Citizens of Athens and elsewhere turn to two wheels as cost of keeping a car soars

With the country’s economy in meltdown, Greece’s population are increasingly turning to bikes instead of cars to get around, meaning that the country’s bicycle industry is one of the few sectors to see growth as the euro crisis continues.

According to a Reuters report published in the Toronto Globe & Mail, official government statistics reveal that the number of cars on Greece’s roads has plummeted by 40 per cent in each of the past two years due to the economic turmoil as well as the soaring cost of fuel.

Meanwhile, in 2011, sales of bicycles shot up by a quarter compared to the previous 12 months, with the economic situation causing the stigma previously associated with bicycles, which were seen as a mode of transport for those who cannot afford a car, having evaporated.

To help meet burgeoning demand for bicycles, shops are opening in the capital, Athens, and elsewhere in the country, with custom bike maker Giorgos Vogiatzis, whose business was founded on the island of Rhodes in the 1980s, among those to set up a retail outlet there.

“They’re sprouting up like mushrooms,” explained Vogiatzis, a former rider with the Greek national team, who says that his company’s output has grown from 40 to more than 350 bicycles a year.

“There’s no more money for luxuries and that helps. People who were never interested in cycling are buying bikes.” Referring to the bicycle shops opening across Athens, he added, “Every neighbourhood has its bike shop just as it’s got its kebab shop.”

With many of those lucky enough to have kept their jobs turning to bicycles for their commute, Athens is even considering introducing a bike-share scheme similar to those in Paris or London.

The city’s new cyclists have to cope however with a lack of cycling infrastructure as well as roads in a poor state of repair and – the economic situation notwithstanding – the traffic jams that continue to clog the capital’s streets, and a road safety record that according to the European Commission is the worst in the EU.

“This is not Berlin. Here it’s risky but you need to start thinking what you’ll cut back on – taxis, the metro,” reflected one convert to cycling, 39-year-old Elena Koniaraki, who gave up her car two years ago since she could o longer afford to run it.

“At first my friends would laugh at me and say: Oh, poverty!” she said of her decision to start pedalling again for the first time since childhood.

“We’ve never had a bike culture in Greece. Sometimes I’ll leave my local street market on my bike, loaded with bags of tomatoes, and people will stop and wave at me.”

Another businessman to benefit from the cycling boom is Tolis Tsimoyannis, who sells folding bikes imported from Taiwan. However, having seen booming sales in the past few years, his company’s sales growth is beginning to flatten, not because of any slowdown in the market but simply because there is so much more competition now.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.