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Retailers not benefiting from Britain’s ‘bike boom’ – but is one really happening?

Picture mixed across country with a number of factors – national and local – in play

A ‘bike boom’ sparked by the success of Britain’s top cyclists on the road and track and the staging of major events here may have translated into greater interest in cycling, as well as more journeys being made by bicycle, says the Daily Telegraph – but it isn’t translating into growth in sales for many of the country’s bike retailers. The full picture may be a bit more complicated than the newspaper’s article suggests, however.

The Telegraph cites figures from the National Association of Cycle Traders (ACT) showing a 15 per cent increase in the number of bike shops within the past decade, a period that has also seen online retailers Wiggle and Chain Reaction become global brands.

It also highlights government statistics that show steady growth in the aggregate distance ridden each year since 2005, as well as a 7 per cent rise in the number of journeys undertaken by bike last year, equivalent to an extra 50 million trips.

Mark Walmsley from the ACT told the Telegraph’s Andrew Critchlow that what should be positive news for the retail trade is not feeding through to the bottom lines of businesses operating in a sector now thought to be worth £2 billion.

“Those inside the industry are widely agreed that the market is not booming to anything like the degree widely published and certainly not in commercial terms,” he said.

Is there a boom?

We suspect there are a number of factors behind that, not least that the so-called ‘bike boom’ isn’t in fact happening uniformly at national level; in some places, yes, cycling is booming, but in others it is in decline.

The figures cited by the Telegraph, which doesn’t give a precise source, appear more recent than the 2011 Census figures, but the latter show that in terms of using a bike as the main mode of travel to work, there was little change across England & Wales over the previous decade.

Indeed, while some places – London, and especially its inner boroughs, and cities including Brighton & Hove, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield – saw strong growth in the number of bike commuters, that was offset by declines elsewhere, with six in ten local authorities seeing a fall in the percentage of people using their bikes to get to work.

Meanwhile Sport England’s Active People Survey for the year to April 2014, which includes competitive and recreational cycling but not cycling for travel purposes, shows 2.225 million people in England cycling at least once a week over a four-week period, up 4.93 per cent on the previous 12 months.

Walmsley says: “Cycling isn’t mainstream enough yet; it is still a relatively small retail sector. It remains male dominated in business and usage, but retains lots of potential for the future.”


Campaigners argue that one of the ways to unlock that potential would be to provide people with somewhere safe to ride. While the likes of British Cycling stress that riding a bike is an inherently safe activity, the perception of danger has been found in a succession of surveys to be the single biggest deterrent to people taking to two wheels.

The Telegraph says that Britain’s sporting success in cycling has led to investment in improving the country’s cycling infrastructure, although that’s a point cycle campaigners would dispute, not least because much of what has been built in recent years is, say many, woefully inadequate.

Belatedly, things may be starting to change at local level – TfL’s plans unveiled yesterday for north-south and east-west routes across the capital have on the whole received a positive response – but cash pledged by central or local government is not yet translating fully into actual spade-in-the-ground work.

Moreover, it is still only around a fifth of the £10 per head that politicians from the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and the House of Commons Transport Select Committee say should be spent.

Another factor that is skewing the figures is the emphasis on road bikes, partly driven by the middle-aged man in Lycra (MAMIL) phenomenon, but the opposite side of that coin is that any growth there will be offsetting declines elsewhere.

Britain’s biggest bicycle retailer, Halfords, says that business is booming and has tapped into that trend by buying the Boardman Bikes brand as well as now selling some Pinarello models – not by coincidence, the brand ridden by Team Sky, whose back-to-back Tour de France wins in 2012 and 2013 have helped boost interest in the sport.

“At the higher end it’s an aspirational market,” Walmsley points out. “The products and cycle technology are ever-developing and the more you cycle the more you appreciate the value for money.”

The Telegraph says that the government’s Cycle to Work scheme – the biggest provider of which is Cyclescheme, with more than 2,000 employers signed up – initiatives such as the ACT’s Ride It Away scheme have benefited retailers, but from 2011 there has been above-average inflation in the cost of bicycles, which had run below other consumer items for the past two decades.

Former GB amateur rider David Standard, whose father Sid took over Arthur Panter’s bike shop in Beeston, Nottingham and ran it for nearly 30 years, told the newspaper: “The explosion in the popularity of cycling has been astonishing and has led to great innovation and much greater choice than we could have dreamed back in the Seventies and Eighties.

“However, the issue for many new to cycling is: what do you actually need and how much do you need to spend. In my opinion a decent racing bike nowadays is £3,000, anything over that is not going to make any difference,” he added.

But what about cheaper bikes?

What’s less easy to gauge though is what is happening at the lower end of the market. The growth of online as a sales channel, and the fact that retailers such as Tesco are selling bikes both in some stores and through their website, is likely to be sucking value out of the market and hitting the sales of many of the independent bike shops for whom utility bikes, not racing machines, represent their bread and butter.

Another factor that may be hitting sales of new bikes is the second hand market, the size of which is impossible to quantify.

Not everyone who upgrades to a new bike has the space or inclination to keep hold of their old one, and the likes of eBay and Gumtree make it easier than ever to sell an old one on, while we also hear plenty of stories of people giving it away or selling it to a family member or friend.

And each bike that passes into new ownership in that way represents a potential lost sale for bike shops.

It’s a complicated market, and the absence of detailed official statistics makes it difficult to assess the national picture, meaning some guesswork needs to be employed. There’s little doubt that in some areas, the cycle trade is booming, in particular in those areas seeing increased uptake of riding bikes, such as parts of London, witnessed by the continual opening of new stores.

But until there is adequate investment in infrastructure that people perceive to be safe, and not just restricted to certain cities but across the country as a whole, a nationwide cycling boom – and consequent boost to the retail trade – is unlikely.

There’s one other factor impeding progress that is out of the control of retailers, cycle campaigners and politicians alike – the British climate.

As Walmsley says: “Bike sales growth has been muted in recent years, although the recession didn’t impact as fast and hard as in other sectors it did appear to have a delayed impact.

“The greatest influence over cycling and sales is good weather and a long period of it. The UK remains predominantly a nation of fair weather cyclists and the last few years – before this year – have seen extreme weather conditions which have impacted negatively upon cycling and sales.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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