Europe is running out of bikes thanks to a British cycling boom that has caught the world's biggest bike manufacturers on the hop.
Bike shops are struggling to meet demand, which has tripled in the past 12 months despite massive price hikes. And that was before yesterday's start of the Tour de France, usually an annual sales trigger for armchair cycling enthusiasts.
The bicycle bonanza, which saw annual sales surge more than 20 per cent in June, comes as the rest of the UK high street struggles, with retail sales tumbling. Two-wheeled commuters are fuelling the surge, as more people embrace pedal power instead of battling with the Tube or driving.
From besuited commuters on folding Bromptons to Lance Armstrong-wannabes on sporty road bikes, Britain, it seems, is dividing into cycling tribes. Even fashionistas are in on the scene, following the lead set by the likes of model Agyness Deyn and the actress Chloë Sevigny.
Business for bike shops is booming partly because of the good weather: bike sales track ice-cream sales when the mercury rises. But bike experts also point to the popularity of the Government's "Cycle to Work" scheme – which uses tax incentives to entice employees onto two wheels – to explain the sales surge. The scheme is estimated to account for as much as half of all sales in some bike shops. One of its biggest operators, Cyclescheme, said it had doubled the number of vouchers, which are exchanged for bikes, it issued in the past 12 months.
Mark Brown, director of the Association of Cycle Traders, said: "Cycle to Work has been really important as it reduces the cost of cycling and means it's no longer just for enthusiasts. It has reached a tipping point, which is getting more people on to their bikes."
If they can get hold of them, that is. Carlton Reid, executive editor of the trade magazine, BikeBiz, has warned that shops are running out of the most popular models, especially £500-plus road bikes and commuting-friendly hybrids. "They're running dry. There will be nothing left by August," he said.
The US brands Giant, Trek and Specialized are the worst affected, testament to their popularity with the new breed of two-wheeled commuter. Many shops are also low on certain British-made Ridgeback models, especially the £350 Ridgeback Velocity. Chris Compton, of London's Compton Cycles, has warned: "The shortage of road bikes and quality hybrid bikes is quite a problem, but there are gaps across the board."
Jeremy Persad, Cyclescheme's operations director, said: "Manufacturers are running out because they have been caught out by the expansion of the Cycle to Work initiative. More employers are turning to employee benefits like the bike scheme to incentivise staff because of the economic climate."
A recent ACT poll showed that 95 per cent of specialist bike retailers were struggling with shortages. Half of the local bike shops which respond to its monthly sales survey said sales, which include accessories and workshop servicing, had soared by over 20 per cent in June, with 83 per cent reporting an increase compared to last year.
"Europe is running out of bikes. There aren't enough to meet demand," one staff member at On Your Bike, a cycle shop in south-east London, said.
To plug the gaps, exacerbated by the long lead times that come with manufacturing in South-east Asia, dealers are pulling in stock from other European countries, with bike-makers bringing forward the launch of 2010 models normally in the shops in the autumn. But even these steps might not make up for last year's overcautious ordering, observers warn. There are even long waiting lists for bikes that are made in Britain.
Although the UK bike industry is a rare manufacturing success story, outperforming every other sector of the UK economy over the past five years except weapons production, we produces barely 5 per cent of the one million machines that Raleigh, our best-known bicycle maker, was producing in the 1950s.
Rafael Powell, 23, Musician
"This bike is a custom job. I had it made for me at a shop on Brick Lane. It's a fixed gear. People will tell you they get the Aerospoke because it makes you go fast. That's rubbish. They get it because it looks good. I think this bike says creativity. I thought long and hard about the colours."
Viktoria Westin, 37, Gallery manager
"I ride a Swedish bike called a Kronan. It's based on a Swedish army design. It's safe, it's heavy, and it doesn't have any extra gears. It just goes. It's a proper bike, an old-fashioned kind of bike. You can't draw a sweat on a bike like this – it doesn't go fast enough. If a hill is just too steep, I simply get off and push."
Amire Fukuta, 29, Investment manager
"This is a Condor Fratello. I used to do triathlons, and when you're used to riding road bikes, you want something that gives you a little acceleration. There's always a competitive side to it, even when you're commuting. Sometimes I race people, but I tend to race cars."
Girl meets boy
Annick Benningen, 27, Interior designer
"I'm on a Pashley Classic. It belongs to my boyfriend. I ride to work and back, from Notting Hill to Soho – the bit through Hyde Park is beautiful. For me, riding has nothing to do with speed; it's just a much better way to experience the city."
Just like Dad
Matt Selby, 40, and daughter Liberty, 6, Casting director
"My bike's a Giant hybrid and we've just bought the Tag-A-Long. It's a safer way for Lib to ride and we can go further, too, although you can really tell when she's not peddling. I don't commute, but we take the whole family out for leisure – we often take the towpaths by the Thames. It's a nice way to spend a day out that's not based around shopping."
Unfold it and go
Les Spiro, 50, Software engineer
"I ride a Brompton: it's the best folding bike out there. It's not a proper bike, but it's quite light, so it can go quite fast. For my commute I used to have a bike at each end of my train journey and I had to worry about locking them up. Now I can just carry this with me to the office or to a meeting."
Cycling in numbers
£350m the value of the UK bike market
354m trips on National Cycle Network in 2007, up 5 per cent
12,000 total miles cobered by the NCN in Britain