Freewheel in Paris

Using the Vélib’ bicycle hire scheme for the day allowed Paul Lamarra to travel around the capital for just €1.70

The Paris bike hire scheme Vélib’ (a cut-and-shut of vélo and liberté) has been holding out the promise of cycling freedom in the French capital for more than six years, yet until now I had avoided using it.

Why? Perhaps subconsciously I had been unconvinced by its claim; freedom on the infamously traffic-choked Paris roads was a bold one indeed. As I sat in my hotel room reserving a Vélib’ day ticket online – a simple process which involved a credit card payment of €1.70 in return for a customer number – I could hear lots of reasons to be sceptical. Even through triple-glazed windows came the sound of hooting horns, irate drivers and the whistles and drums of a student demonstration. Not to worry, I told myself, it would not be so bad on a Sunday.

Setting myself a small challenge I had decided to forgo the métro and travel between the major attractions exclusively by Vélib’, paying no more than the initial €1.70. If I managed to get between hire stations in less than 30 minutes and change bikes, there would be no charge – and I would be allowed an extra 15 minutes free to reach stations near the top of hills such as in Montmartre. Half-hourly charges then kick in.

The next morning I walked the few yards to the hire station and then, following the advice of Vélib’ veterans, inspected the bikes for roadworthiness, squeezing the tyres and adjusting the seat. I then typed in the customer number at the console, followed by the pin number I had chosen online and finally the number of the bike I wanted to hire. At this point the countdown begins; I had 60 seconds in which to remove my bike or repeat the number-typing exercise. That was plenty of time and by lifting the bike slightly and pulling firmly, it disengaged readily.

Cobbled expanse

Wedging my bag into the basket on the front, I mounted and headed off downhill. In no time at all I had negotiated Place du Havre near Gare Saint-Nazare, crossed Boulevard Haussmann, nodded to the police outside the American Embassy and arrived at Place de la Concorde. This vast, cobbled expanse has no road markings, so leaving the kerb was akin to pushing off from the deep end of a swimming pool, having just learned to swim.

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The traffic was light, but I had no idea where I was in relation to the cars and from which direction they might appear. However, Parisian drivers seemed happy to give me enough road space, despite my unorthodox trajectory, and I soon reached the traffic lights at the foot of the Champs-Élysées.

The next stage up to the Arc de Triomphe proved more difficult than anticipated. Compared to the feather-light bicycles that race along the Champs-Élysées in the final moments of the Tour de France, the Vélib’ variety is a sturdy affair, built to cope with cobbles and kerbs, as well as the abuse of many users. Occasionally, I clunked my knee on the large steel docking boss positioned behind the front wheel.

Insistent alarm

To stay within the 30-minute limit I docked and swapped bikes before visiting the Arc de Triomphe. Anyone who fails to engage the bike properly faces a €150 fine, so I held my breath until a beep gave the all-clear. On the one occasion that I failed to follow the correct procedure, an alarm sounded insistently until I got it right. I was also told that a ‘return’ receipt was available from the console, but I never managed to obtain one.

My next destination was Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. From the Arc de Triomphe I rode along Boulevard de Courcelles and into a part of Paris that I must have always travelled beneath on the métro. Joining the cycle path that runs up the tree-lined central reservation I cruised along with impunity. Here I felt part of a real Parisian Sunday morning, among joggers, bleary-eyed young fathers pushing buggies and energetic children swarming over the elegant Parc Monceau. In less than 15 minutes I had reached the Pigalle area.

When it came to selecting my next docking station my downloaded smartphone app proved invaluable. It knew where I was and told me the location of empty docking stations. I chose to go uphill towards the basilica and the highest available station I could find was on Rue des Abesses. Without the app I would have wasted time guessing, and some stations are hard to spot.

On a Sunday the streets around Montmartre are closed to traffic and I cycled past the busy pavement cafés where customers were enjoying a relaxing brunch. I docked the bike with five minutes to spare and headed uphill to the basilica. From here I walked down towards the Marais area and picked up my third bike, weaving along the narrow streets and then having lunch at the famous Jewish delicatessen Sacha Finkelsztajn in Rue des Rosiers.

Fortified with stuffed dumplings, potato pancakes and chocolate torte, I paraded on my bike with the sports cars circling Place des Vosges and then crossed the River Seine to the Jardin des Plantes. Disappointingly, cycling is forbidden in the park, but I did enjoy an afternoon mint tea and more cake at the nearby Grande Mosquée.

For the rest of the afternoon I switched between bicycles like a local and only got lost once. I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg, sailed up Boulevard Saint-Germain, stopped at the École Militaire and climbed to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower – queuing to get to the top would have compromised my free and easy mood.

In the final stage I crossed the River Seine to reach the Jardins du Trocadéro and completed my tour of Paris back at the Arc de Triomphe at 5pm. I had cycled 25 kilometres and packed more than ever before into a day in Paris. I did not feel weary, and had avoided calamities and near-misses to achieve it all for just €1.70.