12 May, 2020   By: Fleur Bainger

Bike riding has become the unexpected panacea for those isolating at home.

Meredith Ashton’s bike had been collecting dust for quite some time when coronavirus struck the globe. “My husband Mike bought me a bike in 2012, and it had been in the shed since 2013,” she says.

A combination of a busy workload and starting a family put plans for leisurely rides onto the ‘someday’ list of things to do. Then, as social distancing and self-isolation became part of the everyday vernacular, she was suddenly back on her bike.

“Bike riding has been a good social outlet for me and the kids,” she says. “They see other children or we ride past people in their front yards and call out ‘Hi, how are you?’ It’s a semblance of normal life and a good way to get out of the four walls.”

Ashton family getting ready for a bike ride

Meredith isn’t alone. Across Perth – and the world – people have been embracing two wheels like never before. The WA’s People’s Voice Survey found three in ten WA residents rode their bike at least fortnightly during April 2020, with around 40 per cent of these riding more often than before COVID-19.

On top of that, data recently collected by BankWest revealed bike shops had recorded 48 per cent growth in revenue in April 2020, compared to pre-coronavirus life in February this year. Further afield, in the locked-down UK, bike shops have been deemed an essential service as people dust off their treadlys to avoid public transport.

Perth bike sales booming

In North Perth, Cyclemania’s Wayne Evans says the demand he’s seen in his shop is unprecedented. “In the early part of the year, we saw a great deal of interest from people who couldn’t go to the gym or the pool anymore,” he says. “Then, when lockdown started to happen, we saw people who were at home wondering what to do.

Wayne Evans in his bike shop Cyclemania

“The kids were driving parents crazy and they all needed to exercise, so they gravitated to bike riding. It’s something most people can do.”

In April, Cyclemania’s servicing department was booked out two weeks in advance, down from a peak three week wait, as people pulled out long-forgotten bikes and got them up and running again.

Unlike so many businesses, staffing numbers at the shop haven’t changed – a dramatic turnaround to the operation’s outlook earlier this year.

“Two months ago, we were worried we might not survive,” says Wayne. “We’re now getting three times as many inquiries as we would traditionally at this time of year.”

The downside is that the shop is running out of bikes. Most are manufactured in China, and the delay in supply coupled with May being the end of the normal annual supply cycle means the business’s regular inventory of 150 bikes has been whittled down to less than 30 bikes. “We’ve got lower stocks than we’ve ever had but increased demand,” says Wayne.

Our busy cycle paths

His observations are also being reflected in the information collected by the WA Department of Transport.

Manager of Cycling, Sarah Court, says a survey found most of the current bike riding growth is being driven by young individuals, couples and families with young children. There’s been a predictable decline in commuter trips and a spike in recreational rides.

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Results from the Department’s cycle network counters, positioned at spots where there’s traditionally high-volume cycling activity, show increases in rides across all times of the day, compared to the usual boosts prior to 9am and after 5pm.

“At counters at the South Perth foreshore, we’re seeing more than five times the number of riders on weekend afternoons,” she says.

“At the Cottesloe principal shared path, there’s nearly six times greater activity at certain times of the day. At Attadale, Salter Point and Hillarys, the counters are all seeing increased activity.”

Most of the interest Cyclemania is seeing is coming from families. “The main theme is the mum and dad audience saying we haven’t been out riding with our kids in this capacity for ages,” says Wayne Evans.

“One guy told me he went out for 3.5 hours with his son and then after lunch they decided to go on another ride. It’s really nice to hear that parents are getting to spend time with their children. It’s the stuff you remember as a kid.”

Nine-year-old Annabel Veleff has been jumping on her Malvern Star mountain bike far more often since coronavirus hit. “I used to barely ever ride my bike, maybe once every month and now we’re going every day,” she says. “Now that we’re staying at home and mum has limited our tablet time, we just go bike riding.”

Nine-year-old Annabel on her bicycle

Annabel says she’s become fitter and is noticing more in the world around her. She’s even discovered that five of her classmates, and her sports teacher, live along her lengthy suburban street. “I’ve gotten better at riding, too,” she says.

The Department of Transport’s Sarah Court says bike riding is an important outlet for all ages and abilities, facilitating fitness and allowing people to embrace the outdoors while still socially distancing. “COVID helps us realise how important not only our physical health is but also our mental health,” she says.

“It’s been proven that physical activity doesn’t only reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer, it also improves your mental health, things such as depression and anxiety. People have a greater awareness around that, and I think it’s one of the reasons people are rediscovering the joys of riding a bike. It brings things back to basics.”

A keen bike rider herself, Sarah hopes people will sustain their newfound love of cycling after coronavirus passes. “Recreational entry into cycling is often a stepping stone to those considering riding to the shops or school,” she says. “It takes at least a month or two to form a habit and it’s about sustaining that habit.”

Riding into the future

To support cycling in WA, last year’s State Budget included more than $146M over the four years from 2019 to 2022 for cycling projects and grants, including investment in new and existing bike routes, expanding the network by 150 kilometres.

A significant new stretch along the Fremantle train line, linking Grant Street in Cottesloe to Victoria Street in Mosman Park, opened in August 2019. Usage immediately doubled and has dramatically risen during COVID-19 restrictions.

An additional section from Mosman Park to North Fremantle is set for completion in 2021. From there, the next section will be delivered as part of the new traffic bridge crossing the Swan River.

Meanwhile, along the Mitchell Freeway, a new path connection, including a bridge across Scarborough Beach Road and underpasses at the Hutton Street on and off ramps, will link Glendalough Station to Hutton Street, making riding more fluid and safer for people on bikes. It's due to open in May.

Further south, along the Kwinana Freeway, construction is anticipated to begin later this year on an underpass at Cranford Avenue and a missing section of path adjacent to Selway Road in Brentwood.

Sarah hopes it will encourage even more riders to get back on two wheels. “It doesn’t take much for someone to not feel safe riding,” she says. “As we fill in those gaps in the network, there’s no reason to think that the numbers of people riding won’t increase.”

In other big news, the longest piece of shared path delivered in one hit was officially opened in April. Part of the NorthLink project, the 43km section from Bayswater to Muchea along the Tonkin Highway means riders and walkers have a dream run through the north-eastern suburbs to the Wheatbelt - once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, of course.

Ashton family on their bikes

Such journeys are still a way off on the horizon for Meredith Ashton and her young family. But they’re already set for bigger trips. “We bought a bike rack off Gumtree for the back of our car,” she says. “For now we might go to Lake Monger and bring snacks, or just stick local. We’ve got a lot of back lanes in North Perth so there are chalk drawings to find, we spot kids names on the ground or see games of hopscotch.”

Meredith expects she, daughter Grace and son Miller will keep up the new habit even after coronavirus passes – not least because the kids will be getting new bikes for their sixth and fourth birthdays this year. “I’ve definitely seen more confidence in Grace,” Meredith says. “Miller has always preferred scootering to bike riding, but now he’s gotten right into it.”

Meredith also reckons she’ll be keeping her own bike out of the shed. “Being out in the sun is such a mood enhancer, as is seeing other people exercising. Everyone is so friendly.

“I can’t believe I didn’t ride for such a long time. I love the freedom.”