21: Welfare + free bikes = $63 cheese sandwich

Free bikes!

It’s bike-riding season in Switzerland, so I’m reprinting our June 2011 experience with SuisseRoule, Switzerland’s free bike program available at several cities across the country.

In Switzerland, bikes can be rented at many train stations for about 50 Swiss Francs a day. For the free-bike program, you will need to show some picture identification, and pay a refundable 20 Franc deposit. If your ride goes over the 4-hour maximum, your deposit will go against the hourly rental fee but even this is usually cheaper than an all-day rental.

There are six free-bike sites, but about a gazillion pay-rental bike sites.

Click here for information about the pay-rentals. 

Click here for information about the free bikes. 

(you may need to use an online translator to read these pages)


There is no free lunch in Switzerland, but there are free bikes.

You can rent bikes for 25 to 50 Swiss Francs a day from many train stations across Switzerland, or you can get a bike for free through Suisseroule, a loaner program.

Why anyone would pay to rent a bike when there are perfectly good free ones? Because the free-bike kiosks are harder to find, that’s why. This is how Switzerland protects its bike rental market.

We would never have known about loaner bikes, except that a Swiss co-worker of Dave’s gave him a few brochures and some advice on trails, adding to the evidence that every Swiss citizen studies tourism as a requirement for graduation.

Free bikes sounded too good to be true. Then we discovered that the free-bike stations are staffed with welfare recipients.

Sabrina, our friendly free-bike-loaner agent. She looks normal.

The Swiss will not tolerate slackers in any form, as we learned when their tax officers discovered an unemployed person within their borders, that is, me, upon whom they have set their sights, first by trying to make me fill out a French/German multiple choice form that did not include “unemployed” or “retired” among the options. We are not sure that the Swiss even have a word for someone like me.

So if I, a foreigner, cannot escape notice, there is no way a Swiss-national is getting off easy, and so welfare recipients have jobs, too. We are not sure if this means they are still welfare recipients, or government employees. I will let you argue over the difference.

In addition to the welfare recipient staffers (which, it turns out, is true), we heard a rumour that ex-cons and parolees also staff these places  To borrow a bike, would we have to give up our residency cards, which could then hit the seamy underworld market for  few hours and be returned to us with exciting new criminal records attached? Note: Could not find any reliable information on the ex-con/parolee rumour. Probably not true. 

We were nervous about this, but what could we do? We are cheap and the bikes were free.

In Neuchatel, we found a friendly young woman seated in the trailer next to the bike racks. She did not look likely to sell our residency cards on the black market. She lacked the bureacracy-tortured visage of Canada’s welfare populace and if she had a criminal bent, we could not discern it.

You see some crazy stuff riding along Swiss bike trails.

We were relieved to discover that we would only have to show our  identification and leave a 25-franc deposit per bike. The bikes are free for the first four hours after which the brochure said we would be charged a franc an hour, but the woman said the hourly  charge would be five francs.

We did not know what to make of this disparity, but neither did we care because if we were on the bikes for longer than four hours, we would probably be near death anyway.

The bikes are replaced every year, well-maintained, light and comfortable. Again, we were in awe of how well the Swiss do these things.

As we rode along the beautiful shores of Lac Neuchatel, we exclaimed over what seemed to be our cheapest travel-day in Switzerland. That was until we stopped for lunch at what may have been a yacht club for Swiss bankers.

Among the 32-45-franc meals, we saw what appeared to be a 22-franc cheese fondue lunch for two. Perfect. We ordered the fondue, which featured the famous local Corgemont cheese, which when served cold has a strong aroma and aftertaste, but when melted down in a fondue is absolutely sublime.

A deconstructed $63 grilled cheese sandwich, also known as cheese fondue.

We ate until we fell into a stupor, which was a good thing, because it turned out we were wrong about the price. It was 22-francs a person on a two-person minimum, and so with our bottled water (eight francs) and coffees, our “cheap”  lunch came to 63 francs.

We laughed about this. Remember, we were in a cheese stupor. Then, realized we had eaten bread cubes and melted cheese – that’s basically like a deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich.

It turns out the Swiss know what they’re doing when they offer free bikes. They know pedaling will make us hungry and that here, there is no free lunch.

To learn more about Switzerland’s free bike program, click here. 

This link should take you to a Google-translated Suisseroule website, but if it does not, search for  Suisseroule, then click on “translate page.”