Tue 9 Jun 2020
It takes Sarah Cain, a medical secretary at the Callington Road hospital in Bristol, 40 minutes to get to work. Correction: it took Sarah Cain 40 minutes to get to work – until the day we speak, when it took 16 minutes. Because Cain, who previously walked to work, has got herself a bike. “It was a bit nerve-racking,” she tells me on the phone. “It’s been years since I’ve been on a bicycle.”But she set off early, the weather was fine and she knows the route. “I had my helmet on and a bright jacket,” she says. “I might be a bit shaky in more traffic. You see a lot more families out on bikes and that gets your confidence up a little bit.” She is determined to carry on: she knows it is good for her and good for Bristol. “I’m not going to be in the Lycra brigade, I’m just going to be your bog-standard cyclist.”
On a bog-standard cycle. Cain paid £100 for hers, secondhand, at Briscycle, a local independent bike shop. She is very happy with it – and with Briscycle. Andrew Bebesi, who runs the shop with his wife, Julianna, says it has been crazy during lockdown. “We were working really hard over the past few years and it was just about pootling along,” he says. “Now we’ve got too many bikes to fix and too few to sell.”
Moving premises to a busier street has had something to do with it, but Bebesi, who is originally from Hungary, is in no doubt that the pandemic and lockdown – less traffic, anxiety about using public transport, the need to exercise – have been the big drivers towards the bike shop boom. He refers to the time before Covid-19 as “peacetime”.
He has taken on three more people; there are six of them now. Bebesi works 16-hour, sometimes 18-hour, days; they get 70 to 80 phone calls. When he is not talking to customers looking for bikes, or attempting to book a service, Bebesi is trying to source parts. “I just managed to secure a load of chains. There is panic-buying now in the bike trade, because there is an enormous number of bicycles to be repaired.”
If you are a key worker, Bebesi will give you a service quickly; otherwise you have to wait for up to two weeks. Any bikes he gets in sell fast. “Last Saturday, we sold eight bikes in 20 minutes,” he says. “As soon as we opened the door, they were just pulling the bikes out.”
These are secondhand bikes, reconditioned with warranties, like Sarah Cain’s. Bebesi also sells new bikes – he is Bristol’s sole distributor of the GT brand. But he sold out of them two months ago and has not been able to get in any more stock. He hopes he might get some in August.
Bebesi and Cain’s experiences are reflective of the whole cycling industry. Sport England’s figures indicate a doubling of cycling in lockdown, with the number of people riding at least once a week increasing from 8% to 16% in the seven weeks after 23 March. Steve Garidis, the executive director of the Bicycle Association, the body that represents the industry in the UK, says the numbers for the lockdown period are still being crunched, but “initial indications are that sales in April rose significantly compared with the seasonal average”. Sales of bikes worth less than £500 “appear to have been especially strong”, he adds.