Welshman Geraint Thomas is locked in a tough battle to repeat his 2018 victory in this year’s Tour de France, but with him currently in second place and Simon Yates storming to a stage win on Thursday, Britain’s riders are holding on to their lofty position in world cycling.
The UK has produced the Tour winner in six of the past seven years and multiple track gold medals in each of the last three Olympics. Swarms of cyclists barrelling up and down London’s multimillion-pound cycle superhighways every day suggest this success has translated into mass take-up of the sport.
But they do not reflect the national picture, says Carlton Reid, an author and cycling historian, with the number of people biking to work still low, cycling stores closing and profits shrinking. “Ask the industry where the boom is. They’ll tell you: there isn’t one.”
Reliable data on cycle sales are scarce. But imports, considered a reliable proxy since most bikes sold in the UK are made overseas, fell from a peak of 3.5m in 2012 to just 2.2m last year.
Those in the industry blame factors ranging from inadequate infrastructure for cycling to the uncertainty over Brexit, which they say is making consumers hesitate before committing to big-ticket discretionary purchases.
Whatever the cause, there is evidence aplenty of the downturn on Britain’s high streets. Last year, Evans Cycles was bought by Sports Direct having overextended itself by opening too many stores. About half of its outlets are likely to close.
It was the most high-profile victim of a wider malaise. Cycle Surgery, a rival chain, has also closed stores, while online cycling forums are full of posts lamenting the demise of independent operators.
Even Halfords, the UK’s single biggest cycle retailer with a market share of about 20 per cent, has warned on profits three times in just over a year.
Graham Stapleton, the company’s chief executive, said that many of the current woes were down to Brexit and its impact on consumer confidence, especially in the £200-£500 price bracket. “My view is that certainty around our future, as opposed to the actual form our EU exit takes, will be the key to stimulating consumer confidence.”
As in other areas of retail, ecommerce has grabbed a slice of the pie, especially among experienced cyclists who know what parts they need. Online sellers now have about a fifth of the market.
The industry’s woes are partly self-inflicted, according to Tim Holroyde. A bike mechanic for more than 20 years, he said that, while private equity firms bought companies such as Evans and opened dozens of new stores, they did not invest in the staff needed to run them.
“The bike industry has always been reluctant to pay people what they are worth,” he said. His solution was to set up on his own; he operates Bellevue Bicycle Workshop out of a kiosk in Wandsworth in south-west London and runs a mobile mechanic service.
The low-rent business, with much lower inventory than a traditional bike store, gives Mr Holroyde flexibility. “I was hell-bent on not having a shop,” he said. “The model of bricks and mortar for cycling is defunct. You can’t possibly fix enough bikes to pay the rent.”
It is a proposition that others are embracing too. Halfords’ new strategy envisages far more of its revenue coming from services rather than product sales. The growing complexity of bicycles — think electronic gear shifters, cables concealed in frames and car-style disc brakes — plays into this trend. A full service for a high-end road bike can easily cost more than £100, not far off the price of a car service.
There are several other potential areas of growth. E-bikes, where pedal power is boosted by a hub motor and battery, is one. In the UK, they have gone from 1 per cent of sales in 2012 to about 9 per cent now, according to Halfords.
Mr Reid said that in the Netherlands, e-bikes now account for about half of new bike sales and that scale has made them profitable for manufacturers and retailers.
Other booming subsectors have been folding bikes, with Brompton in particular boosted by its substantial export sales, and so-called cargo bikes, which appeal to courier delivery companies.
But Mr Reid cautioned that these are essentially niches that are insufficient to cancel out the basic problem: not enough people are taking up cycling.
“The industry is selling to the same people, we’re not getting new people in,” he said, adding that nationwide cycling only accounts for about 2 per cent of journeys.
In Europe, only Spaniards cycle less frequently than Britons, 31 per cent of whom ride bikes at least once a month. At the other end of the spectrum, 87 per cent of Dutch people do so. Almost two-thirds of Britons told the annual Social Attitudes survey last year that they felt cycling was too dangerous.
This gap reinforces Mr Stapleton’s view that in the longer term, “the long-term potential for growth is huge”, pointing to the creation of clean air zones in major cities, the growing popularity of e-bikes and the likely enhancement of the Cycle2Work scheme to include higher-value machines.
Steve Garidis, executive director at the Bicycle Association, which represents the industry, said subsidies and incentives had played an important role in countries such as France, especially in the development of the e-bike market. Mr Stapleton said infrastructure was key, with more cities needing to follow the likes of London, Manchester and Cambridge in making commuter cycling less daunting.
There may be some hope in sight. Boris Johnson, who is likely to become prime minister later this month, is an enthusiastic cyclist who presided over the construction of London’s superhighway network when mayor of the capital.