James Daley: The Cycling Column

This is the best month to start biking
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I always find it really depressing to see how many people stop taking to their bikes as soon as the winter months come around. But this winter, given that we've yet to see daytime temperatures fall anywhere close to freezing (in the capital at least), it's particularly disappointing.

This month is already shaping up to break new records in terms of being the mildest January in history. Yet I now pass half as many biking commuters on my way to work as I did just a few months ago, and I have no problem getting a space on the bike racks in The Independent's car park (which are always chocker in the summer).

For people who have not yet discovered the joys and benefits of commuting by bike, January is, in fact, the perfect time to start. As well as being able to indulge in the virtue of adopting a healthier lifestyle and reducing your carbon footprint, it's also usually the harshest month of the year weather-wise - so conditions, as well as your fitness, should improve week by week.

Admittedly, January is a tough month if you're a regular commuter (it's easy to get downhearted after several weeks of deteriorating weather), but the motivation to work off the excesses of the Christmas period is always enough to keep me going.

Although conditions can be cold and occasionally wet, cycling kit has come a long way over the past few years - so the experience really doesn't need to be unpleasant. Brands such as Gore, Altura and Endura all now make clothes designed to protect you against every kind of weather condition. Windproof vests, waterproof socks and thermal gloves are all commonplace in most cycle shops, and if you're put off by the cost of the better-known labels, retailers such as Decathlon offer cheaper, unbranded alternatives.

For those who continue cycling to work through the winter, there's a real snobbery towards cyclists who give up for a few months. But this tends to be born out of some kind of machismo or stubborn pride that they can manage what others can't.

Personally, I just think it's a shame. Cycling to work has become a central pillar of my life over the past few years - and I can't believe more people don't do it. Even when it's cold or wet, the benefits still outweigh the downsides: I only have to brave London's rickety and overcrowded public transport system once in a while; I don't have to bother paying for a gym membership; and - perhaps the biggest appeal of all in a city where time is ever-evaporating - I get to combine my journey to work with my exercise regime.

Furthermore, the savings on gyms and public transport, are at least £70 a month for me - that's a not insignificant £840 a year. Admittedly, some of this gets ploughed back into bike maintenance, but by no means all.

If your excuse is that you can't afford a bike, then it's worth asking your employer whether they offer a "cycle to work" scheme, which effectively grants you an interest-free loan to buy one, repayable in monthly instalments taken directly from your pay cheque. The deductions are made from your pre-tax earnings and you don't pay VAT, so you can save yourself up to 50 per cent on the regular retail cost of a new bike.

If your employer doesn't offer such a scheme, it's worth twisting their arm to start one. As well as any latent benefits from increasing staff's fitness and happiness, companies can also make savings on their staff national insurance contributions. For more information, tell them to take a look at the Department for Transport's website ( www.dft.gov.uk) which has all the details.

If you're squeezed up against the window on a packed bus or train this morning - you don't have to be.

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