Why the pandemic has led to a cycling boom

Susannah Hickling 13 July 2021

The pandemic has had one positive result: millions more Europeans have discovered the joy of cycling

‘‘Cycling is easy,” says Tanja Jamnik. “Sitting on a bike, I feel very free. I can go anywhere I want—to the mountains or just around the village.”

The 57-year-old accountant from Kranj in Slovenia tries to get out into the countryside several times a week in summer. “I like to go to the hills, because I enjoy the views,” she explains. “It’s hard work, but worth it.” A favourite ride is the 30 kilometres to Lake Bled near the border with Austria; it’s a fairytale lake against a backdrop of mountains.

Tanja is convinced of the health benefits. “Cycling is great for the whole body. Plus, three years ago I had surgery on my knee and the doctor told me that cycling was good for it.” And there are advantages for mental health. “If I cycle alone, I switch my mind off and all the bad things go out of it. If I cycle with a friend, we talk so much that it’s like therapy!”

While Tanja and her husband, Andrej, have long enjoyed cycling, there are many newcomers to the activity. She ascribes the recent boom in biking in her country to two factors. One is Slovenia’s stunning performance in the 2020 Tour de France. Primož Roglicˇ dominated the competition before his compatriot Tadej Pogacˇar snatched victory at the last moment.

The other, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year when public transport was cancelled, and schools, sports facilities, restaurants, and shops were shut, many more Slovenians discovered—or rediscovered—cycling. “My son was working in a bike shop and sales went up 30 percent,” Tanja says. “By the beginning of July, cycle shops in Slovenia were almost out of mountain bikes and trekking bikes.”

"She ascribes the recent boom in biking in her country to two factors. One is Slovenia’s stunning performance in the 2020 Tour de France. The other, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic"

Tanja and Andrej often tour their home country by bike, plus most years they have had cycling holidays in other places, too. Her favourite memory is cycling the length of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, tackling 28 mountain passes in ten days. “Some French children in a car opened the windows and started to encourage us, shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’” recalls Tanja. “When we got to the top of the pass, they applauded. It was really nice. It’s so much easier to make a connection with other people when you’re on a bike.”

Tanja cycling in Slovenia

She hopes to join other cycling commuters when she starts her new job in the capital, Ljubljana, about 20 kilometres from her home. Ljubljana is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, with 300 kilometres of cycle lanes, themed leisure cycling routes, and bike-repair stations. Four automatic traffic counters record more than three million bike journeys every year. And Tanja’s home city of Kranj has a good network of cycle paths and a rental-bike scheme. “Here,” says Tanja, “cycling is really ‘in.” 

 In fact, the whole of Europe has seen a phenomenal growth in cycling. Bike use was already high in some European countries, including the Netherlands, Hungary, Scandinavian countries, and Germany, but numbers are increasing all across the continent as people get on their bikes for fitness, commuting, and leisure.

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, many have been pushed towards pedal power because cycling has become one of the few ways you can travel to work while social distancing, or stay fit on less-busy roads. In Finland, bicycle sales were up by 34 percent in 2020, and in January 2021 alone, the growth was a staggering 49 percent, according to the Finnish Cyclists Federation. In France, cycling exploded in popularity in 2021. Says Olivier Schneider of the French Federation of Bicycle Users, “In the last year or so, bikes have been flying off the shelves, with some shops completely selling out.” 

"In Finland, bicycle sales were up by 34 percent in 2020, and in January 2021 alone, the growth was a staggering 49 percent"

One Covid-19 convert is Emma Rawlinson, 37, from Lancashire in the UK. In spring 2020, she found herself working from home because of the pandemic. At the same time, her two children Harris, four, and Rosa, three, were not attending school and nursery. Emma saw their confinement as the perfect opportunity to start cycling as a family. “I wouldn’t have been able to spend time with them if it were not for lockdown,” explains Emma, the owner of a small public-relations agency.

“It was then that we realised how many unnecessary short journeys we were making in the car,” Emma says. “We’d drive to my mum’s or we’d drive to the shops. But if the weather is nice, we don’t need to do that. We have bikes and the children are getting more confident on them.”

Cycling has increased the family’s awareness of the world around them. “If we were in a car, we’d all either be listening to the radio or not really talking but just looking out of the window at other cars,” Emma says. Now they’re taking in their surroundings much more. “I’ll be saying, ‘Look at the horses in the field,’ or, ‘Can you see that the leaves are changing colour?’”

The family has taken advantage of rural roads that their local council closed to motorised traffic as part of a “switch to cycling” campaign, launched during lockdown.

“They had road closures for easier access and they’ve been putting on courses for people to get into cycling,” says Emma. The campaign has also publicised new initiatives such as the UK Government’s Fix Your Bike Voucher Scheme, offering £50 off the cost of repairing a bike.

Cycling to school is now part of the Rawlinsons’ routine. “On bikes, we can go under the motorway and it takes three to five minutes,” Emma says. “If we went in the car, we’d have to go around the motorway; it could take 20 minutes. It makes no sense to do that any more.”

For Emma, there were personal benefits too. “It really made me feel young again,” she says. “When lockdown restrictions eased slightly, I used my bike to go and doorstep-visit my friends.” Emma’s friends were surprised to see her arrive on a bike. “I’ve just cycled here, it’s amazing!” she told them.

But she would like to see a better network of shared paths for cyclists and pedestrians in the UK. “It would make people more confident to try cycling because they’d know they don’t have to go on the road, that there’s some sort of infrastructure there.”

Paris is leading many other cities in welcoming cyclists. In a bid to reduce traffic and pollution, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has recently created hundreds of kilometres of new cycle lanes, many of them segregating cyclists from drivers; the lanes are nicknamed coronapistes. Bicycle use in Paris has reportedly increased by almost 70 percent since spring 2020. Meanwhile the French government offered people all over France 50 euros off bike repairs or a free back-to-cycling session. Vélo & Territoires put the increase in cycling in the five months after the first lockdown at 62 percent over the same period in 2019.

Most cyclists in the French capital are commuters who now see what they do as a lifestyle, known as vélotaf. One bike commuter, Christophe Marquis, can testify to the explosion of Paris vélotafeurs. But it’s not always pretty. “Paris is well equipped, but there are a lot of idiots,” says the 56-year-old aircraft technician, who lives in the Paris suburb of Le Raincy, around 17 kilometres northeast of the city. He cycles both in the city centre and the 20 kilometres to work at Charles de Gaulle airport.

“There’s the bike-car problem, and the bike-bike problem,” he says. “In Paris, it’s the bike-bike problem. I think there are a lot of new cyclists who were previously in their cars and were used to fines based on video surveillance. On a bike there’s no registration plate. So with their new-found liberty, they do exactly as they please.”

Christophe sees them turning without warning and cutting in front of cars. “Then you have drivers who are convinced that bicycles are trying to usurp cars and it’s all-out war,” he says.

Cycling to work in the suburbs, where the road infrastructure favours the combustion engine, Christophe faces different challenges. “Sometimes you have to accelerate to cross a lane where cars and lorries are travelling very fast. It’s not practical and sometimes it’s not very wide, so cars and trucks overtake very close to you.”

But he rarely uses his car. “The car is more expensive, less environmentally friendly. It makes you put on weight, and is less good for your health,” he says. “On my bike I don’t have parking problems.” And he can’t help feeling a sense of satisfaction when he comes across a traffic hold-up in the city because of a demonstration. “I give them a little wave as I go by,” he says, laughing.

Europeans are jumping on e-bikes too; sales are predicted to grow from the 3.7 million sold in 2019 to 17 million in 2030. These electrically assisted pedal bikes—also known as “pedelecs”—are credited with making seniors more mobile.

"Europeans are jumping on e-bikes too; sales are predicted to grow from the 3.7 million sold in 2019 to 17 million in 2030"

That’s certainly been the experience of Charly Kumfert, 65, from Stuttgart, Germany, who got rid of his second car and bought an e-bike when he took semi-retirement from his job at a car parts manufacturer in 2018. Now fully retired, he gets out on his pedelec at least three times a week to go shopping, to his allotment, or to his brother’s for coffee, usually on the extensive network of cycle routes in the hilly region where he lives.

Charly

Charly

“I am definitely in better shape,” says Charly, whose trips average around ten kilometres. When he’s at his garden, there is a long staircase to walk down and then back up. “At the top, I would often run out of breath; now, I manage it almost without any problem.” Studies show e-bikes can help improve fitness, cardiovascular health, and blood glucose levels.

Germany is Europe’s biggest market for e-bikes. They have a maximum speed of 25 kilometres per hour and, unlike the more powerful speed-pedelecs, which are in a different vehicle class, need no driving licence, registration document, licence plate, insurance, or helmet, although Charly wears one anyway.

There’s a certain amount of rivalry between e-cyclists and those on conventional bikes. “The other day I rode past a racing cyclist on a small climb,” Charly recalls. “It was easier for me, of course, because I have a motor that supports me, but the other cyclist seemed to take it personally. He then pedalled so hard that he passed me again. I let him go. If it makes him happy….”

If you rely on an e-bike’s motor too much and don’t pedal enough, you can find yourself stuck, as Yolande Haubert discovered. Some years ago, the 73-year-old from near Bordeaux swapped her traditional bike for an e-bike so she could accompany her partner Jean-Bernard Elie, 68, a keen cyclist.  “I had a good road bike before, but I’m not that sporty and I couldn’t keep up with him,” Yolande explains.

On their first trip away with the e-bike, Yolande turned up the motor to full power to help her heavily laden bike on a series of steep sections.

“Ten kilometres away from where we were due to spend the night, the battery died,” recalls Jean-Bernard, a retired bank official. “Yolande couldn’t pedal because the bike was too heavy, so we had to stop at a bar for three or four hours to recharge the battery.”

But, pedelec or pedal bike, the joy of cycling is now accessible to all, more than ever before. As Emma Rawlinson says: “There’s no better time to start. All you need is a bike and a helmet.”

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