John Stepney: passionate professional at the heart of the blood bike movement

John Stepney is the chairman of the Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes, which acts as a voice, supports, and sets standards, for the 34 member blood bikes groups across the UK and Ireland. The organisation has an impressive track record – in the 11 years to 2019, NABB helped grow the number of UK and Ireland blood bike groups from 5 to over 40. Interview by Jill Boulton.

Visorcat: First things first, John. What bike(s) do you own?

JS: I have just sold a Honda ST1300, which leaves me with a 1995 Yamaha TDM850, a 1979 Moto Guzzi 850 T3 California, a Moto Guzzi Stelvio NTX, a Honda CX500 and a Moto Guzzi Dingo, 1964 vintage.

Visorcat: Wow! That’s an impressive collection. When did you start riding and why?

JS: I passed my bike test when I was 17 way back in 1975. After having ‘borrowed’ my sister’s Honda C70 for a whizz around the block, I quickly concluded biking was for me. From a pragmatic point of view, it was a relatively low cost way for a teenager to become independently mobile and be able to leave the city (Glasgow) at the weekends.  The first bike I actually owned was a new Honda CB360, which I think cost me around £825 and I still remember the reg number… PGD 803P. I’m an all year round biker and up until recently I commuted on a daily round trip of 80 miles. Over the years, I’ve ridden across many European countries and also ridden in the USA and Australia.

Visorcat: And how did you end up at NABB?

JS: A bit of a long story… In 2005 I had an opportunity to take a sabbatical from my ‘planned’ career, which was in service logistics. Having worked for a couple of decades for some big name IT companies, I felt something was missing from my daily job satisfaction. I had recently taken my RoSPA advanced riding test and enjoyed that so much that I decided to go on to take the RoSPA advanced instructors’ diploma, with a view to offering free coaching for local riders who had recently passed their basic bike test. It was my first exposure to being actively involved in any sort of community / charity activity. After about six months of doing this, I was at the NEC bike show and came across a SERV blood bike stand, which was being sponsored by Devitts Insurance. After talking to the blood bikers on the stand, it became apparent that there was no operational blood bike group in my area, so myself and a few other like-minded riders got together and started SERV OBN (Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire & Northamptonshire) blood bike group. About a year after we started up, we got together with the other blood bikes groups that were operational at that time (about 5) and we thought that with the experience we had gained between us, we could visualise a roll-out plan to set up blood bike groups across the UK. So, in 2008 NABB was born.  I volunteered for the role of NABB Development Officer, which meant that much of my ‘spare time’ for the next 6 years was spent travelling up and down the country talking to groups of bikers after work, in the evenings, or at weekends, introducing them to the blood bike concept and offering support in setting up a group in their area. Occasionally it would take two or more trips before we engaged with the right mix of people to gain enough traction to get going.

Visorcat: How has Covid-19 affected blood biking?

JS: This has been an incredibly difficult time for us, having been hit by a double whammy, in that the demand for our services has rocketed, with almost all of the groups responding by switching over to full 24×7 service offering, instead of the more usual ‘out of hours’ window that is often the case, then the lockdown decimated our ability to fundraise via the normal routes. Rattling buckets at supermarkets and sports venues disappeared overnight, as did our opportunities to deliver talks to interested groups or organised fundraising events such as black tie dinners, pub quizzes etc. So, significant increase in demand and a cliff edge reduction in our income – not an easy time. We have had some ‘gold nugget’ moments such  as when, after NABB initiated discussions, BP agreed to extend their free fuel for emergency services vehicles offer into the blood bike community too. BP has generously done this for a second time during the pandemic, which has meant that all the blood bikes across the UK have benefited from tens of thousands of litres of free fuel, which is probably our highest running cost.

Visorcat: What does your job involve?

JS: Ha, if you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have said that I work for a large IT services company and manage a team of around 120 people in service logistics across three main sites in Cologne, Paris and London… but I have just retired. So, as I write this, I am experiencing my first Monday morning in nearly four and a half decades where I don’t have to check my diary for meetings, as I no longer have a full time, paid job!

Visorcat: Describe a ‘typical’ day in your job.

JS: I think I need to give you vision of what I think my ‘new’ retired typical day will involve. Firstly, I will be getting more involved with NABB, trying to level the playing field with regard to legislation and how it affects our ‘industry’. NABB has already successfully negotiated with the Government for the recovery of VAT on operational expenses and a blanket zero rated VED (road tax) on all blood bike charity owned vehicles.  We estimate that the VAT recovery has collectively benefited the blood bike groups by around £1.5m over the last five years and the zero rated road tax will collectively benefit the blood bike groups by around £40,000 per year. However there are other challenges to be resolved and I think that being retired is a great opportunity to work on these.

We have also received many enquiries from abroad regarding setting up blood bike groups across the world, including South Africa, Cameroon, USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Germany. So, quite  bit of work to do.

I will also be doing a great deal of walking in the mountains and using my telescope to engage in my more sedentary hobby, astronomy.

Visorcat: What’s the best thing about the blood bike movement?

JS: The passion, the teamwork, the dedication, the professionalism. I could go on, but having a clear and common purpose really does generate fantastic camaraderie. The sense of achievement and satisfaction that is gained when you drop off a child’s cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) sample to be checked for meningitis at 2am on a wet and windy February morning really does hit home.

Visorcat: And does anything keep you awake at night?

JS: I’m not much of a worrier – for every day to day problem there is usually a solution, or an acceptable compromise, so I will tend to look for the ‘upside’ in most things.

That said, I think the Covid pandemic is a wake-up call for the world. If the mortality rate had been the same as, or worse than that of the Spanish flu pandemic after WW1, the resulting carnage would have been catastrophic. Humankind needs an effective global strategy to manage the next one. A virus takes no notice of politics, opinion polls or geographic boundaries.

Visorcat: How can people help support blood biking?

JS: Funding is always a requirement, not just in terms of cash, but services and products are also important. When you have in excess of 400 vehicles in your fleet, that takes a lot to manage and service.

Many people have increased their use of internet buying using Amazon and similar services. Several of these on-line companies will donate a percentage of the purchase price, at no cost to the buyer, simply by selecting a charity that they have had proposed. So the next time you buy something on-line, check to see if your local blood bike group is a participant in the scheme.

What we do is often overlooked by those in government, so our profile is critically important, in both social media and also local / national news. Sharing posts from our Facebook page or Retweeting some of our tweets can have a significant effect on our profile.

Visorcat: Confession time: We took a peek at your Facebook page and found a picture of a slightly younger you with some police bikes. Are you an ex-copper? Tell us more about your previous life, please.

JS: No, I’m not ex Police, although I have worked alongside the Met Police, London Fire Brigade and many NHS ambulance trusts and hospitals advising on vehicle fleet maintenance and utilisation. I’m originally from Glasgow, having ‘emigrated’ to England in 1986, then moved around quite a bit. Since last year, I have been employed by a company in Spain, which is where I am now.

Visorcat: What one piece of safety advice would you give to the average motorcyclist?

JS: Take some advanced riding lessons. It doesn’t really matter if you go down the IAM route, or RoSPA, or BMF Blue Riband, just make sure you use an accredited advanced instructor. You will acquire a skill for life and never look back.

Visorcat: The growth of blood bike groups has been impressive over the past decade or so. What do you put it down to?

JS: NABB! As I described earlier, we actively embarked on a 6 year plan to try and introduce the concept across the UK (& Ireland) and given that we now have in excess of 40 active blood bike groups after starting out with 5 or 6, I think the achievement speaks for itself. Some groups started up without much support being required from NABB, some required quite a bit and some started, failed, then started again with a different team of volunteers driving forward.

Visorcat: It’s been fascinating talking to you, John. Thanks very much and good luck to you and all the UK blood bike groups!