Professional cyclist Jim Burlant once said "Cycling is like church. Many attend, but few understand."
Well, if cycling is like church, then Christmas, for cycling enthusiasts must come early in July, with the start of the annual 3,600 km long race known as the Tour De France.
Created in 1903, the race represents one of the high points in the annual sporting calendar. Fans are treated to three weeks of breathtaking scenery and stamina from the likes of Lance Armstrong, Andy Schleck and last year's five stage winner Mark Cavendish and all from the comfort of their armchairs.
Currently, the tour is broadcast by 65 television stations in 110 countries across the world, with some 15 million people watching the final stage of the competition on television and many more waiting track side.
With this global fan base in mind, the Tour De France offers up some unique opportunities to invest in the growing market of sports memorabilia and renew your faith in the church of cycling.
Having won the tour a record seven consecutive times from 1999-2005, whilst also overcoming life threatening cancer, Lance Armstrong represents an inspirational icon of the sport.
The prices attached to collectible autographs from Armstrong vary depending on their rarity and the unique nature of the memorabilia signed, so it is important to keep an eye out for one of a kind collectibles.
The good thing about the Lance Armstrong memorabilia market is that it offers collectors a range of opportunities to invest in the market, with many at a relatively low starting cost.
A signed Lance Armstrong programme and photograph from his time on the Tour De France can be found for as little as £150 (£225) while a signed and framed "Credit Lyonnais" Jersey can be for around £200 ($300).
But, as any avid Tour De France fan will tell you, when it comes to cycling jerseys, there is no substitute for the yellow. This colour of jersey is given to the overall leader of the Tour De France, to wear during the following stage of the competition and is a must for any Tour De France collector, looking to impress like minded enthusiasts.
A 1995 edition of the yellow jersey, autographed by Lance Armstrong is currently on the market for £1,100 ($1600).
Alternatively, the jersey worn by Armstrong during his 2005 comeback tour de France, is available for £1,200($1,800) and carries some personal significance, given the battle Armstrong faced in his treatment for cancer in the years preceding the tour.
An autographed photograph of Lance Armstrong can still be bought for around £100-£300 ($150-450).
But a photograph of the 1924 Tour De France, signed by Armstrong and five other winners of the competition, is today worth £1,770 ($2,695), an increase of nearly 900% on a standard autograph.
The rarest Lance Armstrong collectibles will set you back a little more though.
In November 2009, Lance Armstrong auctioned seven one of a kind racing bicycles as part of a charity auction in Sotheby's.
The seven bikes auctioned, featured during Armstrong's final Tour De France and were turned into artworks by seven of the most popular contemporary artists of their time, giving them value to sports and arts collectors alike.
At the lower end of the scale, a time trial bike used in the Giro D'Italia, designed from modern painter Kenny Scharf and sold for £30,000 ($45,000).
Australian designer Marc Newson, responsible for the design trend of "biomorphism" designed one of the custom bikes, selling for £75,000 ($110,000).
Shepard Fairey, the man responsible for the famous "Hope" Barack Obama poster design, saw his bike, used during the Giro D'Italia, also sell for £75,000 ($110,000).
Yet, as the auction continued the prices only increased. A bike stolen from the team van, only to be recovered three days later sold for £85,000 ($130,000) at auction.
Yet, far and away the star of the auction was the Damien Hirst designed Lance Armstrong racing bike.
The collectible bike was covered in dryed and coloured real butterflies, making it a truly unique piece.
The bike sold for £330,000 ($500,000.)
At the conclusion of the auction Lance Armstrong used his twitter site to comment on the unique sale:
"From Damien Hirst's masterpiece Tour de France 'finale' Trek Madone covered in real butterflies, to the KAWS 'Chompers' cycle that I broke my collarbone on in the Vuelta Castilla y Leon, every ride is a treasured piece of personal history..."
Of course, the market isn't all about Lance Armstrong.
At a recent charity auction, Scottish rider Robert Millar saw his polka dot jersey from the 1984 tour reach £3,200 ($4,800).
Vintage Bicycles are another area worth considering. They are available at a range of prices, which makes it a viable option for collectors of all budgets.
A vintage Oscar Egg lightweight touring/racing bicycle, made in Paris, the home of the Tour De France, from 1939 recently sold at a Sotheby's auction for £506 ($770).
Even older still, a well maintained Rudge road racing bicycle, from 1905, sold for £483 ($732). Quite a bargain, for a collectible over a hundred years old.
Recently, though, auctions have indicated a boom in certain specific types of bicycle.
A late 1890's American made Gormally & Jeffery tandem bike was also put up for auction at Sotheby's with an estimate of £2,500-4,000 ($4,000-6,000), yet sold for £18,000 ($24,000), 400% higher than the estimate.
An Ignatz Schwinnis Family Tandem bike, up for auction with an estimated price of £16,000-23,000 ($25,000-35,000) sold for £70,000 ($106,375), four times the estimated price.
Cycling memorabilia is clearly popular and renewed interest in cycling is demonstrated by an increasing number of museum exhibits.
Last month, the soon to open Museum of Liverpool, welcomed several pieces of cycling memorabilia from Olympic Gold medal winner Chris Boardman.
The highlight of the donated collection was a rare piece of the track from the famous Manchester Velodrome, where Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish would dominate the 2008 World Championships and where Boardman broke the world hour record in 1996.
Boardman recalls that:
"They shut the Velodrome briefly in 2007 for resurfacing, and kindly gave me the piece of track I crossed when I achieved the hour record."
And the United Kingdom is not alone in its love of all things bicycle.
In the United States, numerous museums are dedicated to the collection of bicycle memorabilia.
Institutions like the Pryor DodgeBicycle Collection. This is the largest collection of bicycle memorabilia in the world, with over 2,000 original artefacts from Europe and the U.S. dating back as far as 1819.
While the small town of Copake, New York, plays host to an annual auction of rare and classic bicycle memorabilia. Taking place in April and in its 19th year, this event saw visitors from as far as Australia , the Netherlands and Japan.
These collectors had come to bid on a total of 475 different lots, from bicycles and tricycles right through to posters, cigarette cards and even 19th century ink wells related to the sport.
A feature in Traditional Home magazine summed up the appeal of the event:
"The appeal of old bikes clearly transcends age, education, or continent. In Copake, a local car mechanic, a New Jersey business executive, and a Japanese student were among those tentatively raising their index-card paddles to signal bids."
Cycling memorabilia offers a wide range of opportunities to enter the collectibles market. More importantly though is that these collectible pieces are still relatively cheap to purchase and have a value which is backed up by a proven worldwide interest in the sport and its rich history.
So, whether your passion focuses on the history, the icons or just simply an appreciation of the tandem bike, the "church" of cycling remains very much in session for collectors.
- Learn how you can get pleasure and profit from investment in sports memorabilia
- Click here for all the latest Memorabilia news
Join our readers in 182 countries around the world - sign up for your free weekly Collectibles Newsletter today