It’s been 25 years or more since I last rode a bicycle when I was a teenager. Cycling proficiency is a dim memory of riding along a road painted onto the tarmac playground with an arm stuck out to indicate I was about to turn.
It doesn’t take long to walk across Belfast. Yet the ten minutes from the Waterfront Hall to the Cathedral Quarter could be halved if who wheels took the strain. And in dry weather, biking across to the Odyssey would be preferable to the windy walk over the bridges.
Yesterday at lunchtime and I trialled the new Coca Cola Zero Belfast Bikes and discovered the joy of simultaneously sticking my arm out to change lane, looking over your shoulder, steering straight ahead and keeping on this side of the grave … all at the same time.
So what 15 things do you need to know?
1. 300 bikes will be available from 6am on Monday morning (27 April) at 30 docking stations across the city centre. Later phases may widen the reach of the scheme.
2. Registration is online. Visitors to Belfast can pay £5 to access the bikes for 3 days. A yearly subscription is £20 and you’ll be sent a smart card you can swipe at one of the terminals to identify yourself.
3. On Sunday at noon, expect to see a grand peloton of Belfast Bikes streaming out of the City Hall gates and cycling around the block. Customers who’ve already paid up for the year have received invitations to participate.
4. You can hire a bike between 6am and midnight. It’s as simple as …
Swipe your annual card or tap in your mobile number along with the number of the bike you want to hire at the solar-powered rental terminals beside the bike stations and it’ll be unlocked within seconds.
You can also use the nextbike app (iOS or Android) to hire a bike. It’ll show you bike stations near you along with the number of bikes available to hire. Select the bike, tap the buttons and the bike will be released. The Belfast Bikes website also allows you to rent/return a bike within the My Account pages.
If the terminal is down and you don’t have access to the smartphone app there’s a phone number on the back of the bikes 034 3357 1551 you can ring from your mobile to hire them.
5. Once you’ve registered, the first 30 minutes is free. Then it’s 50p for the next half hour and a further £1 for each hour up to 4 hours. After that it gets really expensive to have exclusive access to a specific bike. The scheme is set up to encourage you to make short journeys around the city centre: take a bike, ride somewhere, dock it, and when you’re leaving, hire another bike to make the journey back.
6. To leave a bike back, you wheel it into an empty bike rack (a disc on the left hand side of the front wheel slots into the bike rack’s clip) and the light on the rack turns green and the bike is locked in place. If there isn’t an empty slot, the terminal will show you the nearest bike rack with a space, or you can use the combination lock to secure the bike somewhere near to the bike rack and use the app or phone number to register it as returned.
What’s it like?
Jeff from Belfast Times and I set off from the City Hall at lunchtime on Wednesday to pay our respects to the Big Fish, navigate the Bin Lane (aka, the bike lane on Upper Arthur Street that is so often blocked by bins or delivery vehicles) and return to the bike station in front of Donegall Square North. You can watch part of our adventure in Geoff’s video.
7. The bikes are sturdy. These are not lightweight racers. They’ve got 3 gears and having pedalled furiously for a while I finally figured out how to rotate the gear selector on the right handlebar to get into 2nd gear and cycling became a lot less effort! The bike has lights that activate when you pedal and you can adjust the height of the
saddle. 8. There’s room on the front for a small bag. You might be able to tie a bag onto the back. 9. Belfast city centre is mercifully flat [Ed – so you so you won’t get wheely tyred?] and lunchtime traffic is quite light. 10. From walking and driving around this area of Belfast I thought I knew the streets like the back of my hand. But it was very different riding on two wheels surrounded by faster moving cars and buses, and needing to read signs and look for markings I’d never had to pay attention to before. 11. It’s very confusing where you can cycle and where you can’t. Belfast is full of bus lanes, bus-only streets, streets that have been partially pedestrianised and national bike routes. You’re not allowed to cycle on the footpath. But can you cycle down between Chichester Street between the High Court and Laganside Courts? Can you turn right off Victoria Street at the Albert Clock and take a short cut up the bus lane that runs in front of McHughs? And when you cross the road (using the Toucan crossing with its bike light) at Queens Bridge, can why are there no obvious cycle markings on the other side of the road when you reach the Beacon of Hope? 12. The Bin Lane on Upper Arthur Street was clear when we cycled through, though on the way to the City Hall it wasn’t! 13. The Belfast Bikes Welcome Park has some reminders about bike safety and the cycling-related sections of the Highway Code are worth a scan. But if you’re planning to cycle certain routes frequently, it would be good to take your first ride when it’s not too busy and you’re not in a rush to get your bearings and figure out a plan. 14. With an influx of inexperienced cyclists like myself on the roads over the next weeks and months, hopefully drivers will realise that they need to treat these amateurs with care. Otherwise, increasing the number of cyclists on the streets of Belfast will increase the number of accidents. 15. My backside is sore. Maybe that’ll ease with further cycling. I’m certainly looking forward to being able to scoot across town faster than on foot and a lot cheaper than in the car. Maybe it’ll even count as exercise … seat