Biking Paris: The Vélib System

Me. In the bookstore. Almost.

As I sliced between duelling Peugeots on the Place de la Nation roundabout, I wondered why it took me so long to build up the courage to bike in Paris. It was nine months before I bought an annual Vélib pass and another few days before I mounted a bike. But in only 20 minutes, there I was in pursuit of Pat, amazed as he cut through traffic to ride the inner lane. He never looked back at me; I never looked at all.

It was thrilling.

With that inaugural ride behind me, yesterday, I rode to the 6th to explore a highly recommended independent bookstore, Berkley Books. It was a trip made for the Vélib: Not easily accessible via public transport. A bit too far to walk both ways.

As I set off, Pat yelled out “Be careful.”

“Don’t count on it,” I yelled back as I turned the corner.

There, I noticed I was riding the wrong way in the bike lane, but no one seemed to mind. When I turned south in the upper Marais, I started to ride the right way, only to encounter a motorcycle coming straight towards me, riding both the wrong way and in the bike lane. We passed each other unfazed.

Those crazy French. While rules and bureaucracy dominate any business transaction, the streets are lawless and laissez-faire. Which plays to my strengths. I wobble. Careen onto sidewalks without intending to. Ride the wrong way down one-way streets.

A friend told me that a study found that the more inept you appear on a bike, the more cars give you space. I can attest to this.

Twenty minutes after leaving our apartment, I arrived unscathed near Berkeley Books and started to seek a station to return my bike. The first was full. The next was completely empty but out of commission. I saw a man pulling a bike out of the third, only to realize he was trying to pull into the third, which was full. As was the fourth. And the fifth.

I grew increasingly frustrated. Repeatedly pulled out my phone to find the nearest station on the Vélib’ app, only to find none with open spaces. During the depths of my exasperation, I crossed Saint Germaine with my eyes closed.

Which is where I found one available parking spot, squeezed my brakes so hard I nearly toppled, and estimated that I’d been riding for two hours. At this point, my luck changed. Google Maps indicated that Berkeley Books was steps away.

No luck.

Berkeley Books was closed.

The posted hours indicated they should be open. But it also stated they don’t always open when they should.

San Francisco people. So laissez-faire.

I walked to Shakespeare and Co. and bought a piece of fruit pie at the cafe (after all, I’d biked for like four hours). Then I walked home. Late afternoon is magical this time of year. The light was stunning. As I walked, I coached myself.

“Relax next time. Ride around and have fun. When you find a bike spot, you find it. Enjoy the moment. The cost is nominal. You’re in Paris!”

The minute I walked into my apartment, I reached for my Vélib pass to log onto my account and check my charges. (I opted for a 39 euro per year plan which includes 45 free minutes with each ride and one euro for every thirty minutes thereafter.) I’d been riding for like six hours.

Question: Wait. Where’s my Vélib card?

Answer: No idea.

In all that pulling out of my phone to find a parking spot, I must have dropped it. I called Vélib support to report my card lost. They told me to order a new card online. There, I saw my account summary; the entire ride had taken 48 minutes (impossible) and cost one euro.

Plus 5 euros to replace the card. And 5 euros for the pie. (BTW, the pie at Shakespeare and Co. coffeeshop is very good).

While I waited for Pat to return from pétanque, I poured a glass of wine. When he came in, I poured him one too. Then, I drank them both.

I’m never been great at materiality. I make big deals out of little things and become ridiculously competitive in non-competitive situations. (48 minutes? Think. Where could I have saved 3 minutes?) Even though it was a beautiful day to bike Paris, to simply lolly-gag, I berated myself.

Yet still, I love this biking thing. The perfect melding of laissez-faire and derring-do. A pursuit where when the going gets tough, I simply close my eyes. And pedal.


NOTE: If you want to try Vélib (and yes, you should!), you can check out a bike with a bit of patience and a credit card at any of the stands you pass on the street. Just look for the tall machine near the bike corral. It supports a bunch of languages, including English.




Categories: Life in Paris

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Hello there!

    I just recently discovered your blog. I love it! I moved to Paris from Berlin in February this year. I agree with everything you write and will take several of your advises! Thank you so much!!

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