Stendahl dedicated his books to "Les Happy Few," the small number of readers who would get it. Velib (short for "velo en libertÃ©"), the one-way, short-term bike rental program in Paris, is like that. You still can't get it unless you have a French bankcard or a transit pass issued by a local authority that requires an attestation by your French employer.
No short-term exceptions for the 25 million annual visitors to Paris, many of whom would no doubt love to pedal around for an hour or two. Les Happy Many! Unless you have an American Express card.
Launched three years ago, Velib started with 10,000 bikes on the street, twice as many bike stations as Metro stops. The price is right: The first half-hour is free, the second half-hour is 1 euro, with increasingly steep rates thereafter. Idea being that you get where you're going and return the bike to the nearest "station." Think of it as a one-way Zipcar rental.
Summertime lunch (pasta, Frascati) with my Paris pal, and I carry on about the failures of Velib to accept Visa and Mastercard's striped credit cards, as if it were the end of western civilization. At a Velib station near the Arc de Triomphe, Paris Pal swipes his Amex. The gates of Paradise swing open, and a three-speed bike is released from its stanchion.
Blazer and shoulder bag into the bike's basket, and I'm off in the mid-afternoon sun, no helmet (this would be a problem in Seattle), down the bone-jarring cobblestones of the Champs ElysÃ©es, right at Le Fouquet's, past the George V and the American Cathedral down to the Place de l'Alma and across to the Left Bank, passing directly above the Princess Di crash site.
I can't believe I'm cycling past the Eiffel Tower!
Once I'm on the Boulevard St. Germain, there's a dedicated lane shared by bikes, buses, and taxis (no "cycle tracks" here). Stick to the right and you're fine, they say. Unlike my bicycle demeanor in Seattle, I dutifully stop for traffic lights and don't climb the curbs. An 80-year-old guy gives me the thumbs up. "A bit heavy, but practical," he says. "Bonne visite," says a young Frenchwoman. A hot, 45-minute ride, and the bike reattaches to a rack near my hotel. Paris Pal, I owe you a euro!
OK, you Fremont Naked Bike Riders &mdash and you Vancouver bicyclists, too: I get it now.Would I do this in Seattle? In a heartbeat.