By Judith Keeling

The humble bicycle has long been as much a part of Oxford life as Pimms, punting and prelims. But, recently, cycling has been shooting up both the popular and political agendas of the city faster than Bradley Wiggins in a time trial.

Just a few weeks ago David Cameron (Brasenose, 1985) was to be found enthusiastically opening the new Mickey Cranks bike shop in his constituency of Witney. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson (Balliol College, 1983) is exuberantly backing bike schemes involving £900 million of investment in the capital. And over the summer the government announced a £77 million funding injection for a national “cycling revolution”: a drive to improve cycling in Oxford and other cities, encouraging more people to take to their bikes.

Clearly the bicycle is undergoing a 21st century revival, and that’s particularly evident in Oxford. A new Boris Bike-style hire scheme was launched in Headington this June, trying to tempt workers to pedal during their commute, and more than 500 people have already signed up to the scheme. “The idea is to link the Thornhill Park-and-Ride with some of the major university and hospital sites, to encourage people to use bikes for small trips,” explains Kevin Moreland, co-owner of the Walton Street Cycle shop, which has the maintenance contract for the Oxonbike scheme.

There are bike racks at Thornhill, the John Radcliffe Hospital, the Churchill, the Nuffield, the Old Road campus, Oxford Brookes at Gypsy Lane, and London Road in Headington. It costs £1 to sign up to the scheme and the first 30 minutes of each ride are free. “A lot of people work at these sites and they move around from one to another during the day,” explains Moreland. “The idea is to encourage them to use bikes for these short journeys. We’ve had very positive feedback so far.” The two-year, £150,000 scheme is part of the expansion of Thornhill, and is funded by local Government. If it proves successful, it could be rolled out across the rest of Oxford. Sadly, Grand Scheme Bike Share, the company which oversees the scheme, recently went into liquidation — but Oxfordshire County Council is confident it will continue to run (Update: Oxonbike has now been suspended until further notice.)

Meanwhile, another hire scheme, targeted at visitors and rail commuters, has been launched at Oxford Railway station, offering folding Brompton bikes to those arriving in the city by train. The scheme, operated by Brompton Dock, has 40 bikes available to hire from the fully-automated rack next to the Botley Road footbridge. Members register online and bike hire costs from £2.50 a day – compared with around £750 to buy a Brompton brand new. Passengers can hire a bike, fold it up to take on the train with them, then return it either to its original dock or to one in another town. Indeed, there are now 24 docks at railway stations all over the UK. “Oxford is already a great cycling city, and Brompton Dock will allow even more people to get on bikes” says Mark Antwis, managing director of Brompton Dock. Employees at the railway station certainly seem to agree. “It’s getting people out of cars and onto bikes,” enthuses First Great Western Oxford station manager Dave Martin.

All told, cycling seems to have become more popular than ever in the city — which might be because it’s getting safer, too. “Life has certainly gotten easier for cyclists in Oxford in the past few years,” explains Richard Mann, vice chairman of Cyclox, the Oxford cyclists’ campaign group. He points to the excellent bus network and introduction of 20mph speed limits in central Oxford as contributing to a safer environment for cyclists, by keeping traffic speed down and encouraging more people to leave the car at home. In addition, he says, Oxford bus drivers are now specifically trained to watch out for cyclists.

The overall result is that more people feel safe cycling on the roads. “An estimated 30,000 people cycle in Oxford each day. That’s 20 percent of the population,” he says. Nonetheless, campaigners are far from resting on their laurels: Cyclox is pressing to slow traffic speeds at the Plain roundabout, for instance, which is navigated by many Oxford students on a daily basis.

Indeed, student cycling safety has recently been the focus of much attention. This year the CTC, the UK’s national cycling charity, even approached the Oxford Students Union offering free cycle training to freshers. “Every year around 7,000 new students turn up in Oxford and many probably haven’t been on a bike in ten years,” explains Mann. “You see some of them wobbling around a bit.” The scheme has, sadly, had a disappointing take-up rate — but according to Mann that’s because traffic is slow in Oxford and, at any rate, many cyclists “get the hang of it quite quickly.”

While much of that student wobbling will be done on cheap second-hand bikes, though, from next spring there will be an alternative: a retro, University-branded bike will be on sale to undergraduates and general public alike. The Oxford Bike — a product of a collaboration between manufacturer Rule Bikes Ltd and Oxford Limited, the brand licensing arm of the University of Oxford — will bear the trademark University crest and stripe. Priced at around £600, it may not be within the reach of many students, but it’s a clear indicator that Oxford, as a University and town, is taking cycling more seriously than ever.