What weighs 24 kilos, is environmentally friendly, inexpensive and will get you where you want to go while working your thighs at the same time? It’s a bicycle rented from Vélib, the Parisian program that was inaugurated in 2007. If you have been to Paris in the last few years, you have certainly seen these gray metallic monsters proudly parading the expansive avenues of the French capital. They are everywhere, day and night, 24/7. They are ridden by jocks in sneakers and Mademoiselles with their Gucci bag in the basket and stiletto heels on their feet.
Vélib is practical, becoming stylish and, believe it or not, is turning into a rolling social network.
There were sceptics when Vélib first began. Those were the guys who talked about how ugly the bikes are; too heavy and too complicated. But now there are 26 million bike rentals yearly; 20,000 bikes available at 1,600 cycle racks in Paris. Add to that the 370 kilometres of safe bicycle paths you have in this city and you can see that Vélib has turned into a community with members of all ages and all walks of life. If you work your wheels right, it sure beats speed-dating. Let me explain.
First off, you can meet people at the bike stand as they try to figure out the system. The rental system, as it is sooo French, is an administrative labyrinth full of complicated questions, codes and button-pressing. You can visit the Vélib website (www.velib.fr) beforehand to get really savvy about the system and volunteer to help a frazzled man or
woman who looks like someone you would like to hang out with. The complexity of the system is a great ice-breaker and an easy, really easy conversation starter for the shy ones out there.
You could try and meet a policeman by simply running a red light, biking on a sidewalk or totally ignoring one-way street signs. I met a handsome French officer once while riding on a bicycle path actually minding my own business. He whistled at me and very politely asked me to get off my bike. I thought that he was then going to suggest a coffee, but instead he told me I was going the wrong way on a bicycle path and if I didn’t get start walking the bike right then and there, he would be obliged to give me a ticket and a fine. I pleaded ignorance (which was the truth) and asked him where the right path was. We did have a pleasant conversation (no coffee though).
Now, parking your Vélib bicycle can be problematic – but there’s a golden opportunity right there. In very touristic areas of Paris – like Le Marais, St Germain des Pres or Le Jardin des Tuileries, it can be nearly impossible to find an empty spot in the bicycle rack. That’s when you wait for someone to come along to take out a bike so you can park yours. And there you have another conversation-starter. You can commiserate about the Vélib system together and actually communicate with another human being on a human level. Bikers do not get as upset as car drivers do when looking for a parking space. And since you are both biking, you already have something in common.
You gotta start somewhere.
The only negative social experience I have had after five years of Vélib-ing is on the phone with a Vélib agent. I did not understand in the beginning that you really should not keep your Vélib bike for more than it takes to get from Point A to Point B since the rental price increases substantially after the initial hour. So, the first time out, I just locked the bike to a tree when I stopped and turned it in at the end of the day. The bill was for 19 euros and, of course, I thought it was an accounting mistake. The Vélib agent pretty much insulted me on the phone for being stupid. He told me if I wanted a bike I should go buy one – that Vélib was meant for short rides only. I asked his name; he wouldn’t tell me. I told I didn’t like his attitude; he said he didn’t care. I told him I hoped this conversation was being recorded for quality purposes; again he said he didn’t care. I hung up angry and disappointed, just like after a really bad date.
But don’t let that story discourage you. Paris is a gorgeous city to bike in and Vélib-ing it might even help your social life. The quays of the Seine are closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays and there are hundreds of bikers out there – so the next time you’re in Paris, get out there and enjoy the ride. You never know where a simple bike might take you.