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Sharing Urban Space

City Cycling: Grenoble & Montpellier, France

Right across the world, cities and communities are waking up to the benefits on an integrated cycling culture within their infrastructure plans. The way in which people live their daily lives is hugely impactive on the environment, and seems to be something that here in the UK we often either fail to recognise or simply do very badly; so it was refreshing recently, to visit the South of France and two particular cities that have grasped things and created an urban cycling culture to be proud of. Yes, I know people will argue about London and the 'Boris bikes', but to the best of my knowledge, having lived for most of my 51 years in the UK, there are more cities than simply London. Elsewhere in Europe, and indeed globally, there is clear recognition for cities outside of the capitals, which is why visiting Montpellier and Grenoble in France was so refreshing.

Nestling beneath the Alps, Grenoble is the flattest city in France ... unless of course you venture a few miles outside of the boundaries, where the mountains rise in grandeur. Having settled into a hotel right in the centre of St Hugo's Square, it was time for some exploring. The first thing to notice was the number of brightly painted yellow Pashley style bikes left all over the city. These delightful looking steeds are part of the Grenoble Metro Velo Network and cost the princely sum of 3 Euros a day to hire! Everyone seems to use them, and they flit and fly around the wide lanes, the dedicated cycle ways and across the shared urban spaces and pathways that cross this picturesque city.

Yes, I know it's nestled in the Alps, and benefits from fresh mountain air, but it genuinely is a very clean and fresh city. You don't get that awful nasal dirt that clogs you up in many cities.

Added to this are the myriad of other cycles, safety left in huge cycle parking areas, or simply against railings without the fear of theft that seems to blight UK cyclists, where we have the highest rate of bike theft globally. On one particular evening, we walked to  the nearby city centre park for a free open air concert, noticing that the majority of others seemed to have cycled into the city if the walk was too far. Bike after bike was leant against railings, twenty deep in places, and no-one seemed bothered about possible bike thieves.

The image of the cyclist in Grenoble is likewise across the spectrum, with young skateboarders, office workers, shoppers about town, cool dudes who simply... Well look cool, and the relaxed riders just continually ride in stylish safety as they live their own lifecycle in Grenoble. For visitors, all that's required is to take your passport to the main train station, head to the Velo office and register yourself, pay your fee and start exploring this great French city.

Montpellier benefits from having the largest open square in Europe; a huge expanse of culture, coffee shops and street side cafes where people simply relax and drink in the atmosphere free from traffic, beneath the 30+ degree temperatures that often grace this city.

Unlike the bikes of Grenoble, the Montpellier scheme, the Velomagg scheme, has 51 automatic stations around the city, with over 2000 rental bikes, all similar to the London bikes, and best of all, the price is on a par with the 3 Euros of Grenoble.

There is also a dedicated bike path that runs from the centre of the city to the beaches at Palavas-les-Flots and Carnon, taking about 1 hour or so each way.

If you want a lighter and more nimble bike, take a look at the myriad of cycle hire shops in Montpellier, such as Ville & Velo where you can rent a bike for around 25 Euros a day.

Wandering the old city, where tight lanes lead to nestled courtyards and small squares with cafes, we passed numerous cyclists, including numerous Deliveroo riders. Bikes are leant against cafes, with people in Lycra enjoying a coffee, city goers simply making the most of their two wheeled transport options, and that typical French style that is unique, with cyclists looking like a magazine cover in the carefree and unconscious chic that seems to come naturally.

Returning to the UK, my family are I are lucky. We live on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, the cycling centre of the UK for road and trail riding. Yet we still have a way to go in terms of making urban cycling a part of our everyday life. France is seemingly leading the way, which is only right, as the home to the greatest bike race, but others are fast catching up, particularly in South America, where many cities now close roads on weekends so that families and groups can safely explore the urban environment.

However, both Grenoble and Montpellier now hold a special place in my heart, not simply because of their willingness to integrate cycling into everyday living, but because of the wealth of culture and history that simply oozes out of every street and square. I'll be returning to them both soon...just not soon enough.