Friday, July 23, 2010

'I feel good, if a little bit damp'

London is serious about getting its citizens to get out of their cars and onto bicycles. Beginning next week 6,000 bicycles will be available for rent throughout the city. Paris established a similar program back in 2007. This latest experiment in alternative urban transportation is worth keeping an eye on. (GW)

Has Boris started a cycling revolution?

The Independent
July 23, 2010

From next week, Londoners will be able to pick up one of 6,000 bikes to get around the city. Our writers put the Mayor's scheme to the test

'These new bikes are surprisingly nippy'

Name Simon Usborne

Rider type Office bike bore who clocks 100 miles a weekend

So I'm the guy whose rides (a sleek steel "fixie" for the city and a bespoke carbon-fibre dream machine for the open road) are worth way more than his car, and who spent last Sunday pedalling the route of yesterday's 112-mile mountain stage of the Tour de France.

I am not, in short, who Boris Johnson has in mind for Barclays Cycle Hire, the centrepiece of the Mayor of London's bid to get us on two wheels.

This time next week, as many as 6,000 blue-and-grey rides will swarm over the city's streets. Conurbations across the country will be watching closely as more than 300 automated docking stations start dispensing bikes with the swipe of a credit card (at first for users who register from today).

Theft and vandalism have blighted similar systems in Paris and beyond, but London is confident its grab-and-go scheme will be a hit. But how do these chunky rides with their balloon tyres and giant mudguards perform?

To put my test bike through its paces, I take it to the Inner Circle, a perfect, one-kilometre ring of asphalt at the heart of Regent's Park in north London. Lycra nuts flock here to train, drafting behind each other as they complete flying laps against the clock. A colleague of mine, who rides this tarmac velodrome before work, has managed a 1m 22s lap. How close could I go?

I arrive wearing my Sky team kit. Perhaps the skintight fit will shave a few seconds off my time (it works for Bradley Wiggins). I won't, however, have the benefit of my stiff, carbon-soled, clip-in bike shoes (yours for £200) or my feather-light road bike.

My steed today also comes with three gears, rather than the 20 I'm used to. The first is perfect for pulling away without much effort, but as I shift up on the approach to the line for my first lap, it's not long before my legs are a blur.

Halfway round, I begin to feel the burn and narrowly avoid a Spanish family. But, considering their weight, Boris's bikes are surprisingly nippy. I cross the line, panting, after 1m 45s (that's an average speed of 22mph).

This isn't, of course, the way these bikes were designed to be used and, while I won't be trading in either of my bikes soon, I've grown rather fond of my clunky hire bike, which is perfectly formed for the rigours of city riding. Just don't go beating my time.

'I feel good, if a little bit damp'

Name Gillian Orr

Rider type Tube-riding scaredy cat who'd rather stay dry

On a recent trip to Paris I admired the chic-looking city folk using the cycle hire scheme to roll from one café to the next. I could be one of those people, I reluctantly tell myself as I arrive for a preview of London's grand new rental system wearing a summer dress and carrying a huge handbag.

But I'm not into cycling. I have nowhere to store a bike, I hate exercise and don't get me started on the outfits. Sure, the Underground can be crowded and expensive but it's hard to get lost and the risk of injury is minimal.

So can a novice like me be convinced to emerge from the Tube once in a while? I'm under instructions to turn up as I usually would for work - it's such a faff to change and the office showers are grim. My handbag can be stored in the rack in front of the handlebars but I'm slightly worried about the breeze in my dress. Perhaps I would have been better off in shorts. There is a docking station near my flat in Primrose Hill, north London, so I set off south towards my desk in Kensington - a four mile journey. Despite having not been cycling in years, I soon pick it up again. It's just like, well, you know, riding a bike.

Riding through Regent's Park I'm struck by how pleasant it is with the wind in my hair (helmets aren't provided). At one point I think I might be having fun.

And then I hit Marylebone Road. Traffic comes from every angle and I'm not sure where I am supposed to position myself. Every passing vehicle causes me to tense up. And then, as if I'm not struggling enough, the heavens open. Perfect.

Safe in the leafy embrace of Hyde Park, I start falling in love with it again. I get to work and park the bike in the docking station, conveniently located right outside the revolving doors of my office. I feel good, if a little damp.

It has taken me just over 30 minutes to get to work. With a bit of practice I think I could beat the half-hour mark, which means I'd only have to pay the one-pound daily access fee. That's a lot cheaper than the Tube, if a little more perilous. I think I'm sold. The new scheme is convenient and will make a change from sniffing armpits on the Circle Line, although it might be best if I stick to the back streets and check the weather forecast next time.

'Within seconds I'm quite enjoying myself'

Name Adam Leigh

Rider type Devoted driver who enjoys creature comforts

I love my car. It's got fancy upholstery, a state-of-the-art sound system, climate control, and every conceivable safety feature. It's a home from home, an office on wheels - and a sleek, reliable testament to German engineering. From Monday to Friday every week, I climb inside, point it towards Kensington, and start my working day in the company of Evan Davis, Justin Webb, and their guests on the Today programme.

Not for me the indignities of the bus to Finsbury Park or (shudder) the Circle Line. So what if I spend an hour stuck in gridlock on the Marylebone Road? At least I'm in air-conditioned comfort; the master of my domain.

Yet I've often been drawn to the idea of a more free-form commute; quietly hankered after liberation from the tyranny of the traffic jam. Rather than simply driving past Hyde Park, how about travelling through it? Instead of cutting myself off from the city, why not dive into it?

I'm probably just the sort of person Boris Johnson has in mind with his new city-centre cycle-hire scheme, and having seen how similar schemes have transformed other cities over the past couple of years, I'm sufficiently intrigued to give it a go.

First impressions are mixed. The bike is clearly designed to look friendly and approachable. It's got a pleasing, unisex look (actually more girl than boy), and tactile, cuddly features. A dynamo contraption takes care of the lights, and there's a basket/bungee affair in front of the handlebars for one's personal effects. Yet it is heavy, and isn't immediately stylish, what with the ugly blue Barclays logo on the rear wheel. Still, I guess fashion cred isn't really the point. The saddle's adjusted with a small silver lever; there's a knack to this, naturally, and it takes me a while.

I put on my helmet (fear of death has always been chief among my reasons not to cycle), bike clips and sunglasses, and pedal away from the kerb.

Within seconds I realise I'm quite enjoying myself. My awareness of what's around me is heightened (just as well, since there's a fair bit of traffic). But the road does seem to be brighter, noisier and more, well, real than it would behind the wheel of my car. The sun's shining, the HGVs are thundering past me as I turn into Horseferry Road. I get a sudden flashback to my nine-year-old self, riding a Raleigh Chopper round the local park, and it feels good.

"Is that one of Boris's bikes? How much does it cost?" asks a man drinking cappuccino outside a café. "When can I have one?" shouts a cheeky scaffolder. It seems this may truly be an idea whose time has come for the capital. But will I be part of the revolution? You know, I think I might.


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