvantaged young people were being trained in hospitality – in real time. To close the event, Jim gave a five-minute talk about Bikeworks.

“A classic win-win case,” says Helen. “Most of my clients had been stuck in the office all day and they couldn’t get enough of Jim talking about getting stuff done!”

This was the start of a fruitful collaboration. Over the last 18 months, two of Helen’s clients have come to Bikeworks for team building with a difference. A global accounting firm held a senior manager milestone event, honing high-performance leadership skills such as motivating, inspiring, coaching and feedback. They spent time bike-building (producing 10 brand new bikes, which they donated to a charity of their choice), and forging group trust by doing some blindfold cycling!

The Bank of England held an offsite at Bikeworks’ east London premises. This was a great way for senior leaders to experience the economic realities of the communities on their doorstep. And Helen herself pitched in, donating a free day of strategy advice for Jim and his team.

Cut to a chill day in early 2019, and we’ve come to the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, where a skyline of cranes is testament to the regeneration projects fulfilling the 2012 Games’ legacy. Jim recently moved his NGO into the 6,000 seat, Pringle-shaped Lee Valley Velodrome (part of the Olympic Velopark). Inside, he shows us Bikeworks’ immaculate basement workshop, lined with rows of tools and an assortment of pristine bikes, neatly racked under neon light. (Jim’s bikes always get special treatment. He stores his personal collection – of 13 – in a concrete bunker under his garden.)

Over coffee, Helen and Jim swap stories overlooking the 250 metre, Siberian Pine cycle track – the fastest in the world. Jim’s adamant about the need to broaden the base reached by British Cycling and Sport England. He’s about to roll out a new learning disability employment programme, after a successful 3-month pilot which saw volunteers spend two days a week helping disabled adults learn bike mechanic skills.

He’s also been busy encouraging local elder care charities to cycle in the park – many of them coming from Hackney day centres. On the corporate front, he’s especially proud that his crew has been chosen to provide technical support to the 700 riders joining PWC’s forthcoming Ride the Nation charitable cycle challenge.

Helen’s keen to involve more of her clients. “Lots of people in organisations want to add some purpose to their work life,” she says, “but they don’t know how to go about it. Jim has 1001 fantastic ideas, so I’m helping him with practical connections.” She’s suggested a few names to help expand his Board line-up and, hopefully, sign up a new sponsor (Barclays recently concluded their successful partnership, and Bikeworks is currently around 98% self-funded).

True to form, as they spoke, they bounced ideas off each other, before it was time for Helen to head back to Kent. Outside, they said their goodbyes as the wind whipped around the space-age Velodrome.

From humid Mumbai to starlit Rajasthan to the windswept Velodrome…it’s all about who you know – and how you make things happen.