I had a little jolly to London on Monday and, for once, I found myself with enough time to try out a Boris Bike.  I’m sure a thousand and one people have written about Boris Bike experiences, but I think I have some useful insight after my first go on London’s newest mode of public transport, so I’m going to share anyway.

First – Find your Bikes

I travelled to London by train, arriving at Paddington with plenty of time to cycle to my destination in East London. I’d used the excellent Cycle Streets Journey Planner to work out how long it should take.

But Paddington, it turns out, doesn’t have bike docking stations.  At least not in/on the edge of the station.

Fortunately I had a few other relevant apps on my iPhone and I not only found out that the docking stations were a short walk away, but also that they had no free bikes.

Time, by this point, was ticking on, so I bailed out of cycling and hopped on the tube.

With time to spare at the other end, I noted that the docking station at Old Street was right outside the station! Though, I note, it wasn’t signed from inside the station.

Boris Bike Lesson 1: Find out where the docking stations are, if you don’t know already, before you travel.

Boris Bike Lesson 2: If you can, use apps to check availability before walking to the dock – it could save you time.

Signing Up

I left enough time on the way home too. MORE time, in fact, than on the way out. So I had another go for the return trip.

Signing up was easy. It cost £1 for a 24 hour pass.  The only stupid thing was the 34 pages of terms and conditions I was expected to read before taking my first bike.

Getting a Bike: What they don’t (seem to) tell you

Having got my day pass, I checked out my first bike. Or, at least, I tried to.  The machine printed me a code which I had to type into the little keypad on an individual bicycle’s docking station. I did this, the light went green and I pulled the bike.

And I pulled the bike.

And I couldn’t get the bike out.

Guessing that I had limited “green light” time, I looked for stickers on the bike and docking station telling me what to do.  Nothing.

The light went red again.

I tried the code again, to no avail. And then went back to the terminal to get another code.  But it wouldn’t give me one.

A quick call to the helpdesk got a nice man talking me through the process.  The existing code had to time out (10 minutes) and then I could get another code.  Put this in get the green light and then “lift the saddle and pull the bike”.

Boris Bike Lesson 3: LIFT THE SADDLE and pull the bike to get it out.

The Bike

The bikes are good. I was a bit wobbly at first – it was definitely not the fast, upright, road racer that I’m used to.  But the ride was smooth, it was well geared (3 gears, but that was enough), and comfortable – even with a laptop in a bag over my shoulder.

My only real issue was, bizarrely, the lack of a top-tube! Turns out that when I stop I’m used to resting the bike, by its top tube, on my leg.  Oh, and the weird limiter on the steering which keeps the turning circle big. When you need to turn around and go back the way you came the limited steering, combined with the weight of the bike, made this quite difficult.

Finding your Way

I set off through central London. And I have to say, I LOVED it. Pootling along, taking in the scenery, I felt incredibly free and, astonishingly, pretty safe, despite my lack of helmet and hi-viz. Central London’s streets are small and crowded and most of the time everyone seemed to be going pretty slowly and paying a lot of attention. I was given plenty of room and didn’t seem to annoy, or be annoyed by, any drivers.

Navigation, however, was another matter.  I had a vague idea of where I was going with the wonderful (essential!) Bike Hub app for more specific details as and when I need them.

As I set out I was a little disappointed at the lack of signs to places that I knew were kind-of on the way but that was just the start of my problems.

I think, at one point, I ended up in a bus-only bus lane. The buses were remarkably gracious but that was a little hairy for a while. (Must learn to read signs)

What I didn’t count on was the West-End’s one-way system.  Ended up at the junction of Great Russell Street and Bedford Square (see map) looking at a one way system that seemed to flow south and east, when I wanted to go north and west. ARGH!

I eventually found my way across Tottenham Court Road and somehow ended up on Rathbone Street, which is essentially a big roundabout with the only exit going south to Oxford Street. And I really didn’t want to go to Oxford Street.

Finally I escaped the maze and found some London Cycle Network signs to Paddington, and was guided by these angelic blue plaques to my destination.

Boris Bike Lesson 4: Don’t assume you can cycle in all bus lanes – learn and look out for cycle-specific road signs.

Boris Bike Lesson 5: Plan a route properly and follow it properly. Don’t rely on a general sense of direction. Don’t rely on signs.  And have a map or an app handy to get you out of trouble.

Coming in to Land

As I said Paddington’s docking stations are in the railway station itself, they’re tucked away on little side streets. It took me a while, and a few looks at my app, to work out where it was.

Fortunately there was a space free so I could park the bike, but by this time peak times had kicked in and my train ticket was no longer valid.

Boris Bike Lesson 6: Even if you think you’ve left enough time, leave a little more. Especially if your local knowledge isn’t so hot.

The Dangers of the Open Road

So I had two hours to kill and was enjoying my ride.  I checked out another bike and headed further west.

Where the narrow, busy streets of central London changed to wider, more open roads where cars want to go quicker and bikes are a minor nuisance.  Holland Park Road felt a little scary and even the buses were aggressive.

I have heard rumours of a plan to extend the Boris Bikes to West London, but wonder whether I’d want to cycle around further from the city centre. Shepherd’s Bush Green anyone?

Finishing Up

I (eventually) found the docking station that I knew existed just off Holland Road. My return trip to Paddington was to be on the tube again.  It had been fun and interesting. I had enjoyed myself and learned a few things too.

Will I do it again? If I’m not in a hurry then yes, definitely! I think it would be an excellent way to explore London as a tourist. I don’t know that I’d use the bikes to get to a meeting on time.

Boris – I love your bikes! But cycling in London is still not particularly easy.  I’d like more signs and more designated cycle routes. Hiring a bike was pretty straight forward, the bike was good, and I didn’t feel too unsafe. It was just really hard getting finding my way from A-to-B.

Finally, are these just my experiences? No. I remember that our good friend Sally, aka TownMouse, going to London to try out the cycle hire. Her write up contains some amusingly similar anecdotes:

having to talk to the nice man on the help desk and then not being able to get the bike out of the rack (‘give it some welly’ the helpdesk man advised)…

discovering that my memory of London’s geography was rather hazier than I’d hoped…

my search for a free docking station at my destination had meant not only being late for my lunch date but also over-running the free hire period…

set off in a wobbly but stately fashion – it’s actually the only way to ride one…

most of the traffic (and some of the other bikes) give you a VERY wide berth when they see what you’re riding…

My legs are aching this morning…

I’m glad I persisted with my Boris bike and I’d recommend anyone visiting London – or even living there – to give it a go.

And while I disagree with just one sentence:

there have been enough little changes like helpful signs and cut-throughs and counter-flow lanes to mean that a yokel like me could sail along with the straw blowing out of her hair navigating by luck as much as judgement and make it back alive

I share her top tip!:

Just remember, to get them out of the rack you really do need to give it some welly.

Have you been on the Boris Bikes? Perhaps you have some tips on navigating central London? Use the comments as always!