Inside Business: A long uphill ride

Roger Trapp on a bike firm that is selling the English countryside
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The Independent Online
Like many entrepreneurs with a great idea Susan Achmatowicz was some way ahead of her time.

Back in 1992, when she started her cycle-touring business, there were, as she says, no bike racks for cars, no cycle tracks - and no events like National Bike Week, which comes to a close today. Moreover, the affluent young professionals she was seeking to attract were being squeezed by the toughest recession anybody could recall. "The first few years were rough," she says with some understatement.

However, seven years later, she appears to be enjoying a somewhat smoother ride. With interest in the environment and healthy living on the rise, Ms Achmatowicz has seen her business, Country Lanes, become the recipient of the English Tourist Board's Green Award for Tourism and Environmental Management.

Country Lanes has also grown to take in four sites, with another six planned for next year. Moreover, she is convinced that it provides great opportunities for franchising.

What has helped boost the company's fortunes is growing support from rail companies. Three of the Country Lanes operations are at railway stations (at Brockenhurst in the New Forest, Moreton-in-the-Marsh in the Cotswolds and Windermere in the Lake District) and Ms Achmatowicz says Thames Trains, South West Trains and Virgin are all enthusiastic about an idea that could enhance their revenues.

Virgin has formed a joint venture with Country Lanes at the Lake District operation under which it markets the scheme through a leaflet it distributes at stations while Ms Achmatowicz and her team run the business. The company also began selling rail-cycle tickets at Windermere last July. In addition, travellers in the US who buy passes for use on the British rail network are told about the Country Lanes services.

However, Ms Achmatowicz attaches particular importance to the part played by the rolling stock leasing company Forward Trust Rail, which has donated, painted and transported Motorail units to the New Forest and the Cotswolds.

"Forty years ago, rolling stock was built to transport cars by rail. We're taking Motorail units and converting them into modern cycle hire centres for rural stations with leisure cycling potential," she says. "Externally, the units are in keeping with the railway environment and heritage; internally, they are fully equipped with today's modern technology - 21-speed bikes for hire and an internet connection for online bookings." Indeed, Ms Achmatowicz sets out to offer a full range of holidays - from hiring a bike for a day to going on a six-day tour with overnight stays.

The basic package offers a 21- or 24-speed bike with helmet, lock and map holder for pounds 12 a day in the New Forest and the Cotswolds and for pounds 14 in the Lake District. But for those not content to be sent off into the countryside with a suggested route, there are all kinds of bespoke holidays.

However, she is at pains to point out that she is "not in the bike hire business, but selling the British countryside". If that sounds like business school speak, there is good reason. Ms Achmatowicz is not so much a cycle nut trying to make a business out of her hobby as, in her own words, a business person looking for a growth market.

Having done an MBA in finance and marketing, Canadian-born Ms Achmatowicz worked in banking before running Lord Rothschild's country estate. When the task of increasing visitor numbers involved extending the car park, she began to see the potential for cycling as a leisure activity in the country - and in 1993 set up Country Lanes.

Having decided to offer a quality service, she initially pitched the idea at overseas visitors because she thought they would be prepared to pay the pounds 1,200 cost of a six-day tour. Sites were placed at rail stations on the grounds that foreign visitors would typically be arriving and leaving by rail.

Even so, most people at the time thought she was crazy. And cash flow was difficult. But there were signs of the direction the business would take in the future: it soon became clear that most of the bookings were coming from 35-to-40-year-old Britons who were new to cycling but were looking for a healthy way to spend their precious free time. "They didn't mind spending pounds 300 on a weekend," she says.

Now that the business is becoming more established, Ms Achmatowicz sees opportunities for people who might want to get involved in helping her and her existing team of four full-time staff run it. Since the various centres are largely run independently, she believes they could easily be franchised.