The last time I used one of these bikes was perhaps 5-6 years ago. I seem to recall it wasn’t the most straightforward process to hire a bike and the going was hard. This time around, with a phone app set up ahead of time, and some riding experience under my belt, things were a little different and an eight mile round trip ride from Fulham to Hyde Park was pretty easy-going.
Saying that though, these bikes are heavy, weighing as much as an e-bike – perhaps more in some cases – without the benefit of an electric motor. It’s not too much of an issue on the road, thanks to low three-speed gearing, but when arriving at the park, I wanted to take the bike up some steps to reach a docking station and lifting the bike was very hard work. Actual riding though wasn’t too bad, despite some rattles, less responsive braking than I would prefer and the lack of a fourth gear which would have been useful from time to time.
Ride quality aside, the biggest obstacle for me ahead of the ride was dealing with London traffic and I did intend to take quiet back streets as much as possible, but without an easy to reference map, I soon found myself on the busier roads including the Fulham Road and the A4. Admittedly, it was a Sunday ride, so I expected traffic to be far less than busy commuter rush hours, but this was still more traffic than I’d dealt with for an extended period before. Fortunately, thanks I suspect to the fairly low speed of driving on even the larger city streets, it was easy enough to deal with and I had few issues, bar the expected idiots.
I found taxis (and one or two buses) to be the worst culprits for close passes, although to be fair, one did let me pull out to overtake a parked car so, let’s not tar everyone with the same brush. A few private cars also didn’t seem to understand the concept of not tailgating and leaving a safe distance. I found it was often a choice of either taking primary position and having a car drafting my back wheel, or keeping left and letting the car pass at an extremely close distance. On a couple of occasions, through a particularly nasty pinch point, I had to shout at a car to abort their passing attempt, where even though I was near to (but not quite at) the middle of the lane, they were still up the back of my bike, trying to find a way to push through.
Then there was a final incident with a white van who passed me safely, while I was at the left of the road, whose passenger decided to yell something about knocking me off – completely unprovoked as far as I can tell, but even if I had somehow held up this van, after passing me, he still had to wait at a red light. So, I just put it down to that passenger being not quite right in the head!
None of these incidents have put me off. The key thing, I think, is awareness of what’s going on – keeping your wits about you with frequent checks around and reading the road far enough ahead to allow easy, smooth and safe lane changes, while communicating your intentions with drivers. Being aware that a close pass is going to happen, rather than being taken by surprise, means you can be prepared for it. A bit of courtesy doesn’t go amiss either, with a wave of thanks to those cars who have been patient and sensible, waiting for a safe opportunity to pass.
Off the bike and looking at the app that I used to actually hire and pay for the bikes, whilst it’s very poorly rated on Google Play (I don’t know about the Apple App Store), I found it mostly useable. It does need some polish as it did crash a couple of times, and I found a bug with verification when setting up my account, but nothing was a show-stopper. I registered, logged in, paid my daily charge, hired a bike three times and paid one £2.00 charge for exceeding thirty minutes all without issue.
At no time did I need to use the docking station terminal so, I can’t compare on ease of use, but the app made it very quick to locate a docking station, get a release code and start my ride. A nice extra touch was a summary of the ride when returning the bike, showing how long I’d ridden for, how far and how much I’d paid (if anything). The app also gives a cumulative total including calories burnt – essentially a basic, but nice fitness tracker.
The only times I had difficulties getting a bike, were due to bike or rack faults. I found one nearly empty docking station where the only remaining bikes were locked out, meaning I had to walk to another docking station. I also had one instance where inputting the code into the rack wouldn’t work as one button kept registering a double input.
To summarise then, it was a fun ride and a great way to get about London at potentially a low cost (as long as each journey is under thirty minutes, bikes are free bar the daily access charge) but some changes to the Boris Bikes could be beneficial. A bit less weight, a fourth gear and – particularly since the Santander Cycles app features a route planner – a smartphone mount so it’s easy to follow a route would make them that much better. I’d also like a daily charge cap, rather than the flat £2.00 per 30 minute block, after the initial free 30 minute period, so that longer rides don’t run up large bills.