Stay healthy, stay wealthy: change to the cycle lane

Had enough of traffic jams? Maybe it's time to get on your bike, writes Oliver Bennett

Today sees the opening of Bike Week, an annual campaign that aims to get people cycling with a week-long series of bicycle-related events, including a festival tomorrow at Trafalgar Square.

Today sees the opening of Bike Week, an annual campaign that aims to get people cycling with a week-long series of bicycle-related events, including a festival tomorrow at Trafalgar Square.

Okay, we've all got "Awareness Day" fatigue. But Bike Week ( www.bikeweek.org.uk) has more purpose than most and has been going since 1923, when it was set up to promote cyclists' rights. Now, in our energy and health-conscious era, it keeps on growing. Among the activities being promoted this year are 1,200 local events, which are expected to attract 150,000 participants.

"We've broadened it out since 2000," says spokesman Nick Harvey. "We're now focusing on trying to start people cycling and get 'adult returners' [people who used to cycle as children and adolescents] back on their bikes."

There's some evidence that it's already working. Although the London Cycle Campaign ( www.lcc.org.uk) reports that cycle use is in long-term decline, Sustrans - the sustainable transport charity - has published research showing that the number of cyclists on the 10,000 miles of its National Cycle Network ( www.sustrans.org.uk) went up 10 per cent from 2002 to 2003. However, this may be due to the fact that most of Sustrans' cycle lanes are traffic-free.

"There is still evidence that in urban areas where people perceive cycling to be dangerous, they won't do it," says Mr Harvey. "However, London has bucked that trend. The congestion charge has resulted in 30 per cent more cycling in London, according to the CTC [the national cycling organisation], and casualty figures are down. And there's more good news, in that cyclists seem to breed other cyclists. There's a 'safety in numbers' factor." Add greater health awareness, and a blast of good weather, and the incentives are there.

Not only that, but there are plenty of organisations on hand to help you get the most out of your cycling. Membership of the CTC, the national cyclists' organisation ( www.ctc.org.uk), costs just £30.50 a year and includes details of cycle routes both in the UK and abroad, a cyclists' helpline, a department dedicated to cyclists' rights, local groups, a wide range of rides and events, £5m third party insurance and free legal advice, and discounts on accommodation, accessories and travel. For free information, try the Cycle Web at www.cycleweb.co.uk - it deals with all matters cycle and has plenty of local information.

Some might be put off by the costs of cycling - after all, these days, they see all kinds of special fluorescent clothes and other performance-enhancing products. "We take a view that a very good-quality bike can be bought for £200, and a second-hand one for as low as £50," says Mr Harvey (Bike Week is reluctant to promote self-assembly bikes, because of safety concerns). "A good bicycle can last for decades provided it doesn't get nicked."

For which, of course, you need a lock, which can be as low as £10, although a good quality lock with a "sold secure" rating is £30 upwards. Lights will cost from £10. "You can save on batteries if you opt for a dynamo, which offers an environmental benefit, too," says Mr Harvey.

Insurance can be a cost, too. "Home insurance will often cover bikes," says Mr Harvey. "But insurance for a more expensive bike will cost roughly £10 per £100 of value." So if you buy a £200 bike with a good lock and insurance, you can be on the road for around £260 to £300. There are running costs, such as services and parts, which can add another £60 or so a year. The CTC's spokesman estimates that a good bicycle requires "at the most" about £50 worth of maintenance a year: "Less if you do a bit yourself."

For novices, a good place to start looking is the Association of Cycle Traders, which promotes specialist cycle retailers, with 750 members out of around 2,000 independent bike shops in the country. It provides bicycle-buying information on its website, www.act-bicycles.com, and has introduced a mechanics certificate called the Cytech.

Tom Bogdonavicz, campaigns manager of the LCC, says a second-hand bike can bring the start-up price down. "If you pay £50 for a bike, then you don't really need insurance or a state-of-the-art lock," he says. "Then, with £15 for lights and £10 for a lock, you're on the road for less than £100."

Mr Bogdonavicz, a seasoned cyclist, owns a bike worth £2,000. "Of course, you can pay whatever you like, and get all the Goretex garb and add-ons," he says. "But cycling can be cheap, and when you think about how much it saves compared to other forms of transport, the benefits are plain to see." As a non-car owner - he hires when he needs to drive - Mr Bogdonavicz also emphasises the environmental and neighbourly benefits of cycling, in that it releases potential parking spaces in London.

Mr Harvey agrees that routine cyclists don't really require all that Lycra. "Most people don't need special clothing," he says. "If you go to big cycling countries like the Netherlands, you don't see many people in all that garb." Nor does he believe in those anti-pollution masks. Equally, it may come as a surprise that most bicycling bodies don't necessarily recommend helmets - the LCC, for instance, reckons that making helmets compulsory would result in a decrease in cycling. This is a matter for personal preference, however, and should you choose to wear one, a helmet will cost upwards of £20.

But the biggest saving comes in public transport and car-running costs. "Look at it that way, and you can save a huge amount of money," says Mr Harvey. "There are none of the costs of a car, such as road tax, MOT, insurance, licensing and fuel. Plus, you don't have to pay to park." Within reason, a cyclist can park almost anywhere, as long as they make sure their machine is locked to something secure, and isn't on the property of someone who may object to its presence.

Department of Trade and Industry figures from 1999 estimated that traffic congestion costs the UK economy £15-20bn every year in lost time and production. If a fifth of all journeys in Britain were cycled, industry would gain £100m per year by having a healthier workforce. "Cycling has been proved to be the cheapest form of transport around London," says Anna Trafford of the LCC, and the congestion charge and perceived unreliability of public transport have contributed to it.

There may also be productivity benefits. A recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute looked at the levels of disruption experienced by managers travelling to work by car, bus, motorbike, train, tube and bicycle. The results showed that the cyclists experienced the least amount of delay. As a cyclist I can personally vouch for the fact that it is one of the fastest ways of getting around London (but don't cycle on pavements: not only can you now get a £30 fine for doing so, but you might crash into a pedestrian, a fate inflicted on me this week).

Then there are the cost savings of better health. "The government has estimated the total cost of physical inactivity to the economy at £8.2bn a year," says Philip Insall, director of Sustrans' Active Travel team. "Last year, the National Cycle Network carried over 125 million journeys by pedestrians and cyclists, and there is a health benefit to every single one of those trips. "

Even less well-known is that, as part of its "green travel" agenda, the Government started using the tax system to promote cycling - including the 2002 announcement from Gordon Brown's office that employers could offer staff who pedal to work a tax-free breakfast on arrival.

Also under-publicised is the fact that employers can reimburse employees who cycle on company business 20p a mile (not commuting, alas, unless your employer requires you to work away from your normal workbase for less than two years), which employees can claim as a deduction from tax.

Now that we are being "designed" out of our cars, and the cost of public transport has in some quarters become as high as confidence in its reliability is low, can we afford not to cycle?

'I feel much better since I started to ride'

Lucy Davis, 31, teaches English as a foreign language and has been cycling in London for about three years.

"I started because I began living by a canal in London, and found that the towpath led all the way to my place of work," she says. "I had always had a bike as a child, but had lost the habit. Then I inherited a bike from someone, started cycling again, and now I cycle everywhere.

"The cost is minimal. The last service cost me £70, the bike was free, and I've never been into all the cycling accessories."

"It used to cost me about £80 a month to commute to work on the London Underground, so I've saved all that money. Because I cycle everywhere I don't need to join a gym to get fit, so I save on health club fees as well.

"You have to be very careful of drivers, and I'd recommend nervous cyclists to get training. But I feel so much better since I started cycling."

INSURING YOUR BIKE

* At a conservative estimate, about 100,000 bicycles are stolen every year.

* There are two ways of insuring your bicycle, says Nick Harvey of Bike Week. One is to put it on your household insurance, which in most cases will cover to a bicycle value limit of about £250. Then there is dedicated cycle insurance. At www.cycleguard.co.uk, I was quoted £48 with a possible £5 discount for a £300 bicycle registered at my central London postcode. With www.cycleinsurancedirect.co.uk, the price was £36.75. E&L insurance for a £300 bicycle ranges from £33 to £44 depending on the area and conditions ( www.eandl.co.uk). Prevention is best, though. Get a good lock, and be careful where you tether the bike, because if it's moveable, your insurance may be null and void.

* The London Cycling Campaign website www.lcc.org.uk has a link to insurance where the first bike worth £251-£300 is quoted at £34. Then there is third party insurance. Membership of the LCC has free third party insurance, while membership of the CTC brings free £5m public liability cover. Visit their website at www.ctc.org.uk.

THREE OF THE BEST

* CHEAP BIKE

Giant 04 Cypress comfort bike. An all round 'comfort bike' from this established manufacturer , available in both sexes. £164.99 from online store www.bonthronebikes.com

* MEDIUM BIKE

Specialized is another good make. This Specialized 04 Sequoia has a spec that will get the bike nerds salivating and baffle the ordinary buyer ("vibration-damping Zertz viscoelastic inserts?") £699 at online shop www.cyclestore.co.uk

* A TOP BIKE

Trek Madone 5.9

A sleek flash of silver for £3,999.99 RRP. Only for the very serious, but a lust object for dedicated, high performance cyclists. See www.trekbike.co.uk for stockists.

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