How these small businesses have bounced back thanks to Britain’s bike boom

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A fear of catching the virus on public transport has seen an increase in people using bikes


While many small businesses continue to suffer at the hands of the coronavirus pandemic, those in the cycling industry have never been busier. 

A fear of catching the virus on public transport has seen a big rise in the number of people cycling, while sales of new bikes have exploded. 

Meanwhile, much quieter roads and good weather at the start of lockdown, got many people out on bikes old and new to enjoy their daily dose of exercise and fresh air. 

Recently published data from the Department for Transport revealed cycling levels rose by up to 300 per cent on some days over the lockdown period.

A fear of catching the virus on public transport has seen an increase in people using bikes

And with public transport use still discouraged where possible and the UK Government’s £2billion plan to make roads more cyclist-and pedestrian-friendly, the trend is only expected to continue.      

This has been great news for bike shops, who have reported brisk business in terms of sales, maintenance and repairs, making them some of the small businesses that have thrived in lockdown. 

But it’s not just traditional bike shops who have benefitted from the uptick in the cycling economy, so too have some accessory makers and electric bike producers. 

Catherine Ellis is co-founder of Hill & Ellis, which designs and produces ‘stylish and functional’ bags for bikes. She launched the business in 2013 and has since enjoyed an annual turnover of £70,000.  

‘It was the classic gap in the market story. I was a regular cyclist – cycling to work every day and regularly going into meetings,’ she said.

‘There was nothing on the market that worked on the bike and looked good on the arm. Everything was black PVC and ugly, and to add insult to injury they were uncomfortable to carry off the bike.’ 

Catherine Ellis is co-founder of Hill & Ellis

Catherine Ellis is co-founder of Hill & Ellis

Demand for her cycling accessories dropped when the UK went into lockdown earlier this year, though luckily the brand is online-only and didn’t suffer from high overhead costs. Nevertheless, profits took a hit in the first few weeks.  

Then things started to pick back up, says Ellis. The number of cyclists started to increase among key workers and she decided to offer a 50 per cent discount to NHS workers.

After just five weeks, demand shot back up again, and to more than usual. 

Ellis added: ‘Bike shops had stayed open right from the beginning of lockdown to provide maintenance services and they had seen an upsurge in sales as more and more people turned to their bikes. 

‘So they started investing in more stock, which included our products. Our wholesale orders are up by double what they were this time last year.’

Similarly, electronic bike manufacturers Ampler Bikes, based in London, saw growth slow down when the pandemic hit but was able to adjust quickly thanks to its business model.

Ampler Bikes designs and manufactures electronic bikes and sells its products across Europe

Ampler Bikes designs and manufactures electronic bikes and sells its products across Europe

Chief executive Ardo Kaurit, who founded the company alongside friends Hannes Laar and Rait Udumäe, said the business was able to survive due to its international footing.

‘Ampler was founded in Tallinn, Estonia in 2016 and we opened our first flagship store in Berlin in 2018,’ he said.

‘We built and moved into a new assembly factory in November 2019, which increased our production rate and enabled us to have all bikes fully stocked not long before the pandemic.

‘We’ve had an incredibly successful year so far, with year-over-year sales increasing 88 per cent over the first five months of 2020. This year, we are on track to double our 2019 revenues of €5.7million (£5.12million).’

Rising to the challenge

Kaurit said some of Ampler’s 70-strong workforce did find their daily jobs had changed or disappeared but that they were immediately put into new positions and nobody was let go or furloughed.

Its events team took the biggest hit with around 40 events cancelled this season, while its Berlin showroom had to close temporarily. However, Ampler found new ways to work digitally, such as launching its ‘digital test ride’ concept and putting more focus on its social media channels.  

Ellis was also lucky enough to keep her and her staff working throughout the lockdown and did not need to take any grants or loans, though she is considering a bounce back loan. 

She said: ‘It looks attractive as it has low repayment charges and could be the best way to inject some needed cash.

‘This time has allowed me to really consider the company and our product line. We had a few product ranges in the pipeline from January, which did have to be put on hold as manufacturers closed down during lockdown, but we are now working on them.

‘We are also going to add more products to accommodate different cycle styles and are looking into personalisation options to make our products more attractive as gifts.’  

Like Ampler Bikes, Hill & Ellis decided to put a stronger emphasis on its customer service and engagement. 

It offered complimentary gift wrapping and gift cards in a bid to ‘send a bit more love to everyone’ during the difficult period. 

Ellis added: ‘Customers were buying our products as presents or part of “care packages” so now I am working on more options for personalisation for that extra touch.’

L to R: Ardo Kaurit, Hannes Laar and Rait Udumäe co-founded e-bike company Ampler Bikes

L to R: Ardo Kaurit, Hannes Laar and Rait Udumäe co-founded e-bike company Ampler Bikes

The percentage of daily riders has increased from 55% to 91% when switching to an e-bike

The percentage of daily riders has increased from 55% to 91% when switching to an e-bike

A sustainable future

Both businesses are positive about their futures.

The uptake of cycle-to-work schemes in the UK rose a whopping 200 per cent in May, while bicycle and car parts chain Halfords saw sales jump 23 per cent three months ago.  

Kaurit is particularly excited about the future of electronic bikes, as recent research has suggested the percentage of riders who ride daily or weekly has risen from 55 per cent to 91 per cent after switching from a regular bike to an e-bike. 

He said: ‘I believe e-bikes offer an alternative for people who may not have the option of cycling unassisted, for instance the elderly or those with physical disabilities. 

‘So in this respect, e-bikes could give those individuals all the health benefits of cycling without worrying about whether they’ll be able to physically do it.  

‘We believe we are still in the beginning of the electric revolution and even though the market is already big and has grown fast, there is still plenty of room for further growth. With new brands popping up and new cycle paths opened, the sea is rising for everyone.’       

Growth opportunities are not restricted by borders either. In China, Beijing’s bike-share system grew by 150 per cent as early as March, while cycling traffic in Dundee, Scotland, rose by 94 per cent in April. Paris has also subsidised e-bike purchases, reimbursed bike repairs and created more bike parking spaces.

Hill & Ellis is working on its vegan bag range

Hill & Ellis is working on its vegan bag range

Kaurit said: ‘It is great to see cities and governments encouraging cycling and more and more people starting to look into it as their main means of transport and acknowledging that cycling is great for health, budget and the environment.   

‘We are happy to hear bikes are becoming more popular in the UK, and it is reassuring to hear that the UK government is encouraging cycling and healthier modes of transport by investing in more cycleways and urban cycling routes.’

Ellis added: ‘If some good can come out of the pandemic it is this. As more people enjoy the benefits of cycling, it offers many solutions to problems such as pollution, tube overcrowding, traffic congestion, personal health and it genuinely is really enjoyable.’   

She said the UK Government’s £2billion commitment to investing in cycling infrastructure would increase the attraction of cycling as it becomes, safer, easier and quicker. 

‘Investing in green economies and encouraging green alternatives such as commuting by bike will help us protect the planet and our health for the future,’ she added. ‘Hopefully, this could be one good to come out of this.’   

Small Business Essentials

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