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Ridden and rated: Ultimate guide to London’s bike-sharing rental bicycles

29 May 2020
Verdict:

Which scheme has the best bikes? We tried each to find out

With bike shops selling out and public transport best avoided, London’s fleet of rental bikes could be the solution for safe commuting around the capital during - and beyond - coronavirus.

London has long had its own TfL backed bike rental system. However, private dockless alternatives first appeared on the capital’s streets in 2017 courtesy of Obike. Mistaking London for Copenhagen, since then several schemes have come and gone, victims of theft and vandalism.

Happily, from the wreckage of these early schemes have emerged a host of new operators offering better bikes and an all-round more enjoyable experience.

Jump, Lime, Beryl and Freebike have replaced early firms Ofo, Urbo, Mobike and Obike. With the exception of Beryl, these newer operators have also gone electric. Making the experience of riding a bike robust enough to be left on the city’s mean streets far more pleasurable, the flipside is somewhat increased cost per journey.

Just as the operators vary in size, so do the areas they cover. It might, therefore, pay to download multiple apps if you want to find the nearest bike.

During the current period - remember to disinfect your hands before and after riding, and consider using gloves.

We’ve taken a quick spin the current crop of bikes to rank each along with giving info on cost and availability.

Jump by Uber

Cost: £1 to unlock, then £0.12 per minute (plus fees for parking outside of selected zones)

Area covered: London - north of the river from Shepherds Bush, west to Stratford - See map

Drive: electric, Colour: red, Frame material: aluminium, Weight: high, Gearing: Sturmey Archer 3-speed, Brakes: mechanical disc, Tyres: air-filled, Additional: bucket-style basket

While the morals of parent company Uber might raise questions, mechanically Jump’s bright red bikes are awesome. Very futuristic looking, they’re heavy and stately, yet the motor response is lively enough to make them a fun ride. This is perhaps why they’re so popular with the trendy looking young people I see out and about. 

Using indestructible air-filled Schwalbe tyres they roll along nicely, while the unbranded mechanical disc brakes are more than enough to slow them down. With the motor located at the front, at the back an incongruously old school Sturmey Archer three-speed hub provides the gears.

With a large and very secure bucket-style front basket, a slightly less secure holder on the bar can accommodate your phone if you want to use it for navigation. Keeping you tidy is a fully-enclosed rear mudguard while helping the bike while parked is a robust kickstand. 

With everything slickly integrated, even the most creative thief would struggle to dismember the Jump’s design. For this reason, they seem one of the least vandalised. They’re also one of the few machines to feature a cable lock for attaching the bike to a stand as sometimes mandated when parking.

Cyclist bike rating

Speed: 9 
Weight: 5  
Robustness: 9 
Ride: 8

Overall: 7.75

Lime

Cost: £1 to unlock, then 15p per minute

Area covered: London wide, Milton Keynes

Drive: electric, Colour: green, Frame material: aluminium, Weight: low, Gearing: single-speed, Brakes: Shimano roller, Tyres: solid, Additional: enclosed basket

Making a bid for world domination, in the US Lime has recently brought out Uber-owned Jump. However, in the UK, the two continue as separate entities. With their wire baskets and rear rack-mounted battery packs, Lime’s bikes are definitely the nerdier looking of the two. A fair bit lighter, their handling is a tad livelier, although the motor response is a little less nippy. Generally more conventional, the bike uses a single gear and a mix of Shimano dynamo and roller brake parts.

The backswept bars are comfy, and if you’re lucky, will contain a simple adjustable mount for holding your smartphone. Although it ensures you won’t find a bike with a flat, the Lime bike’s solid tyres can be jarring and don’t inspire the same confidence on bumpy ground or when cornering in the wet.

With a rear nurses’ lock and an exposed lithium-ion power pack, both the bikes and their batteries have proved popular with thieves. Conventional mudguards and lighting are also prone to both accidental and deliberate damage. That said, much of the fleet seems to be in decent condition due to diligent levels of ongoing maintenance. 

Cyclist bike rating

Speed: 7  
Weight: 6 
Robustness: 5  
Ride: 6

Overall: 6

Freebike

Cost: First 30 minutes free, then £1 every 10 mins, plus destination dependent charge (Free at virtual stations, in permitted zones £1, or £2 in the City of London).

Areas Covered: Central London, Westminster east to Whitechapel, plus south of the river around Southwark - Map here

Drive: electric, Colour: black/yellow, Frame material: steel, Weight: medium, Gearing: single-speed, Brakes: mechanical disc, Tyres: Air-filled, Additional: n/a

Freebike is clearly keen on hammering its upstart status. Sporting slogans like, ‘I’m electric ride me’, this proves decent advice as the bikes are excellent. Conventional looking, their steel frames are still super-robust.

Very confidence-inspiring to ride, this is helped by huge pneumatic tyres. Ensuring none of this drags is a full-bodied level of electrical assistance, similar to that offered by the Jump bike, it’s no different to a consumer-style system. With a single gear, as long as the bike has charge, this is more than adequate.

Mechanical disc brakes provide consistent and powerful braking, while the plastic mudguards provide good coverage and are less prone to damage than many we’ve seen. Meaning we’ve yet to see a Freebike out of commission, this may be because there are currently fewer in circulation than other brands.

Driving the whole assembly, the bike’s smart power pack allows Freebike’s service team to quickly swap in recharged batteries. It also displays live charge level and range via the app. Meaning you won’t arrive to find a flat battery, it also doubles as a phone or card reader to unlock the bike. A fast and smart option.

Cyclist bike rating

Speed: 9  
Weight: 6  
Robustness: 9  
Ride: 8

Overall: 8

TfL Santander

Cost: £2 for 24 hour access. First 30 minutes free, then £2 for every 30 minutes

Areas Covered: 750 docking stations London wide - map here 

Drive: non-electric, Colour: blue/red, Frame material: aluminium, Weight: medium, Gearing: Shimano Nexus 3-speed, Brakes: Shimano Nexus roller, Tyres: air-filled, Additional: tethered to docking station network

Despite requiring you to rely on your legs alone, Transport for London’s Santander-sponsored bikes are pretty heavy. However, their tank-like tendencies are mitigated by very low gearing and a smooth, comfy ride. 

Having outlasted many of their early free-market rivals, they’re incredibly reliable and solid feeling. Maintained by a large squad of service engineers, the odds of finding a bike in anything other than perfect fettle are also low.

With three gears and powerful brakes propelling and stopping the bike’s weighty chassis is surprisingly easy, while air-filled pneumatic tyres ensure a composed ride with plenty of grip and little rattling.

The saddle adjusts with a simple quick release and can be positioned higher than most other bikes here which is good news for taller riders.

At the front of the bike, a Beryl laser light alerts drivers and pedestrians to your presence, while the massive integrated fork, basket and handlebar assembly look like it’d survive a nuclear strike. Easy going, yet ponderous in their progress and steering, they’re well suited to gentle mid-distance commuting.

Cyclist bike rating

Speed: 6  
Weight: 6  
Robustness: 9  
Ride: 8

Overall: 7.25

Beryl

Cost: £1 unlocking fee, then 5p per minute (Parking outside bay +£2)

Areas Covered: City of London and Hackney, Bournemouth & Poole, Hereford

Drive: non-electric, Colour: silver and teal, Frame material: aluminium, Weight: low, Gearing: Sturmey Archer three-speed, Tyres: air-filled, Brakes: Sturmey Archer drum, Additional: laser lights

The Beryl bikes strike a good balance between being robust and vandal-resistant and not weighing a ton. With small 24-inch wheels and pneumatic tyres, they’re nimble yet stick to the road.

Bucking the trend for electric-assistance, their users are left to supply all the propulsion themselves. Nonetheless, they’re pleasingly efficient. Using ultra-reliable Sturmey-Archer three-speed gearing and drum brakes they shouldn’t require too much attention from Beryl’s team of mechanics either.

Originally known for its safety lights, the bikes feature the brand’s smart brake-indicator light on the back. This glows when you slow down to alert any following traffic. On the front of the bike is a decent sized rack that’ll easily hold a large backpack.

Sprouting from between the bars is a card reader that’ll recognise your phone and allows for unlocking and tracking. At the back, a nurses’ lock keeps the bike where you leave it. Generally feeling quite a lot like a conventional bike, despite the lack of assistance, we’d be happy to use one as our regular commuter or errand-runner.

Cyclist bike rating

Speed: 7  
Weight: 7  
Robustness: 7  
Ride: 7

Overall: 7

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