Most big cities tend to be hell-on-wheels for cyclists. Inconsiderate town planning plus stressed and speeding commuters usually makes for a crash-likely scenario. Bearing in mind the terrible (and deserved) reputation that French motorists have it comes as quite the surprise to discover that Paris is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world.

What: The Vélib’ (a combination of the word vélo and liberté, ‘freedom bicycle’) scheme was first launched in 2007 and has become a runaway success with some 20,000 bikes zooming around the Paris streets. The scheme is easy to use, you just need a credit or debit card with 240USD available which is ‘held’ as a deposit. American non-chip card users can pre-register online or try using AmEx. 

How does it work?: Follow the simple on-screen instructions at one of the Vélib stands to get your pass. It’s just €1.70 for a 24-hour pass or €8 for a week. Keep the printed card which you get when you first use it as that has a code which you tap in each time you want to take a bike. You can take a bike as often as you like and your first 30 minutes are free. The game, of course, is to return the bike before you get charged. 

Any tips: Got a smart phone? Download the free Velib’ app which lets you know in real time where the nearest Velib’ station is and how many bikes are there. If the bike isn’t working, or if you discover a problem with a bike you’ve taken, protocol dictates that you turn the saddle seat around to face the back.

So – now you know everything you need to know, where to go?

There are cycle lanes everywhere and – thrillingly – there doesn’t seem to be a feeling of aggression between pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers in the city, which makes for very happy cycling. My personal recommendation would be to discover the city as few see it, by getting up just before sunrise. One morning I rode out from near Bastille, just in time to see the sky turn from inky black to peachy-pink apricot. There were hardly any cars, barely a soul on the streets, just the occasional reveller returning after a long and late night. I freewheeled down the rue de Rivoli, slowing to stop outside the Louvre. I took a left to see its glass pyramid and was amazed; no one there at all. I’d never seen it without hundreds of tourists milling around. The first golden rays of sun hadn’t reached it yet, licking instead at the tops of the museum walls.  

From there, I whizzed back down Rivoli and gleefully circled the Place de la Concorde, (a road that’s usually too busy to ride) before bumping down the Champs Elysées, my bike bell dinging as I rode over the cobbles, towards the Arc de Triomphe. Looping back down Avenue Marceau, I rode towards the Seine, crossing it at the Place de L’Alma and following the Quai Branly towards my final destination. The Eiffel Tower. Again, it was deserted, an almost unheard of phenomenon and one that most visitors to the city will never experience. But that’s the joy of the Velibe. I sped across the city, catching its most beautiful gems from the vantage point of my saddle. Sure, there was the pain of the early morning, but oh! the gain of that rare chance to be alone with some of the most beautiful buildings on earth.