Bike to the future

As we pedal back towards our lives before lockdown, Steve Lee urges you to stay on your bike, and guides you through buying one 

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Few positives have arisen from the current Covid-19 epidemic. A wholly unexpected one though appears to have been an increase in bicycle usage.

Quieter roads, which sadly appear to have been temporary, coupled with public transport restrictions and an unseasonably warm late spring conspired to form a perfect storm. Most bike shops were open throughout, regarded as providing an essential service, and found their stock of bicycles either running low or even dry, while workshops were booked up with repairs weeks in advance. Brompton, British manufacturer of the de facto bike choice for the well-heeled urban commuter, reported a 500 per cent sales increase for its folding model during the springtime.

By early May, government statisticians were claiming a vague 70 per cent increase in the number of people on bikes accompanied by an equally ambiguous £2 billion package to “put cycling and walking at the heart of our transport policy”. Considering 2018 figures show under 2 per cent of journeys in Britain were taken by bicycle, there’s a long road ahead if the government genuinely wants more people cycling for health, recreation, as part of their daily commute or, ideally, all three.

So you’re new to cycling? First things first: you need a bike.

Question number one from cycling virgins, or those who haven’t ridden since childhood, is usually: how much do I need to spend to get a decent bike?

As with many purchases, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. The difference between a £1,000 bike and a £750 one will almost certainly be significantly less than the difference between a £500 bicycle and one costing £250. A do-it-all adult bike retailing at around £350 should, in theory, fulfil the basic needs of the new commuter/leisure cyclist. This will be, as the trade likes to say, an “entry level” machine capable of giving the owner a taste of road riding with the capability for gentle off-roading along towpaths and cycleways.

Venturing sub-£200 for a new bike is tempting fate: componentry will be low quality, weight heavy and you will find yourself saddled with a vehicle likely proving more trouble than it’s worth. Paying £500-plus for a first bike won’t be off the table for the wealthy.

The ubiquity of the nationwide Halfords chain tempts many new to bike buying. There are good and bad sales people in every shop but the chain’s average staff member is likely to be less knowledgeable than someone in a reputable, specialist bike retailer. The positives of shopping at Halfords are the choice of stock, convenience and the value for money offered by their in-house Carrera range.

The French sports retailer Decathlon is also making inroads into the UK market and its own-brand B’twin bikes are similarly great value but, again, the quality of customer service and advice varies greatly in store.

The best bet for the beginner is your local bike shop (abbreviated to LBS by those in the cycling fraternity). Granted, you occasionally encounter elitist staff in these establishments but that is thankfully rare. Honest advice from knowledgeable people with a genuine love of cycling is what you expect from your LBS and if you find a good one, you’ll certainly reap the rewards with unbiased guidance, tips and general bonhomie on tap. Also, free high-quality coffee will be available should you strike really lucky.

The second-hand market is also worth considering. A percentage of those bikes bought earlier this year will most likely be now languishing almost new in garages, sheds and lofts up and down the land so it may be worth putting out a request to friends, family and local community groups via social media or good old word of mouth. Online sale and auction sites may also prove fruitful but it’s recommended that you enlist the advice of someone bike-friendly to help with your search. Also, buy local so as not to hand over any cash until a thorough inspection of the goods has taken place. Frankly, second-hand purchasing can be a minefield.

While all bikes have much in common, there’s also a vast field of sub-genres to get lost in. Full-suspension, pure road, hybrid, mountain, gravel, downhill, BMX, commuter or jump bike, madam? There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to bike choice except this one: DO NOT BUY A BUDGET FULL SUSPENSION BIKE. Just don’t. Please. Sprung at either end, these are noisy, heavy, clunky, awful, ugly, inefficient, overly complicated, uncomfortable and wholly unnecessary. Please, just don’t.

Racer-style bikes – drop handlebars, skinny tyres, head down/arse up riding position – are doubtless the fastest, most energy-efficient type of bike out there. They’re also uncomfortable (due to aforementioned riding position and rock-hard, minimal, super-slick tyres), twitchy and rather unforgiving. They’re not really recommended for the beginner.

Mountain bikes, with fat and knobbly tyres, are for off-roading. BMX bikes are for BMX tracks and skate parks. Jump bikes are for dirt jumping. For the majority of commuters and leisure cyclists a hybrid/city bike is the most suitable. They have flat handlebars for a relaxing riding position, tyres with semi-slick road tread for low rolling resistance but fatter than pure road bike tyres for extra comfort, solid frames with suitable fixtures for adding luggage racks and carriers if required and a choice of relatively low gears to suit urban riders and beginners alike. Any decent bike shop will be able to help with advice on sizing.

There is a range of extras that most shops will attempt to sell you, some more essential than others. You’d be strongly advised to always carry a spare inner tube and a small pocket pump should you puncture. Brush up on how to remove a wheel, insert a new tube, and replace the wheel on YouTube beforehand. A small multi-tool, with folding Allen keys and screwdrivers could also come in handy. Front and rear lights are advisable unless you only head out on the sunniest of days. See also: a waterproof jacket. And for the commuter, always carry a decent lock. Many employers still provide woefully inadequate bike storage facilities.

Helmets aren’t compulsory in the UK but are obviously advisable. Considering they all consist of a polystyrene inner shell covered by a thin, plastic outer layer it’s rather odd that they retail between £10 and £200-plus. Try a few different brands, models and sizes if possible to find one that fits you snugly. Any decent helmet has a range of adjustments for minor tweaks and will last years so it’s worth investing in a comfortable one with an appealing design.

The National Cycle Network totals over 16,000 miles in the UK, with around a third comprising paths free from motorised traffic. For younger children and inexperienced adults, these off-road sectors – alongside local parks and places such as canal towpaths – are where to begin your cycling adventures.

Bikeability is the Department of Transport’s national award scheme for cycle training in England and, although primarily aimed at children, your local provider will likely offer adult training courses too. The majority of school kids have the chance to undertake level one and two training in years five or six, with the courses offering basic advice for road cycling, such as appropriate positioning, the Highway Code and simple bike safety checks. Similar instruction for adults is worthwhile for the inexperienced cyclist. Although there is no substitute for practice, learning basic skills from experienced, non-patronising instructors is a fantastic start.

Despite what hysterical tabloid commentators would have you believe, the majority of motorists are considerate around cyclists. There are exceptions, but with the use of the correct positioning, experience and common sense there are very few places unsuitable for riding. Plan your route to avoid the busiest roads and most complex junctions and, initially, only head out at times when motorised traffic is relatively quiet.

You’ll soon become more confident and competent. Steer clear of pavements, obey traffic signals and road markings, ride with a little authority and try not to feel as if you’re getting in everyone’s way. The roads are for all to share and it’s doubtful drivers sitting in a traffic jam consider themselves in the way of cyclists.

Whether taking to the roads occasionally to link off-road routes, commuting to a place of work or undertaking weekend leisure rides with family and friends, cycling is beneficial to both physical and mental health. But considering over a quarter of all journeys in The Netherlands are taken by bike, this country has a long way to go when it comes to instilling cycling into the everyday psyche. Start small though and you can either progress to longer, more challenging rides or continue as an occasional fair-weather rider.

Whichever route you take, the benefits of cycling always far outweigh the negatives.

Warm weather, public transport restrictions, quieter roads, closed gyms and time on our hands led the British public to rummage around their garden sheds and dust the cobwebs off their bicycles this spring. Now,

Interact: Responses to Bike to the future

  • Antony
    05 Sep 2020 10:09
    Helmets are actually not naturally advisable in most less risky riding situations. Hardly anyone wears a helmet for instance on bike paths in the Netherlands. Regular bike riding has been proven to increase longevity, regardless of helmet wearing. As an Australian I can tell you that promotion of helmet wearing detracts from what is important in making riding safer (infrastructure, design priorities etc), and it reduces bike riding numbers. Never ever make it compulsory, and concentrate on the important issues - not helmets.

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