Britain in a spin at two-wheel industry worth £3bn a year
With crowds and bike prices measured in tens of thousands, the Cycle Show is the hottest ticket in transport. Tom Peck rolls up
If victory at last weekend's world championships in Copenhagen marked the climb of Britain to the summit of professional cycling, then the sport's booming popularity among everyday riders is being sealed this weekend inside a giant room more used to celebrating four wheels.
Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre is this weekend opening its doors to the Cycle Show, an increasingly popular festival of bikes.
From Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish, who won the road race in Copenhagen on Sunday, to Boris Johnson and the pop star Duffy in those Diet Coke ads, Britain has never had so many household-name cyclists, their appearance suddenly as commonplace on podia as in the wing mirror of the urban motorist.
A recent report by the London School of Economics estimated the value of cycling to the UK economy at £3bn. More than a million people started cycling last year, bringing the total number of regular riders to 13 million. More than 23,000 people work in cycling, contributing more than £600m to the economy in wages and taxes. Last year, more than £1.5bn was spent on bikes and another £850m on accessories.
The latest gleaming offering from Italian bike maker Pinarello catches plenty of admiring glances from the first of 30,000 bike fans expected to descend on Birmingham this weekend. It weighs in at a featherly 7kg but will put a £10,000 dent in your pocket, including around £3,000 just for the wheels. It will be on board one such Pinarello that, next July, Cavendish will pedal several times up Box Hill in Surrey, in and out of central London, and over the finish line at Hampton Court Palace in his bid to win Britain's first gold medal of the 2012 Olympics.
The success of Britain's elite cyclists is credited with fuelling the boom. Team GB won eight cycling gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and Cavendish became the first British cyclist to win the sprinters' green jersey at this year's Tour de France.
But increasingly that interest is filtering through to Birmingham and streets and B-roads across the country, which is beginning to adopt a cycling culture more common on the Continent.
"In Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, most European countries, in fact, cycling is part of the lifestyle," said Andrew Brabazon, the director of Cycle Show 2011, which has moved this year from its London base. "For a long time, the UK has lagged behind, but for a whole load of reasons – green reasons, health reasons – people are coming back to cycling who haven't done it for years and years."
Even would-be cyclists traditionally put off by the hassle of riding – or a fear of death – are being encouraged to take to two wheels by improvements on the road.
"The growth of cycling infrastructure is a major factor," Mr Brabazon said. "Cycle lanes, the Boris bikes, they are making cycling more high profile. I've been cycling to work in London for 10 years. A decade ago, the general consensus was that you must be mad. Now, it's normal."
Among the exhibitors peddling their wares this weekend – and hoping to cash in on the boom – is cycling coach Eddie Fletcher, whose task is also to convince this sceptical writer of the joys of bikes.
Fletcher spent eight years developing the Wattbike, a hi-tech exercise bike with a display showing how much power is exerted by each leg while pedalling. At £2,000, his creation is expensive, but such is the scale of the biking boom, he is now in talks with several gyms.
Although the sight of the sweaty, Lycra-clad cyclist commuter may occasionally turn the stomach of his work colleagues, recent research shows cyclists take fewer sick days on average than the rest of us.
Then there are the obvious benefits to the environment and, it would seem, the economy. It is 30 years since Norman, now Lord Tebbit, advised the unemployed to get on their bike and look for work. Perhaps he had a point after all.
There is more to the sport, too, than perhaps meets the eye.
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