The Covid-19 pandemic has revived cycling to levels last seen in Britain in the 1960s as people started riding to work, or followed government edicts to get some exercise – and there is no sign of 2020’s enthusiasm fizzling out.
Demand for all types, from kids’ and mountain bikes to e-bikes, is up across the board, says Simon Irons, market data service director at the Bicycle Association (BA).
Its figures show 3.1m bikes were bought in Great Britain in 2020, about 15% more than in any of the past five years. A further 3m sales are expected in 2021.
These shiny new wheels were used in England, Scotland and Wales to clock up 5bn miles in 2020, according to the Department for Transport (DfT). This was 46% more than in 2019 and the “highest level on the public highway since the 1960s”, according to its annual road traffic survey.
Sales were up by nearly 70% in the first three months of this year, according to the BA, a figure that would probably be even higher but for stock shortages which one bike company executive describes as the industry’s “toilet-roll moment”.
The sudden increase has put additional pressure on production and, particularly recently, there have been constraints on shipping to deal with, too. The BA says this resulted in some temporary delays, especially for customers who wanted to buy a particular brand, model, size or colour.
Tim Goodall, managing director of Shropshire-based children’s brand Islabikes, says as soon as stock arrives it flies out the door.
“Ordinarily, we’d have a bit of everything and you’d get deliveries and the inventory has a nice wavy pattern,” he says. “At the moment, it is peaks and troughs. We’ve got regular deliveries, and we’re selling what comes in almost straight away, so we are in and out of stock. With hindsight, if we’d ordered 50% more in 2020 we would have sold them.”
The supply chain disruption means much longer lead times. Islabikes, for example, says its order times have increased from four to up to 18 months. The scramble to get hold of bikes has made people “less choosy”, says Goodall. “We will sell whatever colour we have in stock. Whether it’s pink or red or teal no longer matters.”
Halfords, the UK’s biggest cycling retailer, recently warned of a worldwide shortage. Its chief executive, Graham Stapleton, said last month that it had tens of thousands of bikes arriving in stores every week, but could still not promise full availability because some manufacturers could not keep up with demand.
Supply “was, and remains, a challenge”, Stapleton said, but the retailer has worked with new suppliers to “achieve a steady intake throughout the year”.
To placate shoppers the Halfords website devotes a section to explaining why products are sold out, highlighting factors such as a shortage of raw materials, factory closures and port delays. It also has menus that direct shoppers to bikes “in stock now”, “back in stock this week” and “coming soon”.
The strain that the industry’s supply chain is under has emphasised the need for shoppers “to be flexible in finding the right bike”, says Irons. Nonetheless, the BA thinks that across the whole of 2021 the industry will have “at least the same number available for purchase as in 2020”.
A poll of 2,000 consumers by market research firm Mintel found the number of cyclists who intend to buy a bike this year had risen to 42% from 37% in 2020, suggesting demand triggered by Covid has not been exhausted. It also revealed that almost a quarter of those who purchased a bike in 2020 used secondhand sellers, a six-point rise from the previous year.
But with the average spend on an adult bike put at £458 last year, and £126 for a kid’s model, according to the BA, there is also evidence of a growing appetite for subscription schemes like those that are becoming more common in areas such as clothing and furniture.
Swapfiets, the Dutch firm dubbed the “Netflix of bikes”, is stepping up its efforts to recruit riders in London after receiving a warm reception since setting up in the capital last year. The fast-growing company – the name means “swap bike” in Dutch – is the biggest rental service in Europe, with more than 220,000 bikes with signature blue front tyres, wheeling around 64 cities.
Onno Huyghe, its chief commercial officer, says it has about 700 users already in London but hopes that will soon be thousands and that it can match the success it enjoys in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where it has 45,000 and 20,000 riders, respectively.
“We have tested the waters in London with a soft launch and now feel it is time to accelerate,” says Huyghe. “We provide a very safe bike which is light and always in good shape, which, in the dense traffic in London, is quite important.”
It is offering an introductory price of £12.90 a month for a push bike if you sign up for six months. For flexible membership, which you can cancel before six months are up, you pay an additional £19.50 fee upfront.
A “deluxe” bike is £14.90 on a six-month hire basis, while an electric bike starts at £75 a month, and with both you can pay £19.50 for flexible membership. The cost includes repairs or replacement if things go wrong and a lock, but the bikes are not insured against theft. If one is stolen while you have it, you will pay a fee – starting at £40 for the standard bike if it was secured with the supplied lock, and rising if you did not lock it, or are on a more expensive contract.
The Bike Club is a nationwide subscription service, specialising in children’s bikes from sought-after brands such as Forme, Frog and Squish. It says its membership has tripled over the last year to 36,000.
James Symes, the co-founder and chief executive, says a growing number of people now think there’s “no point in owning a kid’s bike”. Renting avoids the upfront cost as well as the risk of buying a dud secondhand, he says. Its subscriptions for children cost between £5 and £15 a month.
“You can buy and sell secondhand bikes very easily but you don’t know how safe that is because it hasn’t been serviced or refurbished by a professional,” he adds. “Also, if your child is not quite there yet, a subscription means you can take a break without having spent a huge amount on something that is gathering dust in the shed.”
Its success with kids’ bikes has encouraged the London-based company to move into renting Forme adult bikes, too, with a service due to launch this month. In this market Symes says its biggest competitor is ownership because, unlike with children, adults never outgrow them. However, he thinks the model will appeal to beginners, or those who do not want the hassle of buying secondhand.
Its website lists five models to rent – all currently have a waiting list. Subscriptions start at £15 a month. For that price you can rent a Forme Winster 1, which retails at about £450. There is no minimum subscription period – instead, whenever you choose to cancel, you will pay a £29.99 fee for the bike to be collected. After 32 months’ hire, you can keep it – by that point, on a £15-a-month model, you will have paid £480.
If the bike gets stolen, you will still need to pay up to 32 months’ fees to cover the cost, unless you opt for the company’s Bike Club Plus membership. This is basically an insurance policy, costs £2 a month and comes with an excess. On adult bikes you will pay the first £110 towards the loss.
Renting has its advantages: if you are not happy with your wheels when you’re out and about, you can cancel or swap at less cost than if you had bought the bike. When it comes to maintenance and repairs – including a flat tyre or broken chain – these are included in the Swapfiets monthly fee and it promises to fix your bike within 48 hours.
The Bike Club will deal with faulty bikes, but the cost of general repairs and fixing punctures is covered by the member.
With staycations on the menu for many, whether you want to buy or borrow, the bike frenzy is expected to continue – for the time being anyway. Goodall advises people to put their names on retailers’ waiting lists and order immediately when a bike is back in stock, or risk missing out.