Dealing in wheeling

Budget Rent-a-Car now offers fold-up bikes as well as motors. Nice idea, shame about the cost, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel
Only pounds 12 per day - including collision damage waiver. That's the new bargain vehicle being offered by Budget Rent-a-Car. The catch is: it's a bicycle. In the most imaginative move for years in vehicle rental (admittedly not an industry known for monumental strokes of inspiration), one of Britain's leading car rental companies has introduced the Budget Bootbike. In the West End of London, at Manchester airport or in many other locations around the country, you can hire the fold-up mountain bike, with or without a car.

The list of reservations I have about the scheme, and the machine, is almost as long as the rental agreement that comes with the bike. But the great thing is that it exists at all.

First, book your bike. Staff who answer the free reservations number (0800 626063) are well briefed on the new arrival to the fleet. When I turned up to collect the thing, it transpired that the staff had not rented a bike out before; so the experience was perhaps stickier than it might have been.

You do not, of course, need a driving licence to rent a bike (I wasn't even asked to show my cycling proficiency badge). This presents the staff with a problem. How do they know that you're not some evil bike-snatcher, who will fail to return the garish orange and two-tone blue bicycle? We discussed at length how I might prove where I lived. Eventually, after having offered a large cash deposit, I was allowed to rely upon a combination of my Youth Hostels Association membership and a business card.

Compared with that kerfuffle, putting the bike together was a breeze. It arrives, unsurprisingly, in a garish orange and two-tone blue bag. You get a selection of tools to help you fold it into shape, plus a decent helmet and a pathetic lock. The latter is a puny wire padlock, price about pounds 3; in the rough part of south London, where I live, even the hamsters could chew through it. No puncture repair kit, because there is no danger of a puncture - the tyres are solid. All this for pounds 12 a day, or pounds 55 a week.

A bargain? That depends. Certainly the bicycle itself is nothing to pedal home about. Made in Taiwan by Dahon, it is a weighty 13kg, and not the sort of mountain bike I would fancy cycling anywhere more mountainous than Norfolk. Even on a test run to Heathrow, my usual journey time was increased by 25 per cent. The solid tyres perform well as long as you stay in a straight line on smooth surfaces - but these are rare commodities in the real world. Though the bike had 21 gears, the 15-mile run was heavy work.

The trip back was much easier, because I took the Piccadilly Line to test how friendly the folded Bootbike is for those of us without cars. Answer: surprisingly convenient. It folds into the size of a large suitcase, and even at rush hour you can take it on the Tube without upsetting commuters. Because the folding mechanism is so simple, you need not faff around for long at the other end.

How comforting to know that you can walk straight out of the airport and climb aboard a bicycle, even if it is a bit of a boneshaker. Now that the principle has been established, I hope that other companies will follow suit, and perhaps offer one or two bikes that will not earn ridicule from the serious cycling contingent - the British-made Brompton would be a fine idea. One-way rentals are not permitted at present, but could offer excellent opportunities for people tackling parts of the Sustrans national cycle network.

The only other problem is price. The going rate for bike rentals in most parts of Britain is about pounds 6 a day; Budget charges double. And for the price of only two-and-a-half bikes, you can rent a Ford Escort 1.6. I would guess that the capital cost of the car is 100 times that of the bike; if the company is paying more than pounds 100 for each bicycle, it should renegotiate. Before the Bootbike can really accelerate, the price needs to be more cyclist-friendly. But top marks to Budget for trying.