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How did Britain become a nation of cyclists?

Take a look around while sitting at any road junction in the UK and the chances are that you’ll spot plenty of people using pedal power to get around.

The types of rider and bikes you’ll see can vary wildly; from a bike worth several thousand pounds to a straightforward A-B run around. One thing is for sure, cycling is no longer just for Lycra clad types covering huge distances irrespective of the weather! In fact, according to Sport England’s Active People survey released some 5 years ago, there were 200,000 more people cycling at least once a week in the UK, bringing the country’s total number of cyclists to more than 2 million – evidence suggests that this has now increased further still.

Reflective of this massive shift in popularity, the UK cycling market is now estimated to be worth £1.4bn and has been growing at an annual rate of five per cent in recent years. In fact, cycling is now widely considered to be our most popular outdoor pursuit; it has never been more popular.


But what has led Britain to become a country of cyclists?

Many consider the Beijing Olympics in 2008 a major turning point. The British track cycling team famously blew away the competition and came home with seven gold medals, three silver and two bronze. This success certainly inspired people to resurrect the rusty old bike left forgotten in the shed, or to perhaps even buy a new one – there were 3.7million bikes sold in the UK in 2010!

Boris Bikes - image courtesy of Gizmodo UK

London’s ‘Boris Bikes’ – image courtesy of Gizmodo UK

London in particular has seen a huge increase in cycle commuters, many put this down to the 7/7 terrorist attacks where in the wake many people switched to 2 wheels, and never looked back – also connected was the announcement of plans to create cycle superhighways running directly into the heart of the capital. Since then we’ve seen the introduction of Boris Bikes and further announcements of continued investment, intended to bring London in line with other “cycle-friendly” European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Post-Beijing also generated increased interest from hobbyists with high disposable incomes, the Middle-aged business men swapped from other pursuits to expensive high-end carbon bikes creating the term MAMIL (middle aged men in Lycra). Cycling had truly gone viral – everyone was at it!

Chris Boardman winning gold – image courtesy of Cycling News


This certainly wasn’t always the case though… You don’t have to go too far back in time to see a totally different picture – the professional sport was in disarray, and public interest and support had waned, until Chris Boardman won Olympic gold in the individual pursuit at the 1992 summer games (our first cycling gold for over 70 years). Boardman’s success convinced his coach Peter Keen that Brits could compete at international level and he set out to transform British cycling with a vision that slowly evolved though the 1990s and 2000s.

Laura & Jason Kenny – image courtesy of Stuff


Around 2007, Dave Brailsford started to take the helm and the rest is now cycling history, with national heroes Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Mark Cavendish, Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and, of course, Wiggo all becoming popular household names.

So while an increased number of British dominated teams take to the roads of France again this summer expect to see more Lycra on the move here at home. If you think that cycling peaked with 2012’s golden summer, think again – with more Brits in the Tour de France than ever before, more leisure cyclists on the road, more cycling on TV, there’s nowhere for the sport to go other than up.