It has been one of the few joys of the coronavirus crisis. As threatening trucks and cars have disappeared, family cycling groups — parents accompanied by sometimes unsteady children — have taken over once-forbidding roads. Less confident adults have wobbled along on ancient mountain bikes.
As the lockdown ends, cycling looks set to do more than helping people to pass the time. On May 9, Grant Shapps, transport secretary, announced plans for a £250m emergency “active travel fund” to finance building of wider pavements for walking and new, segregated cycle tracks. The money is the first, critical down payment on a £2bn plan intended to help staff to return to work by the only private modes that can stop city centres from being snarled by long lines of space-hungry cars.
The cycling element nevertheless raises questions for many British adults. Given that only 4 per cent of commuter trips in England were by bike before the lockdown, most have little idea about the mode’s most basic practicalities.
One key issue is which bicycle to buy and how to finance the purchase. The government has been promoting the benefits of the Cycle to Work scheme (see box). This is a very tax-efficient method of buying a bike, but requires some administrative effort.
Clare Hey, an editor at Simon & Schuster who has mentored many colleagues into starting cycle commuting, says many feel intimidated by shops full of bewildering choice.
“I think there’s probably a nervousness around going into a bike shop and knowing what to ask for,” Ms Hey says.
Bike shop workers have found themselves dealing with thousands of bemused would-be commuters nervous about starting cycling and with often unrealistic ideas about how cheaply they can do so.
Roger Graver, manager of the Islington branch of Velorution, a London-based chain selling mostly upmarket commuter bikes, says many buyers come in insisting they are looking for a “basic bike”.
“People say ‘I’m just starting out again and I have this much to spend’,” Mr Graver says.
The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.
The key warning from both bike shops and experienced bike commuters is that, while a decent commuting machine need not be hugely costly, ambivalent beginners often spend so little that their commuting plans literally fall apart. Neither experienced commuters nor cycle shops recommend machines costing less than around £350.
Chris Kenyon, founder of CyclingWorks, a campaign by businesses to promote commuter cycling, warns that the cheapest bikes are unlikely to have components good enough to stand the rigours of regular commuting reliably and safely.
“Don’t buy a crappy bike,” he warns.
Part of the secret is to avoid buying online. Customers cannot check the size of internet-purchased bikes, cannot take them for test rides and struggle to get recourse for any warranty issues. A specialist, local cycle shop will generally ensure a bike fits the rider well and carry out a follow-up service after a few weeks. It may offer a period of free servicing and will be on hand to replace brake pads, chains, tyres and cables as they start to wear out.
Mr Graver says that customers often seek help from Velorution in setting up online-purchased bikes that are clearly the wrong size and badly made.
“It’s not easy to set them up so that they’re the way we would want them to leave the shop,” Graver says.
Make do and mend
The issues are clear at Brixton Cycles, a long-established south London bike shop. Staff, including Lincoln Romain, a member of the co-operative that owns the business, are working frantically to repair customers’ existing bikes, many freshly hauled out of cellars or from back gardens. A socially-distanced queue of new customers waits patiently to assess their bike-buying options.
Still tending to a customer’s Ridgeback bike, Mr Romain says that, amid the current high demand, Tuesday’s weekly delivery of stock may be largely sold by Friday. Staff have to encourage customers to decide quickly if they want a particular machine, since it will probably disappear if they leave to think things over.
“It’s not a good situation to put customers in,” Mr Romain says. “It’s almost like, ‘You just have to make your mind up’.”
Nevertheless, within the constraints of what is available (and limiting the field to purely pedal-powered bikes) commuters and bike retailers suggest new commuters should probably buy some kind of hybrid — the melding of mountain bike and road bike technology that customers probably picture when asking for a “basic bike”.
Hybrids feature flat handlebars, rather than the swept-back drop handlebars of more sporty types. According to Mr Kenyon, that means a nervous rider can look around more readily than when hunched over drops.
“An upright riding position makes the world of difference,” he says.
Mr Romain recommends disc brakes — where the brake pads work on discs on the axle, rather than grasping the wheels’ rims.
“They last longer [than pads on rim brakes] and just go on and you don’t worry about it,” he says.
Mr Graver meanwhile advocates hub gears, with the gear mechanism hidden in the oil-filled hub of the rear wheel. They tend to be more expensive and heavier than the simpler “derailleur” gears more common on British bikes. But Mr Graver says hub gears — a feature of the perpetually popular Brompton folding bike — are hassle-free.
“There are certain customers who say, ‘I just want to get on my bike; I don’t like doing any mechanics’,” he says.
Prices can add up, nonetheless. Trek, the US manufacturer, recommends a retail price of £450 for its FX2 disc, a hybrid that Brixton Cycles recommends to many new riders. Like many basic models, the machine would benefit from the addition of mudguards for rainy days and a basket or rack for carrying luggage.
Women frequently prefer to substitute a women’s-specific saddle if buying a bike designed for men, while puncture-resistant tyres such as Schwalbe’s Marathon Plus can virtually eliminate the risk of flat tyres.
Meanwhile, the starting price for the bike that Chris Kenyon recommends — the robust, steel-framed Secret Service, built by Amsterdam’s WorkCycles and sold by Flying Dutchman in Camden, north London — is £975. The custom-built machines are currently taking eight to ten weeks from order to arrive in the UK.
Mr Graver’s favourite is the Friedrich, an aluminium-framed thing of beauty built by Germany’s Schindelhauer and costing £2,495. If you are spending this much on a bike, make sure it’s covered on your home insurance policy with a lock that satisfies your insurer’s requirements.
Yet, for those who have long enjoyed cycle commuting, the technical considerations and cost are less important than their feelings about discovering cities on two wheels. Bike shop staff and long-term commuters alike take little prompting to launch into rhapsodies on the subject.
Clare Hey expresses the joy of watching experienced cycle commuters pass on that passion to new people through her buddy scheme.
“That’s the most satisfying thing about it — opening up freedom to other people that haven’t tried it,” she says.
Save on the cost of your new bike with salary payments
The government hopes commuters will be prepared to shoulder the cost of a new bike partly because of the Cycle to Work Scheme, which allows them to pay for bikes via salary deductions from pre-tax income.
Depending on your tax bracket, the combined tax and national insurance savings could add up to a 31 to 48 per cent discount on the retail price of the bike and certain allowable accessories, such as helmet, lock, bike lights and protective clothing.
Total spend before the tax discount used to be capped at £1,000, but this limit was removed last year — partly to allow customers to purchase more expensive electric bikes.
To take advantage, your employer will need to sign up to a bike scheme. The commuter rents the bike from the employer or scheme operator for 24 monthly instalments (taken from their salary before tax) adding up to the original purchase price. At the end of this period, they can make a final payment to purchase the bike and equipment for a heavily-depreciated price.
There could, however, be challenges using the scheme at present because of the high stock turnover at many bike shops. Some retailers are reluctant to put bikes aside until they receive the voucher certifying that the scheme will pay for the bike — and, in current circumstances, there is a risk the bike will be sold in the meantime.
However, cycle retailers also offer alternative financing methods, partly because of their frustration at the high commissions the largest cycle-to-work schemes extract. Velorution organises its own cycle to work scheme — Velo2Work — with employers, offering the same tax breaks. Other retailers — including Brixton Cycles — offer finance schemes that allow purchasers to pay by instalments.
Crdit: Source link