Britain is on the brink of a freewheeling revolution. A bicycle boom is under way across the UK, with more and more people rediscovering the joy of two wheels rather than four. Sales of bikes have soared and cyclists are travelling further, according to latest figures. The rise of pedal power is poised to accelerate, as cities from Bristol to York invest millions of pounds in new cycling infrastructure.
New government research reveals that the number of miles cycled on average last year leapt 10 per cent, while the average distance rose 17 per cent. While bike sales have gone up by more than 25 per cent in the past three years, spending on new cars fell by 13 per cent in the same period, according to the National Travel Survey.
The upward trend has been most marked in the south of England: 8 per cent of inner London residents and one in 25 workers in the South-east and South-west say they cycle to work, according to the survey, which interviewed around 20,000 people.
But it is not only commuters who are behind the increase. Organisers of sportive events such as the Forest of Dean Classic, held around Monmouth, or next month's Tour of Worcestershire, have reported record demand for places from amateur cycling enthusiasts. It took only seven minutes for 300 extra places for the 190km Verenti Dragon Ride, held in South Wales in June, to sell out, while 4,500 riders saddled up for the 130km Etape Caledonia in Perthshire in May, 50 per cent more than last year.
Patrick Trainor, who promotes sports rides for organisations such as Wheels in Wheels, said cyclists are entering events to test themselves without racing. "Sportives make riding in different places attractive as the route is marked out for you and nutrition and back-up are taken care of," he said. A host of smaller events, including the Independent's own inaugural London to Brighton Bike Ride on 11 September, have sprung up to cater for the increase in interest.
Today the centre of Manchester will be closed to vehicles for one of 13 Sky Rides taking place this year – eight more than last year. Ian Drake, the chief executive of British Cycling, which is supporting the Sky Rides, said: "Cycling is booming and we are seeing an unprecedented growth in the number of people cycling regularly, currently 1.88 million people cycle at least once a week." He added that Sky Rides had prompted more than 100,000 people to "dust off their bikes and explore their city on two wheels". The organisation is aiming to get a million more people cycling regularly by 2013 and said its membership had risen in the past two years to more than 32,000, compared with 22,000 in 2007.
Much of the surge in interest was sparked by Britain's 34 medals in the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics. "Cycling is Britain's most successful sport, and of course there are the health, transport and environmental advantages being promoted by the Government. The recession has also helped encourage people to get on their bikes as a more economic way to travel," a British Cycling spokeswoman added.
The former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, last year recommended the Government set national targets to increase travel by bicycle eightfold. Boris Johnson, the bicycling Mayor of London, ultimately wants one in five journeys in the capital to be made by bike – a level not reached since 1904. Today, cycling accounts for only 2 per cent of journeys in the capital.
Evidence of the cycling boom came as Mr Johnson launched his so-called "Boris bikes", 5,000 cycles that can be hired from 315 docking stations across the city by the half-hour for as little as 12p per day. A number of other cities, including Liverpool, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Newcastle, have shown interest in similar schemes, according to , the national cyclists' organisation CTC.
Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz, a trade magazine, said the London scheme, which follows the Vélib network launched in Paris in 2007, would have a "massive impact on cycling in London and elsewhere". But he warned that infrastructure still needed to be vastly improved to entice more people on to two wheels. "The Government is slowly realising that it won't get an increase in cycling unless motorists are tamed," he said. "Too many cycle routes, especially in London, aren't joined up, leaving cyclists to be spat out in the middle of junctions."
The National Travel Survey, which covered personal travel made in Great Britain during 2009, showed that the average distance travelled per person by bicycle was 46 miles, compared with 42 miles the previous year, the average trip distance rising to 2.8 miles from 2.4 miles. Chris Peck, CTC's policy co-ordinator, said: "We expected that the recession, along with high fuel prices, would lead to an increase in cycling. The growth is particularly associated with those in the highest income bracket, which may be as a result of the boom in leisure cycling and commuting by bike."
The figures revealed a class split in cycling: in households in the top fifth of income brackets, 77 miles were cycled per person. In the lowest two such quintiles, only 32 miles were cycled per household member. A bike can cost anything from £65 to £1,000. Men in their forties are among the keenest cyclists. But young people are cycling less, because of road safety fears, the report showed: the number of trips by a typical teenager has plummeted from 70 a year in the early Nineties to 28.
Born again: Joseph Byrne, 28, IT consultant
This is my Boris bike! It's like a Dutch bike. I grew up in Holland so I quite like that. It's a good relaxed bike – you can sit upright, relax your shoulders, and take a good look at the world. It glides along. It's been about 12 years since I last rode a bike. It's got drum brakes, so if it rains it doesn't really affect it. You can store stuff on it that you buy. Security's not an issue with this. I live on the fifth floor, so I just park it in a bay about two minutes up the road from me.
Fold-up: Jasna Jevremovic, 22, medical student
This is a Brompton, which is an English design. I've had it for two-and-a-half years and I mostly use it to get to work. Having said that, I do use it every day. I even used it to cycle to Paris. It's fantastic for the city. The gears are in the hub so it doesn't get dirty. I'm from Serbia and I cycled more there. I used to have a road bike there. I find cycling easy, convenient, and it's great if I buy something because I can just carry it on the bike.
DIY-er: Laura Udeh, 46, civil servant
It's a Pioneer Metro GLX. It's a basic bike. I promise it's not a Boris bike! I've had it for about five years, and I look after it. The springy bits are for the bumps. I use it to get to work. You buy the gear, the helmet and everything once, and other than that you just service it. That costs about £45. I want to learn to service it myself, mostly because it would be a nightmare if I got a flat tyre. I need to be able to change it myself, I think.
Road racer: Ali Moazed, 36, fund manager
This is a Bianchi. I'm an amateur, but it looks cool. I use it a couple of times a week. I've only had it for about five months. I started cycling again to get into shape but it's also a good way to get to work, especially in the summer. The only costs are the bike and maintenance. It cost about £600, so that's a good deal.
Fixie fan: Kavah Iyati, 27, musician
This is a fixed-wheel bike. It's old, from 1953, and I've had it about a year. It was a gift from a friend, and I changed it to a fixed-wheel for about £20 – I can control it better now. I use it every day – I'm a musician so I use it to go to rehearsals, to the studio, to friends, to my home. It all adds up. Before, I took the bus or other public transport, but this is cheaper.
Bargain hunter: Teresa Macauley, chef
I've had this Raleigh bike for about a month. I bought my other bike for £50 down Portobello market, but it wasn't very good – in fact it was really dodgy. So I bought this one instead – it cost about £200. It's faster and cheaper than public transport and good exercise. I use it to get to and from where I work in Mayfair, central London, which is about three miles from where I live. It can be scary on my bike: I have been cut up once, and – you're not going to believe this – by a police car.
Interviews by Pavan Amara