Fox has been with the orange giants with their ‘new car smell’ for around two and a half years, explaining her role – she says: “Effectively I look after all the buying, marketing, ecommerce, digital – corporate affairs, PR – anything that isn’t store operations, finance or human resources sits with me. I can have quite an influence across the business which is what attracted me from my previous position."
I do remember at the age of 12 getting a second hand boys racer for my birthday, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic – it gave me my sense of independence.
That’s a lot to take care of, and we’re pleased to hear that with such a strong influence over the company, Fox also brings with her a love of cycling, though she did take an extended break at the dawn of adulthood. She tells us: “Originally I lived on a farm, miles away from anywhere. I do remember at the age of 12 getting a second hand boys racer for my birthday, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic – it gave me my sense of independence. I would go and visit friends maybe 8 miles away, along the A6, which is quite a busy road and not think anything of it. Then I stopped riding, as often you do when you’re in your 20s."
That wasn’t the end of her love affair with the bike, though – Fox got back in the saddle when she and her husband moved to Canada and met up with a group of ex-pats who all liked to ride: “My hubby had done some road cycling previously, so we bought bikes and joined in," she tells me.
Back in the UK, next up was initiation via British Cycling’s women’s arm – Breeze – an organisation Fox has ensured are supported by Halfords with Breeze mechanic events held in stores and the retailer helping out with bike concerns at events. She then went on to ride the Women V Cancer ‘Ride the Night’ event with a group of friends, later moving on to the Breeze ride in Warwick which covered 100km – her longest expedition yet.
I like the sense of camaraderie from riding women’s events, there’s all shapes and sizes. I just feel like mixed sportives might be a bit too competitive.
All of the events Fox has ridden at have been women’s only rides- the spirit of the events appeals to her more – she says: “It sounds slightly trite, it’s not meant to, but I like the sense of camaraderie from riding women’s events, there’s all shapes and sizes, you look at the bikes and you wonder how anyone could get round the course on it… but they make it! They must be so fit to get up a hill on some sort of huge steel monstrosity or sit up and beg bike! I know some of these women would feel like they had wings if they rode a light road bike! I just feel like mixed sportives might be a bit too competitive - or a bit too against the clock which isn’t what I’m cycling for."
I have to ask what she is cycling for – and Fox says: “Halfords have a cycling club and we go out during the summer… it’s great, we just chat, get to know each other better… I speak to people [in the business] that I don’t normally have the chance to chat to, and that’s what I love, just the social aspect. And the chance to clear your mind, it’s like the ‘mindfulness’ thing, except you’re doing it on a bike. Chatting, getting fresh air, you come back with rosy cheeks and a sense of achievement. That’s why I do it."
Encouraging more of us to feel that sense of achievement is important to Fox – she says: “I passionately believe in women in cycling – genuinely, I think the more women you can get on bikes, particularly mums, the more families you’ll get out. More women out is just good for everyone. You often see the Dad’s out, and they’ll often go out on their own because they want to go fast with their heads down on a Sunday. I just think if mums can go out on a tow path or in a park it's a start."
So – what is Fox actually doing about it? She’s starting with ensuring there are more women’s bikes in stores, as well as helping women find the right saddles. She also believes campaigning to make cycling feel safer, such as the work Chris Boardman (who works with the store on Boardman Bikes) does is necessary to the growth.
One of the first things I remarked on when I joined Halfords was ‘where’s the women’s range?’
She tells me: “One of the first things I remarked on when I joined Halfords was ‘where’s the women’s range?’. Then I chatted to British Cycling and said ‘I think there’s an increase in women cycling, is that right, is it what you’re seeing?’ and obviously they’ve got their big drive to get 1 million more women riding by 2020… so I knew there was a real business opportunity which is why we’ve gone about increasing ranges. And it’s not just about new ranges, it’s putting them into greater distribution, and adding mirrors so women can see what a jersey looks like if they pop it on in store - thinking like the customer. And the guys in the team are completely on board with it, they can see there’s a real commercial opportunity, the market is growing and it just makes perfect sense."
Now, not all the Boardman, 13 and Voodoo mountain bikes are available in a women's version, especially at the top end, but there are a lot more options.
It’s like shoes, handbags – why wouldn’t women want a beautiful bike?
Halfords bought the Boardman brand in 2014 and as well as introducing their own brand 13 bikes with women’s models they’re also offering high end women’s bikes in the shape of the Boardman Elite range, which includes time trial bikes and disc brake road bikes from £2,599. She says initially questions were asked about the idea of adding the women’s bikes – explaining: “They [some of the team] were asking ‘will women spend that much money?’ and we [other members] were saying ‘yes, why wouldn’t they?’. Actually there are many affluent women who would like to spend money on a beautiful bike - so why wouldn’t we give them a range to choose from? It’s like shoes, handbags – why wouldn’t women want a beautiful bike?"
Fox doesn’t expect the Elite women’s bikes to fly off the shelves with immediate effect – she says: “I don’t expect sales to be huge – they’re very expensive bikes – but I do expect women to say ‘if I wanted to buy one, I could do, because it’s there’."
At the listening groups with women it seemed that those riding sportives were very happy on the male Boardman bike.
Fox has sat in on a fair few listening groups run by Halfords, and she and Chris Boardman (who we discussed the issue with separately) aren’t convinced all women need to be choosing from the female specific range – Fox says: “At the listening groups with women it seemed that those riding sportives were very happy on the male Boardman bike, and had done tons of research on what they should buy."
Asked how she justifies offering women's bikes if not everyone believes the geometry makes a big differance outside of handlebar and saddle choice, she says: "The women’s range is there, but it comes down to personal choice - sometimes it just comes down to colour. Customers look at budget and spec, then maybe they choose just based on colour. And actually if they see a blokes bike they prefer the look of, then they change the stem or saddle."
With plenty of bikes on the market for women, what else does Fox think is holding women back? She says: “I think the prime reason is safety. I think women worry more about safety on the road, and feeling confident on the road, turning right and so on - that’s what we’ve heard at all the listening groups we’ve done. It’s a sort of barrier to them getting out, getting them onto tow paths and that sort of thing is such a good start.
"When I was 12, I probably had more confidence that I do now. I’m relearning now, but safety is a barrier. We need that lobbying from people like Chris (Boardman) but it needs to be carried out in the sensible, level headed way he approaches it."
Halfords have carried out road safety workshops with children, and Fox would like to run them with adults in the future. The other barrier for women, she believes, is saddle discomfort. Fox tells the story of her own struggles, quickly resolved – saying: “The first saddle I had, I went out and I was really uncomfortable… I went back in to this little independent and said I was uncomfy, they measured my sit bones and said ‘oh, well you need this saddle’ and I’ve been fine since – it’s such an easy piece if kit to use and makes a huge difference."
Not all women are as confident in asking for help as Fox – she says: “I was in a Halfords store once, next to this tall lanky lad in his early 20s. A lady came in and she was looking very uncomfortable, almost shifty. She obviously wanted to speak to me, so I took her aside and she said: ‘I’ve just bought a bike from you, and I’m riding it round town and its really painful!’. So I said we’d change saddle. She was so amazed and so happy that we could do that! She didn’t want to talk to the young lad."
"Safety and saddles are the order of the day, then?" I ask – and Fox replies: “Yes! It’s about safety and saddles! The two s’."
We like the two s' mantra - and we hope to see the store carrying on its work with Breeze, and doing more to address the two major barriers, as well as offering more women's bikes and a better retail experience in the future.