Aidan Crowley reflects on a manic 12 months of his life and business.

“If the last year has shown me anything,” he stresses, “it is to analyse and verify everything. I’d ask ten people but I don’t ask ten people who’ll tell me they love it.”

His business? Selling clothing to cycling clubs – or at least that is what it was. A year that challenged pretty much everyone left some in a better place.

“I can make 85 different things but most cycling clubs need only a tenth or so of that. A top-of-the-range jersey, shorts and gilet would come to around €200 or thereabouts: high-tech, premium material, custom fit. I am not Toyoto or Peugeot: I am the Mercedes of the business.

“If they want to get the Peugeot or the Toyota, they will still be spending €150 or more. In cycling clothing, you can go from a Peugeot to a Ferrari for fifty quid.

“My tagline: dress like a pro. There are only 500 pros in the world; you can dress like them every day. A normal guy could feel great on a Saturday doing 100km and maybe a night during the week. He’s into his cycling, he realises it’s important.”


Back in 2009, he was sprinting his way to a satisfying ninth-place finish in the Rás in Castlebar when a teenager burst past him “like a rocket”.

“He got it from the cradle,” Crowley recalls of his rival, no fear of sounding demoralised: the Corkman exudes self-belief. It helps that the youngster who left him for dead that day turned out to be Sam Bennett.

Twelve months ago, likely Bennett little knew he was going to become the best sprinter in the world. Crowley, on the other hand, “was in the shit”. He had the confidence to come out the other side, albeit in ways he did not envisage.

Crowley’s Velo Revolution, which had just celebrated its seventh birthday, was not exactly designed to fight a pandemic. Cycling clubs across Ireland, many having placed large orders with Velo, were barred from meeting.

He says he was not worried but it is hard to see how anyone looking in could not have fretted for a business that, over a year later, is in healthier shape than ever, much like many who became part of another revolution: cycling in Ireland in 2020.

“This time last year I was in a bad way,” he tells The Currency from his home in Kilkenny. “Today Portmarnock Triathlon Club wants to commit its order; Killorglin Cycling Club wants to do the same. Cavan Kayakarun wants to commit its order and Pinergy, a group of guys down in Wexford, are doing an order.”

Touring Ireland selling a vision

Crowley, 46, started cycling as a nipper, winning an under-12 national championship. He would ride in the Rás 19 times and always wanted to win a stage. “I got sixth, but I’d say I wouldn’t get 16th now,” he conceded after winning the gold in the Masters 40 race at the National Road Championships in Omagh in 2015.

“I was never good enough to win a stage. It’s just so bloody hard to do, you know?”

The son of a builder from Cork, Crowley was Head of IT at and worked for after its takeover before going freelance as a digital consultant in 2013, around the time he started his business. He had, he recalls, “seen a gap in the market”.

“If you are in the business of kitting cycling clubs, you are only as good as keeping all of the clubs happy. Before me, three or four guys owned the market,” he says.

“Could I say they got cocky? They got massively complacent. They were serial entrepreneurs and still are. They sold things; cycling clothing was one of them. I was going to the races as a category-one-rider, even sponsored by some of them, and I’d be saying: ‘your gear isn’t that good’.

“And they’d be telling me that it was free, to just wear it, but I’d be relaying that others were complaining about deliveries being late, colours being wrong, items not up to standard.

“At that time I had gone from a computer programmer to an IT director. I joined an agency, dealing with clients, giving advice to everyone.

“In my head I said: I have this idea and I need to kick it off. My old man said: ‘if you work half as hard for yourself as you do for these clients’, back in the Christmas of 2012, ‘you can’t fail’.

“It required a lot of work. I needed to give three months’ notice. There was phase one, which was creating it with a friend of mine. So two friends set it up, got jobs themselves, not knowing how to run a company; in 2013 I was prepared to leave my job but he wasn’t so I went alone then.”

Crowley had little money but, conscious of the need to meet and greet, he reckons he did a tour of Ireland three times in 2013, travelling to all the cycling clubs to illustrate his product and size up members who might buy it. Run on an all-Ireland basis, there are around 450 cycling clubs in Ireland, with around 28,000 members.

Crowley hit the roads, this time in a car. “I did this for three or four years straight. I was doing sizing nights in clubs in Westport on a Tuesday, Ennis on a Thursday, Clonakilty on a Friday. If you paid someone to do it you’d be broke before you started. Then I’d get up early the next morning, start doing designs and get the factory into my way of thinking.”

After some mistakes, he settled on a factory near Venice. “I have been with them for several years. We have a very good structured relationship. Italy is the world leader in cycling clothing. There’s a valley north of Venice that is the cycling hub valley of the world; everything from the top helmet, shoe, and clothing manufacturers. Everything you can imagine can be made there,” he says.

“You need to know what you can sell in your market. What sells in Italy and Spain does not sell to the lad cycling up the Gap of Dunloe. I am close to my customer and I do think I have the cheese.”

His product is not cheap but he argues you do not need to pay much more to get the best quality. A long-sleeve thermal jersey, built for the Irish weather, comes in at €110.

“The custom clothing market in Ireland is unique,” Crowley says. “That is the meat. I would deal with between a third and a half of the Irish market. I might have half of the market who order. I have the biggest club in the country, probably worth 15 others together.

“I tried to get rid of the clubs who drift. There are only 45 clubs in Connacht, for example, but 180 in Leinster. But half of the clubs in Antrim want to buy your cheapest jersey; I don’t think I’ve one club there. I have enough to keep me busy. My clients tend to be a result of feedback from another client.”

Selling online

“Some were worried about their jobs, they weren’t going to buy their clothing.”

By 2017, Crowley had a functional website and his Plan B had begun. He recognised that, while selling to clubs was the meat of his revenue, any business wholly reliant on one area might be vulnerable to a shock down the road. He saw flaws in merely selling to cycling clubs, so he started investing in attracting individual consumers online.

“Around that time, people started to buy their random jersey, shorts and arm warmers. That grew. I was still in my house in 2018; in 2019 I moved it to a warehouse. My wife had asked me not to bring the store with me and finally got her way! At that time the store was two bedrooms, the hallway, the conservatory and a sitting room. It was a load of boxes but it was also the family bank.”

Business was steady from 2017 until last year, “healthy, profitable and solid” he says. He employs only one person directly: himself. He is “the accountant, salesperson, CEO, model, cameraman and tester”. The business also pays a designer and factory workers in Italy.

By the end of 2019, more and more people were getting sick in Wuhan. In a Kilkenny warehouse, Aidan Crowley was admiring his stock. He had a lot of work done for clients in 2020. January and February, he says, “were OK. From mid-March, a lot of work fell off a cliff. As the pandemic crept up like a wind, nobody thought it would have such catastrophic effects.

“I saw a lot of clubs, I mean a lot, with easily €100,000 of revenue coming in; by March and April, I’d done all the work for them; they were doing the orders together in the background. That fell off a cliff. April and May are massive months in the custom clothing industry and they went to zero.

“I never worry because I am a very confident guy and I had Plan B. Plan A stopped. Phones stopped ringing. I mean stopped ringing. I had a heap more coming in that I had to pay for. I had no revenue coming in to pay for it.”

Crowley’s confidence told him in a time of crisis it might pay to back yourself. “I never believed it would fail but the reality is of course I was concerned. The clubs told me they were just monitoring the situation, members had no reason to buy a new kit if they couldn’t meet up.

“Some were worried about their jobs, they weren’t going to buy their clothing. They certainly didn’t need a high-tech club custom kit. It was basically no events, no racing.

“Strategy A fell off a cliff. I knew it would come back but one thing about being competitive, still being a cyclist, I think sport helps you a lot; you don’t give in; you plough on. I made changes, cut back on some orders. You order a lot in January or February.”

From sports gear to face masks

Last December, I took time on a chilly afternoon to observe the remarkable volume of cyclists in coastal south Dublin and furthermore the number of people sea-swimming. Lockdown has reinvented people: diving into water so cold it could give you hypothermia is now, pardon the pun, cool.

Cycling is certainly cool: it was up by 45 per cent in some places during the lockdown. None of this was immediately apparent a year ago, even to Aidan Crowley.

With the weather enticing the return of the summer, April and May are months when cyclists return to the road and those who have been cycling in spring start cycling even more. So bad were sales, Crowley contemplated going on the government’s PUP scheme.

He reckons he was down 80 per cent. And that’s when he did something which seemed off the wall at the time. He decided to look into making masks.

“Everyone laughed at me. They laughed at me. I said: I have the machinery, the stitchers, the best market in the world to test them in: Italy! Italy was in a very bad place at the time. So I got onto the factory and they were thinking the same. We had six prototypes. We zoomed in on one. I think by April 30 I had a prototype that I was showing to people.”

By the end of May, he says, he had €75,000 in masks orders. “In June, July and August about half my business was masks. All of last year, 50 per cent of my turnover was masks.”

His first order for masks was from a health-food company in Germany. “They saw I could make masks. Their order was €45,000. Their sales guy was Irish and he took a chance. He knew about Velo. That’s what kicked me off. Restaurants, bars, engineering companies bought their own customised masks. I’ve not had a single complaint about the mask.

“My wife worked in the hospital in Kilkenny and I could see they had no PPE. I put an order in as fast as I could. For every order online, I gave one away. I gave away a few thousand masks to 28 different HSE locations at the end of June with my branding. I had it as buy one, get one.”

Whilst there was a sense of duty, he admits it did his PR no harm. “I am always looking at how to do PR as cheaply as possible. I don’t do Google ads. The biggest mistake I made was an ad for the Irish Independent that cost me €4,000, a terrible mistake from a business point of view.

“I put all my clothing on myself, take as many photographs as possible, I don’t believe in a lad 65kg who looks like he’s training up the Alps. My market is probably a man 30-plus, 75kg plus, and we are very Irish. I am a proud Corkman. We use a lot of the areas around Kilkenny and a lot of lads around there wear the stuff who have no problem being models for free. The Plan B, the website, doesn’t have fancy 3D images. I think people like that.”

Velo Revolution’s business he said, is all done to an Irish audience, bar about ten per cent. Crowley is ambitious but conscious that taking the next step may go wrong. Last year, he says, his online business trebled. He found out that if the club may not be meeting, the member still wanted to cycle – often not in club colours.

“Through lockdown I kept busy on Instagramming and putting stuff on Facebook. It was a case of reminding the customer we had this product. I came out with more colour jerseys as options, from two or three in 2019 to nine last year.

“I really went for the colours because when I saw the clubs not ordering: they had to get their stuff from somewhere but the guy didn’t want to be seen wearing the club kid out of the 5k limit, so I was like: wear the Velo! It’s great value, you can have it tomorrow or the next day. I am a stickler to get the product out of the warehouse every day. I would say the online store trebled last year. It maintained its revenue into 2021.

“It can grow. I have ambitions I wouldn’t tell anyone. It is totally exportable. Velo Revolution could set up an office in Canada, start selling custom clothing there. And very quickly. But it comes at a slight cost, manpower, resource level, do you want that, need that? There are successful businessmen but you can keep growing steadily or grow it too fast and take your eye off the ball.

“You can be very happy with what it offers you in life: flexibility, time to be with your family – not loans you are taking out. If I grew before the pandemic I might be in trouble. Timing is everything in business.”

The future of cycling

Where is cycling in Ireland going? Crowley is well-placed to make observations. A three-time national cycling champion, horrific injuries on the road have done little to dim his enthusiasm for cycling and his belief that it does wonders for body and mind, but he says he only cycles on his own now in bright colours and stresses that road safety is not where it could be.

“I would challenge anyone to stand on a roundabout as a pedestrian for five minutes and watch cars switch each other, going right when signalling left and vice-versa. We need the ads to show on TV how dangerous it is.

“A year ago there were probably 250,000 cycling in Ireland. By the end of last year there were probably 300,000 cycling in Ireland. Probably only 50,000 of those are my kind of market. I am not in the commuter market. My own feeling is: will cycling be twice as big as it is now? It won’t be.

“The bike shops had a bonanza last year and it saved a lot of them, who were under pressure, and they will have a bonanza this year. I do think the cycling revolution will run aground when we can hop on a plane again.”

In September 2012, Aidan Crowley was cycling his bike in Blackrock, by the BMW store, when a motorist drove into a yellow box to his left, tossing him up into the air, leaving him grounded for about half an hour with a broken shoulder, collarbone and internal ligaments damage.

“Just hurt me,” he recalls now, though he probably felt a bit stronger about it before he was given morphine at the time.

It compelled Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to make changes to the slip road so something like that would never happen again. And it told Crowley to kick on with a business he had grown from an idea in his head. “Only God knows if you have a tomorrow.”