Ever the early adopter I took the opportunity of the extra time that unemployment affords you to take a ride on one of Boris’s bikes. Having worked for the last 6 months over in Holland Park I found myself just outside of useful reach of the bike zone. This resulted in me buying my own folding Dahon bike that enabled me to conveniently split my journey between the train and my own green two wheeled machine.
Armed with the Barclays’ Bike iPhone app, I hopped on the train to Great Portland Street with the intention of picking up a bike at the top of Bolsover Street. My app told me that there were five bikes available out of a possible fourteen (I think), but when I got there the last two were in the process of being taken. A quick check on the app and a brisk five minute walk later I was at a larger bike station on Portland Place to pick up a bike from a larger selection of blue and silver steeds.
The process of becoming a ‘casual rider’ was quite simple. I followed the instructions on screen, inserted my debit card and duly paid my £1 access fee. This allows me to use a single bike within a 24 hour period. My intended journey should take me 24 minutes according to my app so this falls within the free 30 minute period before I would get charged another £1 for between 30 minutes and 1 hours’ use. Once I’d paid I was given a 5 digit code, that is active for ten minutes, that unlocks the bike itself. When you look to the left of the wheel on the bike dock you see three buttons numbered 1 to 3. They are small and don’t seem to click when you press them. I attempted to enter my code, 12332, but the lights above the buttons did not illuminate to celebrate my inaugural ride. Hmmm, this isn’t a good start. At the end of the row I spotted an unusually clean bike with the number 19144 emblazoned on the side. I tried once more to enter my access code on this bike and was greeted with a green light signifying that I could remove the bike from it’s dock. After a good solid yank the bike was freed and I was ready to roll.
Before departing I adjusted the seat to a comfortable height and then began my journey down Regent Street. My initial thought about the bike was that it felt a little wobbly. It took me until Oxford Circus to realise why. I’m not sure how this differs from my own bikes, but I felt that my seated position was a little too far forward and perhaps this put my centre of gravity in the wrong place making it slightly unstable. I don’t think I could adjust the saddle position on the bike so I just had to sit as far back on the saddle as I could. What I noticed about some other riders was that they dropped their saddles right down and rode in the bike standing up on the peddles. They, of course, were younger than me and had probably grown up riding BMXs, therefore having over developed leg muscles to hold them up for longer in that riding position. I think that would be too much stress for my delicate little legs to handle! The second thing to note, and this has been widely reported about these and other city hire bikes, was that it was quite a heavy machine. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously this would deter would be thieves from steeling a bike whose main job is to take it’s riders on short journeys of less than 30 minutes, but it’s not overly heavy and it gives you enough inertia on a downhill belt to get you successfully up the other side without too much effort! The final thing of note is the solitary three gears. As someone who is used to between seven and twenty-one gears on a bike, three was a bit of a worry. But again, this is a bit of a non issue. I was only doing a 30 minute ride towards the river, which is essentially a lovely downhill ride, so the three gears were fine for me. I admit though that I had to get over my gear envy when the cyclists with proper bikes effortlessly pushed past me down Haymarket towards Trafalgar Square. I’m not so sure I would have been so generous about those gears, one to three, if I had been riding back from my destination to 19144’s home in Portland Place though.
London is a great city. By foot it’s fantastic to explore but by bike it’s a completely different experience. Bar the risk of getting squashed by a bus or a taxi, taking in the sites along my route while riding one of the city’s bikes was quite a fulfilling experience, an experience that was only topped by cycling across London’s eponymous bridge. The only thing that would have make my journey complete is if there was more camaraderie amongst the users of Boris’s bikes or even all cyclists, but unfortunately this is just not the case. Just like the eyes down atitude you might come across on London’s trains and buses, the two wheels road users of London town are just the same. There is no friendly nod or courteous signalling, and it does seem that all of Transport for London’s other authorised vehicles’ drivers actually hate you as well. I might even go so far as saying that riding a big blue Barclay’s bike might even make you a slow moving target for London’s cabbies and bus drivers, although I’m sure that these salt of the earth characters wouldn’t stoop so low, would they?
In summary, the bikes that Boris has kindly scattered all over Zone One are certainly fit for purpose. They were never put there for long distance rides and certainly provide a comfortable journey over a short distance. If I ever find myself in a position where I was going in to town again on a daily basis I’m not sure that I’d become a member of the scheme. I’m not convinced that I would be able to get access to a bike as quickly as I might like and I think that the convenience of the service doesn’t outweigh the inconvenience of taking my fold up bike on the train with me, to complete my journey at the other end. Having the facility to use the service as a casual rider does have it’s attractions. I’d me more than happy now to grab a bike to get from A to B now I’m familiar with the system. I’d have to make sure that I had by helmet with me though, which I did on this occasion. What with all of the hazards that London’s streets can throw at you (yes tourists, I’m looking at you), I think the risk of riding without one is too great.
So, well done Boris on a well executed and run scheme, once you have it hooked into the Oyster system it will truly become an integrated part of the London transport system.