There was a point last night when I was ready to give up on the whole idea of the Boris Bikes. I’d cycled into town in the morning and that had been okay, apart from the small matter of my somehow not having activated my key and having to talk to the nice man on the help desk and then not being able to get the bike out of the rack (‘give it some welly’ the helpdesk man advised) and then discovering that my memory of London’s geography was rather hazier than I’d hoped. And my search for a free docking station at my destination had meant not only being late for my lunch date but also over-running the free hire period by two minutes (there’s supposedly a way where you can ‘check in’ to a full docking station and get an extension but it wasn’t clear at all how to do that and I’d like to apologise now to anyone who saw me do an entirely illegal u-turn on Tottenham Court Road when I suddenly spotted a docking station with a couple of slots). And now I was trudging round Bloomsbury looking for a working bike to get me back to Vauxhall and wondering whether the tube wouldn’t just be easier (and, if I’m perfectly frank, a little less scary) after all. When I did find half-a-dozen at Malet street in working order there was a part of me that rather wished I hadn’t but I got my green light and, on the second go, wrestled the bike out of the rack (after applying a bit of welly), failed to adjust my seat and set off in a wobbly but stately fashion – it’s actually the only way to ride one – in the general direction of the river. After a shaky start and a couple of attempted side-swipes from some twats in sports cars I got my rhythm back and as I got out of the narrow streets around the museum I found myself in a stream of bike traffic – boris bikes and normal bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, folders, fixies, some lit up like mobile discos and some entirely dark.
I’ve never actually ridden through Central London at night – I never would have done it when I lived there partly because I wouldn’t have wanted to leave my own bike locked up anywhere in the area. But, while it doesn’t have the wonderful infrastructure of the Dutch and the Danes there have been enough little changes like helpful signs and cut-throughs and counter-flow lanes to mean that a yokel like me could sail along with the straw blowing out of her hair navigating by luck as much as judgement and make it back alive. It helps that most of the traffic (and some of the other bikes) give you a VERY wide berth when they see what you’re riding. Clearly I’m not the only loose cannon to have been unleashed on the streets of London on a boris bike. And while everyone was overtaking me (apart from the dying pizza delivery scooter which I overtook on the Kennington Road – sorry about that mate, I didn’t mean to humiliate you) and shooting past me at the red lights and no doubt wishing that the tourist on the Boris bike wasn’t in their way, I still felt part of the great mass of London Cyclists and I was delighted that I’d stuck with it after all. And then a white van man hooted at me and I called him a twat and I knew that there was part of me that would always call this city home.
My legs are aching this morning – fifty-plus miles a week over the hills of Scotland are nothing compared with heaving a Boris bike over the col du Waterloo Bridge. And I’m back on foot and tube and train as I make my way home. But I’m glad I persisted with my Boris bike and I’d recommend anyone visiting London – or even living there – to give it a go. Just remember, to get them out of the rack you really do need to give it some welly.