Sarah Sands: Saddle up for the short ride to communism

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The Independent Online

There are a few potential downsides to the Boris Bikes that arrived in London on Friday, and critics spotted them all. "Stand by for massive amount of suing", "fair-weather cyclists", "a financial fiasco", "a clever ploy by [the sponsor] Barclays bank to ensure we forget their greed and fat-cat bonuses and pensions". Helmets! Hoodies! Hubris!

And yet Friday dawned full of delight. First the appearance overnight of shiny, sturdy bicycles of little glamour but much charm. Then the puzzled chuckles as the citizens of London tried to work them out.

It is a lesson in public campaigns that you can explain a thousand times and people will take no notice until the moment is upon them. These are bikes in racks. You take one, ride it where you like and leave it in another rack. Simple.

I watched from my office window the comic succession of Londoners peering at the bikes, walking round them, jabbing their keys until they found the right slot and learning through trial and error the correct way to lift the cycles.

For some reason, women turned out to be a bit slower at cracking this and men observed from a distance, pained but excited, waiting for the moment when they could step in.

After a trial run I locked a bike in a nearby rack and tried hopelessly to remove it again. A small boy in large glasses stopped to watch me. "Try a different rack," he said. I smiled tightly, and moved to the next bike. When it didn't work, I tried not to look too triumphant.

"It is your key," he said. "I don't think so," I sighed and strutted off to consult one of the scheme's advisers. "It is your key," he said. "You need to wait five minutes."

A good-natured taxi driver who had stopped to watch the sideshow told me he dreaded to think what would happen when the happy and the hapless went careering out into London traffic.

A young woman who was working for the bike-hire project said stoutly that she had managed the ride from SW7. "That's about 100 yards," said the taxi driver gently.

I saw a woman in a burka hoisting herself joyfully on to the saddle, I saw both sexes, all backgrounds, City guys and shop workers. Even advertising whizzes would not dare depict this universality and yet here it was, the real thing: the great family of cyclists.

Already the Boris Bikes have altered the character of the capital city. When I first came to live here, 30 years ago, a cyclist was a figure of curiosity. London was not built for cyclists. But our cycling has evolved in its own distinctive way. The thrill of London cycling is to dart among the rest of the vehicles, rather than be sealed off. As Boris warned his new cycling fraternity: "Be assertive!"

The bikes are of, course, brilliant for the mayor. Anti-capitalists complain that they promote the sponsor Barclays, but far more, they embody Boris. The amateur cyclist, helmetless, possibly on the phone, friendly, is now the hero of the city. We see newspaper photographs of that other public cyclist show-off, Jon Snow, ignoring every red light or road sign on his way home and we laugh.

The serious Lycra cyclists have had it their way for too long. I don't want the Tour de France. I just want to reach my local restaurant.

Boris, weathervane of politics, calls his bikes a "communist experiment". Public property, founded on an ideal. Who cares about the national coalition? Politics is topsy turvy in London and suddenly much more fun.