Thursday, 18 October 2007

Velib' or die

Today was it. The day I was going to finally mount the Velib and cycle through the streets of Paris. Because I'm so tight, I was waiting until I got my Velib card in the mail that I applied for a couple weeks ago. I didn't want to dish out a whole euro unnecessarily.

However, due to the transportation strike, I found myself far from my meeting on the other side of town without an hour to spend walking there. I walked to the Velib (short for velo libre or free bike) bike racks, and eyed the few remaining bikes suspiciously. I'd done my homework. I knew that you had to check the tires, chains and seats to make sure things were working properly before you headed off.

I decided to give it a go. With help from a friendly veliber, I put my debit card into the Velib meter(it debits the card only if the bike is taken out for more than a half hour or if it is not returned). It spits out a card with a customer number. When ready to take off, you punch that number into the machine and it tells you which bikes are avaible. In my case it told me that bikes 7, 13, 18 and 19 were available. You are then supposed to choose the number of the bike you want. Not so fast, I thought. I had to give them a quick once over, and when I decided, I walked back to the machine and it had moved on. I'd taken too much time deciding. As my other friend had taken off on her bike, my next helper showed my where to sign in again. This time I was prepared, and knew which number bike I wanted. I punched in the number, 18, and then went to unlock # 18. I don't know what I did wrong, but I redid the process again and I pressed a button and #18 was unlocked for me. Woo hoo!

I pushed my bike up the hill to the Arc de Triomphe and decided for my maiden voyage on the Velib to ride down the Champs-Elysees. How exciting. I'm riding down the street on a public bike on the most famous Avenue. I saw a friend and made him take my picture. (Hopefully I'll post this later.) I was totally thrilled to be riding on a pleasant afternoon through the streets of Paris.

I kept on with my plan to go to the meeting on the other side of town even though by this time it's obvious I'll be fairly late. I turn off the Champs and head down a street that takes me over Pont Alexandre III, a stunning bridge, and on toward Invalides. I have a vague notion of the direction I need to go, but unlike on foot, I need to pay attention to the direction of traffic. On the velib, you're supposed to follow traffic rules which is challenging for me. I pass Musee Rodin (one of my favorites) and continue on down Varenne to Boulevard Raspail. Now this road was a little too much for me. It was hard to go from riding on the right side to crossing over to the left lane to turn left on rue de Fleurus. So I pulled over, hopped onto the sidewalk, and walked my bike over to where I needed to be. Not an experienced veliber am I. As I ride down rue de Fleurus I see the Jardin de Luxembourg ahead which is right near my meeting. I'm so excited I'm almost there, and I've biked the whole way.

Part of the joy of the velib is that you don't have to worry (usually) what to do with the bike, because there are bike stations everywhere. I figure there must be one near the Jardin de Lux., and sure enough, there is a station with spaces open to park it. (I had read that sometimes a bike station will be full and you have to find another station in which to park). I pull up to the stand and part of the bike clicks into it, and a light flashes and then turns green, which means I have properly checked it in. (Also important, because if not properly checked in, it might think I've never returned the bike, and then I'm out 150 Euros). Delighted and slightly tired, I head to my meeting, wondering if I'll ride back.

I eagerly head back to the bike rack after the meeting and there are only a couple of bikes, both of which are defective. One has a flat and the other has a seat that's all floppy. Disappointed, I wonder what to do next, and then a man approaches to return his bike. Yeah! "Is it working okay?" I ask him. He tells me all is well and then I launch off for my return trip. Both times I just kind of took off without a plan. I generally know where I'm going and hope it works out.

This time I head north toward the Seine. There are often many other people biking in front or behind. Sometimes I'll be riding alone, but am soon joined by other riders. Totally cool. I cross over the Seine near the Louvre, but the road soon goes under a tunnel. I decide to ride a little bit in the Jardin de Tuileries because there is a lot of room and not too many people, and I certainly don't want to ride through the tunnel. As I see the rue de Rivoli ahead, I wonder at my choice of route. It looks really busy and dangerous. I enter the road and it turns out there is a bike lane and it is being used by a fair number of bikers. My fellows!

I am totally happy riding along and cracking up at times at how nicely other people are dressed while riding. High pointy heels, short tight skirts, fancy headware, suits and all manner of elegant dress can be seen on my fellow bikers.

Instead of returning on the Champs-Elysees, I take a deserted Ave. Gabriel to rue de Ponthieu which terminates at rue de Berri which is at a stand still. "So sorry, cars", another biker and I pushed our bikes onto the sidewalk and passed the truck that was blocking the way and continued peacefully down the street. By now I am fairly tired and am facing a few streets that have upward hills to get the last bit home. I'm close enough, and fearing that I might soon be going over my 30 free minutes of free riding time, I see a bike station and check it in. Two people were awaiting a bike, so I was glad to be turning it in.

I'd like to say I finished my walk home and stayed in for the night, but that's not me. Knowing I had the bike for a full twenty-four hours, I decided to take another ride after we put the wee ones to bed. Being the day of a mass transit strike, I looked at two locations for a bike, but found none. I decided to walk to my destination- I really did have somewhere to go, I wasn't just out joyriding, although that it certainly is. On my way back I checked around for other stations. Sure enough, at Place de Ternes I found a bike station. Again, there were two bikes, both defective, and a person in front of me. Luckily, two people rode up to check in their bikes and I was off again.

I called Sean from my cell phone because I was so totally tickled to be riding the streets of Paris at night on my (the city's) Velib. The velib is equipped by the way with a front headlight and a rear taillight. I also wanted to offer him a spin around the neighborhood as I still had twenty minutes left of free riding time. He declined, and I rode back to the bike stand around the corner from our house and checked it in.

It truly is a wonderful thing, this Velib. You get to use a bike for next to nothing, it's easy to park, and most of the time they're readily available. It seems a bit daunting at first to ride the streets of Paris, but once you're out there, you realize that the cars are really very polite to riders most of the time, and there are a lot of riders out there with you, and on some streets there are even lanes for the bikes. Okay, sometimes the bikes share the lanes with the buses, but as the buses weren't running today, it was quite nice. Maybe it is a little crazier when the buses are running, I've seen how close they get to cars and bikes.

So, I say hop on a Velib. It's a totally freeing experience to just hop on a bike and not worry about getting it out, locking it up and putting it away. And you get places quickly while seeing the sights. Give it a go.

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