Squeezed by debt crisis, Greeks ditch cars for bikes

Wed Aug 8, 2012 11:40am EDT
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By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's dire economic plight has forced thousands of businesses to close, thrown one in five out of work and eroded the living standards of millions. But for bicycle-maker Giorgos Vogiatzis, it's not all bad news.

The crisis has put cash-strapped Greeks on their bikes - once snubbed as a sign of poverty or just plain risky - and Greek manufacturers are shifting into fast gear.

The high cost of road tax, fuel and repairs is forcing Greeks to ditch their cars in huge numbers. According to the government's statistics office, the number of cars on Greek roads declined by more than 40 percent in each of the last two years. Meanwhile, more than 200,000 bikes were sold in 2011, up about a quarter from the previous year.

Shops selling bicycles, and equipment ranging from helmets to knee pads, are spreading fast across the capital, popping up even between souvenir shops on the cobbled pedestrian streets of the touristy Plaka district.

"They're sprouting up like mushrooms," said Vogiatzis, who designs and builds tailor-made bicycles in his workshop on the Aegean island of Rhodes.

A former cyclist on Greece's national team, Vogiatzis opened his business in the mid-80s, combining his love for drawing and mathematics, but only recently watched sales boom from a modest 40 bikes a year to over 350.

"There's no more money for luxuries and that helps," said Vogiatzis, who works away furiously with two other staff to meet demand for all sorts of bikes - some lavishly hand-painted in glitter, others flaunting the Greek flag.

"People who were never interested in cycling are buying bikes," he added. Vogiatzis now exports to seven countries including Germany and the United States, and opened shops across Greece, including in Athens where competition is fierce.   Continued...

Music saleswoman Elena Koniaraki, 39, rides her bicycle in front of the parliament on the way to work in Athens July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis