On a warm sunny day, there’s no better way to get around Paris than with a Velib bike. Bike friendly Paris has installed hundreds of Velib bike rental stations for locals and tourists alike. Author Michael Barry shares his bike riding in Paris experience…
Velib bikes in Paris
For a small daily or weekly fee, you can ride for 30 minutes free of charge, but after 30 minutes you’ll have to pay a small fee to encourage you to return the bike to a local docking station for someone else to use. You can get surprisingly far in 30 minutes, so it’s very reasonable. The three-speed bikes look a little clunky with their big frames and front basket, but the ride is smooth and they take hills better than my bike at home.
From our apartment on Rue Monge in the Latin Quarter, there were two docking/rental stations two blocks away: one at the Metro stop and one on Rue Dolomieu. My wife Lisa and I could make it to Notre Dame or the Sorbonne with plenty of time to spare. Ninety percent of our ride to the Seine was downhill, so it was a breeze. We could even make it to the Musée d’Orsay without trouble, because traffic moved in that direction with dedicated bike lanes starting about halfway down.
Cycling etiquette in Paris
Returning home was a different story, we usually ended up walking our bikes a part of the way uphill. I have to admit we learned the hard way that there is a certain etiquette with biking in a big city. Yes, yes, and I’m sorry, but we were two of those nincompoop tourists who broke “a couple” of the rules, at least we did till we learned what not to do. Most of our infractions were due to getting somewhere far away and not knowing how to get home, so we’d muscle our way back the way we came, against traffic.
Our enthusiastic, naive peddling upstream was not always received well by the gnarly old taxi drivers, and some of the local pedestrians let us know what they thought of our level of intelligence. We learned a lot of new French curse words this way. We would, however, pull over when fellow bikers came our way or crowds got too big and walk the bikes. With time we learned to cross the river and drive with traffic till we got to Pont de Sully bridge, and cross back over the Seine, one block from the Jardin des Plantes where there were usually no angry crowds.
Cycle like a local in Paris
One day we thought it would be “romantic” to peddle our bikes on the lower part of the Seine from our apartment to the Eiffel Tower. After a few blocks the path went from smooth as silk asphalt to historic cobblestone which would shake the bejesus out of you. To make matters worse, there was a nice convenient ramp to get down to the lower portion of the Seine, but no such ramp back up, just steps. All that bone-jarring shake down for nothing, we had to turn around and jiggle our way back to the ramp from whence we came.
Yes, the Velib bikes were an incredible way to get around Paris, and after about two weeks we blended in with the locals. We learned that if you approached a docking station and you came upon bikes with the seats turned backwards, don’t take it because that’s how the locals let the repair men know there’s something mechanically wrong with the bike. Once I returned a seat to its normal position and wobbled all the way to the Louvre.
Also, before you start your journey, the Velib website, en.velib.paris.fr, will let you know how many bikes are at your favorite docking stations and just as important, how many empty spots there are near your destination. You may have to alter where you pick-up or where you drop off according to this information. There are so many docking stations, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Sure there was a learning curve to biking in Paris, but it was well worth it. You get to see things you wouldn’t on the Metro or bus. So, if it’s a dry day, grab a Velib for memories to last a lifetime. And by the way, don’t bike through the Jardin des Tuileries kicking up dust, you might get yelled at by a guy with a badge like these two idiots we saw when we were there (ok, I’ll admit, it was us).
Michael A. Barry is the author of “Vagabonds in France” (facebook.com/VagabondsinFrance)