By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - The success of riders like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy has encouraged growing numbers of Britons to get on their bicycles to commute to work or to fight off middle-aged flab.
The mutton-chopped Wiggins looks set on Sunday to become the first Briton to win the Tour de France while British riders will look to repeat their Beijing gold rush when London hosts the Olympics next week.
British Cycling, the sport's governing body, reports a surge in its membership after years of stagnation and says the industry is worth almost 3 billion pounds ($4.7 billion) to the UK economy.
"We are seeing a step change in the numbers of people riding bikes. The success internationally has definitely been one of the reasons for that," said British Cycling CEO Ian Drake.
"It's almost becoming the norm now. Most people will know somebody who is riding a bike on a regular basis," he added, saying that growing awareness helped to make cycling safer.
Figures from Sport England place cycling fourth in terms of the number of participants, in a list headed by swimming, soccer and athletics.
In a sign of the sport's growing appeal, commercial TV broadcaster ITV will screen the final two stages of the Tour this weekend live on its flagship ITV1 channel, switching from its less popular niche channel, ITV4.
Wiggins rides for Team Sky, set up and funded by satellite broadcaster BSkyB, part owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
The team was established in 2010. It is an extension of Sky's broader sponsorship of British Cycling which began just before the Beijing Olympics and which has recently been renewed.
Around 200 BSkyB employees are cycling from London to Paris where they hope to witness Wiggins cruising to victory on the Champs Elysees on Sunday.
"We set ourselves a goal of winning it within five years. That was an ambitious target as no Briton had ever won the Tour de France," said Robert Tansey, chairman of the Team Sky board.
EVOLUTION OF THE MAMILS
Drake of British Cycling says the Sky partnership has built on funding from the country's national lottery. He stresses that the money pumped into the sport has helped both elite riders and community schemes such as supervised "led rides" to get more people on their bikes.
Amateur riders gather at pubs and cafes around London and other cities at weekends, heading off into the countryside in pelotons that were once more associated with continental Europe.
A new breed of riders has been dubbed the MAMILs - middle-aged men in lycra.
"What you often see are men who come in for a commuter bike. They start to see others whizzing past them on racers and want to trade up," said Paul Gage, a former journalist who now runs a bike shop in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill.
Independent retailers and larger chains say a government-backed scheme that gives generous tax breaks for buying bikes has helped sales.
"Enabling employees to make savings of up to 42 percent on new bikes through schemes such as Ride2Work is obviously going to increase the popularity of cycling," said a spokeswoman for Evans Cycles.
Evans, set up in the 1920s in south London, now has 47 stores and says turnover has grown fourfold over the last decade to more than 100 million pounds.
Looking in the window of an Evans store in the Canary Wharf financial district, London-based Frenchman Corentin Leverrier says he is tempted to take up cycling again.
"Britain is dominating cycling at the moment and that is promoting it better than anything else," said Leverrier, a 35-year-old banker.
"It's surprising how popular it is here, considering the weather."
($1 = 0.6366 British pounds)
(Reporting by Keith Weir, editing by Paul Casciato)