Last year I won a couple of tickets to Paris on the Eurostar, and while a trip to Paris to see the tourist sights is very appealing, simply visiting the obvious and doing the obvious is hardly the sort of thing you would this particular writer to content himself with.
A suggestion last year that it would be fun to take Boris Bikes to Paris stuck with me, and pondering the soon to expire free train tickets, it was time to try it out.
Naturally, a check of the Boris Bike T&C’s showed that while there is a limit of 24 hours for hiring a bike, and oddly a limit on letting no more than three other people use the bike, there is no geographical or mileage restrictions.
In addition, as it happens, Eurostar is quite comfortable with carrying bikes on their trains and have a procedure in place already for that – although in our case some tweaks were needed due to the way the prize tickets were arranged, and double-checking that it would be OK to carry heavy Boris Bikes on board when they usually carry light touring bikes for holiday goers.
One person with two tickets is a waste, so I was joined by my fellow blogger (and French speaker), Tom for the day out, on a mission to take the Boris Bikes to Paris, take photos in suitably Parisian locations, and return them back to London on the same day.
The trip to Paris
Picking up two bikes from the stand opposite Kings Cross and a short cycle to the drop-off point behind the station, partly to get there and partly to check the bikes were good ones. Picking up a bike with a squeaky wheel in London is tolerable as you can drop it off again a few minutes later and get a new bike. Less easy once we are in Paris.
People taking bikes on the Eurostar have to drop them off at the depot an hour before departure – which in our case required a 6:22am drop off.
The depot opens at 7am.
A slight sick feeling builds up, and we were joined by three more cyclists, although they were less worried as their deadline was later than ours so they wandered off to find coffees.
One member of staff delivered a very Gallic shrug when asked for help, but another chap was vastly more helpful and sent out a radio message to find someone to open the depot, and ten minutes later we are handing over our precious cargo to be delivered to the train.
Off to get our trains and a wave to the three other cyclists relaxing with their coffees as our pulse rates calmed back down to a less panic-stricken state.
A coffee later, and boarding the train was enlivened by a chap asking if people could move down the carriage. I guess a regular user of the London Underground was travelling on our train.
Officially, we were supposed to collect the bikes from the depot behind Gare du Nord station, but the depot at St Pancras said that if we waited by the cargo section between carriages 9/10 we would probably be able to collect the bikes immediately.
Joined by two other cyclists in the uniform of the hardcore cyclist – lycra and dayglo clothing – two lightweight and two very heavy bikes were offloaded, and as our fellow cyclists went off on their holiday, we lingered to get some obvious photos.
Out of the station and erm, let’s go that way to get over towards the Notre Dame Cathedral. Deciding to stick to side roads initially to get used to cycling on “the wrong side of the road”, and we got lost.
Oh well, carry on in roughly the right direction, and more by accident than design ended up going past the Louvre, which obviously necessitated a stop for photos, and a break in the shade to cool off a bit.
By the way, it was hot in Paris. While nice to arrive when it wasn’t pouring down with rain, cycling around if it is too hot can be just as bad. From a purely photographic perspective, I also prefer slightly cloudy skies as they help tone down the light and hide the glare if you need to shoot into the sun.
Off again, along the riverside and this time on the right direction to the Notre Dame, and a chance to get another tourist snap with the bikes. I was a bit worried about how easy it would be to get photos of sites with the bikes and not have to try and push away huge crowds, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared.
A short diversion to find something that was deliberately designed be the sort of thing you have to know about rather than casually passing by on a street, the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. Nothing to do with the Boris Bikes, but it is a memorial I have long wanted to visit, but alas, the subterranean structure was closed to visitors.
The garden it sits in was delightfully cool though, so the lure of a short break was difficult to ignore.
Off along the south bank of the Seine, and a stop by the Institut de France to admire the view of the building, and the pedestrian bridge that faces it. A bystander was overheard telling his companion that our bikes looked similar to those bikes they have in London.
Very similar as it happens.
A quick stop at the Musée d’Orsay and then over to the Assemblée Nationale. A plan to leave the bikes by the front of the building then move over to the other side of the road for better photos was discounted as an idea by the presence of police who might disapprove of unattended packages next to a major political building.
Heading off again and we ended up following a bus with an advert for Scottish whisky with a London message – no time for a decent photo, so a quick snap with the cameraphone for the giggles.
This was very much a tour around the city taking photos, so sadly no chance to stop and go inside places – that’ll have to wait for another train trip to Paris.
We’re inching closer to The Eiffel Tower though, which had to be on any itinerary. Over to the wide arena in front of the Esplanade des Invalides and down the avenue to take some photos here.
A couple of Americans asked us to move as we were spoiling their photos. Erm, what about them spoiling ours! We moved. They left, eventually and as we were taking photos, a couple of Londoners on Parisian hire bikes cycled over to find out what on earth we were up to with Boris Bikes in Paris.
They seemed suitably amused, which was to be the general reaction though the rest of the day when people asked what was going on.
Time to head down the picturesque Rue de Grenelle, and stop off for an inevitable photo of the Boris Bikes next to the Parisian Vélib bike stand. Some passers-by switched from French to a strangely American accent when chatting to Tom, possibly deciding their English was better than his French (sorry Tom!), and were generally curious about how the London scheme compared to the French one.
My first thoughts are that Vélib bikes look a lot less conspicuous than the big heavy blue London bikes, and thus are less noticeable in the streets which might be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. They also come with padlocks, which seems a bit superfluous as Vélib bike stands are as plentiful as Boris Bike stands are in London.
They do however have the advantage of a larger front basket, which it would be nice to have in London, as the small “rack” on the Boris Bikes is a bit restricting.
However, we were finally getting towards the main photo – Boris Bikes by the Eiffel Tower.
Time for lunch though, and after locating a street with plenty of cafes and restaurants, we struggled a bit to padlock the bikes to a pole. Hmm, maybe the Vélib padlocks aren’t such a bad idea after all.
Lunch at Café du Marché included a carafe of cold wine, well, it was hitting 35°C by now.
In fact, with lunch over, the temperature has successfully roasted our bikes, so we had to walk them along a shady street to let the saddle cool down enough to be able to sit on them again! Up to the Seine, and over the bridge to start heading up to the Arc de Triomphe, along the Avenue George V, named after our own King George V.
A sudden shout to Tom to stop as I spotted something, and a photo to please the sponsors of the Bike scheme.
Anyway, heading towards the big arch-shaped thing and a chance to get another tourist snap. A large building in the middle of a massive roundabout with lots of people looking at it is a tad difficult to get a good photo of, but I think we managed, and also walked around to the other side to try again. A woman asking what we were doing with London bikes in Paris walked off with a look that suggested we are mad. Under the circumstances, we might have had difficulty arguing against that.
I insisted on walking the bikes around – as that roundabout is SCARY. But back to the Champs-Élysées for a high speed cycle down the hill to the Place de la Concorde.
The main roads in the area are still cobbled streets, although patches of tarmac suggest it was once covered. Very pretty to look at, but very sore to cycle over at speed. Wouldn’t change it though, and wouldn’t mind importing the idea for main roads in London to be cobbled again.
Down at the Place de la Concorde, Tom pulled out a Union Jack and draped it over the bike for a suitably British photo in this heart of the French capital.
Your cycling adventurers were wilting in the heat again, and a couple of slightly chilled water bottles from a street vendor helped a bit, but a short rest in the shade helped more, and off again.
A thought to take the riverside path was pleasant enough but the crowds by the temporary sandy beach suggested bikes would not be a good idea so up a very steep slope to the main road, and back past the Louvre again.
A wander around the small park by the Parc de la Tour Saint-Jacques, but no photos as the sun was right in the way. Finally though, off to the Pompidou Centre, where a Chinese Frenchman was playing Simon and Garfunkel outside the building.
The streets in this area are very narrow and cramped but have a charm which is quite appealing in a way. A large church had its doors open and I was tempted to go inside and take photos, but I suspected the cool interior might be too enjoyable and I wouldn’t leave.
Anyhow, time to start heading back to the train station to drop the bikes off again. A slight struggle to find the depot behind the station this time and a worry that the apparently closed door would cause problems. Turned out it was just stiff and our initial shakes had brought over a chap to open up and let us drop the bikes off for their return trip to London.
We retired to a local bar for a very much needed beer and cool off a bit.
Back to London
A satisfyingly uneventful trip back to London, and again we were able to meet the cargo chaps on the platform to collect our bikes.
He opened up the cargo locker and inside were three bikes – and none of them were ours! Were our bikes supposed to be on the same train as ourselves he asked, and as rising panic started to choke off the voice, we squeaked something vaguely affirmative.
Oh, might be in the other locker he replied and after unloading the three conventional bikes, another locker was opened, and PHEW, the bikes were inside.
Unloaded, a chat with some other people getting off the train and had seen our bikes arrive, then a quick stop to take a photo and then down to the exit – which then drew some puzzled looks from the people waiting at the arrivals area as we came through the doors.
Puzzled looks being the general reaction when we were in Paris from those who saw us passing swiftly by along the roads.
Back to the Boris Bike stand we had used almost exactly 16 hours earlier and after a few more poses, dropped the bikes back into their slots for a much-earned rest.
If you hire a bike, and it happens to be bike numbers 17352 or 16301, then you are riding the very same bikes that have been to Paris. Keep an eye out for them, they are truly special.
Yes, it was fun, and very unusual, which is what you might expect from your correspondent, and a good use for the two prize tickets I had.
While I knew Eurostar carries bicycles, I was slightly surprised at how many they had – two on the outbound, and three on the inbound, plus the three others who we met in the morning, who were taking a trip to Brussels, then cycling down to Paris for the return trip to London.
If you fancy a cycling trip in France/Brussels via the Eurostar, details here.
The cost of the bike hire is a fixed rate for usage between 6-24 hours at £50. They do suggest hiring a bike for more than a couple of hours might be better from a dedicated cycle hire firm – but that wouldn’t have worked for us, obviously.
Eurostar offered to waive the cycle transit fees as I would be writing about the adventure. Lunch was €35, and beers were €10.
Quite keen to go back to Paris and visit the same venues, but more sedately, and go inside the buildings this time.
Might hire a Vélib bike though.
More of Tom’s photos are here.