Slow but steady ... cycling on a London hire bike.

Slow but steady ... cycling on a London hire bike. Photo: Getty Images

Cycling in one of the world's greatest cities is a joy when that city has gone out of its way to accommodate you, writes Paul Connolly.

For some reason it's not mentioned in that old VB jingle, but you can also get a hard earned thirst perusing galleries. So on stepping out of London's Tate Modern we decided the best thing for it would be a couple of big cold beers in Soho.

We could have walked or taken public transport, but we'd done enough of that already. Besides, being regular cyclists back home, we were keen to try out London's ubiquitous hire bikes - of which there are 6000, available through 400 docking stations around central London.

Boris bikes ... there are 6000 hire bikes available from 400 docking stations throughout London.

Boris bikes ... there are 6000 hire bikes available from 400 docking stations throughout London. Photo: Getty Images

Like Melbourne's and Brisbane's hire bikes, the Cycle Hire bikes are made ugly and heavy enough to deter all but the strongest, most longsighted thieves. But they're accessible, easy to ride, and cheap. In fact, if you've re-docked your bike within 30 minutes of hiring—and you can do this many times a day— it costs you no more than a £1 ($1.50) daily registration fee.

Unlike Melbourne's and Brisbane's hire bikes, London's bikes —colloquially known as Boris bikes after Boris Johnson, the London mayor who implemented them— are extremely popular, no doubt aided by the fact spontaneity comes into play as helmets are not compulsory. And it's not just tourists trundling about on these three-geared Clydesdales.

In fact (Melbourne and Brisbane bike hire organisers look away now), according to Transport for London, more than 8.6 million trips have been made on Boris bikes since the scheme opened to casual users on December 3, 2010, and the most common reason for hiring was to travel to and from work, with most trips less than 30 minutes in duration.

Right at Big Ben ... try to avoid Whitehall in peak hour.

Right at Big Ben ... try to avoid Whitehall in peak hour. Photo: Reuters

That's about as long as we figured we'd need as we found a couple of bikes docked in the street behind the Tate. After punching in my credit card details, we claimed our metal steeds, used the front cradle and elastic strap to secure our bags, and set forth, slow but steady (which more or less sums up the bikes' capabilities).

We were soon joining the on-road cycle lane that took us across Blackfriars Bridge, its piers adorned with stone carvings of water birds, and over the Thames. Even at this early point in our short ride, blessed with mild air and sunny skies, we had what you might call cyclists' high — that freewheelin', wind-through-the-hair sense of freedom you can get from being in the saddle.

We experience this all the time at home and clearly more and more Londoners are hooked on it too. When I was last in London 15 years earlier I cannot recall ever seeing anyone cycling. Today, cyclists —riding Euro-style step-throughs, racers, folders, fixies, mountain bikes, flat bars, and, yes, Boris bikes—seem to be everywhere.

Whether this is a cycling renaissance, if not a nascent revolution, much credit —or blame, for those more inclined to think of bicycles as an impediment—has been afforded Johnson, who came to office in 2008. Living proof that 'cycling mad Conservative' is not an oxymoron, Johnson set about spending upwards of £400 million refashioning London as a cycling city.

Four of 12 so-called cycle superhighways —linking outer London to central London— have already been constructed, and hundreds of miles of on- and off-road (Copenhagen-style) bike lanes have been added to current road infrastructure.

Such changes, along with the 2003 introduction of a congestion tax in Central London, rising public transport prices, and growing environmental awareness, seem to have precipitated a great change.

According to Transport for London, there were an estimated 500,000 journeys made by bicycle in Greater London on an average day in 2009, a 61 per cent rise since 2001. In the same period, morning peak-hour trips more than doubled (an increase of 123%). This included an increase of 15 per cent between 2008 and 2009.

Unwittingly boosting these percentage points ourselves, we turned left off Blackfriars Bridge and swept down Victoria Embankment, cruising against the flow of the Thames.

Our sense of freedom then had added to it a sense of the surreal. We were stopped at lights, about to turn right. At Big Ben, if you don't mind. Beats an Elizabeth St hook-turn, I thought, as I noticed that the mighty clock tower seemed to be in a constant state of toppling over, though it never actually fell. It was an optical illusion created by puffs of white cloud on blue sky drifting along behind it.

A toot of a horn alerted us to the change of light and we pedaled off into Whitehall. In peak hour. Talk about a badly planned route. Moments before we were in a kind of reverie, now fleets of red double-deckers and murders of black cabs surged around us and our exposed craniums.

On busier thoroughfares, we discovered, bike lanes and bus lanes are one and the same. (A bus driver I spoke to on a following day said that bus drivers were terrified of all the bikes on the road, and some drivers had changed from day shifts to night shifts to avoid them.)

Under threat like this I found myself worrying about our two kids at home, wondering which of our family members would least screw them up should one of these buses or cabs run us down. But then, to distract myself from such grim thoughts, I recalled a pleasing statistic concerning Boris bikes: no-one has yet been killed while riding one.

Frankly, it seemed miraculous. Doubly so when a large number of people riding Boris bikes would be tourists unfamiliar with the streets or curious locals who haven't ridden a bike since they popped their last pimple.

As London-based writer and cyclist Will Self opined on the anniversary of the scheme, "I sort of approve of the idea of using crap cyclists to slow down the traffic stream but it's a bit suicidal – like throwing people over the top in some conflict."

When we finally got to Soho and docked our bikes we weren't exactly shaken to the core —I've cycled on both Punt and Parramatta Rds, which are no picnic themselves— but our beer tasted better than it might otherwise have done.

And as the beer did its job we were better able to reflect on the journey. We agreed that we were more to blame for its precariousness than the traffic or city planners. We'd just picked a bad route. A rookie mistake.

We made up for it the following day when the pleasures of cycling in a big city —one making an effort to accommodate you— were most evident. Having used the cycle journey planner on the Transport for London website we made our way from Bloomsbury to Camden Town via quiet, leafy backstreets, barely encountering any traffic, much less the chaos of Whitehall.

Once again, we were revelling in the freedom of being on two wheels, enhanced by the fact we weren't hemmed in on the muggy Tube or stuck in traffic. We were lords of our own domain, in one of the world's biggest cities no less.

Certainly, as Will Self believes, London cannot yet call itself a cycling city. As a long time London cyclist told me, more off-road cycle lanes are needed as well as more education, for both cyclists and motorists. Too many cyclists break the law, he believes, and too many motorists are dangerously unprepared to share the road.

They're familiar tensions in western cities looking to the past in an effort to improve the future.

But from the saddles of our Boris bikes it seemed to us that London, while not a cycling city yet—certainly when measured against the likes of Amsterdam or Copenhagen— has already taken its first important steps. Or, as seems more apt, 'revolutions.'


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