My Nemesis

With just one mile to reach the 2,000 plateau for the year, I traveled to London on another business trip.  When I was there in May, I made a small attempt to use London’s bicycle share program, Barclays Cycle Hire.  I abandoned my attempt due to the frightening (to me) conditions on London’s roads, the unfamiliar street pattern, riding on the left side of the road, no helmets, and a prohibition on sidewalk riding.

With time to reflect on my wimpiness and mentally prepare myself for these challenges, I resolved to get on one of those bikes and zip around the city.  Thus it was on Tuesday when I confidently strode up to a bike station near Whitehall Place in Westminster and began punching buttons at the kiosk.  After reading and acknowledging two pages of instructions, I was ready to hire a cycle.

The machine wouldn’t let me.

The stupid thing kept returning me to the start point of the process.  For an American in London, much of survival is paying attention to little details.  Quite often, things appear straightforward but the small differences in language and process can trip you up.  I read very carefully and yet ended with the same result each time I tried to get my bike.

After about ten attempts, I concluded the machine wasn’t working and walked a few hundred yards to the next station on The Embankment.  I was able to proceed further at this kiosk and the machine encouragingly wanted me to insert my credit card for payment.  At this point, the kiosk ended the transaction with a brusque “Unable To Complete Transaction.”  Several more attempts yielded the same result.  Switching credit cards did not help.  I was defeated.

The irony here is that one of the goals of the bike share program is to encourage its use by tourists.  Sadly, it did not achieve its goal with this highly-motivated tourist, who decided a walk might be more in order.

I wandered across a pedestrian bridge to the south bank of the Thames, where I found yet another bike station.  I made one final attempt and got the same result as with the second station.  Glumly, I wandered eastward on Stamford Street, where I happened to see a curious sight: a man riding a plain-green bicycle while holding the handlebars of an identical plain-green bicycle.

Could this be an employee of a bicycle rental business?

I quickly gave chase, by which I mean I increased my pace from shuffling to “hoofing it.”  After two turns, I followed the man to Gabriel’s Wharf and discovered I was right.  He was an employee of London Bicycle Tour Company!

London Bicycle Tour Company, Gabriel's Wharf

They looked like they had quite an array of bikes for rent.  Unfortunately, by the time I found them, the day was waning and I had a dinner engagement to get to.  This would have been perfect for me had I only found them earlier in the day.  Next time, I’ll be ready.  Although they are less iconic than the Barclays bikes, they appear to be far superior in quality.  Better still, I’m pretty sure the shop keep will accept my credit card.

And thus concluded the cycling portion of my visit.  I did plenty of walking and jogging in and around Westminster and I believe I am more than ready to go on a cycling adventure.  Now that I’ve found a bicycle hire company, that might just be possible.

People of London, you have been warned.

Perhaps next time, I'll be joining these folks (taken on The Mall, near Buckingham Palace)


17 thoughts on “My Nemesis

  1. I had a similar experience in Paris last week, but the 3rd one I tried was lucky. It’s hard to believe that any developed country could be more technologically backwards than France, but I am now convinced. Good luck next time.

    • I routinely have problems with my credit cards in England. Everyone there is surprised to learn this, yet it happened often while I lived there in the 90s and it has a few times during my two trips this year.

  2. This morning I wondered why I hadn’t seen a post on your blog for a few days. Now I know. Sorry it didn’t work out to ride in London.

    • I just checked out Mark’s site. The current blog is about a mass cycling protest on Blackfriar’s Bridge on the evening of 29 July. I was there! Well, relatively speaking, of course. I was actually about one mile away eating a steak at an outdoor cafe in Leicester Square. I had no idea this was going on. I jogged across that bridge two mornings prior. Small world.

  3. Here you are in Another Country, ready to ride, and I feel lucky just to ride over to the next County! As you say, you will be ready to go on your next visit. Good luck!

    • Thanks! I’ve been very fortunate to travel to some far away places (Australia, Tampa, Virginia Beach, and England) and get some cycling in. Here’s hoping my luck continues!

  4. Next time you are coming around, drop me a comment. Now that I’ve finally got my road bike, will happily lend you the Trek hybrid and show you ‘how to ride in Londonium’ 🙂

    • Tried and failed, I’m afraid. I’ve been busy this week, so it looks like I’ll be breaking my milestone with a simple neighborhood pedal. C’est la vie!

  5. Hey Steve, I’ve been living in Montreal so long now and when I lived in London at the end of the 80s there was no such thing as the bike rental initiative. As I mentioned on a previous post, we have the same system (BIXI) here in Montreal, and I sincerely hope that if you ever make it up here it’ll work for you. Having said that, if you do ever make it up here, you can borrow one of my bikes and we’ll go for a ride together!

  6. The Boris Bike machines don’t work with American cards — you have to have a chip in your card, which is commonplace in England (and most of Europe I believe) but doesn’t seem to have made it to the shores of America yet. You need to find a friend with a UK card for next time!!

    What a shame! Cycling is a great way to get around London, and if you steer clear of the high streets it can actually be pleasant!

    • Well, mystery solved!
      This is almost certainly the problem. When I went out to dinner with my English friends, they were amazed to see the waitress hand me a piece of paper to sign for my credit card payment. They all simply punched their pin numbers into a handheld machine used by the waitress. This nifty upgrade to credit cards hasn’t made its way to the New World yet.

  7. Pingback: A Classic Show | There And Back Again

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