The two bright yellow OFO bicycles outside the federal building were behind enemy lines in the bikeshare border wars. Propped on their kickstands in full view of City Hall, they were sitting ducks in the Blue Bike territory of Boston.
Long popular in China and more recently in other American cities, dockless rental bicycles of varying color and concept are popping up all over greater Boston, rolling in from companies like LimeBike, Spin, VBikes, and OFO.
The idea behind all of them is basically the same: Find a bike on a smartphone app, scan a barcode on the bike to unlock it, and leave it wherever you happen to finish your ride. So as of a few weeks ago, when the bright yellow bikes invaded Quincy, I’m an OFO man.
But Boston, along with Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, are under agreement with Blue Bikes (née Hubway), so the new dockless competitors weren’t really supposed to be here. Who knows how long they’d be waiting for a rider in the middle of downtown?
So, in the name of seeing just how well these things work — and since they are considerably cheaper at $1 an hour vs. $2.50 per half hour for a Blue Bike — I decided to repatriate one of the OFOs to its native land.
But not to Quincy. Call me a coward, but the thought of wobbling down Newport Avenue on an unfamiliar vehicle with nothing but a little bell for defense was enough to scare me off that. (“He died doing what he loved,” the obituary would say. “Hiding from his editor.”)
Fortunately, one of the first Boston-area communities OFO entered was a lot closer: Chelsea. Google maps said the ride would only take about half an hour and bring me through some parks and places I hadn’t seen.
So what if it was approaching 100 degrees outside? “Leave no bike behind!” I fired up my OFO app, scanned the bike’s rear fender and hopped on.
“To Chelsea!” I muttered to nobody.
. . . Eventually.
I made it about two blocks around Cambridge Street’s bend before I realized I was in some trouble.
For one thing, these bikes are not built for my, uh, regal physique. If you are an out-of-shape newspaper columnist with a suspicious resemblance to a certain cartoon ogre, then this may not be for you.
The bikes are also not built for speed. They have three gears: Too easy, too hard, and way too hard. I mostly went with “too hard,” hoping to make up for a lifetime of skipping leg day. After a pleasant enough glide down the bike lane on Staniford Street, I found myself waiting at several of the very nice new bicycle signals around Causeway Street and Lomasney Way. A very old man, ambulating with the help of a walker and wearing those wraparound shades that must come free with an AARP membership, made it through the intersection in about half the time I did.
As I was pedaling knees-over-handlebars into Nashua Street Park, a dog wearing a muzzle lunged crazily at me.
“No bikes!” the woman walking the dog shouted at it. “No bikes!”
Lady, I don’t care what he does to the bike. Teach him not to eat people.
As I pedaled fatly, with all the grace of a circus bear across Charles River Dam Road, a young skateboarder rolled past me. He turned, looked back over his shades, and flashed me the peace sign. I nodded grimly, already drenched in sweat, and made my way onto the North Point Park bike trail, where I was promptly blasted with debris by a guy with a leafblower. The flop sweat had already created a receptive environment for park detritus, thus ending any chance of salvaging my work shirt.
By the time I was huffing and puffing through Charlestown, people were starting to snicker.
“Too hot for that!” an older woman waiting for a ride taunted. She was right, of course: Monday was the hottest day of the year. So I stopped and chatted with her about bike shares.
“Won’t people just steal them?” she asked.
I dunno, probably. Online, pictures of dockless bikes tossed into dumpsters or off bridges circulate widely. But by then I sort of wished someone would steal the one I was riding. I couldn’t even stop to fortify myself at a pub: If you lock the bike, someone else can scan it and use it, and if you don’t lock it, someone else can not scan it and use it. Unless you bring your own bike lock, stopping for a beer can leave you stranded.
No matter: I was on the move. I rolled past a guy fishing for stripers off the Mystic Bridge and past the new casino, where construction workers were leaving for lunch.
“Breaking news,” one yelled at either me or the construction worker behind him. “Jet aircraft are creating an artificial cloud layer, and that’s what you’re seeing. Did you know that?” Say what you will about the chemtrail conspiracy theory: At least the sun wasn’t beating down on me.
The rest of the ride was a sweaty blur of tanker trucks thundering past me on cratered asphalt. I rode past Ruma’s Fruit and Gift Basket World and Stardust Adult Video, neither of which seem like 2018 concepts, exactly, but what do I know?
I chugged up Admiral’s Hill and into Chelsea, expecting to find a sea of yellow OFO bikes. Instead? I spotted at least three rival Limebikes chilling in Winnisimmet Park. When I finally pedaled up to City Hall, there were three more. We’d been overrun. (An OFO spokeswoman did not respond to my e-mails.)
It had taken me well over an hour to go about 6 miles. I was drenched and covered in ground up leaves, had narrowly avoided a dog attack, and couldn’t stop thinking about chemtrails. I propped the bike out of the way in front of Chelsea City Hall and slid the lock closed, and the OFO app showed my final charge for the ride.
Find a better adventure for $2 or less. I dare you.