Call me Santa. Everyone else does. Like the elves. Let me tell you, familiarity may not always breed contempt, but in their case, it sure breeds... I'll be charitable and call it a charmingly inappropriate camaraderie. Way back when, I used to insist on a bit more formality. "Sir" at the very least. But as little Bobby once sang, the times, they have a-changed. Speaking of that particular client, he sure made good use of the harmonica I slipped in his stocking, didn't he?

Client? you're probably thinking. Yes, well, the times have changed, and so have I. The biggest mistake I made when starting out was not treating it like a real business. God knows how I've muddled through all these years. Now I've got a tax situation. Anyway.

Christmas has gotten so commercial. OK, it's a cliché, but I should know. I get returns. Never used to happen. Once upon a time I got letters by the sackful: "Santa, please send me a red bike." Simple, no? Who could resist? Now it's "Santa, re: the Merlin Titanium Litespeed. It had the wrong groupset. Please FedEx the Campagnolo as discussed in my previous communication. Email Nigel if you have any questions." Don't get me wrong. I like a satisfied client. We're on the internet here. But somewhere something's been lost.

When I started out so very long ago, just me and a few elves in the garage -- never enough elves -- my brief was clear: To spread joy throughout the world. Now it's just to fill orders. Very tall orders.

Here's one: "Santa. Please give us better cycle lanes. Thanking you in advance." I must get tens of thousands like this. Might as well wish for peace on earth, or safer roads, or patient drivers. Red bikes I can do. The elves, when they're not on one of their numerous coffee breaks, can knock one of those out in -- just a sec, I've got the figures here somewhere -- ah, yes. 17.5 minutes. Fancy brazing takes a little longer. But better cycle lanes?... Let's just say I'm Santa, not God.

Here's another, from a transport minister: "Santa. You seem to be all things to all people. Tony admires that. Enclosed is the government's current integrated transport policy. As you can see, it needs some work. Could you have the elves take a look at it? Best regards." The elves, they don't do policy. But I do so hate to disappoint. Maybe this 'Tony' fellow can make do with a nice Birdy. A red one.

An order is an order is an order, but some of them bring a twinkle to even my jaded eye: "Santa. You probably don't remember me. The Moulton, in '67? Well, that's still going strong, thank you very much. I'm wondering if you can get in touch with Alex and see if he'll do a tandem, with a comfy basket for our dog. Warmest regards." Such a polite young fellow. But I don't think so.

And mountain bikes! Don't get me started on mountain bikes. That's one trend that caught us completely by surprise. I had to go to 24-hr. shifts. That wasn't very popular. Everyone around here was walking around like zombies. Little green zombies. Now most of our business is mountain bikes, but we've isolated and cleared up the bottlenecks in production.

We also get a lot of requests for yellow jerseys. But I just make the one. It's a tradition, like Christmas itself.

A few years back I got a letter from a little girl. I keep it in a frame, on my wall: "Dear Santa. You must get tired of everybody telling you what they want. What do you want for Christmas? PS. Some of my friends don't believe in you. Love, Virginia." I always get misty when I read that. I left the cuddliest teddy bear my boys could put together under her tree, and sent her friends autographed 8x10 glossies. And then I went out and got myself a recumbent sleigh, which later got stolen over Detroit. I never had the heart to replace it.

Girls tend to be a bit more reasonable than boys. Not to be sexist or anything (I have a thriving pro department on that side of the aisle), but most of them just want a comfy saddle. Done. Very sensible, are girls. With the boys it's always suspended this and suspended that, whether they need it or not. And the frame materials they ask for! I've had to train one of the elves in metallurgy. And don't get me started on multi-tools.

There was a lass, though, gave us a spot of trouble. Name of Maggie. Back in the 80s. Had the elves in an uproar. See, they've been unionised since... well, let's just say the romance went out of the job a long time ago. A typical recruiting poster from the old days: 'There's no business like Toy Business'. That used to sell 'em . Now they're a little too up-to-date on every little EU directive.

Anyway. This Maggie I was talking about, she stirred things up quite a bit. I had so many third-party requests for coal in her stocking, you can't imagine. I gave her another handbag instead. The elves were afraid I'd start getting ideas. But I'm not like that. I'm Santa, not Satan. Their jobs are safe. I'm not about to export labour to Sri Lanka or wherever, though I understand they do a nice batik. No, we're one big family. Here. Here's a picture. There's me, in the back, with the Brompton. I call it Santa's little helper. You can imagine the size of our factory floor.

There's the Missus, right next to me. She's really the heart of the operation. Don't know what I'd do without her. She provides the emotional support. And the computer support. She set up the system, you know. I wouldn't know a modem from a hole in the ground. She fast-tracks the really important letters, the ones from exiled Tibetan leaders and such, and keeps the lists up to date. Speaking of which, we had a real scare when that business with the millennium bug came up. The Rep who sold us the stuff admitted that the 'Nices' might revert to 'Naughties' when the clock ticked over. Almost gave me a heart attack. Everything went to hard copy, just in case.

We had a good season. During last year's 'Tour de World' I got pulled over above Finland for speeding. Came close to testing the reindeer for EPOs. Can you imagine? Fortunately the guy took one look at my license and nervously wished me a Merry Christmas. I think he was terrified he'd end up with a McDonald's gift certificate or something. He shouldn't have worried. Santa doesn't hold grudges.

This morning there was a letter waiting for me on my desk from Hamleys, that big toy store in London. They want to merge with my operation. It's a very polite letter. They say they wouldn't dream of a hostile takeover of Father Christmas. The PR would be horrendous. But there was an edge of steel behind the seasonal pleasantries. As Bobby would be the first to remind me, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. It's a very attractive offer. I'll consider it, anyway.

Cycling Today, January 2000