Here’s the thing about riding a bicycle in new places: it’s like learning how to ride a bike all over again. No matter how used to the bicycle you are – at home in Portland I don’t even own a car – discovering a new city on two wheels makes you fall in love with cycling all over again. It’s a challenge. Navigating streets you have never walked down before, learning the ins and outs of local bike culture, figuring out how traffic works. There’s a flow to cycling, and each city has its own variation.
Paris is no different, and a few days into taking the metro I knew that underground transportation wasn’t going to be a sustainable option for me. Cram yourself into a few too many metro cars during rush hour traffic and you’ll be sprinting for an above ground office as well. Biking is a welcome solution.
Fortunately, Paris is equipped with the Vélib system, a well designed, and much talked about, bike-share system that boasts over 20,000 bikes around the city. Launched in 2007, the Paris Vélib system is the largest bike-share system in the world, used by tourists and locals alike.There is something freeing about being on a bicycle, the fact that you and you alone are responsible for getting anywhere. There’s a sense of accomplishment unlike any other when you have made it from point A to point B, successfully navigating a maze of bike routes and busy city streets.
Admittedly, I was slightly nervous and a little scared, so my first foray into the world of Vélib was with a friend.
“Just make sure you tell me where to turn!” The worst part about biking in a new city is your lack of navigation skills. I trust my ability to keep an eye out for cars and scooters, but trying to identify the names on the blue signs on the corner of every old Parisian building is something else entirely.
But then it occurred to me: cycling, much like traveling in general, is about giving up control. Accepting the fact that you will get lost, and that that’s OK. In fact, there is beauty in those moments when you find yourself in a place you hadn’t planned on being, and there’s a pure sense of accomplishment when you miraculously end up at your final destination with no help but from anyone other than yourself.
So I went alone, mapping out my route before I left, but remaining open to a bit of serendipity. Those first few pedals were freeing. I have been cycling since before I can remember, but this was different – a new feeling. I was learning how to ride all over again, and the thrill of it was impressive.
I managed to work my way through a busy roundabout, navigating around cars, buses and other cyclists more familiar with the ways of Parisian velo life than myself. I took a deep breath and pushed through. This was no Portland, and that’s what made it fun. Then came the time to find a spot to park the bike. Station one was closed due to surrounding roadwork and the next two were full. The fourth time was a charm, a reminder that once again, when you travel, you are rarely in control, and all you can do is keep going until things go your way.
And so with my first solo Parisian bike tour, I was addicted.
I pedaled down from Montmartre in the moonlight. I cruised by the Moulin Rouge, dodging a couple of scooters along the way. I manoeuvred my way around the mess of roadwork surrounding Republique. I sat next to a policeman at a stoplight, the policeman looking at me and rubbing his hands together to ask if I was cold.
This was the real Paris. As the Vélib card says “La ville est plus belle a velo.” The city is more beautiful by bike. La vie aussi.
Want to check out The City of Lights on two wheels? Here is a basic guide:
Buy a pass
If you have traveled in Europe before you will know the frustration with a lack of security chips that all European bank cards have. This makes it difficult to use your debit or credit card in the Velib machines. There are, however, a couple of simple solutions to this problem:
- Buy a one or seven-day pass online. You will be given a code that you will type in every time you want to access a bicycle.
- Buy a Navigo pass (just the card itself, not the full metro pass) and put your Velib one or seven-day pass on it. Buy a Navigo pass in a metro station, and then you can add your Velib pass to it by purchasing one online. This allows you to forgo typing in your pass every time you want to pick up your bike, and you can just swipe your Navigo pass at the bike station.
- Buy a Vélib pass. If you are staying in Paris for an extended period of time, consider getting a yearlong pass. For 29 euros, you get a yearlong pass that allows you up to 30 minutes of free bike use each time you ride. For 39 euros you get the same thing, but up to 45 minutes each time you ride. You can pick up a card at the Hotel de Ville and then pay for it online and activate it at a Velib station.
Keep a map on you
Whether you download the PDF of the main bike routes in the city, or keep an electronic version on your smartphone, the map provided by the City of Paris is useful for navigation. There are over 200 kilometers of bike routes, and most of them are well marked.
Learn to use your bell
Many of the protected bike lines are right next to pedestrian routes. Don’t assume that the pedestrians will see you, or move out of your way for that matter. Make yourself heard.
Check that your bike works
When you arrive at a Vélib station, do a basic check of the bike before you take it. Make sure you can pedal it, that the brakes and lights work and that there aren’t any other major problems. You will notice that often bikes will have the seat turned in the opposite direction – this is the local Parisians’ way of telling each other that the bike isn’t functioning.
This may go without saying, but you have to be on guard for pedestrians, scooters, cars and buses at all times. If you are ever unsure of where to turn, find a place to stop and pull out your map. Or just keep riding and go with the flow of getting lost for a few. You might just discover something unintended.