Cycling fever is set to sweep the country this summer, when the Tour de France returns to Britain for the first time in 13 years. The race, which kicks off in London on 8 July and stretches out into the South-east countryside the following day, is expected to attract more than a million roadside spectators, and to encourage thousands more Britons to take up the sport for the first time.
But while the Tour's riders are among the fittest athletes in the world, you don't need to be an elite sportsperson to enjoy cycling. Britain now has some 27 million cyclists of all ages, many of whom have taken to their bikes as much for the financial benefits, convenience and environmental-friendliness of cycling, as for the fitness and health payoff.
As the costs of petrol and public transport continue to rise, there is an increasing amount of money to be saved by using your bike. And with government tax incentives in place to encourage more people to commute on two wheels, it's not even very expensive to get yourself started.
USE YOUR CAR LESS
The biggest savings from cycling are made, naturally, by making more journeys on your bike and fewer in your car.
According to Sainsbury's Bank, it now costs more than £2,200 a year to run a car. Although many families feel they would be unable to dispense with their vehicle entirely - especially those in rural areas - simply substituting a proportion of car journeys for trips by bike can save you hundreds of pounds a year.
The average family spends more than £1,200 a year on petrol, and more than £460 a year on insurance. By cutting your mileage, you can directly reduce your fuel costs, and may even be able to reduce your insurance premiums as well.
Parking your bike costs nothing either, while parking a car can be very costly in the larger cities. What's more, if you live in the capital, you're now forced to pay an £8 congestion charge every time you enter the city centre between 7am and 6pm on a weekday.
If you live in a big city where the public transport infrastructure is good enough, why not ditch your car altogether, and simply hire one or join a car club for the times when you absolutely can't manage without? A reliable car will set you back several thousand pounds, while a good bike costs only a few hundred.
Fixed costs such as car tax and MOTs will also set you back several hundred pounds a year, while service charges for older cars can also be incredibly costly. A worn-out clutch or a new exhaust can easily set you back many hundreds of pounds in one visit to the garage.
COMMUTE TO WORK ON YOUR BIKE
If you use public transport to commute, you can save many hundreds of pounds a year by swapping the train or the bus for a bike. A year-long Travelcard for Zones 1 to 6 in London costs £1,720, but even those who commute into the capital from surrounding counties can save significant amounts of money by taking a fold-up bike on the train, and cycling for the last few miles of their journey.
A year-long season ticket from London to Brighton, for example, costs £520 less if you don't buy the London travelcard to go with your train ticket.
Time-saving may be a less tangible benefit in financial terms, but Gill Harrison of the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, points out that in the big cities especially, using a bike instead of public transport or car can make all the difference to slicing minutes off a regular commute. And at the very least, cyclists have a much clearer idea of when they are going to arrive at their destination, as they don't find themselves getting caught up in traffic jams or held up by train or bus delays.
"Our research shows that people always overestimate the time it takes to cycle or walk somewhere - so they tend to end up arriving on time or even early when they cycle," she says. "Whereas people tend to underestimate how long it takes to drive somewhere."
CANCEL YOUR GYM MEMBERSHIP
Another advantage of cycling to work is that it allows you to combine your commute with an exercise routine. As well as the time this can save you, it can also save you hundreds of pounds a year in gym fees.
In the South-east, the cost of a gym membership can currently be as expensive as £100 a month. And even if you're only paying £30 a month, there's still £360 worth of annual savings to be made for those who are willing to replace the exercise bike with the real thing.
Harrison adds that regular cyclists are also much fitter than the average person, and less likely to become ill. This can save you money on medical bills, and can mean less time off work through sick leave.
Yannick Read of the CTC, the national cyclists' association, says regular cyclists on average have the same level of fitness as someone 10 years younger than them.
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BUYING A BIKE
You can buy new bikes for less than £100 today, although if you're thinking of using your wheels on a regular basis, such as for commuting, it's well worth spending a bit more.
Stuart Clapp of Evans Cycles says: "You can get a decent commuter bike, such as the Ridgeback Motion, for about £200, but if you're planning on using your bike every day, it may well be worth opting for something a little more expensive, such as the Pinnacle Aurora. The main difference is the components; you'll get a better ride quality from a higher-spec bike, plus the frame will be lighter and more efficient. You get what you pay for."
Spending £500 may seem like a big investment, but the Government's Cycle to Work scheme allows you to save up to 50 per cent on new bikes, cutting out the tax. As well as not having to pay VAT, you can pay out of your gross salary. If you're a higher rate taxpayer, the savings can be considerable.
If your employer isn't signed up to the scheme, ask them to consider it; it will cost them nothing and it can be administered by a third party, saving them the paperwork.
It's important to look after your bike. Sustrans says the average cost of maintaining a bike is £75 a year, but it can be a lot more than that if you don't make a bit of an effort. So keep it out of the rain, oil the moving parts regularly and keep the cogs and chain clean - simple measures that will all help to give your bike a longer life.
A basic service at your local bike shop can cost anything from £20 to £70, so it is worth considering taking a bike maintenance course to learn how to do it for yourself. These tend to cost between £100 and £300, depending on the course length. Next month, the national cyclists' group CTC is launching its own two-day maintenance courses (see www.ctc.org.uk/maintenance).
Insuring your bike can be very cheap. Some home insurers will include it on your policy at no extra charge or for a very small sum. Specialist insurers such as Cycleguard ( www.cycleguard.co.uk) or Butterworth Insurance ( www.butterworthinsurance.co.uk) will give you instant online quotes.
Yannick Read of the CTC says it is worth checking that your policy covers you for third party costs. "Obviously, people think about insuring their bike against theft, but they often overlook the idea of getting third party insurance," he says.
"But were you to hit a pedestrian or damage a car, third-party policies will pay out on your behalf. Even if you are struck by a car, a third-party claim can be made against you, and third-party insurance will cover you for that. Even a relatively small amount of damage can be expensive. And the insurance costs very little."
CTC membership, which costs £34 a year, includes third-party insurance, as well as discounts on kit. For details, visit www.ctc.org.uk.Reuse content