The first thing to note is: the cycle hire scheme works. We rocked up to a station in Shoreditch at a little after 6am this morning, inserted the key into the docking station, waited for the green light on the machine to flash, and seconds later (after fighting through a minor crowd of gawping early-morning drunks) we were riding a bike. After a fifteen-minute cycle around E2, we dropped the bike off at another docking station (found using one of the handy mobile apps), which was equally simple. If it's as easy for everybody else, then the launch should go smoothly.
The three-speed bikes, of which 5,000 were installed overnight, are sturdy beasts. Actually, sturdy doesn't really do it justice: these are designed to withstand a beating from both careless cyclists and drunken vandals alike. They're heavy and slow to turn, which might catch out anyone familiar with a nimble Brompton. There's a dynamo which powers a strip of flashing lights on the front and a red light at the back; enough to make a driver aware of you in the dusk, but perhaps not bright enough for regular riding after dark.
In a token gesture towards safety, there's a sign planted in the middle of the handlebars warning cyclists to beware large vehicles turning left. Well, we can't say they didn't warn us! There's also a functional bag holder and strap on the front, which didn't look like the kind of place you'd want to store something valuable like your laptop.
Overall it was a pleasant, indeed fun, experience, and at least one Londonista will be riding to work today to see how the bikes perform on a proper trip. If you're trying them out today, drop us a note in the Comments section and let us know how it goes. And remember — activate your key before you go by logging into the Cycle Hire website.
Having just rode one of the bikes from home to the office, here are a few more thoughts....
Riding around through the City on the first day was a strange experience, and the act of simply being on one of these oddly-shaped new bikes seemed to break the spell of apathy that bewitches most morning commuters. People would stop and stare at traffic lights, or ask questions about the cycle's comfort, or, in the case of one cabbie, glower sourly at the prospect of countless more bikes for him to tangle with. Seeing other Bike Hire "pioneer members" (that's TfL's word, not ours) evoked nods of recognition.
The 20-minute ride (Shoreditch to Lambeth North) was pleasant enough, the only damage to rider and bike being a blister on the thumb, caused by gripping the handlebar too tight during some nervy early skirmishes whilst riding through a traffic-clogged Bishopsgate. The most exhilarating moment was the cruise over the river, watching the crowd flow over London Bridge under a sky that was more seasonally clear than brown fog. The only real down side was this rider's lack of fitness.
One thing we noticed that could be a small problem: to get the bike out of the docking station you need to leave your membership key in whilst you remove it (seems that you don't in fact need to leave your key, you can take it out once you see the green light). There doesn't seem to be an alarm to remind you that your key is still in the machine, so it's quite easy to accidentally leave it behind.
That aside, our early impression is is a positive one, and we'll be using the bikes regularly. However, other users are reporting problems with accessing the bikes, so it would seem the launch day hasn't begun as smoothly as hoped for.
Photos by Ruth Lang