The cheapest way to commute by bike

With cycle hire schemes now available in Cardiff, Reading, Blackpool and London, it seems the powers that be are determined to turn us into a nation of cyclists. But if you do decide two wheels beat four, are these hire schemes the cheapest way to embrace pedal power?

London’s new cycle hire scheme is being touted as a cheap alternative to buying a bike. Under the membership scheme you pay £45 for annual access. You can then use a bike for free for up to 30 minutes. Above that it costs from £1 for an hour to £50 for a day (the pricing is clearly designed to dissuade ‘bike hogs’ and ensure a regular turnover of the bikes). So if you commute, and can make it from cycle point to cycle point in under 30 minutes, you could in theory cut your travel costs to just £45 a year. Soon there will also be a ‘pay as you go’ option with no membership fee.

But there are some problems. The bike doesn’t come with a bike lock so you can’t stop anywhere between docking stations unless you provide your own (if the bike gets stolen on your watch you could be liable for a £300 non-return charge). Another problem is that you need to live near a docking station – so if you live in South London, forget it, as there are hardly any south of the river. And you’ll also be relying on finding a bike in the docking station when you get there.

The other big drawback for commuters is the bikes themselves. Big, clunky and very heavy, you won’t be nipping through the traffic on these monsters. Overall this scheme will suit occasional users and tourists, but is unlikely to cut it for the regular commuter.

How to buy a cheap bike

If you want to start cycling to work regularly, you’d be better off buying a bike. That way you can choose one that suits your needs and it will be there on your doorstep when you need it (provided you lock it up tight).

One of the most cost effective ways to buy a bike is through the Cycle to Work scheme. Provided your employer has joined – and if they haven’t, suggest that they do – you can save up to 50% on the cost of a bike. You choose a bike from an approved supplier and your employer buys it for you and reclaims the VAT. You then lease the bike back from your company – the key feature, you pay them back from your salary before tax is deducted. So not only are you getting a VAT-free bike, but you are also saving tax. You can even buy all the paraphernalia that you need – such as a helmet, lock and lights – at the same time, and enjoy big discounts.


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The scheme is available to practically everyone over 18, provided you are permanently employed or on a lengthy contract, you pay tax through the PAYE system and you earn more than the minimum wage. “You don’t need to be working for a big firm to sign up. We’ve spent a lot of time automating the process through our website and it’s now all there, allowing an employee to do all the work. It really is a case of filling in a few forms online,” says Richard Grigsby of Cyclescheme.co.uk, one of the largest Cycle to Work providers, in The Guardian.

But if you would rather just buy a bike outright, you can still pick up a bargain. You could buy a bike from eBay or Gumtree – but just be aware that stolen bikes are sometimes sold online, despite the best efforts of the websites. For a cheap and 100% legal bike try Bumblebee Auctions. This website sells property seized by the police, or handed in to the police who have subsequently been unable to find the original owner. You can pick up a bike for as little as £1 as long as you are prepared to collect it from the address shown. These bikes are sold as seen though, so it’s worthwhile dropping it in to your local bike shop for a check up before you start using it.

Don’t become a victim of bike theft

Once you have your bike, take some simple measures to reduce the chance of it being stolen. First of all get a good lock – preferably a D-lock – and always lock your bike up. If possible, remove the saddle when you leave it somewhere. At home try to keep your bike out of sight in a garage, shed or within your house. Think about making your bike less attractive to thieves if you live in a busy city. A few bits of strategically placed duct tape will give your bike a scrappy look and make it harder to sell on.

No matter what you do though, there’s still a chance your bike will get swiped, so make sure you insure it – either add it to your home contents policy or get specialised insurance if it’s a particularly fancy bike. And also get it registered with the police. That way, if one day you find just a broken lock where you left your bike, you stand a better chance of getting it back, or at least recouping your losses.

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4 Responses

  1. 04/08/2010, Chang wrote

    If you live in London (as I image most readers do) then I recommend 3 places to go get cheap new bikes: Ashcycles.com in N Chingford E4, they have a v large hugely discounted online catalogue but the outfit is run from a really pokey little shop, keeps the overheads down i suppose. Decathlon in Surrey Quays do a comprehensive range of their own brand bikes, generally v good spec for the price. And finally Halfords, who since getting Chris Boardman on board, have started selling some really impressive high spec bikes for reasonable prices e.g. full carbon fibre racer for under a grand.

  2. 04/08/2010, Ed wrote

    I race bikes, worked in a bike shop for 5 years and have ridden/commuted/worked in London for 8 years on all variety of bikes. The idea that these bikes wont cut it with the regular commuter is a nonsense. Most of london is flat or near as damn it, most London commuters ride massively over priced and over specced bikes which they lock up in all sorts of places with flimsy cheap locks, and then complain when they get stolen. The hire scheme bikes are not much heavier or clunkier than most hybrids, and you don’t have to store them in your hallway. You don’t have to pay to maintain them – think £100/year standard service (chain, cassette, cables + labour) and you don’t have to worry about them getting nicked. Compare this with the average Ride2Work scheme bike of ~£250-500 (over 12-18months) and factoring in maintenance and there is no comparison. Annual replacement parts on a standard hybrid cost more than the annual subscription alone!

  3. 07/08/2010, Tom O'Neill wrote

    The perilous danger of cycling in London shouldn’t be under-estimated. Accidents (particularly of visitors who – used to cycling in their native country – thought they’d ‘give it a try’ and ignore or forget that we drive on the left) will be heavily exposed in the MSM.
    Local knowledge – and a knowledge of the UK Highway Code – is essential for survival as a cyclist. And who wants to be caught up in the increasingly bitter uncivil war between angry motorists and equally aggressive and self-righteous cyclists.

  4. 27/09/2010, Mike wrote

    I totally disagree with this article. I commute everyday into London, jump off the train and boris bike to work. The journey from the station to the office takes 25 minutes on foot but I can reduce this to 10 minutes on a boris bike – you just have to know where to look for them. I often find I end up overtaking normal cyclists plodding along and it beats getting the sweatbox tube!

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