Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Renting a bike in Paris

Parisian drivers are not so much rotweilers as Jack Russell terriers – nervy, nippy and with fast reflexes. This is worth remembering if you are tempted, as I was, by Paris’s new system of cheap bike transport – the velo libre. I lived in Paris for 10 years back in the 80s but have long since exchanged traffic jams, honking horns and mass transit for the peaceful pleasures of pootling round my current home of Vancouver on a comfortable upright bike with a wide soft saddle, solid tires and just enough gears to get me up the occasional hill.

During a transport strike in the French capital this autumn, I stumbled across two dozen similar bikes, neatly parked in a rack alongside city hall.. The mayor of Paris has chosen this model to be the ‘velo libre’ – the ‘free bike’ that is dotted at numerous locations throughout the city just waiting to be picked up, ridden and dropped off at another rack elsewhere in the city.

I stared at the 20 bikes. They stared back at me, or rather the row of green lights that indicate whether a bike is free twinkled in the autumn dusk. But nobody in their right mind rides a bike in this city, I reasoned. And with a car, well you’re at least on equal terms with other drivers – all slogging it out on the boulevards inside a cage of metal and stainless steel. Who would head out into Parisian mayhem, more or less naked by comparison?

As I stood by those green lights, I got to take a look at just who, in Paris, is getting on their bike these days. Students and young people in general. They zip up to the automatic rental panel by the rack, tap in a few details as if they are sending a text and are gone within seconds. I know this because I tried to ask a few of them for rental advice but they were “desole madame mais tres, tres presse.” Then a trio of young Jewish boys appeared - ‘presse’ as well; they had just time to adjust their yarmulkas before setting off across the Seine towards the Latin Quarter. A plump matron in a fur coat cycled past, followed by a lawyer in his robes and a businessman in a cashmere coat deep in conversation on his cell phone.

I couldn’t stand it a minute longer. Out came the Visa card – the city will charge 150 Euros if the bike is not returned – and within minutes I had signed up for a week for just a 5 euro subscription and was removing a bike that had taken my fancy and which I could now ride for a half an hour for nothing. The following half hour would cost one Euro with the cost rising the longer the bike stays out.The sign up procedure is posted on the electronic panel next to the racks in several languages and informs us that a year’s subscription costs just 29 Euros. My bike came complete with lights, a basket, a lock and three gears which is enough for most of the inclines in Paris.

The lights of the Conciergerie were reflecting in the Seine and I was on a bike in a bike lane heading across the river towards my Paris lodgings in Montparnasse – in the middle of rush hour and during a public transport strike. It was bliss. I have never felt so free and happy in the French capital in all the years that I lived there. Yes, French drivers are evil, scheming bastards and yes, the French are all anarchists at heart but after a few minutes on the Rue St Jacques, I had worked out that if I was bold and staked my claim to the cycle lane, they respected me. Everyone knows that the French respect boldness . Snuggling close to the gutter out of fear, as I did at first, is not a good idea. The taxi and bus drivers who share your cycle lane will just snuggle closer to you. It’s all very cosy but a bit unsettling. On that first day, I settled for a 20 minute ride to Montparnasse. I had no idea where the other bike racks were located so after those first euphoric moments crossing the Seine, I spent the next 15 minutes worrying about where I was going to leave it. But bike stations or ‘bornes’ are everywhere and I found one right outside my lodgings.

On my second day, I have an elegant afternoon of shopping, tea at La Duree and an opera concert scheduled. I decide to do it all on the bike. I’m hooked now and can’t quite resist that line of green lights. I cycle from an exquisite millefeuille pastry and a cup of ‘the a la vanille’at La Duree in St Germain to the Salle Pleyel near the Etoile to pick up my ticket to see the great Finnish soprano Karrita Mattila. This trip involves two of the biggest cycling challenges in Paris and I am keen to see if I am up to them. First the Place de La Concorde. I set off and am just beginning to feel daunted by the seeming millions of cars swirling past me when I see the statue symbolizing the city of Brest but also the spot where Louis XV1 was decapitated. What’s a few honking horns compared to a crowd braying for your noggin? I ask myself and soon I’ve cycled across Concorde and am heading past the peaceful Saturday afternoon streets in front of Nicolas Sarkozy’s residence at the Elysee and the British and American Embassies. It’s just me on the street now watched with a bored eye by the machine-gun totting CRS in front of the official buildings.

The second challenge is the Place de L’Etoile and here I am defeated by the barmy French determination to give the right of way to traffic entering what-must-be-the-biggest-traffic-roundabout-on-the-planet. I try. I try womanfully to maintain my bold stance but the streams of traffic keep coming at me so, for the first and only time, I get off and wheel my bike. At Pleyel, I abandon it and head into theconcert. For a regular cyclist like me, the concept of leaving the bike is a difficult one. It does come with a lock and I am sorely tempted to hook it to a railing and reclaim it when I come out. I’ve grown fond of this bike (number 26 – pulled out of a rack behind the Monoprix in St Germain) and can’t quite let it go. But the system does not encourage long term rental. If half an hour costs nothing and an hour costs a Euro, 2 hours costs 7 Euros. The bike gets left at a rack at the Place des Ternes and I go to listen to Karita Mattila singing the final scene of Salome. She is amazing but I have to confess that while the Finnish diva’s performance builds to a climax and she sings of her desire to kiss the decapitated head of John the Baptist, I find myself wondering ,” Should I take the Champs Elysee to Concorde or nip down Avenue Marceau and follow the quays of the Seine?"

There is just one bike left in the rack when I come out. A middle-agedman is peering anxiously at the German rental instructions. A neophyte! Darwinism kicks in. I’m an old hand by now and can whip that lone ‘velo’ out from under his nose in the time it takes to say “Gotterdammerung”. And the rental panel has two sides. So while he fumbles for his credit card, I can tap in my password and be away. But “Entschuldigung,” says a forlorn voice as I aim a finger at the keyboard. “How do I the bike get?” I can’t resist showing off my knowledge and a couple of minutes later he is wobbling away towards the Arc de Triomphe and I’m facing a descent into that long-forgotten subterranean world that is the metro. But ‘pas de panique,’ I walk just 50 yards and there they are, those lovely green lights glittering in the Paris night, advertising a rack of a dozen bikes.

By day 3, I’m unstoppable. I cycle to the Musee de la Vie Romantique and to its raunchy neighbour the Musee de l’Erotisme up at Clichy. Three bikes later I stop for lunch of lobster bisque near the Madeleine and on to an appointment with my dermatologist in the Marais but when I get there, all the racks at the nearby Hotel de Ville are full. And several cyclists are waiting. “On ne peut pas les parker,” fumes a stern woman in black leather Oo la la, she should do something about that franglais. In the meantime the Paris mayor, in his office across the square has thought of everything. At a full rack, you tap in your number and are given an extra ten minutes to find another rack. I locate one just 3 blocks away and leave what is my fifteenth bike of the week. And that is to me the most wonderful aspect of the whole system. It teaches us, in this age of rampant materialism, to lighten up, to relax and let go. In the French capital, another bike and another parking space are certain, like love, to be just around the corner.

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