The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped numerous industries, and the British bike sector is no exception. As the country went into lockdown, a significant shift in consumer behaviour emerged, with cycling becoming a preferred mode of exercise and transport. This article delves into how the British bike industry has navigated the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

A Surge in Demand

During the height of the pandemic, cycling saw an unprecedented boom. With public transport perceived as risky and gyms closed, many turned to bicycles for exercise and commuting. According to a report by the Bicycle Association, sales of bikes in the UK doubled in April 2020 compared to the same period the previous year. This surge in demand created both opportunities and challenges for the industry.

Supply Chain Struggles

While demand soared, the supply chain faced significant disruptions. Factories in Asia, where a large portion of bike components are manufactured, experienced shutdowns and delays. This led to a shortage of bikes and parts, with some customers waiting months for their orders. Retailers had to adapt quickly, managing customer expectations and exploring alternative suppliers to meet the surging demand.

Government Support and Infrastructure Investment

The UK government recognised the growing interest in cycling and responded with supportive measures. The introduction of the £2 billion “Gear Change” plan aimed to make England a great cycling nation. This plan included the construction of thousands of miles of protected bike lanes, improvements to cycling infrastructure, and schemes to promote active travel.

Additionally, the “Fix Your Bike” voucher scheme, launched in July 2020, encouraged people to repair their old bikes. The scheme offered £50 vouchers to cover the cost of repairs, leading to a revival in bike maintenance services. These initiatives not only boosted the industry but also contributed to a healthier and more sustainable mode of transport.

Innovation and Adaptation

The pandemic forced many businesses to innovate and adapt. Online sales channels became crucial as physical stores closed during lockdowns. Retailers with robust e-commerce platforms thrived, while those who lacked an online presence had to quickly develop one. Virtual bike fittings and remote customer service became commonplace, ensuring that customer needs were met despite the restrictions.

Moreover, bike manufacturers and retailers diversified their product ranges to cater to the changing market. E-bikes, in particular, saw a significant rise in popularity. They provided an accessible option for those who wanted to cycle but were deterred by long distances or challenging terrains. According to the Bicycle Association, e-bike sales increased by 67% in 2020.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the positive trends, the industry still faces several challenges. Supply chain issues persist, with some components still difficult to source. Additionally, the economic impact of the pandemic has led to financial constraints for many consumers, potentially affecting future demand.

Environmental sustainability is another ongoing concern. As the industry grows, so does its environmental footprint. Companies are increasingly looking for ways to reduce their impact, from using recycled materials to promoting circular economy principles.

Sales Trends in 2023

The British Cycling Association’s Annual Report highlights some concerning trends in 2023, indicating the industry’s ongoing struggles:

The report notes that “The volume of mechanical bikes sold in 2023 fell a further 5% (following a 23% drop in 2022). This is likely to be the lowest level of bicycle volume sales during the current century to date.”

Last week’s liquidation announcement of Derby-based Mercian Cycles follows a string of high-profile insolvencies in the cycling industry. During 2023, Wiggle Chain Reaction entered administration, as did British mountain bike manufacturer Orange. Leading kids’ bicycle manufacturer Isla ceased production, citing a ‘turbulent and difficult time for the cycle industry,’ which has left the directors unwilling to continue.

It’s not just the bike manufacturers who are struggling; Sweetspot, the organisers of the Women’s Tour, appointed IPs from KRE to act as liquidators after losing its contract with the governing body, British Cycling.

Looking Forward

The future of the British bike industry appears promising despite the recent decline in sales. The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of cycling for health, the environment, and urban mobility. Continued government support and investment in infrastructure will be crucial in sustaining this momentum.

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Cycle Industry Launches Manifesto for Growth

To address the challenges facing the UK cycle industry and support its growth, the Bicycle Association has put forward several policy proposals in their manifesto. Here are some key recommendations that could help save and improve the industry:

  • Accelerate the uptake of e-bikes through a national subsidy scheme. The manifesto states, “Subsidise access to e-bikes to accelerate the uptake of this clean, low-impact mode of transport and give 1 million more people access to healthy, low-cost transport by 2030.” They propose an initial fund of £100 million per year to provide £300 discounts on e-bikes and specialist cycles.
  • Widen access to mobility by implementing a “quick win” policy of zero VAT on children’s cycles. The manifesto argues this would “ensure every child has access to a bike as they grow up, to prepare a generation for active travel in the clean cities of the future.”
  • Grow cycle industry jobs by building “industry innovation capability with a test lab, electrification safety and performance centre, smart tech leadership and innovation-friendly regulations.” The manifesto also calls for supporting “re-shoring, the industry’s sustainable materials and circular economy package, and UK Bike Valley initiative.”
  • Support the industry’s workforce by “delivering a National Training Centre and by acting on career mapping, training and qualifications.” The manifesto emphasises the need to attract and upskill a diverse workforce to address skills shortages.
  • Reform business rates relief and provide other financial support measures to boost the network of local cycle retailers and repairers. The manifesto states these businesses “invigorate high streets in every community” and provide essential services.

As the manifesto asserts, “With the policies proposed, this will drive substantial industry growth with a five-year timescale.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for change in the British bike industry. While challenges remain, the sector’s resilience and adaptability have paved the way for a brighter, more sustainable future. As more people embrace cycling, both for recreation and commuting, the industry stands ready to meet their needs with innovation and determination.