x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Healthy cycle in bicycle's future

While the Emirates' love affair with the automobile is well-known a more humble form of transport is gaining favour as health concerns come to the fore.

The writing is on the wall: bicycles are growing in popularity in the UAE with the rise of health-consciousness and an increase in gated communities, which provide a safe area for bikers. Galen Clarke / The National
The writing is on the wall: bicycles are growing in popularity in the UAE with the rise of health-consciousness and an increase in gated communities, which provide a safe area for bikers. Galen Clarke / The National

With its scorching climate and roads ruled by fast cars and 4x4s, the UAE can be an unforgiving environment for a bicycle rider.

But with increasing health-awareness among the population and more gated communities appearing across the country, creating more areas where children and adults can cycle in safety, the bicycle market is gaining speed, retailers say.

"Overall, we see it getting more popular," says Wolfgang Hohmann, the owner of Wolfi's Bike Shop in Dubai.

New recreational areas for cyclists, such as near the Formula One circuit on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island and around the Meydan horse racing track in Dubai, and events such as the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, have helped promote sales as well, he a says.

There are no official figures on sales of bicycles and accessories, but the UAE market is estimated to be worth US$142 million (Dh521.5m) out of the $37.6 billion global market, according to 2009 figures from the research company NPD.

Wolfi's Bike Shop, one of the largest in the UAE, sells more than 1,000 bicycles a year, says Mr Hohmann. Across the Middle East, an estimated $1.3bn was spent on bicycles and accessories in 2009, NPD says.

And the market is growing, albeit it slowly, with 10.2 per cent of all households in the UAE owning at least one bicycle in 2009, up from 9.2 per cent in 2004, according to data from Euromonitor International.

But the UAE is far below the MENA region average, where 20.4 per cent of households own bicycles, Euromonitor International says.

The UAE had the second-lowest ownership rate in the region, ahead of Egypt at 10 per cent of households and behind Kuwait at 11.8 per cent.

But bicycle usage, globally, is expected to inch higher, too - from an estimated 53.4 per cent of households owning bicycles last year to 53.8 per cent in 2014, according to Euromonitor International.

Renaud Vaschalde, the global sports industry analyst for NPD, which is based in Paris, says the Middle East sports market has grown by 3 per cent, whereas the global market has declined by 2 per cent over the past year.

"Just the population itself is growing by 3 per cent. It's not that these people are getting more income, it's just that the population is growing, and its one of the few areas that is growing, by population," he says.

It is a segment that can mean big business. While there are bicycles available on the UAE market for just a few hundred dirhams, high-end machines can cost thousands of dirhams. Top-of-the-range bicycles branded by the Italian sports car maker Ferrari can cost up to Dh16,000 each.

Ashraf Hammuri, the general manager of Infinity International, which supplies various brands of bicycle in the UAE, including Ferrari bikes, says the market was held back by the economic downturn but is bouncing back.

"It has grown, we could say, 20 per cent each year," he says. "Of course, with the crisis, this was affected a little bit, and then now it's back again on track."

Children's bicycles are popular purchases in the Emirates, retailers say. "The bicycle market here is much better with the kids than the adults," says Mr Hammuri.

But in the UAE, even youngsters like their bikes to carry a logo.

Mr Hammuri says his Ferrari bicycles, as well as products featuringcartoon characters such as Batman, are top sellers.

"Kids are very much brand conscious," he says. "Kids like to have branded goods, and they don't like the generic kind of bicycles."

Middle-aged men (or MAMILs - middle-aged men in lycra, as the media sometimes describe them) make up another customer segment in which cycling is popular.

"People come here, to the Middle East, build up a career and have a family, and in a few years they look in the mirror and really feel they have gained some weight," Mr Hohmann says. "They come in and say they want to change it."

Cycling attracts people who want to get in shape but need an activity that is easy on the joints, says Vishal Bhatia, the marketing manager for Sun and Sand Sports.

"A lot of people use it as a means to get fit again through an enjoyable activity, and for those who have an interest in trying to get fit without overdoing it," he says.

Sajith Kumar, the parts manager for Abu Dhabi Motors, which sells BMW products in the capital as well as branded bicycles, says middle-aged buyers purchase the majority of his company's bicycles - either for themselves or their children.

However, he is sceptical of the appeal of cycling in the region, given that high temperatures can make cycling uncomfortable.

"I believe in this country it's not something people particularly enjoy like in other markets," Mr Kumar says. Abu Dhabi Motors sells only between 10 and 15 cycles a year, he says.

Although Ferrari has chosen to sell its bicycles in the UAE, other car makers are less convinced.

Ashwani Shiv, the regional sales manager for Swaidan Trading, the authorised dealer for Peugeot in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, says the company looked at importing the French company's bicycle line in 2007 but decided the market was not large enough.

Bicycles did not appear to be a popular way of getting around the city, due to the widespread use of cars and the fact that high-earning residents can more easily afford motorised transport, he says. And with the climate, Peugeot did not expect many people to look to bicycles as a pastime either, Mr Shiv says.

"It could not fit the bill as a popular mode of transportation, nor could it fit the bill as recreation or leisure product. That is the reason that, combining both these factors, we abandoned the project," he says.

But Mr Hohmann disagrees. "In the last four or five years, people care more [about their health] and that's one of the ways to keep in shape, running or cycling."

Mr Bhatia also expects the bicycle market to accelerate. "It is definitely an upward trend, and certainly going to get stronger."