The Freewheelin’ Nils Hansen

Meet the dude behind Woodstock Cycleworks

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

There’s so much muck on Nils Hansen’s hands that he offers up an elbow by way of greeting, because despite all of the elbow grease he puts in at his shop, Woodstock Cycleworks, it manifests mainly in dirty hands. That and beautiful bicycles.

Five years ago Nils started his own business focusing on his passion for bicycles. Then, having grown too large for the original studio on Woodstock main road, Woodstock Cycleworks moved into a warehouse in Searle Street, which is a much more suitable space for these builders of bicycles and promoters of pedal-power.

Specialising in the servicing, restoration and customization of older bikes, Nils and his team breathe new life into the type of bicycle you might have gathering dust in your grandpa’s garage.

Along with 80 bicycles Nils has filled the warehouse with a Lotus Esprit that once belonged to Theo Crous, a second generation VW Sirocco that’s been everything from a DJ booth to a terrarium and is now serving as a filing cabinet, a Yamaha XT 500 café racer build that he just can’t find the time to finish properly and there are two other scramblers, too. Bicycle parts are shelved, boxed, piled and hanging from the rafters. Forget finding a needle in a haystack, a man could spend his life searching for his number 10 spanner in here.

“It’s just a Lotus body,” says Nils, using the same explanation that he probably uses on his wife whenever he brings something else home. “I don’t pay car installments, so if I can buy something at the right price and it’s going to keep it’s value, or I can possibly sell it for more, then I will buy it. I’m a bit of a hustler.”

Because Nils can’t resist a bargain and is equally bad at getting rid of things, his workspace is somewhat chaotic. Which is just the way he likes it. He knows how to operate in a space like this and there’s some sort of method to the madness. F’rinstance, the frames hanging from the rafters range from smallest to largest, then there’s a row of forks, cogs stacked on spindles, a tower of tyres, pedals in a box, a pile of parts that will be donated to farmworkers in the winelands…

“The problem is that since we moved here we haven’t really had a chance to organize things as much as we initially would’ve liked to. We started working with a basic idea of where everything had to be and have had to roll with that. It’s definitely workable though. There’s a flow here. Another problem is that I don’t throw anything away. You can always use an old tyre or tube. I just can’t stand something going to waste. Which is why I have so much stuff.”

The bikes hanging from the roof trusses are not for sale, and are for Nils’ retirement when he’ll one day open up a bicycle museum, work on the Lotus and put a lot more time in the saddle. Right now he drives around in the same car he bought for 20k ten years ago, because who needs a fancy car when you live in Cape Town and have your very own bicycle shed filled with objects of desire?

“Lets just say a quarter of the bikes here are not for sale. There’s too much history. Too many stories. Like, if you give me 20 grand for that (points at a Peugeot), for me it’s a lot nicer to have that bike hanging there and for people to be able to look at it. It’s like an investment in history. I’m happy to take a knock for that.”

With six bicycles in high rotation, Nils cycles everywhere and even when he’s not trying to get from A to B, will do a mountain ride on a Tuesday, a ride to Camps Bay and back on a Thursday and has started every single Saturday at Woodstock Cycleworks with a coffee ride prior to opening up shop.

What’s most surprising is that despite the fixies and pushing this new cool commuter culture, Nils isn’t your archetypal hipster. No beard, no tattoos and at time of interview he’s playing some much too loud new-agey meditative trance music, the type of thing you’d get a massage to if the whale noise CD was missing. Nils is very diplomatic though, and won’t be baited into any hipster bashing.

“Three of four years ago, people in the know… people who follow international trends… um, high end art appreciators… they were into fixed-gear bicycles. Now it’s mainly people who want something basic and simple to maintain, because there are so many benefits to having a single speed bicycle.”

Nowadays the biggest request is for light, good-quality commuters. Bicycles where someone can cover longer distances and not have to struggle uphill as much. The more versatile the better.

“We’re doing a lot of road bike conversions with basic gears. A lot of guys want racks, something to strap their laptop or shopping bag on to. If it’s going to be a mode of transport then you have to make it work for you.”

Using your bicycle as a primary form of transport is a large part of the Woodstock Cycleworks ethos, because besides approaching each bike as an opportunity to make something beautiful, promoting bicycling and making it as inclusive, safe and approachable as possible is also the aim here. Commuter culture is all about changing your lifestyle, and while our cities are becoming more commuter friendly, with growing infrastructure and respect of non-motorised road users, Nils thinks that what we’ve seen in Cape Town has been a nice gesture, but is ultimately a bit of a fail.

“Those cycle lanes in town and Woodstock are like applying a first world solution to a third world problem. We don’t have enough awareness. People aren’t compassionate or educated enough. I’m sending two emails a week telling council that they’ve wasted their money on those bike lanes if they’re not going to maintain, clean and police them… I do think the lanes from Table View are crucial and it’s great how people can jump on and get straight through to town, but the rest I won’t ride.”

Bike lanes or not, Nils can’t understand how people who are living and working in the city would ever choose to use a car, especially given our traffic and parking shituation. He says that by giving yourself enough time and dressing for bicycling then it’s the far better option.

“I got into bicycling much later in life, maybe teens, and it’s a cliché, but its true, just how much freedom a bike gives you. From building ramps and hopping over steams and crashing into trees... I’ve always just really loved riding a bicycle. Even riding home every evening, which is only two kilometers away, I still get such a big kick out of it.”

Along with Nils’ dirty hands there’s an ugly mark on the shop’s otherwise clean reputation. Instead of asking us not to mention any of this in our piece, Nils agrees to pose with the newspaper screamer he pulled from a streetlamp and then proffers his side of a story that was somewhat one-sided in the reporting.

“I’d got back from a morning ride and had just showered and was walking around with a towel around my waist when I saw that there were two guys in my shop waiting with a bicycle. We weren’t open yet, they’d come through the service gate, so I said cool, just wait, and went to go get dressed…”

The following day was supposed to be the biggest coup of Nils’ career, and for weeks he’d been prepping to host a half a million rand event for a leading sunglasses brand.

“I came back and told the guys that we were too busy, that we couldn’t taken any more bikes, so please would they try BMC. They were fine with that and as they were leaving I complimented their bike, which was a super unique Royal Mail bike, saying that I’d seen the same bicycle riding around Woodstock.”

Two hours later the Woodstock Cycleworks Facebook feed was blowing up, there were calls from the DA and City of Cape Town and the disgruntled customer’s tirade became front-page news.

“Lessons learned,” shrugs Nils. “At least I can still go to sleep at night knowing that I didn’t do anything wrong. Racist is the furthest thing from what I am. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. And we’re still standing, so…”

Despite this incident and the fact that if Nils had stuck with his previous job as an industrial designer he would be earning double what he is now, working shorter hours and having Saturdays to himself, he still thinks he’s made the right choice and that he’s living the dream.

“If I can pay the bills, put food on the table and buy a few bicycles every now and again, I’m happy.”

The best thing about the maker movement is that it changes how you think about your work, why you work, what you make and who you work for. When your work is a gift, your goal is no longer to satisfy a boss or earn a paycheck, instead you work to fulfill yourself and in turn give someone a piece of yourself. The result here - bikes so beautiful you could almost be forgiven for hanging one on the wall instead of riding it. Almost.