Meet Cycle Together Founders, Biola and Kunle Babawale
Talking to Biola and Kunle Babawale, you can’t help but be swept up in their enthusiasm and positivity. It’s infectious. These two siblings, born and bred in Brixton, South London are great friends. They’ve grown closer over the years, and their travels together have solidified that friendship. Now they’ve set up Cycle Together, testing that sibling bond to the max.
“There’s radical candour between the two of us, let’s put it like that,” laughs Biola. They make a good team, there’s great synergy between them and they can cut to the chase a lot quicker without having to tiptoe around each other with niceties.
Both extremely passionate about their business and about getting more people on bikes and leading active lives, Cycle Together is Biola and Kunle’s brainchild. They both lead very busy lives and balance their new venture with full time jobs. Kunle works as a surgeon in the NHS and Biola is a sovereign strategist in an asset management firm.
When they were growing up, they certainly never thought they’d be setting up their own business together. It’s only more recently that the flame was ignited. “I definitely heard Biola talking about it a few years ago,” explains Kunle, “And I was very much encouraging her because I thought that if she does this, I can definitely join in. I never thought we would be here, but it’s a really good place to be.”
Biola continues, “As a child, I never really thought I’d be a business person, but now it’s just become more of a reality. Now it’s all about startups, and startup just sounds like a much friendlier way of doing things. It’s not like I’m committing my whole life to this. You’re just going to give it a go and see what happens.”
With the drive and dynamism these two possess in spades, they’re doing more than just giving it a go. They’re making it happen.
So what is Cycle Together?
They both buzz with excitement when they talk about Cycle Together. Biola explains in her own words what the company is all about and the motivation behind it.
“Cycle Together is all about trying to get more people into cycling and in particular into cycling clubs. Post lockdown, a lot of new people have come into my cycling club, and it’s been great to see. One of the things many of these new riders have said is that they’re really nervous going along to cycling clubs because they don’t know if they’re fit enough or they don’t know if they are going to fit in.
“A lot of my friends who got into cycling were brought into the sport by friends. It’s a bit of a shame if you don’t have a friend who basically does the vetting process for you and then takes you along to a cycling club and introduces you.
“I realised that the best people to talk about cycling and cycling clubs are cyclists themselves,” continues Biola. “I realised that there isn’t a review platform out there currently, or anywhere that you can actually get from the horse’s mouth, if you like, what it’s like to be in a cycling club. So that’s kind of where it came from. And that’s the motivation as well.
“It’s all that qualitative stuff, the softer side of why you actually join a community, because after all clubs are communities. No one actually tells you that bit and it’s hard to access that information. Cycle Together is all about sharing what it’s really like being in that community and getting more people to join cycling clubs because ultimately, the community is only as strong as its members. We also want to see people stay within clubs because they found the community that fits best with their personalities,” concludes Biola, “Cycle Together can help with that.”
As a keen cyclist, Biola is in the driving seat of the company, but the siblings both bring valuable experience and skills to the table. As a doctor, Kunle has a very calming presence and is a steady hand. His passion for helping more people become active resonates. He has researched the subject in depth and looked in particular at ways to get marginalised groups and the least active in our society moving.
“It’s such a big thing, isn’t it?” explains Kunle. “Trying to get more people who’ve never cycled before actually cycling. Cycling as a sport gets people really healthy and really fit, which is one of the reasons why I got so excited. For people who are elderly and people with long term health conditions in particular, Cycle Together will be fantastic. It can help bring loads of new people into cycling. If we can harness that to help get more people fit and healthy, that is such a huge difference that we can make to people’s health.”
Although her brother was sportier when they were younger, Biola has taken on that mantle for the whole Babawale family through her cycling exploits. No longer a newbie, Biola is an established and well-respected figure on the London cycling scene. Chair of her cycling club, Velociposse (a women’s cycling club that is also open to non-binary and transgender people), she’s been instrumental in the club’s development and in creating and driving forward its diversity and inclusion agenda.
Surprisingly Biola only began cycling in 2018. Prior to that she was a runner but she felt that something was missing. Biola explains, “There was nothing really making me stick to running. It was just a challenge. There wasn’t anything else, anything external. And I wanted to find a group or some other reason to keep going back to doing sport rather than just doing the sport itself.”
Working in the City in London in a very male dominated environment, Biola also sought something with a very different vibe. “I wanted to find a really good group of women,” she says. “So I searched for women’s cycling clubs in London, and came up with my club. The imagery really captured my attention. I mean, if you don’t know it or you haven’t seen it, the kit is absolutely lairy! It’s just great.”
Biola oozes confidence but even she was apprehensive ahead of her first meet up with Velociposse. “It was really daunting. It was actually terrifying!” exclaims Biola. “I mean, I didn’t have a bike at this point. I didn’t know anyone at the club. I didn’t know if they were all friends and knew each other. It’s like the first day of school or uni. Also, for me at this point, a long ride was just going to the local park. For them, I could see from Instagram they were going out to Essex and beyond.
“The imagery of Velociposse is inclusive,” something which is very important to Biola, “but at the same time, it’s people in lycra and it’s people who look super sporty.”
Joining a cycling club without a bike is admittedly somewhat unusual. Rather than being shunned however, the club supported Biola, lending her a bike so she could join in with skills sessions and also offering her advice and support on buying her first road bike (the wonderfully named Black Panther which Biola still has today).
It turns out that joining a club was the piece that was missing from Biola’s experiences of running. She explains, “I just got so sucked into the whole club life and atmosphere. It wasn’t just the sport that was keeping me there, it was the friendships I’d made. The attitude of my club is so supportive, they encourage you to give anything a try. If you say to someone ‘I wouldn’t mind giving crit racing a go’, they say ‘just do it!’ So within my first three months of riding I did my first crit race. It was so good because another one of my clubmates came along and other people came to support me. I’ve made great friends and now have a wide social circle through cycling.”
There are huge additional benefits to joining a club that perhaps at first you might not think of. “The cycling club teaches you so much,” enthuses Biola. “And there’s so much to learn when you first start cycling. I’ve learned about gears, how to look after my bike, fixing a puncture, and clothing. Now I feel super confident going out riding by myself and on longer rides. Nutrition is also a huge side. I mean, even when you’re a seasoned rider, you can still bonk.”
Say what now?! To those that haven’t heard the term before, bonking in cycling is a bit like hitting the wall when you run. The lights almost go out and there’s nothing left in the tank to keep going. Not fun, but something we all go through to learn.
“I remember the first time I bonked,” recalls Biola, “It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. And I thought I’d never be the same again. And then everyone explained to me that I’d bonked. First of all, I was like, ‘What are you saying to me?’ Because that’s not what I understand bonking to mean. And then you realise and learn that there’s this whole world around nutrition and how to fuel on a ride. And again, you learn that going out and riding with clubmates.”
Cycling has changed Biola’s life in many ways. It’s a very different environment to work, she explains “Trying to build relationships in a sport where you don’t feel like you’re top dog, if you like. At work, I feel like I am an expert in what I do. But in cycling, I’m far from an expert. I’m just here for the ride!
“For me, it’s been really empowering,” continues Biola, “Because I think a lot of people have imposter syndrome, and I know I do. There’s nothing which gets you over imposter syndrome quite like when you just admit that you don’t know anything or that you’re not the most knowledgeable in this field. Saying that I’m here to learn and that’s alright. I don’t need to furnish my credentials in this field because there’s always going to be someone with greater knowledge, but at the same time, I do have something to add. I think that’s been really good for my confidence but also good for quelling this imposter syndrome a little bit.”
Cycling may be a steep learning curve at first but by jumping in, being curious, asking questions, joining a club and giving everything a try, Biola’s experience and knowledge is broad and deep and she’s always happy to share it with others.
One person she’s trying to get more into cycling is her brother! Kunle cycles a bit, but is more of a hiker and walker. He moved out of London four years ago to try out life in the countryside and hasn’t looked back. From his cottage near Bath, he’s lucky to have beautiful places like Dartmoor and the New Forest nearby.
“I’m a big fan of the New Forest,” explains Kunle, “There’s some great mountain biking and dirt track riding you can do there. When Biola came to visit me not so long ago I took her there. Biola’s a better cyclist than me so I cheated and I got an eBike! We were going up this really steep hill and she was all out and I was all out as well but I beat her!” There’s nothing like a bit of sibling competition to get you up that hill quicker!
Kunle has definitely settled well into country living. “It’s just amazing having so much space,” he enthuses. “Biola jokes about baking but I’ve got a bread maker now! Life has definitely changed. I’ve even got a vegetable patch!”
Mary Seacole is one of Kunle’s inspirations. A British Jamaican nurse, Mary provided sustenance and care for British soldiers on the frontline during the Crimean War in the 1800s. “She completely revolutionised all the health and nursing in the UK,” Kunle tells us. “There’s actually a statue of her in the hospital I trained at, St Thomas’s. Being black in the UK back in the 1800s and all the impacts that had, the fact her request to be sent to Crimea was declined and the fact she went anyway and kept on going. She’s still remembered for all the great things she did today. It’s something which we were taught about at medical school. That inspires me to keep going.”
As a doctor, Kunle is really excited about the difference Cycle Together could make to people’s lives. He explains, “Cycling UK data says only about 1/5 of adults actually cycle regularly. The whole aim of Cycle Together is to take the groups of people who don’t cycle that much – not just those in older age categories, but also people with a long term health condition, or a disability – and get them cycling. A lot of research says getting those people to do regular exercise has a huge health impact, both physically and mentally.
“Studies have shown that if you’re over 55 and you exercise more it can reduce your chance of getting type two diabetes by 40%, reduce your risk of some types of cancer and reduce your risk of heart disease for example,” cites Kunle.
And it’s not just the physical benefits. Kunle is very excited about the mental health benefits of exercising regularly, and cycling specifically. He explains, “One of the biggest things that I’ve seen in scientific research and I love sharing is the positive impact cycling (and other forms of physical activity) can have on reducing anxiety and improving mental health. There are different chemicals in our body which we produce when we have high anxiety levels. The studies show that cycling has a positive impact by reducing the levels of these stress chemicals in our body”.
So with all the research pointing us towards exercising more, why are activity levels so low, particularly amongst certain demographic groups? One word. Barriers. These can be both physical and mental.
“A lot of the research that I’m doing,” explains Kunle, “Is looking at how we break down the barriers that those groups of people have so we can help them to get involved in cycling. And that’s some of the research which we’re starting to do with Loughborough University. We’re delving into what problems these people face. We know a lot about it already – things like injury, worries around being fit enough or strong enough.
“With Cycle Together we’re going to start developing programmes to get people from no cycling at all, to a point where they actually get onto the bike and ride. It’s breaking down those barriers of not knowing how to do it, what to do, how to do it safely, and breaking down anxiety as well,” concludes Kunle.
They are both an inspiration to those around them, but who or what inspires them? For Biola it’s other people. “When I decided to be chair of Velociposse,” says Biola, “I wanted to give something back. I definitely like the strategy part of the role, but actually, I was really fortunate when I started cycling. Cycling clubs gave a lot to me. Obviously in business, you have the profit (this is the economist in me talking). But for me, it’s not just that it’s that altruistic part, which is that so many people have been there for me, to be able to give a little bit back using my skill sets and my talents, it’s just a nice thing to do. It’s a nice thing to pay it forward.”
For Kunle, he takes inspiration from his sister. “The fact that Biola really believes that I can take the health parts of Cycle Together and, for all these people I may never actually meet, we’ll be able to get them on their bikes and get them healthy. That keeps me going, keeps the research going and keeps me motivated.”
They’re both incredibly humble, warm and giving, we can learn a lot from their approach to life. Biola’s biggest piece of advice is to always ask for advice. “I feel like with anything you do in life, there will always be someone who’s done it before you and there will always be someone who’s had experience with it. So you don’t need to go through the same mistakes, you can just ask people about it. It’s the humility of knowing that you don’t know everything. People are generally really happy to give advice. Even just being open and talking to people gives you so many new ideas.”
Kunle is all about enjoying the process. “It’s so much fun. Even if you have days where life’s a bit of a challenge and you have 10 or 15 things you’re juggling, just think actually we are only going to be here once so let’s enjoy all the difficult days and find the fun,” he smiles. “You learn so much about yourself when you’re doing things that are tough. Remember that for all the difficult days, you get some amazing days where things go well and you’re actually helping people. They make up for it. So just enjoy every single day.”
The future for Cycle Together
Although Cycle Together is just launching, Biola and Kunle have big aspirations for the company and their success could have a massive and positive impact on the health and activity levels of adults in the UK and beyond. The bigger picture is far bigger than them.
Kunle explains, “If only about a fifth of people over 16 currently cycle, that’s a potential 43 million people we could help get onto bikes, into cycling clubs and leading healthier lives. That’s obviously way more than I will ever see in a lifetime as a doctor. So that’s my big ambitious plan; getting 43 million people happier and healthier, and on bikes. And that’s only in the UK. Biola’s plan’s even bigger than mine!”
Biola really does have grand plans and she’s not afraid to put them out there. She explains, “If we’re clearly having an impact on people and bringing more people into cycling and not only are they cycling more but they’re also cycling within communities, they’re getting all those health benefits, they’re sticking with clubs and it’s providing a vibrant cycling club environment for people, why stop at just the UK? Why not go outside and go to the rest of the world? So yes, big plans!”
Now if that doesn’t inspire you to jump on your bike and ride, we’re not sure what will!
Find out more about getting into cycling through our Velo Talk blogs and find your local cycling clubs via our club locator.