The first thing that stands out about hire bikes is their uniformity, their sameness, which is not such a paradox in our individualistic culture. Groups on cycle tours are immediately recognisable with their unique, sturdy models in plain livery. For my own part, every bike hire experience has been exactly that, an experience, with the usual mix of excitement and trepidation. I have fond memories of cycling along the Kent coast on my birthday, less so of bouncing my way through the back roads of Norfolk on a shiny, fancy (to my untrained eye) mountain bike totally unsuited to road cycling, and I won’t forget the comfy sit-up-and-beg bicycle whose quick-release saddle was a bit loose . . . But with hire bikes, the focus is not on the bike but on the journey, so our mindset changes: we take in the view and tend to be amused rather than frustrated by a less-than-perfect bike. For one thing, we’re usually on holiday!
City bike rental schemes – a convenient, hassle-free alternative to owning a bike – have flourished in the last few years, from Bicis in Barcelona to Velibs in Paris (vélo and liberté, no less) and the imaginatively branded Barclays’ Bikes which, in typical London fashion, have been quickly renamed Boris Bikes. Whether I think Boris Bikes are a good use of public money or not – despite the in-your-face advertising, Barclays only cover about 10% of the costs of the scheme – the scale is impressive, and so are the statistics: three years, ten million journeys, one of mine. One evening after the cinema, I lent my bike to my friend and took a Boris Bike. It was a practical arrangement as well as a pleasant social occasion. In one word: casual. Since I first spotted a pristine prototype, I have become blasé: now they are dusty and everywhere, but that’s the price to pay for sharing a bike with hundreds of people. Don’t expect spick and span! A colleague once marvelled at how much lighter Boris Bikes were than his own bike but general opinion and hard facts beg to differ: at 23 kilos, they’re heavy, rather clunky and not particularly easy on the eye.
Still, I like them. It’s their reliability that I find attractive. They’re unlikely to fail me. More accurately perhaps, as a non-user I like the idea of them. They’re good PR for cycling. What did the London Mayor send for the birth of Prince George if not a mini three-wheeled Boris bike? And they’ve become an integral part of the public transport system and of commuters’ journeys. Their network criss-crosses London like blue blood flowing through its veins and arteries and they’re ubiquitous, so distinctive and iconic that, love them or hate them, I couldn’t imagine my city without them. In a class of their own, they have given rise to specific bike challenges, since any accomplishment is a bit of an achievement on a slow and weighty Boris Bike. They create different expectations of cycling, and that can only be a good thing.
I like Boris bikers too, they look so . . . normal. They bring the amateur back into a world that likes to pretend to be professional: how many commuters look like they’re about to set off for a stage of the Tour de France every morning? It doesn’t have to be like that. I know Boris bikers are looked down upon by many ‘regular’ cyclists – they’re not proper cyclists, you see – and I’ve heard countless stories of the way they completely ignore the rules of the road. If on a hire bike I look like a tourist or a newbie, a ‘don’t know what I’m doing’ type of person, great: then other road users will be extra careful around me. But as Road Danger Reduction Forum points out, Boris bikers are ‘three times less likely to be injured per trip than other cyclists in London as a whole’. Bring on amateurism!
Like Frank Capra’s comedy Lady for a Day (1933), bike hire gives everyone the chance to be a cyclist for a day. Whether it’s the first step towards owning a bike or not, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I’ll always welcome more cyclists taking time to look at their surroundings, chatting and missing a turn and getting lost. Anything that counterbalances the prevalent London cycling culture, anything that is anti-speed, anti-sport, anti-spending, that helps normalise cycling: for everyone, everywhere. After all, it’s all about people on bikes, whatever the bike is.