On yer bike: Why there's never been a better time to saddle up

Want to shape up, save cash - and feel fantastic? There’s one very simple solution: start pedalling. Simon Usborne explains why now is the time to get cycling, while Olympian Victoria Pendleton reveals her training tips

1. Everyone's at it

If you thought there were more cyclists on the roads recently, you'd be right – biking is booming. In London alone there has been a 91 per cent increase in the number of cycle journeys since 2000, with more than 500,000 trips a day. And, nationwide, Sport England's latest survey, for the 12 months to October 2008, showed 1.8 million of us cycle at least once a week, a significant increase on last year – and that doesn't include commuters. The survey showed recreational cycling is the second-fastest growing sport in the country (after athletics). Meanwhile, membership of British Cycling, the sport's governing body, has rocketed to a record high of 25,000, and new bikes are rolling out of shops at record speed – cycling shop Evans reported a 200 per cent increase in the sales of kids' and BMX bikes pre-Christmas.

2. We're really, really good at it

Whether or not there are "nine million bicycles in Beijing" (the true figure is thought to be closer to 10 million), the fastest wheels in the Chinese capital this year belonged to Team GB. British cycling capped its rise from relative obscurity to greatness as our riders cycled home with 14 medals including eight golds. Had Hoy, Pendleton, Cooke and co formed their own country, it would have finished 10th in the medals table, above France. And they invented modern cycling. Ha! The team were also the stars of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show last month, taking the team award, the coach prize and the top gong, which went to the newly knighted Sir Chris Hoy.

3. It's rolling in cash

Thanks to the way British sport is funded (medals equal investment) cycling is set to be showered with cash post-Beijing. And it's not all for our professionals, who could hardly improve anyway. Last month Sport England awarded British Cycling £24.3m for 2009-2013, almost double what they got over the previous four years. To keep their end of the deal, British Cycling has promised to plough money into improving grass-roots coaching and recreational cycling – a boon for the next generation of world-beaters.

4. It's cheaper than driving...

The popularity of cycling is traditionally linked to petrol prices – after the 1979 fuel crisis, when the cost of driving soared, cycling increased by 40 per cent. The same happened earlier this year, when CTC, the national cyclists' organisation, predicted price rises would result in an extra 1.25 million bike journeys a day. When petrol prices topped 120p a litre, Cycling England estimated we could save £2.5bn a year by swapping four wheels for two on short journeys. Petrol might be getting cheaper now, but our pockets are not exactly getting deeper.

5. ...And public transport

Let's take just one London commuter as a case study (that would be me). The cheapest way for me to travel the five miles from home to desk would be to buy a £1,208 annual travelcard. My bike was pretty pricey, at £700. Let's say it lasts seven years, so costs me £100 a year. I'm no good with a spanner so I get it serviced probably once every nine months. A basic service at costs £55, so that's £83 a year for maintenance. My lights, lock, shoes and clothes don't come to more than £150. Let's divide that across two years – so £75. So cycling to work costs me about £258 a year (you could do it for less). Take off the £200 a year I spend on the days I'm forced on to public transport and I save £750 a year. That's enough for 266 pints of beer or a return flight to Sydney.

6. It boosts the economy

Cycling England estimates that every new cyclist saves the nation £382 a year in costs related to health, pollution and congestion. It says a 20 per cent increase in biking by 2012 would save £107m in premature deaths, £52m for the NHS and £87m in costs to employers through reduced sickness. A cut in pollution would save £71m a year, while reducing congestion would save £207m.

7. It's the greatest invention ever

Don't take my word for it. Here's novelist Iris Murdoch: "The bicycle is the most civilised conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart." And author Elizabeth West: "When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man's convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became... Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle." And HG Wells: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."

8. It's quicker

In gridlocked towns or cities, bicycles are ahead of the competition. Traffic in London averages 10mph – 2mph slower than 100 years ago – while a fit cyclist can expect to average 12mph. Cycle couriers will be doing 15mph-plus.

9. It's anti-establishment

To climb on a bike remains the simplest form of defiance. "Socialism can only arrive by bicycle," said Jose Antonio Viera Gallo, a Chilean politician, while in more than 300 cities worldwide, cyclists gather in "Critical Mass" events in which riders rule the road with no destination or purpose in mind. The now defunct Reclaim the Streets movement perhaps summed up the cyclist's personality best in its mission statement: "Any souls who are fed up with the chain of cars, oil, war, pollution are invited to come along ... the car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of petrol. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, turnover."

10. It hurts

Cycling is perhaps at its most painful when the rider is lying on the tarmac having been knocked over by an errant motorist, but there is another, perversely enjoyable kind of torture associated with the sport. It's something mortal cyclists can appreciate – the flooding of lactic acid into your thighs, the pouring of sweat on to your handlebars and the strain on your ribs as your heart threatens to explode – but is perhaps best expressed by Lance Armstrong. "Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it's absolutely cleansing," the seven-time Tour de France winner wrote. "The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain... Once someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. Pleasure? I said. I don't understand the question. I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain."

11. It's safe

No, really. Ask anyone why they don't cycle – what possible reason they could have – and often it's fear. And it's understandable – riding round busy junctions, sandwiched between lorries, bendy buses and white vans can be terrifying (or thrilling – see number 16). And when you hear about the latest cyclist to meet a grisly end, it's easy to be put off. But does news of pedestrians knocked down and killed stop you walking to the shops? Because the risk is higher. The Department for Transport's statistics for 2007 show that, in the previous three years, cycling is, per mile travelled, safer than walking. And the more we cycle, the safer it gets as drivers get more used to cyclists. There has been a 50 per cent drop in casualties per bike-mile since the mid 1990s.

12. It's cool

Controversial, this one, and hard to prove when parading around an office of cyclo-sceptics in Lycra and a luminous jacket. But cycling needn't be nerdy. Do electric cars the size of shoe boxes make driving uncool? Most commuters are admirably uncaring about how they look and that's fine, but for those who prefer to ride in style there are ways to be cool on two wheels. Companies like London-based Rapha produce top-quality technical yet stylish gear that wouldn't see you laughed out of a pub. Meanwhile, the resurgence of BMX riding thanks to Shanaze Reade has seen a boom in sales of bikes and gear. And surely you can't help but look cool on a BMX (unless you're 45).

13. It liberated women

It's important to remember the impact bikes had on women. In the early days of the bicycle it was not seemly for a woman to take to two wheels. "The first of the fair sex to espouse [cycling] were regarded as bold beyond the bounds of propriety," said The New York Times in 1896. "They were stared and jeered at on the highways." But before long the convenience of cycling meant the bike became known as the "freedom machine". It was then, states The New York Times article, that "the more timorous and punctilious sisters ventured into the exercise which has done so much toward building up the health and self-reliance of the sex." It was a sentiment shared by the 19th-century American feminist, Susan B Anthony, who said, in 1896: "I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else.... I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel... the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood."

14. It's better than running.

Or swimming. Running is bad for your joints – marathon runners can lose a centimetre in height during a race. The smooth motion of pedalling makes cycling is much easier on your body. And because your bulk is supported by the bike, you can go for longer. If you ran as hard, you'd fall over. As for swimming – well, you can't swim to work.

15. The weather's good

There are few things more miserable than to look out of one's office window as clocking-off approaches to see streets that had sparkled in the morning sunlight drenched in rain. But, if you think about it, it doesn't rain that often everywhere. Last year Transport for London claimed the average cycle commuter in the capital would only get wet 12 times a year. That's ridiculous but, really, it's not as bad as you think.

16. It's a thrill

Going down Westerham Hill in Kent recently, I grabbed my drop handlebars with white knuckles, stood slightly raised on my pedals, lowered my head and resisted the urge to apply my brakes. Eyes watering, face red and heart racing, I looked at my cycle computer as the road flattened out. I had peaked at 49mph. It's the fastest I've gone on two wheels, and was terrifying, but there are few ways to replicate that kind of thrill. And then there's the buzz that comes with cycling in the city – weaving through rush-hour traffic is surely the finest way to wake up in the morning.

17. The government will pay

Under the Government's Cycle to Work scheme, employers who sign up buy bikes and safety equipment for staff, deducting the cost from their salaries. Because the employer can reclaim VAT and other taxes, you not only spread the cost of the bike but, depending on the scheme, can pay as little as half the price. Several cities have their own schemes. In Edinburgh, schoolboy called Tom Sparks had the bright idea to award points (which can be exchanged for gift vouchers) to pupils who bike to classes. The Scottish Government has invested £10,000 in Sparks' "pedals not petrol" campaign to help extend it across Edinburgh.

18. It's good for the heart

Cycling reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. Cycling at a reasonable pace can burn the energy supplied by a chocolate bar or a couple of alcoholic drinks (about 300 calories), so a 15-minute commute five times a week could burn 11 pounds of fat in a year. Up the pace and stuff your face....

19. It's greener

With just a chain and a couple of cogs linking a rider's legs to the wheels, hardly any effort goes to waste. The energy efficiency of a bicycle has been estimated to be the equivalent of the average car doing 1,600 miles on a gallon of petrol.

20. It's good for the soul

"Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling," said the writer James E Starrs. And there is a state of mind that can be achieved on a long bike ride, as one is lulled by the rhythm of pedalling, that no other activity can replicate. "With the great speed, there are the subtle glide and sway of skating, something of the yacht's rocking, a touch of the equestrian bounce, and a suggestion of flying," reads an 1896 New York Times article on cycling. "The effect of all this upon the mind is as wholesomely stimulating as is the exercise to the body."

Ride of your life: Win Etape Caledonia places

We have a pair of entries worth a combined £108 to the Etape Caledonia on 17 May 2009. The 81-mile cycle challenge takes place on closed roads in the stunning scenery of Highland Perthshire. We will also give away a cycling jersey and cycling shorts. To be in with a chance to win, go to www.independent. co.uk/promo-competitions, enter the code "cycle" and answer the following question: In which country will this year's UCI Track cycling World Championships take place?

Terms & Conditions:

Travel and accommodation expenses are not included. Entrants must be aged 18-80. Closing date for the competition is midnight on 8 January. The winner will be drawn at random from correct entries on 12 January. The prize is non transferable and cannot be traded or exchanged for a cash alternative. The editor's decision is final. All winners will be notified by phone or email. Only one entry per household. A full set of terms and conditions can be found online www.independent.co.uk/legal. No purchase necessary.

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