Whilst walking 2 km along the Rue du Rivoli and across the Place du Concord I counted 32 Velib hire bikes against 24 non Velib bikes. It would be naive to assume that none of these Velib riders would have ridden otherwise but I’m sure the system introduced by the City Council must have had lead to a significant increase in cycling over the 12 months since it was introduced.
I had arrived in the City of Lights for a romantic 10th wedding anniversary with (honestly) absolutely no intention of touching a bicycle, but inspired by watching Mark Cavendish’s 4th stage win in the Tour de France (witnessed live in a Parisian hotel room to boot) and curious to be able to test and report back on the Velib scheme I decided to try the hire bikes out although to keep everyone happy I did it before breakfast on the sunday morning whilst the Missus was enjoying a rare lie-in.
One thing I noticed during my 48 hours in Paris was how levels of service were were very poor. I thought the Brits liked queuing but we waited with about 20 other people for over 30 minutes to pay for something in C & A, automated ticket machines were often broken and what was most infuriating was that on a number of occassions there had been just one person serving in a shop/resturant whilst another two were fannying about with other tills. This behaviour seemed to be tolerated by the French and also the general friendliness, manners and basic customer service skills we have come to expect in Britain seemed to be all but absent too.
With this in mind I should have expected the Velib experience to be less than smooth and painless: Don’t get me wrong the system (of 750 hire stations around the city) is brilliant in principle, and the hire stations operate in 5 languages meaning for a moderate technophobe like myself (yes I know I work for a blue chip IT company) who dreads a new phone, the user interface could not have been easier to use. Without going into the detail of all the Velib hire options I put my British credit card in to enable them to remove €150 from me if I ‘forgot’ to return the bike and then there was a €1 registration fee for the 24 hour service. I was given my own 7 digits number which I eventually memorised (you will soon understand why) together with a 4 digit security code. The charging (as I understood it) was free for the first 30 minutes, €1 for an hour and €2 for 2 hours. My aim was to ride for an hour but I hadn’t realised how long I would spend finding a bike, then finding an available bike, and finally finding an available and roadworthy bike.
At the Velib station closest to our hotel there were over a dozen bikes lined up that I had photographed the previous day, however none of them was available for my use it seemed. I later guessed that these particular bikes were reserved for the regular scheme users rather than a 24 hour rider like myself and a more sophisicated swipe card would be the method of releasing them for use. At the neighbouring station I had the choice of 2 bikes both with ‘pneu creve’ (punctured tyres) and it seems that Velib etiquette for puncutured bikes is to push the tyre off the wheel, remove the inner-tube and wrap it around the back of the bike, presumably as some form of stress relieving therapy. Why there were so many punctures was beyond me as the streets were not full of debris and the tyres were Schwalbe Marathons which in my 6,000 mile experience of them, were absolutely puncture proof.
The pay stations could quite easily tell me the exact locations of neighbouring stations and how many bikes were in theory available. But being a proper man who doesn’t look at maps until absolutely and completely necessary, I used my sense of smell to seek out the next nearest station. This had 3 bikes without punctures but red lights against their bike-stands that told me they were unavailable for some reason. The next station by the Pompidou Centre, still less than 500m from my hotel had none either ‘available’ or without pneu creve (always the bike back wheel too). I chose, at this juncture, to use the very handy map system on the console, though obviously I didn’t waste precious time taking down the details of where I was going (in a city I barely knew) and I headed toward the river where there were two stations with four bikes available at each alledgedly.
At last I struck lucky and 1 of the first 4 bikes was almost roadworthy: the back wheel was a bit soft (probably the source of all the punctures?). It would have to do for now so 22 minutes and 4 seconds after subscribing to the Velib 24 hour service I was finally on the move at toute vitesse. The plan was to snap as many of the attractions around the centre of Paris within an hour and the intended route was Notre Dame, Tour Effiel, Arc De Triomphe, Champs Elysse, Place de Concord then back to base.
I headed off towards Notre Dame. When I say ‘towards’ that was true for a short while but not doing the map thing properly or looking out for signs (cheating in my book) I cycled merrily along the North Bank of the Seine (whilst watching out for buses and taxis) and overshot the appropriate bridge turning by about 1 km. The river started to bend which set alarm bells ringing and I looked at my free street map of the city which no longer seemed to cover the area I was in. I crossed over the river and headed west, and within 15 minutes and after almost (I said almost) stopping and asking for directions I was at Notre Dame.
This diversion had eaten into my hour so I revised the plan to simply finding the Effiel Tower and then heading back home by the most direct route. Now I like to cruise at 15 – 20 mph, especially amongst city centre traffic, however none of the 3 available gears from the Nexus in hub gears really suited this range. The bikes are designed for anyone to use rather than the regular cyclist and geared for pootling about rather than re-creating a mini-stage of the Tour de France. I did drop back into 2nd gear once I think. Peddling frantically at 15mph + whilst wearing stiff jeans made high speed cycling uncomfortable and the meaty Schwalbe Marathon (plus?) tyres also traded rolling resistance for extra grip on the road which on balance was a good thing.
The soft rear tyre was starting to trouble me so I stopped at another station with 1 puncture free bike available, and after checking the bike was available for me to hire and giving the tyres a metaphorical kicking I put my old bike back in a vacant holster, printed a receipt for proof of its return and took out the new bike. I adjusted the saddle height and set off, then ‘Merde!’, my feet span round as I realised it had no fecking chain. With no alternative available I processed the return of the useless bike and swapped back to ‘Old Faithful’ before carrying on along the South Bank of the Seine to the Effiel Tower. I generated the required photographic evidence and also found a dozen working bikes so successfully swapped steeds before the return leg. I had learnt my 7 digit number by now.
No time for the Arc de Triomphe or Champs Elysee now, I crossed the river and cycled the North Bank on well thought out and well maintained bike paths. Some paths were away from both traffic and peds, other paths were on road with a separate bike only lane and at other times again I was mingling with the well behaved buses and taxis. I rejoined my planned route at Place de Concord which I cycled around. It’s not as bad as the Arc de Triomphe’s roundabout but still has 10 lanes width or more in places, lacked any road markings and is cobbled too. The Missus phoned me at this point to check how I was doing; "Oui, I’m still alive Ma Cherie", I reported back. The junction was quite safe at 8:30 on a Sunday morning but nevertheless taxis still paused politely as I chose my preferred line through the complex.
Rue de Rivoli was a one way in the wrong direction so rather than ‘doing a Cameron‘ I took a smaller parallel street a block further north. Was I dreaming? or were the lights sequenced for a cyclist peddling his little arse off doing 18 mph as I caught half a dozen in a row on green. I returned the last bike one hour to the second after taking the first one, with a big smile on my face and ready for a hearty (though sadly continental) breakfast.
Yours in the saddle
Velib subscriber 4614612