Image for Back in the saddle: the bike brand staffed by prison leavers

Back in the saddle: the bike brand staffed by prison leavers

At a bike brand that employs prison leavers, donated sets of wheels are helping to break the cycle of reoffending. The man behind the idea is Stef Jones – AKA ‘bike geezer’

At a bike brand that employs prison leavers, donated sets of wheels are helping to break the cycle of reoffending. The man behind the idea is Stef Jones – AKA ‘bike geezer’

XO Bikes’ south London workshop promises a fresh start for the lost, the broken and the unwanted. It isn’t only the secondhand bicycles that get restored and resprayed in signature ‘swag black’ matte paint – but also the guys who work and learn there.

The social enterprise trains ex-offenders in bike repair and maintenance, with the ultimate goal of avoiding reoffending. Almost two years in, it’s working.

“We take a bike with a past and a bloke with a past, and together with the customer we give them both a future,” says co-founder and prison chaplaincy volunteer Stef Jones

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“We’re a purpose with a business. Our purpose, and our product if you like, is a guy that never goes back to prison. He just happens to find his way out by becoming a bike mechanic, or a bike retailer or a cycle marketeer.”

Jones abandoned a 20-year career in advertising to answer what he describes as a higher calling. After a lifetime of contented atheism, he became a Christian and, through his local church, responded to a call for chaplaincy volunteers at HMP Brixton.

Drawing on his entrepreneurial past, he also provided business mentorship, but quickly grew frustrated at the number of ex-prisoners returning to the wings, despite their determination to go straight.

XO Bikes founder Stef Jones. Image: Takenya K. Holness

Reoffending by prison leavers is an £18bn problem in the UK, where 48% will be reconvicted within 12 months of release. Hearing returnees’ stories of doomed job-seeking convinced Jones that lack of work was a root cause.

“No one would hire them. Prison wasn’t doing what I thought it ought to be doing, which is rehabilitating. So I thought: ‘If no one else is going to give you a job, I will.’”

He set up a charity, Onwards and Upwards, aiming to build a string of social enterprises to train and hire ex-prisoners. XO Bikes is its first endeavour, and marks its second birthday in May.

We take a bike with a past and a bloke with a past, and together with the customer we give them both a future

Bikes are often sourced, ironically, from the Metropolitan police’s stock of unclaimed, stolen steeds. They all get a full overhaul, and a limited number are treated to the ‘swag black’ or ‘hot orange’ paint jobs.

These eye-catching one-offs are stripped of their branding and instead stamped with the unique ID of their fixer, whose back story is available to read on XO’s website.

Trainees arrive via referral charities, the probation service and through Jones’ interactions on the prison wings, where he is known affectionately as ‘bike geezer’. They do a six-week Velotech course, an industry standard for bike maintenance. There’s also help with travel and meal expenses.

bike brand xo bikes

Darrell Collins, wearing blue gloves. Image: Owen Harvey

“One guy told us he had been nicking bikes since he was 10,” Jones says. “I told him that was an excellent qualification – he clearly loved bikes.”

At the time of writing, 19 men had completed the training, with another three on their way. Thirteen have found work in the bike industry, including three full-timers who have stayed with XO Bikes.

“The transformation is incredible: like going from a chrysalis to a butterfly in weeks,” says Jones. “The confidence, self-belief, ambition.”

Darrell Collins is one of them. He left prison in 2022 after spending the last decade in and out of jail. “I was pretty beaten down in terms of my self-esteem, and very nervous about getting released,” he says. “I was resigned to probably dying a drug addict.”

He finished the course in February 2022 and has since gone on to work as a cargo bike delivery guy. “It’s given me a sense of purpose and a sense of community, which is what I’ve been missing all the time I was offending.”

bike brand xo bikes

Tray checking the ID paintwork on his very first refurb

While the cycle industry seemed to have pedalled into the post-pandemic doldrums, with big online retailers calling in administrators and bike shops and brands shutting down, Jones is sanguine. XO customers want their wheels to make a statement. And he reiterates XO’s primary purpose. “Recycling is a great byproduct, but rebuilding lives is our ‘why’.

Ever restless, Jones is now mulling plans for more social enterprises in clothing, ftness and barbering, all with his trainees facing the public.

“We want people to re-evaluate their views on prison leavers,” he says. “We want other employers to come and steal them from us. You can build your business on these guys – and your customers will love you for it.”

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