Why Has Cycling Become so Popular in the U.K.? And Should You Join the Lycra Crew?

Summer is almost upon us and if you’ve ever considered cycling as a hobby, there is no better time to start. The popularity of cycling in the UK has grown massively over the last few years, so much so, that now more than two million of us across the country cycle at least once a week.

So why the massive surge in popularity? Well, there appear to have been a number of contributing factors creating a perfect storm of rising pedal power. The 2007 Tour de France started in London which attracted a lot of attention. The following year Great Britain won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We then had the 2012 Olympics in London, and of course we’ve seen Britain and Team Sky dominating the Tour de France the last few years. The likes of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas have become household names. In fact all of the above with the exception (surprisingly) of Chris Froome have won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

However besides the media attention and sporting glory, cycling has also proven pragmatic in the days of austerity, providing a cheaper way to get fit than paying for exuberant gym fees, and also a cheaper way to commute to work. The roads are now filled with cyclists both as recreational hobbyists, and also on their way to work. A lot of car drivers curse us cyclists for clogging up the road, but if those cyclists weren’t commuting into work on their bikes, then they’d be using their cars and causing even more congestion on the road. Please think about that next time you feel annoyed with a cyclist.

My own journey into cycling began in 2007, when I was a slightly overweight 34 year old sales manager working in Croydon. I received a company-wide email that caught my eye, offering employees the opportunity to take part in a charity bike ride from Glasgow to London, cycling about one hundred miles per day over the course of five days. The longest I’d ever cycled in one day was the six mile round trip to college back when I was 18 years old. I hadn’t found that too hard, so I assumed this would be fairly easy. The appeal was that I saw it as a way to get fit and also have two extra days annual leave which my company was generously throwing in.

At the time I was living in Petts Wood, and to train for the event I began commuting to Croydon and back, but did little more training than that. It was youth and determination which saw me through the grueling ride, and I did it again in 2008 this time going from Belfast to London. I massively enjoyed these two stints of charity cycling, and not just the fitness gains and accomplishment, but more the sense of freedom that cycling brings. If you ever rode a bike as a child and enjoyed that sense of whizzing along under your own power, then you should know that the feeling still manifests as an adult. It’s mindfulness and fitness rolled into one. However, a promotion at work and a new found interest in British Military Fitness saw me effectively down the bike for almost ten years save for the odd ride here and there.

In 2017 after tearing the meniscus in my left knee three times, and unable to run anymore without pain, I decided to buy a new bike and get back at it at the grand age of 43. A friend of my sisters who is a keen cyclist suggested that I join him for a ride at his local cycling club. I was reluctant because I’d always ridden alone and enjoyed the thinking time on the bike. However, he cajoled me and I agreed to go just the once. Ironically as I was leaving he called and said he couldn’t make it as he was trapped at work, but urged me to go anyway. As I was kitted up I thought what the heck and went to meet the members of Beckenham Rugby Cyclists (BRC). When I arrived at the rugby club I was met by a delightful gentleman called David, who had been forewarned of my imminent arrival, and made me feel incredibly welcome. There was only one other guy there that evening, and so the three of us set off together for a ride.

I’m absolutely embarrassed to say that because David and Mark were a little bit older than me I assumed that I wouldn’t be stretched on the ride. I decided to be polite, see the ride through and then perhaps go back to riding on my own. What manifested couldn’t have been further from the truth. They took me out on a route which went through Keston, then up past Biggin Hill, and they absolutely destroyed me, cycling at a pace which had my lungs burning and my heart rate up at near maximum most of the way. I was sweating and in pain, gasping for every breath. They on the other hand casually chatted away, barely breaking sweat, patiently waiting for me when they dropped me on the hills.

It was a humbling experience, which taught me that the idiom about never judging a book by its cover is especially true in the cycling world. There are older and portly cyclists who are fitter than most twenty-somethings I know. It was the patience and kindness of David on that day which made me want to return the next week to BRC, and which has seen me return most weeks since (save for the winter months). Yes I’m a fair weather cyclist, but the beauty of BRC is that they are a relaxed club for all abilities.

If you’ve ever considered cycling as a hobby, I would absolutely urge you to join one of the local cycling clubs in your area because of the many benefits that cycling in a group gives you over cycling alone. I used to enjoy cycling alone and still do, but I’d rather go out with my club every day of the week. Some of the benefits of cycling in a club are as follows:

  • It’s safer. Yes, much safer. Lone cyclists are much more vulnerable to being involved in accidents. Motorists are much more aware and careful around groups than individuals. Cycling with a club also helps you master cycling etiquette and bike handling.
  • You’ll make new friends. Okay so you might have enough friends, but the camaraderie and motivation that cycling in a group gives you is worth it’s weight in gold. You’ll find excuses not to go out if you cycle alone, but when you know you’re meeting a bunch of like minded folk, then it gets you out.
  • You’ll discover new routes and see places you haven’t seen before. Riding in groups exposes you to new scenery and adventures, with the obligatory cake and coffee stop standard on weekend rides.
  • You’ll pick up tips, get discounted bike kit and be exposed to a wealth of knowledge. Many of the club members will have been cycling for a long time and all those years of experience can be invaluable to you. For example although I’m a 45 year old man, I’ve been a huge disappointment to various girlfriends over the years as I can’t even change a lightbulb. This means I also can’t change an inner tube when I get a puncture. I’ve actually got a taxi home before with my bike when I’ve had a puncture. When I’ve had the same cycling with a club, there’s always some very helpful people who help me get it changed. Over time most people develop these skills, by watching and learning, but I never have because I’m useless.

The best thing about cycling clubs is that they tend to cater for all ages and abilities. What was seen as a predominately male sport particularly for middle aged men, is now very much mixed, with women being the fastest growing group in cycling. There are amazing events to enter each year if you fancy such as the iconic Ride London event each summer which on the Saturday sees the streets of London closed for people of all ages to cycle around London without traffic. Then on the Sunday 25,000 amateur cyclists ride 100 miles from the Olympic Park into the Surrey Hills and back into London again to finish to rapturous applause from the waiting crowds. I completed this event last summer for the first time, and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

You don’t need a flashy expensive bike to enjoy cycling. You need what is known as a road bike and any local bike shop will be able to help you make an informed choice.

As for cycling clubs, we are spoilt for choice in the U.K. The brilliant thing about this country is that no matter where you live, you won’t be too far from a cycle club nor the countryside. If you’re new to cycling, going a long distance may seem daunting, but clubs will take you from beginner level up to cycling further than you could have imagined.

If you do your research then you’ll find something which suits yourself and your family. For example some clubs have kids only groups and there are also women only cycle clubs which may appeal, although these days most cycling clubs have a very healthy mix of the sexes.

So if you’ve ever thought about cycling I hope that I’ve managed to get you to give it a go. Will I have to wear the unflattering skin tight lycra? I hear you cry. Yes, seeing all the men with tight shorts on isn’t the best sight in the world, and whilst not compulsory, the lycra believe it or not really helps on a number of levels. It’s comfortable, doesn’t get caught in your chain, keeps you warm, and actually helps you go faster by being aerodynamic. You’re welcome to wear your comfy jacket out, but when it bellows out behind you acting as a parachute, you may decide to join the lycra crew. Hopefully see you on the roads soon.

47 years old and still learning. Taking one day at a time.

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