Bike for Christmas: When all kids wanted was a BMX

By David McKenna
BBC News

  • Published
Boy sits on a new bike on Christmas day in Glasgow, ScotlandImage source, Getty Images

BMX, Raleigh Chopper and Grifter. Iconic bikes that once topped many a Christmas list - and all a nightmare to wrap and put behind the Christmas tree. But does the bike still appeal today? And can it compete with the high-tech items found in Santa's sack?

For many the bike was the ultimate Christmas present, with the lucky children who received one seen proudly riding around the block on the big day - then reluctantly returning home for their dinner.

David Powell, from Boston in Lincolnshire, remembers the excitement of seeing a brand new Sun GT bike in black glistening under the Christmas tree, especially after years of riding around on his sister's old ones.

"I went all over on that bike and loved every minute of it," he says.

"Whenever I see kids on bikes now I wonder if they have the same feelings."

Image source, Getty Images
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Some said no high-tech item could ever compare to the thrill of getting a new bike

Those lucky enough to get a bike - and the cost meant they were out of financial reach for many parents - valued the freedom it offered above all else.

Colin Peet, from Southport, was about 13 when he got a bike for Christmas.

"Money was sparse back in the early 70s, especially with a family of seven," he says. "So my bike was a second-hand blue five-speed racer - and I loved it."

For those of a certain age, the Raleigh Chopper was ubiquitous and topped many a Christmas list. The Nottingham-based company sold about 1.5m following its launch in 1969.

Dan Metcalfe-Hall, from Grantham, says he was never lucky enough to get a Chopper despite repeated requests to the big man in red.

Image source, Getty Images
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The original Raleigh Chopper, featuring a t-bar gear shifter, was top of many Christmas lists and sold 1.5m

However, he was given a different brand one Christmas and remembers trying to ride it in the snow with his friends. He doesn't think it's a scene that would be repeated today.

"Children today don't know what they are missing and are too obsessed with digital devices," he says.

Liz Collier, from Skegness, believes there is no comparison between high-tech gifts and the thrill of getting a bike on Christmas Day.

"I remember my brothers setting it up for me and helping me to ride without stabilisers, and having lots of fun outside," she says.

For those who look back fondly on their 25 December bikes, many memories are interwoven with another strand of nostalgia - the white Christmas.

"I got a bike one year as a kid, and had to ride it up and down the hall as there was several feet of snow outside," says Sam Emery, from Lincoln.

Image source, Getty Images
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The Raleigh Grifter was another popular Christmas present in the 1970s

In the 1980s, BMX bikes became the must-have two-wheels on many Christmas lists.

For Rachel Sharpe, who is a member of the Sherwood Pines Cycling Club, there was a significant cultural moment that led her to the BMX.

"I blame ET," she says. "Loved my Raleigh Extra Burner - red and white."

Like thousands of other children, Ms Sharpe asked for a BMX after the December 1982 release of the Steven Spielberg film, which saw Elliott and friends riding around on their bikes in a bid to help their new friend "go home".

Image source, Getty Images
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Elliott and friends spent a good part of the film riding around on their bikes in a bid to help E.T.

Sales of the BMX-style Burner topped 1m, according to Raleigh, and the craze also saw children out and about over the festive period building makeshift ramps and, later, lobbying local councils to provide facilities.

Skip forward to the end of the 2010s and the Christmas list dominance of tech is clear - as is its use by children.

Three-quarters of children in the UK are said to have access to a tablet computer and their popularity shows no sign of waning.

But the humble bike remains popular.

Figures from the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry show more than 3m bikes are sold in the UK annually - and about 30% of these are children's bikes.

According to Raleigh, the popularity of high-tech items has impacted on the industry in recent years - but sales usually increase at Christmas.

Royal Mail, which passes on thousands of letters from children to Santa each year, said bikes were totally absent in 2018 from its top ten list of most requested gifts.

However, it said bikes had returned at number three in 2019, behind games consoles and Lego.

Image source, Getty Images
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Children campaigning at Christmas 1983 in a bid to get a new BMX track built in Redcar

The anecdotal evidence from those in charge of Santa's letters - and the industry itself - suggests the pull of the bike remains more than just nostalgia.

"Bikes offer children the chance to get out and about and explore," says Matt Mallinder, director of national charity Cycling UK.

"Far more exciting then a video game, but more difficult to wrap."