Let’s be honest. It is clunky – not unsmart, but not elegant either. The bike weighs in at an alarming 23kg. But then you are not supposed to carry it – it is for riding. Oh, and don’t even think of standing up on the pedals – you will almost certainly fall over. The bike, one of 6,000 the Mayor of London is providing for public hire, looks like a streamlined moped and rides like one. You feel that if you pedal for long enough a little motor might kick in. It doesn’t.
I made the mistake of cycling to my rendezvous with what is bound to become known as the “BorisBike”, on my own lightweight titanium-framed Condor crossbreed. The contrast was stark and not to be recommended. My journey plan was to ride from London’s gateway to the south – Victoria Station – to the Bank of England via the offices of the FT on Southwark Bridge.
I arrived for my mission in a suit, and carrying a briefcase. I also brought my own helmet – not likely to be part of the casual commuter’s regular equipment. When the “BorisBike” system goes “live” on July 30. It will only be open initially to people signed up as members. Users can register online for a year’s membership (£45), or pay an access fee for a week (£5) or a day (£1), after making a credit card deposit. On to this, tack on rental fees by the hour – though the first half-hour is free. I did not experience either of these processes, but their efficiency or otherwise is bound to colour the success of the scheme.
The colours of the bike itself are grey, black and the unmistakable Barclays blue. Wheel, crossbar, basket – there’s not an opportunity missed to advertise the scheme’s sponsor. Transport for London even calls the entire scheme “Barclays Cycle Hire” – a tag as clunky as the bikes are.
When I was at university I spent many hours outside our campus branch of Barclays protesting against the bank’s involvement with apartheid South Africa. Forty years on, here I am cycling round Westminster’s Parliament Square on a mobile Barclays billboard. Ageing revolutionaries give me strange inquiring looks from their tented peace camp, which has since been evicted. One of them – Olaf Barnett, an unemployed architect – even straddles his own freshly paint-daubed steed to accompany me round the square. This semi-naked, ex-public school charmer wishes to compare notes on our mutual cycling experiences. A bond is forged between the serendipitous suited cycle hirer and the tented resident which is surely unachievable by most other mechanisms.
Such chance encounters – which are the lifeblood of the regular cyclist’s journeys in London – are not mentioned in the propaganda that surrounds Boris Johnson’s scheme. Indeed, it is not immediately clear who his target user really is. The tourist is an obvious possibility – but it will have to be a tourist with a very keen sense of how the gridless streets of London are laid out. The commuter is clearly a possibility, too. So it was as a commuter that I cast myself as I continued my journey along London’s South Bank.
Once you’re a member, the hourly rate is £1, after that first free half-hour. But watch out: keeping a bike more than 24 hours will incur a £50 fee.
In truth, the very idea of anything more than 30 minutes on the Boris Barclay bike is pretty daunting. I count myself as a fit and fast urban cyclist. Not on this machine. The gears are low, the amount of tyre in touch with the road considerable. These are fat, bungy tyres allegedly filled with nitrogen. This is a sit-up-and-beg-life. It is not uncomfortable, but it is heavy and slow.
As I edge into Southwark, my progress is steady enough to hear the odd passer-by declare “hey, that’s one of those new bikes”, or “hey, one of Boris’s bikes, where do you get them?” The Mayor is clearly stirring a movement.
The blue-paint “cycle superhighways” that are gradually spattering their way into the capital are also spurring the cycle revolution. There’s little doubt that my temporary sluggish steed will become part of it.
But will Barclays’ £25m over five years in sponsorship look like a joke or a snip? Using the BorisBike, I suspect, will become rather like flying Ryanair. If you stick to the rules, it will work for you. If you don’t, you could find unexpectedly large sums turning up on your credit card bill. Indeed, Transport for London even suggests you go to a proper bike-hire company if you want to cycle in London for hours at a time.
As for me, well I’m off on my own steed in the hope of bumping into another Olaf Barnett with yet another story to tell.
Jon Snow is presenter of ‘Channel 4 News’ and president of CTC, the National Cyclists’ Organisation