As the long-anticipated launch of dockless bike share draws near, ofo have kindly allowed CycleSheffield to borrow one of the distinctively yellow bikes to take it for a test ride ahead of the city-wide launch.
What are the bikes like?
Aside from the cheerful colour, the first thing I noticed was how much it seemed like a relatively normal bike. They’re sturdy and certainly heavier than most ordinary bikes, but it doesn’t feel like you’re pedalling a small tank like some of the older generation of public hire bikes. Everything’s recognisable and easy to use, with just a few curiosities that need further investigation. Chief among these is the ring lock which is key to the dockless experience, allowing bike to be unlocked and ridden away from anywhere. More on that, later…
Bits and Bobs
The bikes have a host of well-designed features that make them simple and easy to use. The grips are ergonomic rubber and are comfortable, but they’re also a little bit narrow, especially the left hand which incorporates a simple bell, taking up a bit more space. The seatpost can be adjusted effortlessly using a handy lever under the saddle, which is an improvement on the usual ‘quick release’. There’s also a separate carry handle at the rear of the seat.
The bikes come with an incredibly useful front rack/basket that’s ideal for carrying a bag. This makes cycling with a few bits and bobs a lot easier, especially for casual users. The maximum load is 5kg which should be plenty for most trips, but the added weight can affect the steering so it’s something to be aware of when you set off. My only grumble would be that the basket isn’t very deep, so a fixed bungee cord would be a useful addition.
The lights are built-in, which is excellent and means you can just hop on and ride away no matter the time of day. The front in powered by a dynamo hub, and the rear a solar powered and both are entirely adequate and should stop you having to worry about carrying your own.
The tyres, whilst inconspicuous enough at first glance, are actually solid rubber and entirely airless. This means that they’re completely puncture proof, which should provide some peace of mind and you can travel along, knowing that even the cratered moonscape that is Chesterfield Road won’t leave you deflated. Most of the time I could barely tell the difference, and the bike rolled smoothly and comfortably on newly laid surfaces, but when the road was bumpy, it was noticeable.
Some of the bikes provided in similar hire schemes have been criticised for being too small for the average British user and ofo, acknowledging this, have tried to cater accordingly. I found, however, that even with the seatpost at its highest, the bike seemed a bit too small – not a huge problem on a quick pootle to the shops , but after cycling for a few miles it was noticeable. At 6 ft, I’m not excessively tall so some larger bikes would be welcome.
It’s hard to get excited about brakes (I’m sure there will be exceptions out there!), but suffice to say they’re pretty good. There’s a noticeable difference between the powerful front Shimano roller brake and the lackadaisical rear drum brake, but in any case you’ll stop just fine, even flying down a steep hill.
Speaking of which… In recognition of the city’s topographical diversity, the company have reduced the weight of the bikes to help lighten the load. Whilst most dockless schemes have until now opted for single speed bikes ofo have, sensibly, introduced a geared version for the Sheffield market. The Shimano 3-speed hub gears change fairly smoothly and ensures a hassle free ride, resulting is a bike that is light enough to ride comfortably on flat and gentle inclines. The gearing caters for some variation in comfort levels, and is great for stopping and starting at lights, but with only three gears, it’s not effortless and I still found some of the slopes around the city centre a challenge. The journey from the station provided the first test. South Street (for the photo opportunity as much as the hill) and pedestrian-thronged Howard Street were achievable, and cycling up to Crookesmoor was fine but a bit of a slog. For the scheme to be a success, it’s essential that the bikes are easy to use on Sheffield’s undulating streets, not least considering the likely demand for journeys in some of Sheffield’s hillier parts, but also to ensure the bikes are accessible to a more diverse range of people, including those who might not currently cycle. At the time of writing, ofo were testing out different gear ratios to help combat the issue, so we should be able to provide an update soon.
How easy is it to use?
Ofo’s arrival in Sheffield will see a fleet of initially 500 bikes across the city, available to anyone with ofo’s mobile app, which unlocks the bike using a QR code scanner. The company have worked with Sheffield City Council and other stakeholders to ensure that key locations will be covered, such as the railway station, hospitals and other transport, learning and employment hubs. The bikes can be used to cycle anywhere, but must be brought back within a designated, ‘geo-fenced’ area, initially covering the city centre and surrounding inner suburbs, and reaching out along the Don Valley. A later phase should increase this to cover most of the city.
Downloading the app and registering is simple and, unlike many other operators, ofo doesn’t require a deposit, making it all the more easy to set off on your journey. As the scheme hasn’t launched yet, we weren’t able to review fully the user experience in Sheffield, such as finding a bike at rush hour, whether bikes seems to collect in specific locations, or how ofo deal with issues and maintenance. Once the scheme is up and running, we’ll be sure to provide an update.