I would say that this is the first in an occasional series, but let’s face it, reviewing free cycle loan/rental schemes in metropolis’ is a fairly niche market. So this may remain a unique ditty.
Yes, yes, I know we’re not aroundtheworldin84days any more but I miss writing so am seizing a travel-esque moment here while the moment exists.
Today I found myself at the British Olympic Assoication HQ on Charlotte Street in Laaaan-dun town with temporary travel buddy and fellow corporate warrior D (not his full name). It’s a freebie event by a Olympian founded consultancy and we spend the morning having our thoughts provoked. At the end of our chin stroking/teeth sucking/eyebrow raising session we are out on the street contemplating a journey across town.
Our next meeting is at the Royal Society for the Arts just off the Strand.
It’s just around the corner in a cab, 3 stops on the tube, 20 minutes on foot: 1.6 miles of urban jungle to cross. Contemplating our options, the latter appeals most as it’s an un-rainy day – such a rarity so far in summer (so called) 2012 – and free. NB: we are travelling on legitimate company time here and are claiming expenses. However, spending company money is such a no-no that we automatically eliminate the cost options. (I do hope our MD & FD are reading.)
Whilst maps are consulted on mobile devices I note that I am leaning on a Boris-Bike kiosk. Not unlike a pay-and-display unit in a car park only with a bike-rack alongside.
“Wait a minute…”
Sceptical D is persuaded to push buttons and offer up a credit card whilst I helpfully bark instructions back-seat-driver stylee. A few overly-complicated moments later, we have a code to release bike number one.
Overly complicated? There’s a 35 page Ts & Cs document to tab through! Thirty-five pages! Luckily you can simply press “agree to terms” in the same way as everyone does when they install a new bit of software. (Can you imagine what we’ve collectively signed up for in the digital age? I sense a distopian Charlie Brooker screenplay waiting menacingly in the wings. Or a re-run of the Monty Python donor card sketch where the surgeon arrives to remove the donor’s liver whilst he’s still using it. “Should have read the small print.”)
The eagle eyed among you will have noted that D was submitting credit card details. He eyed me seriously muttering about liability. I eyed him back and smiled.
So, type in your code and voila, nothing happens. Try again. Try another bike… Finally we have 2 magnificent steeds. Yeah baby.
Check them out: 3 speed, bag carrier on the ‘bars, a natty bell and a Barclays logo. Chunky mind. Hefty. You wouldn’t nick one. You just wouldn’t. It must have taken serious design genius to make them this undesirable and such forethought must be applauded. Of course you ride it like you stole it because of the simple fact: it’s free for only 30 minutes. No time to admire the engineering further, let’s crack on.
I have a misspent youths’ worth of BMX racing, a mountain bike habit and many thousands of miles on motorcycles. Two wheels? Leap on an go with nary a second thought. At this point I realise that D’s cycling competencies have not been sufficiently explored. To compensate I call a cheery “y’alright?” over my shoulder as I pedal towards Oxford Street. He’ll be fine. Probably. Or he’ll get squished by a big red bus. (They are painted that colour so as not to show the bloodstains apparently.)
The air is apparently less humid once freewheeling. The sights and sounds of the city reveal themselves at a faster pace. We cross Oxford Street and round Soho Square. Builders yell something about “the gorgeous bird on the bike” seemingly in reference to D’s fetching pink shirt. (Real men wear pink shirts. I got married in a pink shirt.) It’s funny, we proceed down to Shaftesbury avenue and get totally disorientated.
Boris doesn’t do cycle helmets and neither do his bikes. So you are PPE free. Initially liberating, yes. When you are mixing it with delivery trucks, buses, cabs, courier motorbikes, chauffeur driven Rollers on a main artery of the capital city it’s more of a worry.
Essentially, unless you are an experienced local, have built in satnav, don’t care where you end up or use the force stopping to consult your map is an essential. Thank goodness for smartphones. The signage and directional assistance for cyclists is RUBBISH. Of course it is. Yet you only realise that this is a flaw in your Boris-Biking plan once underway. Well, I only realised. I think D had assumed I knew exactly where I was going.
You really notice the potholes, manholes and ruts in the road. There are many. You also notice the kamikaze pedestrians, no entry signs, rubbish road markings. Strangely, red lights are less obvious…
And yet… and yet… we skirt Piccadilly, glimpse Trafalgar Square, peek at Horseguards, nod to Big Ben*, salute the MOD, spy the London Eye and before you can say Tour De France are depositing our noble steeds at the Embankment.
Summary? 20 minutes of practical fun. (So much so I am moved to write about it and briefly rediscover my blog mojo.)
We only nearly got wiped out (seriously) once when a Post Office van cut up a trucker who swerved to avoid the deranged Postie. A classic biking incident: driver of wagon takes evasive action to avoid the corporately owned recklessly piloted heap of junk, squashing the minding-their-own-business privately owned human being. Obvious prioritisation and ethical values are thrown out of the window when we climb aboard our motor cars, vans, trucks. Preserving the easily repaired and expendable metal trumps over avoiding damage to fleshy, vulnerable pedalists.
But hey, we live to fight another day.
Once at the RSA we shake hands with our next appointment who despite having lived and worked in London forever has never cycled and certainly not Boris-Biked. Strike one to the country folk! Although his logic of it being “too bloody dangerous” is undeniable: “seen too many incidents from the back of a taxi.” Hmmm.
I loved it. D loved it. We smiled, we saw the sights, we swerved, we dinged our bells. We arrived safely at our destination for free more quickly than the tube, probably quicker than a taxi and certainly quicker than Shanks’s Pony.
Long term use? You’d struggle to get good value life insurance cover. Cycling in town is a risky proposition. If you knew the back roads and are super-sharp on two wheels it’s viable day-to-day but only a matter of time before you’d be an A&E customer. As (business) tourists we got a kick out it: it’s a great scheme.
Finally, a word on those red lights. In a motor vehicle you’ve got registration plates. On an anonymous Boris-Bike…. it’s virtually begging you to disregard the Highway Code.
Not that we did. Oh no. We’d never do such a thing on company time would we D?
*Big Ben? It's never been called Big Ben! But just the other day it was decided it'll be renamed Elizabeth Tower in honour of our Diamond Jubile-ing monarch. So now we can all still call it Big Ben and still not realise we're still referring to it by the wrong name.