Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Bike Schemes Compared: Paris v London

On my recent trip to Paris I was keen to have a go of the Vélib' bike scheme. Despite signing up for the Barclays bikes in London I'd never actually had a chance to use them as I usually have my own bike with me. But in Paris the Vélib' scheme was offering the chance to explore a city I know pretty well but in a whole new way. I absolutely love cycling around cities: for me it is the best way imaginable to see a place. Aside from the fact that cycling is fun, there is something about the pace that is perfect: not so fast that you're whizzing by not taking things in; but fast enough so that you can get from one area to another without too much effort. I do also enjoy walking around cities but cycling has the added bonus that there are no aching feet at the end of the day.


What with our Saturday arrival in the rain and the fabulous gig, it wasn't until the Sunday that we had a chance for a proper mooch about. I had already downloaded the Vélib' app and was pleased to see that there was a docking station right behind our hotel. I wanted to sign up for 24 hours access and after a bit of puzzling at the overly complicated machine (this wasn't a bad-French issue incidentally (although that is entirely possible with my French) as the machines offer a choice of languages) I managed to enter my bank card, confirm the €150 deposit, and get my little card with my access code. I then simply entered the number, picked a bike and peddled off.

As you've probably already heard the bikes are pretty darn heavy but I thought they were amazingly easy to cycle. Just three gears and some good solid brakes: they certainly inspire confidence. The Vélib' bikes have a basket on the front with a funny twisty wire thing which I couldn't entirely fathom; I guessed it might be to thread through bag handles for security but they didn't seem terribly effective so I'm not sure. The seat posts are easily adjustable and an unwritten code seems to have developed whereby when a bike is defective in some way people drop the saddles and turn them to the rear to alert people: this is incredibly handy because if you take more than two minutes to find out your bike has a problem (entirely possible with the twisty wire weirdness) it's a right pain to swap it. When this happened to us we actually had to find another docking station as your account seems to get locked for a few minutes after returning your bike.

Anyway, all of these little things aside, the most important thing was the ride: it was surprisingly comfortable. Although the bike is heavy to move up a kerb for instance, it's amazingly easy to steer when you're riding. And the biggest surprise was how easy it was to take uphill. I for one am no fan of riding up hills (in fact I actually add the best part of a mile onto my journey into the centre of town in London to avoid Denmark Hill) and felt sure that we'd be ditching the bikes at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Pantheon where we were staying. So imagine my surprise when I found that we had ridden up the hill by mistake! It really was pretty amazing. I was so blown away by the experience of riding around town on the Vélib' that I promised myself I would try and build the Barclays bikes into my routine at home.

I didn't have to wait long as a week later Coffee Boy and I found ourselves heading into town with our helmets in hand ready to give the London scheme a go. It's difficult to compare the experience of actually hiring the bikes as I had signed us up for the scheme when it first started and we therefore had the keys that you just insert into the bike post before removing the bike itself (and then the key - don't pull it out first). Obviously, that couldn't have been more straightforward. And I was also impressed by the little lights on the post that let you know if the bike is faulty. Rather than a basket to put your bag in the Barclays bikes have a funny open-sided J-shaped basket with a bungee cord - frankly, it looks a bit rubbish but I was pleasantly surprised. The cord is very strong and holds your bag really firmly meaning that an opportunistic thief would have to work a bit to nick your goods. The other benefit is that if you have a large or awkwardly-shaped bag, or a briefcase, you're still going to be able to fit it in. The other thing I liked was the numbered seat-post meaning that once you know what height you want your seat it's super-easy to adjust any subsequent bike you hire. The Paris scheme is a much more chic beige-colour and not plastered in advertising but I am prepared to overlook the blue-Barclaysness (just) if that is the only way London is going to have such a scheme.

In every other way the pricing and set up of the bikes (gears, bells, brakes) is remarkably similar. So the ride is probably pretty similar too right? Wrong. Riding the Barclays bikes is akin to trying to peddle a tractor. Those things are H-E-A-V-Y. At first I thought I had a duff bike as there seemed to be some kind of drag going on but CB confirmed that his was exactly the same. OK, I thought, the gears are obviously a lot harder, I'll drop down from third to second - big mistake, now the bike was hardly moving and still weighed a ton. I realised how truly heavy it was as I crossed Blackfriars Bridge: rather than the slight incline I know it to be, I wondered if I'd drifted off-course to the Alpine section of the Tour de France - not fun. I checked with CB wondering if perhaps I was coming down with something and had lost all the strength in my legs but his red face confirmed that I was not alone.

Now, I'm not suggesting that I am in any way one of the fitter people likely to be using the bikes, but I reckon I probably do a lot more cycling than many of them. And if I find it hard-going, I can't imagine what it'll be like for those that haven't used their cycling muscles for a while. What really worries me is that the scheme is, in theory, a fantastic way to reintroduce people to the joys of cycling; but if my experience is anything to go by it might well put them right off. I'm not saying I won't be using the scheme again, in fact I'm sure I will as it's still an amazingly convenient way to get around, but I'm pretty sure that if I'm going anywhere that requires me not to arrive red-faced and panting then I might give it a miss - which is a real shame.

I love that fact that the London scheme has improved on the Paris scheme with things such as numbered seat-posts and well thought out luggage carrying solutions. But all of that feels a bit irrelevant if the actual riding of the bikes is so inferior. I've been reading lots of articles about the Barclays bikes and nobody has had much to say about the ride save for a few "it's quite heavy". I'd love to hear what other people's experiences have been. Were CB and I experiencing some kind of collective leg-weakening on our day or are they genuinely the heaviest bikes known to man? Let us know.

Images from top:  1. Wayfaring; 2. Cedric via Zoomr 3. Wayfaring; 4. Rui Pereira via Flickr; 5. Bike Hub; 6. 3 Days in London; 7. Scott Davis via Flickr; 8. James Guppy via Flickr


  1. That's a great comparison. I haven't tried either but I also own the key to the London scheme (not really needed anymore), I miss my bike a lot! I cycled up till the 8th month of my pregnancy and I can't wait to get a baby seat in few months time.

  2. Oh, it must be tough not being able to cycle. Have you been scoping out baby cycling accessories? So many people in Berlin have those Christiania style bikes. They're really expensive but seem so practical.


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