Wheels of Fortune: Riding High on Cycling’s Second Golden Age

With the bike industry posting record results, we take a spin around what’s afoot to assess whether pedal power is here to stay.

By Selwyn Parker

The Starley Rover launched cycling’s first golden age in 1885

Just around the corner from my apartment in the city of Perth, Scotland, is a little bike store that is now in its 115th year of business. In all that time, the shop has had just three owners – the founder who retired after nearly 50 years and a former RAF pilot who handed it on to his son. And the store has never been as busy – “every day is like Christmas”, the owner told me.

For a variety of reasons, we are witnessing the second golden age of the bicycle, more than a century after the first, as the most efficient form of transport ever devised makes a glittering comeback from relative neglect.

“The bicycle is seeing an extraordinary cultural revolution,” predicted Virgille Caillet, director general of France’s Union Sport & Cycle, as the revival was gathering speed two years ago.

The evidence for his view is mounting. In Britain alone a new bicycle is sold every ten seconds. Many cities are rapidly expanding their traffic-free cycling lanes, like Mexico City which is working on a four-fold increase that may become permanent after the pandemic. Since 2020, Bogota’s Ciclovia initiative has taken cars off a designated 560-km network of roads every single day instead of just the one. In the Czech Republic, the Rekola bike-rental system has been extended to five cities, while Madrid recently added 50 stations to bring its total to 250. Moscow’s bike-share programme, in its seventh year of operation, now accounts for over five million trips a year.

From a single Sunday to all-year-round: Bogotá’s “Ciclovía”

And that’s just outside. During the lockdowns, millions of exercise-starved people jumped on static bicycles. In fact, never in human history have so many people spent so many hours pedalling nowhere as fast as they could. According to UK industry newsletter BikeBiz, manufacturers of indoor bikes experienced a 440% week-on-week increase in orders through much of the pandemic. At the same time, subscriptions to virtual cycling sites like Zwift, Peloton, BigRingVR went through the roof. Currently, Peloton alone claims 1.67 million members, up by 25% since the first quarter of 2021.

Although they were not going anywhere, many indoor cyclists did a lot of good for others as well as their health, like Londoner Jacob Hill-Gowing, who raised EUR 17 500 for a worthy cause by riding 3 500 kilometres over 41 days in a one-bedroom flat.

Le Tour de Flat: Jacob Hill-Gowing pedals through the pandemic

The industry is celebrating, like Japanese giant Shimano that expects net group profit to jump by nearly 50% compared with 2020. “The global cycling market has expanded by 40% to 50% since 2019 owing to the effects of the pandemic,” explains president Taizo Shimano.

It is not just the pandemic, though, that is putting people back in the saddle. The rapid development of the e-bike is proving transformational, enabling even the relatively unfit to ride almost anywhere they want. Today’s models are lighter (down to 11kg in the latest releases), more sophisticated and more manageable than the clunky versions of a decade ago. At up to EUR 4 000 each, e-bikes outsell standard machines by up to three times, according to the industry. Official figures from a variety of European cycling bodies predict annual e-bike sales to more than quadruple to 17 million by 2030, way more than vehicles.

Battery-assisted bikes also threaten to revolutionise the delivery industry. As the batteries have got more powerful and lighter, a new wave of cargo bikes is emerging. As Velo-city 2021 – the cycling conference in Lisbon in September – will confirm in a session entitled Exploring the endless potential of cargo bikes, they are roughly 60% faster than vans in the more congested city centres, allowing them to deliver ten parcels an hour compared with six for vans, according to a study in London. As a not-insignificant bonus, they also slash emissions by 90% compared with diesel-fuelled vans.

And they are much cheaper – the latest models cost around  EUR 3 400, carry up to 80kg at a battery-assisted top speed of 25km an hour, and cover nearly 60km without a recharge. Little wonder then that many European cities offer fat subsidies for cargo bikes, with Germany’s Brandenburg topping the table at EUR 4 000.

Low-carbon London cargo

The big question is whether a pandemic-induced boom in cycling will fizzle out. UK’s Bicycle Association, the official industry body, is in no doubt. “Our data suggests the UK consumer has rediscovered their love of cycling – the trajectory is set for long-term growth,” predicts its latest report. A happy confluence of transformational factors in the form of improved technology, climate-change activism and a renewed focus on personal health in the wake of the pandemic suggests this observation is correct.

As bicycle historians know, the first golden age started in 1885 when the Starley Rover appeared. Known as the “ordinary”, it was revolutionary because of its diamond-shaped frame, equal-sized wheels and, eventually, air-filled tyres. Almost overnight, the invention changed people’s lives by giving them the freedom to travel far at several times the speed of walking.

Today’s bicycles, which are essentially still ordinaries in design, promise to give people back that same sense of adventure.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.

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ITF Resources:

Re-spacing Our Cities For Resilience (PDF): React, reboot and rethink – how cities can meet this triple challenge to continue as catalysts for creative social and economic activity despite new health imperatives.

Best Practice for Urban Road Safety: Seven case studies of cities that are implementing data-driven road safety policies to protecting vulnerable road users in Barcelona, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Fortaleza, London, New York and Rotterdam.

Safe Micromobility: What are the safety implications of e-scooters and other forms of micromobility in cities. The report considers a range of actions to make urban traffic with micromobility safe, including in street layout, vehicle design and vehicle operation, user education and enforcement of rules.

Travel Transitions: How Transport Planners and Policy Makers Can Respond to Shifting Mobility Trends

Integrating Urban Public Transport Systems and Cycling

Cycling Safety

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