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Do you remember that feeling of learning to ride a bike? The freedom? The rush of wind at your face? Seeing your neighbourhood from a completely new perspective?
You can recapture that same heady, two-wheeled experience in any of the more than 200 cities around the world where bike-sharing schemes operate, but Vélib (vélo = bike and libre = free) in Paris is one of the globe’s biggest. Whether you’re in Paris for just a few days, or around for a longer period, you shouldn’t miss the chance to take part in this wonderful Parisian experience.
Don’t be nervous about riding. Paris is an amazing city for cycling, with many bike paths, and other areas with big lanes for bikes, buses and taxis. This would seem dangerous in other cities but the buses (and cars and taxis) give cyclists a wide berth here. With over 20,000 bikes that cover the city and 1800 bike stations located very 300 metres, it seems that the system has simply become part of the city. Meanwhile, the bikes are stable and sturdy and comfortable to ride. They have a basket of generous size above the front tire to put your shopping in. And you can safely ride at night as the Vélibs have bright lights, powered by your pedaling!
The scheme is easy to use, and the bikes are easy to access. You can buy one-day and seven-day tickets over the internet, or just follow the instructions at the terminals at a Vélib station. They take major credit cards and a day rental is less than two euros! You’ll be given an identification number which you can enter into the terminals, choose your bike, unlock it and off you go. You have half-an-hour of free riding before you need toreturn the bike to another terminal (or you’ll have to pay slightly more). If you need to ride for longer, perhaps you can just take a quick ice cream break before getting on another.
The other thing marvelously easy about the scheme is that unlike if you owned or rented a bike, you don’t have to remember where your Vélib is, or return it to the place you left it. Picking it up from the start of your destination and leaving it at the finish is really a very efficient way of travelling.
If you happen be lucky enough to be in Paris for a longer period, a year-long subscription is extremely reasonable, and your membership card makes it even faster to get bikes out from terminals. It’s only 29 euros, though you’ll have to pick up your card from a Parisian mayor’s office (there’s one at 29 rue de Rivoli, 75004). There’s also a very efficient phone app that can tell you where stations are located and if there are bikes there to hire. You might end up, like I did, using the map function to know where you’re going.
During my last lucky period of living in Paris, getting around on a Vélib became my favourite pastime. People-watching on a bike is just as fun as during a stroll. People of all ages, sizes and occupations ride. It’s part of the culture and pace: in warmer weather you might see someone with a baguette in the front baskets while smoking or talking on a mobile phone with one free hand. The rain doesn’t stop cyclists either. It’s never very heavy and usually stops, but I’ve still been surprised how many people ride in the rain. It seems the sturdy fenders prevent one from getting splattered. As the weather gets colder, people are still riding, just wearing heavier versions of their stylish scarves. In winter, I saw elegant women in fur coats cycling along with ease.
There is a certain technique for choosing one’s bike. I notice that the native Parisians kick at the tires to see if they’re flat or not. But they must have sensitive toes as my own can’t tell the difference between tires that are fully pumped and a little deflated – I give them a squeeze with my thumb and forefinger. One also should give the pedals a quick spin to see that they move smoothly, that the seat can be adjusted but stays tight (so that going over a bump, the seat doesn’t suddenly drop six inches), and that the rubber grips aren’t missing (in colder weather, the bare metal is rather uncomfortable). A few of the bikes will be broken or in need of repair (users will signal this by turning the seat completely backwards) and there are roving teams of people who go from station to station inflating flat tires and fixing faulty seats and chains.
It is, admittedly, a sort of organised chaos. Most cyclists pay attention to road rules, but some do not. Most pedestrians don’t. At many pedestrian crossings, the cars don’t seem obliged to stop, just obliged to not run anyone over. I’ve seen cars go through red lights, and the drivers give the Gallic shrug, ‘Oops’. This may all add to more safety than subtract from it, as the majority of people seem laissez-faire about sharing the road or pavement, cycling, or getting somewhere in a hurry (though of course, if someone is blocking your way, you ring your cycle bell or drivers honk). Still, it’s useful to keep your wits about you while riding!
Why not try a test ride? I’d recommend grabbing a Vélib from near the Jardin des Tuileries, crossing the Pont de la Concorde and riding along the left bank of the Seine. You could snap an iconic shot of Notre-Dame cathedral, and then head through the Latin Quarter to the Luxembourg Gardens. If you do use up your free half-hour, it’s only a euro for the next. Very occasionally, you might find yourself in a neighbourhood that is short on bikes, or conversely where the stations are too filled to park. It’s nearly impossible to find a Vélib at Sacre Coeur as everyone grabs them to ride downhill after their visit.
Riding around on a Vélib in Paris was really one of the greatest gifts of my time in Paris. Energized by the beautiful lines of sight, buildings and views, I’d often singing stupid songs out loud: Do you Vélib in life after love? (If Cher Vélibed); I’m a Véliber (If the Monkees Vélibed). I often got lost, perhaps trying to figure out a tricky one-way street. But I liked getting lost in Paris: I was never in a hurry and there was always something wonderful around the corner, as I cycled around, caught up in joy and wonder at the city’s beauty and energy, secreting away these moments into my own particular memories of Paris.
For more information about traveling Paris by Vélib, see the official Vélib site at http://en.velib.paris.fr/ (The website is available in English, French and Spanish). Their blog also has a lot of handy advice for tourists, and hints for using a Vélib such as slowing down gently and getting off your Vélib before taking it onto the sidewalk if you have to ‘make a quick stop to post a letter or buy a baguette’.
If you’re travelling around France, there are over two dozen other French cities or towns that have public bike hire schemes, including Bordeaux, Calais, Dijon, Marseille, Nice and Toulouse.
Lead photo credit : Biking next to Paris Plages/ courtesy of Velib'