A wheely good idea
Government cycle to work scheme has led to a surge in the numbers commuting by bike
Cycling is surging in popularity, as anybody who has recently found themselves on a back road behind a flotilla of lycra-clad middle-aged men will know.
This isn't just a weekend love affair either. In the UK, the numbers commuting to work by bike have risen 17pc in the past decade and there is every reason to believe Ireland has witnessed the same order of increase (membership of Cycling Ireland recently eclipsed 18,000 – up from 4,000 on 2007).
With fuel costs in a state of permanent flux and each year seeming to bring new hikes to bus and train fares, cycling is an increasingly attractive alternative for workers seeking to cut transport overheads.
The phenomenon transcends borders, too. Across the EU, bike sales surpassed those of cars in 2013, the first time this has happened since World War II.
The bike boom is regarded as a side-effect of the recession (the gulf between bike and car sales was most pronounced in debt-ravaged Greece). There may also be generational factors: in the US research shows that under 30s – the so-called millennial generation – are more likely to own a bike than a car (perhaps because they can't get a job and are still living with their parents).
It is also clear that people are ever more serious about the 'hobby'. Incredibly, Irish people are lavishing greater sums on their bikes than in the glory days of the Celtic Tiger. The average value of a bike insured last year was €685 compared with €572 in 2006.
In Ireland, an additional factor has unquestionably contributed to biking's popularity – the introduction in 2009 of the 'bike to work' programme. Under it, workers can purchase a bicycle (and extras such as helmets, lycra jeggings etc) to a value of €1,000 less than Revenue's employee tax credit initiative, shaving up to 52pc off the retail price.
The bike is paid for by the employer. The employee reimburses the cost over 12 months through salary deductions. The sweetener is that they do not pay tax, PRSI and Universal Social Charges on the upfront bike price.
"At a time when it is difficult for companies to offer a bonus to their staff this is a great way of giving workers something a little extra – and it doesn't cost the organisation anything," says David Walsh, who oversees the Bikes4Work bike purchase scheme at voucher company One4All and is chair of the Irish Bicycle Business Association.
"When we were in the middle of the Celtic Tiger, everyone had their cars and gym membership – whether or not they used the latter, I'm not sure. Then the downturn hit and people looked at the money they were spending and started to investigate different ways in which they could put that to work."
That's all well and good – but is cycling to work really practical for every profession? Say you have a big meeting first thing in the morning? What will colleagues think if you arrive dripping sweat – or soaked from a downpour?
"When talking to corporations, we advise as to what facilities they may (wish to) have," Walsh says. "At our company, for instance, we are having a shower installed. Many multinationals will already have showers for employees. Also, if you are cycling a distance of, say, five miles, you are not going to arrive into work in a ball of sweat. What people often do is take a longer route home – which means you can then have your shower when you reach your house."
The health benefits of cycling are manifold. According to researchers at Stanford, regular biking helps you look younger as it boosts the rate of circulation in the body, thus delivering oxygen to the skin and flushing away toxins. It also enhances collagen production, fighting wrinkles.
Plus, it aids digestion. That's because physical activity deceases the time it takes food to pass through the large intestine. And, of course, cycling increases the heart rate, which makes your body's internal systems operate more quickly, so that you do not feel sluggish or bloated.
Most intriguingly of all, cycling can make you smarter. Studies at Illinois University found that cycling boosts brain cell production in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. It can furthermore assist you in sleeping more deeply – doctors working with chronic insomniacs found that sufferers cycling up to half an hour each day were substantially more likely to nod off that night.
Unsurprisingly, take-up of the bike scheme is more popular in built-up areas. For those forced into the commuter belt because of surging property prices during the boom, a gentle cycle to the office really isn't on the agenda.
"If you go more than 20 kilometres from the place of work you are not really going to see people cycling to the office very much," says Walsh. "However, within that radius, it is certainly popular. And there are fantastic advantages for the company as well as for the employee."
Indeed, there is hard data demonstrating that an employee who cycles to work is often a more efficient employee.
"It is wonderful for productivity," says Walsh. "It has been shown that if your staff are healthy, they take less time off work. Everybody is a winner."
What's more, once people catch the bug they inevitably come back for more, whether that be bike upgrades or designer kit. That's good for the cycling industry and the state coffers, says Walsh, as repeat customers pay VAT.
"I'm one of these weekend warriors you see on a bike wearing something far too tight," he says. "I used to play rugby and had to give it up six, seven years ago. The Cycle to Work scheme was a great way for me to discover a new means of exercise. I hadn't been on a bike since I was a child. Now I cycle all of the time. Instead of forking out €700 or €800 for a bike, I was able to pay it back over the course of a year. The scheme really has made cycling very affordable for a lot of people."