Your guide to getting the most out of a 'Boris bike' in London
How will I ever get myself to Istanbul? Even the idea of getting myself from Croydon to London on the train, finding the Barclay bike hire scheme (or 'Boris bikes', as they're known round these parts - named after the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson), working out how to release them, and then navigating my way around the Royal Parks fills me with gloomy concern.
Getting to London itself, as it turns out, is a breeze. I sit on the train opposite a guy wearing red-rimmed shades and cut-off joggers, a solid fishing net in one hand and smoking an e-cigarette with the other. This is why I love London. You won’t find anything as exotic as this in rural Derbyshire, where I live.
Outside Victoria Station, I promptly take the exact opposite direction to where I should be going. Admittedly, I’d only looked quickly the night before at Google Maps for the Boris bike locations around the station. It feels like I’ve been walking for ages and there’s still no sign of a bike docking station, although I notice the street is full of cyclists, some of them cycling on the distinctive blue Barclay/Boris bikes. I’m beginning to wish I’d picked up a map along the way.
At the next junction, I stop. And on the corner I notice an entrance to Victoria Station. Could it be that I’ve walked so far and not left the station? In Matlock, I would have been out of town by now. It’s then I notice the street map. Good old Boris: not only has he stocked London with bikes, but the streets are now filled with smart, easy-to-read maps. I quickly find my position on the map, then check the location of my docking station - to find I have to walk five minutes back along the road I’ve come. Thanks to the maps, I find the bikes in no time. Maybe I’ll make it to Istanbul after all.
But things become complicated after that. I try to use the touch screen to follow the instructions, but repeatedly I’m timed out. A young woman comes to my rescue. It turns out, I haven’t pressed hard enough. From reviews on the internet, it appears that I’m not the only person to struggle with the technology. Finally, I manage to pay with my debit card, and with the receipt and bike code clutched in my sweaty hand, I choose a bike. I note there aren’t many bikes left, although I’m in a quiet backstreet.
I punch in my number and pull at my chosen bike. Nothing. I try again. Still nothing. After numerous attempts, I grab a couple of Russians. The men punch in the number repeatedly, and pull the bike. The bike doesn’t budge. I’m panicking now because I’ve read my code is only valid for ten minutes. Unlike me though, the Russians aren’t about to give up. They pull and yank, yank and pull. Finally after lifting and pulling, the bike shoots free. Relief.
So now I’ve got my bike, I just have to find the Royal Parks. This shouldn’t be difficult, as I noticed on the map that they aren’t far away. More street signage sends me off in the right direction and I soon find myself at the entrance of Hyde Park.
It may still be March, but it’s a beautiful, warm, sunny day in London. The streets are filled with pink lobsters, enjoying a beer or two.
I walk a bit with the bike, not ready to sacrifice myself to the street dragons – the traffic. After a while, I think, ‘stuff this for a game of soldiers. I’m getting on my bike’, and cycle on down the pavement parallel to the walled-off Buckingham Gardens, reassuring myself there are no pedestrians anyway. The seat has been set up for a giant, but I adjust it easily enough for a midget. I’m on my way.
Soon I reach Hyde Park Corner, where I make my way into the Park. Hyde Park is heaving with all manner of human life. I set off down the main path with the world and her husband. There’s no chance of getting any speed up here. I weave past other Boris cyclists, some wobbling along. Clearly they’ve not been on a bicycle for a decade or two – if ever before.
I cycle on parallel to The Serpentine, chock-a-block with boaters. Very soon, I come to the end of the park at Baywater Road. It’s annoying to find I can’t take an alternative path back through the park as they are all forbidden to cyclists – and Boris has promised a hefty fine of £60 to anyone who defies the law. So I’m forced to backtrack.
I soon find an alternative path for cyclists, however. I cross the road at West Carriage Drive and continue cycling with The Serpentine on my right this time.
There’s just one problem: I’m dying of thirst – and being super organised, I’ve brought no water with me. There are numerous kiosks around the park, but it’s not easy joining the long queues with a heavy bike. Finally I find one that’s free of crowds, and aghast at the price of a mineral water, I opt for an ice-cream. Well, I can cycle it off afterwards – or maybe not at the speed I’m travelling. Never mind.
I don’t have a lot of time for lingering, as I have to be back in Croydon for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, but I wonder what cyclists do if they want to stop off somewhere. The bikes don’t come with a lock. Later I discover that the best solution is to use the bike for under 30 minutes and pick up a new one when you want to move on. This way, you never have to pay more than £2 for the whole day. But after my shenanigans at the docking station, there’s no way I’m going to put myself through the torture of releasing a new bike.
When the half hour is up, the hire rate rises steeply – the longer you keep the bike, the more expensive it becomes relatively. This is to encourage cyclists to use the bikes for short trips only. Some users, misunderstanding the pricing system, believe they have the bike all day for £2 (the access fee), then go home to find they’ve been billed £200 for 4 bikes. Ouch.
So if you are planning to do longer trips, you’ll have to contend with swapping the bike as the day goes on. Alternatively, you can hire a bike from a bike shop. But unlike the bike shop, one of the big advantages of the Boris bikes is that you can make your journey linear, rather than having to return to your starting point.
Continuing along The Serpentine, I catch snippets of cello music, skate wheels on tarmac, geese honks and duck quacks – and every language under the planet, or so it seems. Soon I’m back at the same docking station. I ram the bike into the dock, concerned that the green light doesn’t look visible (as it should be when properly docked). I just hope I don’t get billed £300 for a missing bike.
So how does cycling the Royal Parks on a Boris bike score?
Out of 10:
The Boris bikes
Finding the bikes: 10
Bike Provision: 6 (Some users have reported no bikes available at popular docking stations. And although the centre of the city has good station provision, apparently this is not the case further afield)
User-friendly hiring/releasing procedure: 3
Standard of bikes: 7 (Sturdy, easy-to-adjust seats; simple braking system - 3 gears only; well maintained; storage is open-sided, bizarrely; no bicycle lock)
The Royal Parks for cycling
Park tranquillity: 1
City buzz: 10
Easy cycling: 5 – Nice and flat, but you won’t get anywhere fast in the crowds.
Park accessibility for cyclist: 3
What you pay (2014):
£2 access fee, then:
Period of use
Charge per bike per journey
Less than 30 minutes
Up to 1 hour
Up to 1 hour 30 minutes
Up to 2 hours
Up to 2 hours 30 minutes
Up to 3 hours
Up to 6 hours
Up to 24 hours