I tried out a Velib hire bike in Paris a few years back and a Barclays/Boris bike in London a couple of years ago so as I was in Brussels for a fantastically beer filled stag party I thought I’d compare their Villo hire bike with the other two.
Wherever I am, and no matter what state I’m in, I tend to wake early. It’s when I prefer to exercise as it’s quieter and that time is my own. I’ve run one of my quickest 5kms with 5 pints of Peroni still clouding me and although there’s nothing big and clever about drinking I wonder if my body has evolved to efficiently take these excess carbs and put them to good use?
I woke Sunday morning feeling better than I really should (thanks Alka Seltzer XS) to find it raining after 2 days of glorious sunshine. Brussels had banned cars from the city centre for the day and there was free public transport. Though not a typical day it would be a good time to try out a hire bike on quieter streets.
I’d found the national stadium at Heysel whilst running the previous morning. Maybe I could find Anderlecht today? It’s good to have a purpose to your pootling about although inevitably I wasn’t pootling.
Similar to the other 2 bikes but blessed with 7 rather than just the 3 gears in London and Paris this was definitely an advantage. The brakes didn’t do much and really I should have swapped the bike for another one but the centre isn’t too hilly and there should be less reasons to stop suddenly on the quieter streets. Navigating the cobbles around the narrow lanes close to the Grand Place was a bit tricky and heavy rain had made them extra slippy.
I enjoyed an hour’s pottering around, joining up the dots between the bars we’d done in the previous 48 hours, admiring street art and searching for the Manneken Pis. My confidence was growing with bike’s gears and brakes and my Strava trace shows I made it up a short category 4 climb and hit a top speed of just under 30 mph coming down it. Most of it looks like the work of one of those drug fueled spiders but I promise you I wasn’t lost or confused, I was just taking in the early morning atmosphere.
The rain had eased off and I’d got my bearings, Google Maps was suggesting I was on the right side of town to find RSC Anderlecht. This was gradually uphill and whilst the cobbles had gone there were tram tracks to watch out for. I struggled with some of the wide junctions where there was sometimes separation of buses and didn’t know where my bike should be. There seemed to be a lack of road signs at junctions. Sometimes there were bike lanes painted and there were lots of one way streets where you could go the other way by bike. I was glad it was quiet because I must have made a few mistakes and this wasn’t due to beer anymore.
I found the stadium in a leafier part of the city and it was worth the effort of finding. I turned to head back into the centre and this is when I started to struggle. I had a couple of hours before checking out of my hotel but didn’t want to be on the last minute so picked up the pace to find I had a noticeable headwind and then the rain returned heavier than before. The big canal would lead me back towards my hotel and after 22km of riding I was happy to park the bike up. Just before doing so I was invited to breakfast with some cyclists and campaigners from Ayay! who were canvassing ideas to make cyclists more visible. Their idea of a teddy bear or a Seasame Street Muppet on a child seat is sweet. I told them how hi viz and helmets are the norm in Britain for commuter/utility cyclists when they didn’t seem to be over there but that gear makes cycling look inherently dangerous when it isn’t *always* so. I feel that Brussels is ahead of us though it’s hard to compare as I didn’t see a working day/rush hour. The proportion of women cyclists around Brussels is much higher as was true in Paris 6 years ago and although they’d heard of our capital’s Cycle Superhighways I pointed out that there had been fatalities on these routes and wasn’t sure they were always the answer. We need more than paint.
Among the cyclists was a guy called Stijn Wens with a mighty impressive Larry Vs Harry Bullitt cargo bike. He’d bought it in Copenhagen and cycled it 1000 km back home to Antwerp. I saw another later in the day adapted to carry a couple of children.
So on reflection the Villo bike was good, better than the other two but maybe the environment was more challenging. As before I took the bike way past what it was designed to do and my back was aching with the effort I’d put into my 2 hours of riding. The hire terminal was easy to use and availability was better than Paris I only really struggled with the maps on the terminal but again I was travelling further than I should have been. It cost €7:50 but would have been cheaper if I’d returned it before I’d chatted over a coffee and croissant.
The best beers and good bikes, Brussels is a place I love.