PARIS (AP) -- It was a perfect Paris moment: The rain cleared, the sky filled with blue, and I was flying across town on a bicycle, past the Louvre, along the Seine River, through a public garden and up a cobblestone market street.
As a tourist in Paris, it's easy to spend at least an hour every day in the Metro, but sometimes you need to come up for air. After taking a test run of Paris City Hall's inexpensive, easy-to-use new bike service, I pledged to spend less time this summer in Paris' underworld and more time out joyriding.
Starting July 15, more than 10,600 bikes will be posted all over town at 750 stations, and the numbers of both will nearly double by the year's end. The great news for tourists is that City Hall has made sure the service is convenient for tourists, not just Parisians, by offering short-term passes and access in eight languages.
Velib', as the service is called, is a word made up by blending together "velo" (bike) and "liberte" (liberty). The idea is flexibility: You grab a bike from any station around town -- they pop up every 330 yards or so -- and park it at any other station. That means you don't have to haul the bike back to your hotel if your feet hurt or it starts raining.
Velib' is Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's latest effort to make Paris more green and bike-friendly, after ripping up car lanes to install bike paths -- much to the angst of some drivers, who complain there are more bottlenecks now.
Today, there are 371 kilometres (230 miles) of bike lanes in Paris, and Paris City Hall says the amount of bike traffic has increased nearly 50 percent since 2001. Paris isn't a paradise for bikers yet -- there's still a lot of car traffic and confusing one-way streets -- but a ride is no longer the obstacle course it once was.
By launching the bike program, Paris is following in the footsteps of European cities including Stockholm, Vienna, Barcelona, Brussels and Copenhagen. The German railway system has a bicycle rental program, where you unlock rental bikes at rail stations using your cell phone. In New York's trendy Soho neighbourhood, a five-day experiment began July 7 offering free use of bikes for 30 minutes; cyclists provide credit card information to make sure they bring the bikes back. A service in Lyon, France, has also been a hit, inspiring Paris to try it too. In Lyon, every bike is used seven to 15 times a day, and the average number of rides a day is upward of 15,000.
The Paris plan already has more than 6,000 annual subscribers, though it hasn't started yet. A yearlong pass is euro29 (US$39.50), while a one-day pass costs a euro - about euro1 (US$1.36) - and a seven-day ticket goes for five euros - about euro5 (US$6.80).
Still, you'll wind up paying slightly more than that, if ever you keep the bike for more than half an hour at a time.
The first half-hour after you pick up a bike is always free, with an extra euro tacked on for the first additional half-hour, two euros for the second and four euros for every extra half-hour from then on.
The sliding price scale, conceived to keep the bikes in rotation, means that if you want to spend a leisurely day riding through the gardens of the Bois de Boulogne, it would be cheaper to rent a bike from a shop.
But if you want to stop at the Louvre, then head to the boutiques of the Saint Germain neighbourhood for some shopping, then crash at your hotel in eastern Paris -- with the flexibility to take a bus or the Metro instead if you're tired -- then Velib' is your best bet.
The bikes, themselves, however, are rather utilitarian - three-speed touring bikes, weighing nearly 50 pounds (23 kilograms) each.
Here's how the program works:
Stop in at any station around town with your credit card. They accept American Express, Visa and MasterCard, among others.
Each station comes with an electronic vending machine with instructions in eight languages. Select "English," and the machine will walk you through the instructions. Along the way, you must authorize Velib' to deduct euro150 (US$205) from your card if the bike is not returned within 24 hours. (For a one-year subscription, you have to sign up online or by mail to use the service, but for a one- or seven-day pass, you can do it at the machine.)
Once you've picked a bike, you have 60 seconds to push a button on the stand and pull the bike free. Adjust the seat, and you're ready to go. The bike has a basket and a built-in lock, so you can secure it if you need to run into a shop or make a quick stop. For longer stops, you'll save money if you return the bike to a station.
To put the bike back, you slide it into the stand, and you'll hear a beep and see a blinking light if it's attached right. Be sure to push it in firmly.
One drawback for the tourist: Since the stations are not manned, there's no one to ask for help with directions, so bring a map and be prepared to stop a passer-by if you get lost.
On my test ride, I did a reconnaissance mission for what I would consider the perfect summer afternoon-into-evening, when the sun stays out until after 10 p.m.
The itinerary: Pick up a bike near your hotel and head to the Palais Royal gardens, a quiet rose-filled square in the middle of town, for a coffee or a stroll. From there, head by foot to nearby rue Montorgueil, a market street where you can buy cheese, baguettes and a bottle of wine. Grab a bike at the rue des Petits Carreaux station and park it at the Pont Saint Louis station near the Seine, and look for a spot on the quays for your picnic blanket.
If You Go...
-- PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Check http://www.velib.paris.fr/ to see a list of bike stations. (The Web site is expected to offer English translations by mid-July.)
-- NO KIDS: Riders need to be 14 or up, and 5 feet tall. For now, there are no baby seats available.
-- HELMETS: The program doesn't offer helmets. Bring one from home, or pick one up at a bike shop. Try sporting shop Decathlon, 17 boulevard de la Madeleine, 011-33-1-5535-9755, or Les Velos parisiens, 3,4 and 5 rue de l'Abbe Gregoire, 011-33-1-4544-7297.
-- SAFETY TIPS: One confusing aspect of riding or driving in France is who gets priority at intersections. If you're cruising along a street and there's no indication to the contrary, you have to yield to drivers who are coming from streets on your right. Be sure to keep an eye out -- cars tend to leap out of nowhere.
On many big boulevards, bikes are authorized to ride in the bus lanes. But buses tend to whiz by just inches (centimeters) away from you. If you try it, be very careful.
-- STOLEN BIKES: If the bike is stolen, you have to call 011-33-1-3079-7930 to let Velib' know within 24 hours, then file a police report. In that case, euro35 (US$48) is deducted from your card, not the full euro150 (US$205).
-- ROUTES TO TRY: Every Sunday the quays of the Seine from the Bastille to the Eiffel Tower are open to walkers, inline-skaters and bikers, and closed to cars. On Friday nights at 10 p.m., a parade of bikes departs from Avenue Victoria for a ride around the city. For more information (in French) on that ride, try http://www.parisrandovelo.com.
-- RENTING A BIKE: If you're planning a longer ride, Velib' will be expensive. Try Paris Velo-Rent a Bike, at 2 rue du Fer a Moulin, 011-33-1-4337-5922.