Road Test: London’s new cycle hire bikes

On 30 July, 6,000 bicycles will be available for hire on the streets of London. Registration costs £1 a day, £5 a week or £45 a year and the bicycles are free for the first 30 minutes, then a rising scale of £1 for the first hour, £4 for the first 90 minutes, £15 up to three hours. The bicycles will be distributed across 400 docking stations. So what are the bikes like?

The basics

The frame is sturdy aluminium, with a low step-through and an integrated hybrid front rack/basket. Shimano 3-speed internal hub gear, drum brakes and internal hub dynamo powering LED front and twin rear lights. 26 inch wheels fitted with Kenda balloon tyres.

The good

The frame is strong and has a low step-through which will be easy to mount and dismount for most riders. The components are designed to be tamper-proof. This has been done by adding housing units to cover all the electrical and mechanical cabling, a sturdy metal chain case and all fittings secured with hex bolts requiring a special recessed key. The chain is zinc-coated and lube-free so it shouldn’t mark your clothes. Wheel valve caps are locked and can only be operated by the maintenance team. The tyres are filled with nitrogen gas, which means natural deflation will be slower than with air. The handlebar features basic instructions on brake function and a nice diagram warning against going up the inside of lorries and other large vehicles. The LED lights have stand lights to ensure they stay on when stopped at traffic lights, or when waiting to turn right. The seat pillar is long and caters for riders from 5 feet tall to 6 feet 5 inches. It has a height scale so riders can set it quickly to the correct level. No lock is provided – on balance a good thing since the locks on the Brussels and Paris bikes are flimsy and easily broken.

The bad

Setting aside the weight of the bike, which is what you’d expect on a bike built primarily for durability, I found that the gearing is too low. A 39 tooth chain ring and a 23 tooth rear sprocket on a Shimano 3-speed hub gear gives gearing with 32, 44 and 60 gear inches. This means that at 90 pedal revolutions per minute, your top gear will give you a speed of just under 16 miles per hour. If you can spin at a Rollapaluza-level 120 revolutions per minute, you’ll be able to get to 21 mph. I found myself spinning out on the descent of Waterloo Bridge. By contrast, the Vill’o cycle hire bikes in Brussels feature a 7-speed hub and a wider range of gears. The rear lights are quite low, right at the bottom of the seat stays. This lower than lights on most other bikes. This might make the hire bicycles harder to see, when moving through traffic. It would have been nice to have a light on the back of the rear mudguard as well. The pedals are weak, plastic models and won’t last long. Some people found the phat saddle quite uncomfortable. The saddle angle is not adjustable. The tyres are made by Kenda and are cheaper than the industry standard, puncture-proof Schwalbes. From an environmental perspective, steel would have been a better choice than aluminium, which is notoriously energy intensive to manufacture.

The verdict

TfL have put a lot of thought into making a solid bike that will resist all but the most determined vandals. This is good, since broken bikes plague the Paris Velib’ system. It’ll not win any prizes for looks, nor for speed, but it’s functional and will suit most riders. My only major gripe is the low gearing. You probably won’t want to ride them for more than the free first half hour and this, after all, is exactly the point.