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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Cycling Safety

How shipping can help to avoid pandemics


Diseases like Covid-19 are passed from animals to humans. They spread because of animal trafficking, deforestation and human encroachment into wildlife habitats. Maritime shipping plays an important role here that needs to be addressed.

By Olaf Merk

Cruise ships played a highly visible role in spreading Covid-19
(Photo: Kotenko Oleksandr/Shutterstock)

The exact causes of Covid-19 are still unclear. Yet it is highly probable that it is a so-called zoonotic disease, transmitted from animal to human. Around 60% of existing human infectious diseases are zoonotic, including highly lethal ones such Ebola, Aids, SARS, West Nile Fever and the plague. Zoonotic viruses cause no symptoms in the host animal; for humans they can be deadly.

The main factor behind zoonotic diseases is humanity’s relation with nature. Viruses spill over to people as a result of the exploitation of the globe’s fauna, such as hunting and wildlife trade. Human encroachment into other species’ natural habitats, for instance through logging, mining cultivation or urban development, has increased contact with wild animals and heightened virus spill-over.

“Highly efficient transport networks can propel localised virus outbreaks into worldwide pandemics.”

As humans continue to invade unexplored wildlife areas, more zoonotic diseases are likely to jump the boundary between species and afflict us. Fully 75% of the emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Of these, almost half are linked to changes in land use, principally for the production of meat, soy and palm oil.  As science journalist David Quammen, author of “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” put it back in 2012: “If you shake a tree, something will fall out.”

Carrying ballast

The physical interconnectedness of our globe through a finely-woven web of transport links has huge benefits for mankind.  The downside: highly efficient transport networks can propel localised virus outbreaks into worldwide pandemics – as happened with Covid-19.

The main responsibility falls on maritime shipping. This is nothing new – infectious diseases have spread aboard ships for centuries, including the plague in the Middle Ages and the lethal 1918/19 influenza. The role of shipping as an amplifier of infectious diseases has waned somewhat with the decline of sea-borne passenger transport. But ships still spread viral diseases, as the many cases of Covid-infected cruise ships show. A significant part of the spread of Covid-19 in Australia has been associated with infected passengers disembarking from a cruise ship in Sydney.

The ballast water dumped by ships contains alien invasive species
(Photo: Denys Yelmanov/Shutterstock}

Ships also carry pathogens in much more oblique, but no less dangerous ways: via ballast water. Ballast is an essential component of seafaring. During a voyage, vessels take on board sea water to replace weight lost through fuel and water consumption while at sea. The ballast reduces hull stress, optimises manoeuvrability and improves propulsion. No longer needed, the water is dumped into the sea again.

This simple practice can have lethal consequences. Ballast water contains a multitude of microbes, small invertebrates, larvae, and bacteria. Removed from their habitat and dumped elsewhere, they become “aquatic invasive species’ that can cause havoc in their new ecosystem.

“The 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru is believed to have been introduced into three ports through ballast water.”

The 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru is believed to have been introduced into three ports through ballast water from Bangladesh. The disease subsequently spread throughout Latin America, killing more than 10 000 people by 1994. The use of ballast water has been much stricter regulated in recent years, nevertheless it remains a primary conduit for invasive alien species worldwide – with immediate consequences for human health.  

A seamless (virus) supply chain

With a share of 80% of global freight, maritime shipping is the mainstay of the frictionless and cost-efficient transport chains that lubricate global trade. And therefore it is also implicated in the causal chain that links international trade into the causes of pandemics – both directly and indirectly.

Pangolins are the most trafficked wild animal
(Photo: Afrianto Silalahi/Shutterstock)

Legal and illicit wildlife trade is one aspect. Hundreds of millions of plants and animals are moved around the planet every year, with an estimated annual economic value of over USD 300 billion. Several zoonotic infectious diseases have emerged in part due to the human-animal contact that occurs along the wildlife trade chain.

Maritime shipping plays an important but hardly recognised role in this. Take trade in pangolins, one of the possible intermediary hosts of Covid-19. Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world, mostly because of their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. An estimated 596 000 pangolins were illegally traded between 2016 and mid-2019 –  usually via ocean transport, with scales concealed in boxes or sacks in shipping containers and declared as fish or other cargo. Arrests, prosecutions and conviction rates are low, also because of corruption at certain seaports.

The forest for the trees

Another example of shipping’s role in the loss of biodiversity is its indifference towards illegal forestry. Depending on the source, illegal logging accounts for 5% to 40% of global wood production. Too many in the maritime supply chain turn a blind eye on illegal wood trade. Working in separate systems, suppliers, transporters and government agencies report forest products differently, which makes identification of – and action against – illegal wood trade difficult.

Shipping plays an important role in the illegal wood trade
(Photo:  Infinitum Produx/Shutterstock)

Law enforcement is weak in many ports. Some have become downright hubs for “wood laundering”, where the origin of the wood is covered up before it reaches its final destination. Ship operators and agents that do not check the legality of the cargo they transport enable such practices. The anonymity of shipping containers helps, as do vessels operating under “flags of convenience” with little regulatory scrutiny. Critics lament “a lack of due diligence, a denial of responsibility, and even of culpable negligence”.

Lessons to learn

The reaction of transport policy-makers to Covid-19 has so far been to address the immediate effects of the pandemic. Soon, the focus should shift towards how future pandemics can be avoided, and such a strategic reflection will need to consider the role of maritime transport.

Such a strategy should identify shipping-related measures to halt the future propagation of pathogens. It should also address the causes of pandemics, such as wildlife trade, deforestation and other pressures on biodiversity loss via changes in land use. Governments should not be shy about making financial help for shipping companies conditional on the implementation of measures which will help prevent the next zoonotic disease developing into a pandemic.

“Seaports should up their game and improve their capability for effective scrutiny of cargo.”

Maritime transport companies, for their part, could use their pivotal role in supply chains to better scrutinise their cargo. The ongoing digitalisation of the maritime supply chain improves the traceability of cargo and its characteristics, including its legality. That way, shipping companies could show they are serious about implementing due diligence on the cargo they transport.

Seaports should also up their game and improve their capability for effective scrutiny of cargo. Several ports have created Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Units to detect and prevent the illegal transport of wildlife. Seaports should also include combating illegal timber and wildlife trade as objectives in their sustainability strategies, and be accountable for their actions on this. 

Certainly certified

The shipping sector can also do a lot to contain further deforestation around the globe. Commitments to move cargo only for clients that comply with certification schemes that protect natural forests would go a long way. These are common in palm oil, timber and paper supply chains, but rarer in the soy and cattle sectors.

Deforestation is a result of export-oriented, intensive agriculture which needs sea transport
(Photo: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Examples include schemes run by bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Amazon Soy Moratorium, and the Zero Deforestation Cattle Agreements and, for fish, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Last but not least, the international community will do well to think more about the role of maritime shipping in relation to biodiversity – in the oceans as well as on land – and include it in multilateral agreements. The new UN Global Biodiversity Framework, currently in preparation under the Convention on Biological Diversity, will define targets and pathways for the conservation and management of biodiversity for the next decade and beyond. It seems like a good opportunity for a strong signal that long-term lessons from the current Covid-19 health crisis are being learned.


Olaf Merk is ports and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum. Views are his own.