Boris bikes today. The nearest ones to Hackney aren't actually that near so it meant a trip down Kingsland Road to the Geffrye Museum where there is a rack in nearby Falkirk Street.
First impressions were favourable. There were plenty of bikes to choose from and they all seemed to be in good condition. Rightly or wrongly I'd expected that they would already be showing the signs of unwanted attention from vandals and drunkards, but the docking station itself was well kept and the bikes looked very impressive in their serried ranks. These ones hadn't been stickered either.
The process of obtaining one was pretty straightforward too. You just insert your key into the docking station, wait for a green light and you're away. The bikes are pretty robust but not uncomfortable. The seat is easy to adjust to the required height, the chain is enclosed so your trousers won't get caught in it, and the seat is padded and sufficiently wide to accommodate most bottoms. They also have built in lights which flash funkily as you ride along, drum brakes which were efficient without throwing you over the handlebars, and a 'basket' at the front for strapping in a bag or coat. They also have a stand.
There are three gears which ranged from the hilariously frenzied - ideal for getting off at lights - to a decent third which made me feel I could actually get the beast moving at a decent pace. I was actually able to overtake a few people on their own bikes. They were probably in a more leisurely frame of mind than me as I raced to the next docking station to ensure I stayed within the 30 minute free window. It's actually remarkably easy to do as the stations are thick on the ground in central London. There were also plenty of bikes at all stations apart from Clerkenwell Road where only two were left. Maybe this is due to the difficulty of hiring the bikes. Unless you have a key (not that difficult to apply for and they only cost £3) you still can't use the bikes. I'm sure the casual use scheme will be up and running by summer and by then I can't imagine it will be so easy to get hold of a bike, on a sunny Sunday afternoon for example.
I did go a bit bananas on the first leg with the result that when I descended the bike my legs were as jellyish as Simon Pegg's character in Run Fat Boy Run (filmed partly in Dalston actually) after his first spinning class. I took it easier after that and cycled from Kingsland Road to Borough Market, then on to the Royal Festival Hall for lunch before heading back through the West End, Bloomsbury, Old Street and back to Falkirk Street.
The overriding sensation was how being on a bike really shrinks the city. It was Saturday so traffic was probably lighter, but I was getting around much quicker than I would have done on any other mode of transport. Also, although the bike is hardly a design classic, I didn't feel as much of a plonker as I thought I would, and saw lots of other people on Boris bikes.
Overall, I can't think of much negative to say, apart from the fact that they don't extend very far into East London. If Boris really does intend to be a mayor of the whole city and not just the West part, I hope that this changes very quickly. There should already be a stream of them leading up to the Olympic site to get people used to the idea of visiting what is for many a strange part of town. Let's be 'aving 'em!