Monday, May 18, 2009

On yer bike!

Once upon a time the Accidental Parisian lived in a small city in northern Northern Europe and used to zip around town on her trusty little Claud Butler hybrid bicycle (with rattan basket). She battled strong winds off the North Sea, high humidity and helmet hair, but she also benefited from slow, considerate drivers, a good cycle path network and the fact that none of her colleagues were really that fashion-conscious. (Okay, one major exception - Rubber Girl, if you're reading this, forgive me).

Ahh, but Paris is a totally different can of sardines in a light tomato sauce. On the one hand, you have the new, wonderful and exciting Velib network for public bicycle rental. There are hundreds of station dotted around the city and you either buy a annual membership for 29 euro or pay 1 euro per day. It's not perfect; my friend Fifteen says the bikes are very good but heavy for climbing hills, and poor Mazarine can never find a parking space to return a bike in her neighbourhood. The Velib are for adults only, and they don't have child seats. On the whole, Velib has been a huge success and is now being extended to the close Paris suburbs, "la petite couronne" (the little crown around Paris). A Velib station is being installed about a 10 minute walk from my house and there will be one about a 2 minute walk by the end of July. Hooray!

On the other hand, Paris has aggressive drivers and an incomplete cycle network. France has a rather confusing "priorite a droite" rule, meaning that drivers entering from the right have the priority, unless otherwise indicated. This is true even when you are on a main road - the side street on the right has the priority. This is also true in rotaries (roundabouts): people entering the rotary have priority - that means you may have to stop in the middle of the rotary to let people in.

Anyway, I've really wanted to cycle in Paris but have been anxious. MCM is fearless and has been cycling to work for the past few months, so we decided to go out last weekend: I would follow him and he would show me the best routes. We went to the Louvre, which took about an hour each way; approximately 1/3 of our trip was on designated cycle paths, 1/3 on very busy roads and 1/3 on quiet side streets.

How was it? Challenging but great. The cycle paths are wonderful: it is absolute bliss to be pedaling along the banks of the Seine on a spring day. It was also pretty amazing to think, Wow. I am riding my bicycle up the Champs Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe. We parked in the Tuileries gardens and went for a coffee and browse around the Louvre (we're members so it's a free visit), and it was just a wonderful afternoon out.

I did have one little problem, which is that my basket dislodged itself from the back of my bike as I was headed downhill on the cobblestoned Boulevard Haussman. Not fun. Fortunately, no one was behind me and I was able to retrieve my lock and handbag and pull over. I spotted a dumpster on the side walk, pulled up to it and fished out some broken venetian blinds. Using the Swiss Army knife on my keychain (Christmas present from my Aunt Maria and Uncle Mark circa 2001 - probably the most useful Christmas gift ever!), I cut free a length of string from the blinds and McGuyvered my bike basket back on. Spanish tourists looked on in amazement - who knew Parisiennes were so resourceful, so ghetto?

AP's Tips for Cycling in Paris:

1. If you have not cycled since you were a kid, or you have never cycled in traffic before, the Concorde is not the place to start. Stick to cycle paths or practice in one of the big parks first (like Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes). Ditto if you are not in good shape - you need to be to accelerate when a traffic light turns green. Cycling is fun, but cycling in traffic is serious business.

2. Stay right but don't ride too close to parked cars (a driver or passenger might open the door without looking and hit you). Watch for cars entering from the right.

3. Be cautious but confident. If you are too hesitant you'll actually confuse drivers. Use hand signals to turn and make them obvious. In traffic, I found that the drivers were actually pretty respectful, or trying to be: a lot of them were doing the "hover and swerve", where they tail you very slowly, waiting for the left-hand lane to become free so that they can pass you quite wide. That's not necessary and it's annoying to have a car following that close behind you, but their intentions are good.

4. Safety: I looked like a moron with my helmet and fluorescent vest, but they're important for riding in traffic. The vest cost me a few euro and it makes me much more visible. It folds up tiny and goes in my purse when I am done. If you're visiting Paris and plan to cycle, bring your helmet from home.

5. You're not allowed to cycle on sidewalks. However, some Paris sidewalks are extremely wide - like Avenue de la Grande Armee, or most of the sidewalks in Neuilly-sur-Seine. If there are very few pedestrians and you cycle slowly, you might be okay. But be respectful and don't whizz past the Neuilly grannies out for their Sunday afternoon stroll.

6. Stay single-file on the cycle paths and stay on the right-hand side. Don't ride 3 or 4 abreast and block all the other cyclists. Yeah, I know it's your vacation and you want to all be together, but be respectful.

7. Don't talk on your phone or listen to music while cycling in traffic. I saw a woman swerving down Boulevard St Germain on a Velib while talking on her iPhone and I thought, Darwin, is this evolution?

8. Don't drink and ride!

And for pedestrians...

1. Stay off the cycle paths! They are usually built next to sidewalks. The sidewalk is for pedestrians and the cycle path is for bicycle. Got it? Granted, there are a few confusing spots - on Boulevard de Rochechouart, the hedges and park benches can make it difficult to see that you are crossing a cycle path.

2. That means keeping your children, tricycles and dogs off the path, too. Above all, do not let little Fido or Fifi wander across the path on a taut leash, unless you want someone to cycle into the leash and somersault through the air, taking man's best friend with them.

Happy cycling, everyone!


  1. I enjoyed your post! Oh to be cycling in Paris instead of Kansas...maybe someday. I did take a cycling holiday in Italy a few years back and rode in Florence. Would love to see photos but I'm sure you are doing all you can just to arrive safely!

    Keep pedaling!

  2. You sound like you're really enjoying Paris these days! Your posts are becoming very helpful little references; I've been curious about how practical the Velib program is. Sounds pretty cool, though I doubt my acceleration capabilities!

    By the way, I love the image of you folding up your safety vest and tucking into your purse.

  3. Glad to hear the Swiss Army Knife is coming in handy! You will have to come biking in Tokyo. It is a TRIP. Everyone talks on their cell phones while riding (at least they're not texting, which is what they do when they're walking), everyone rides on the sidewalks, and no one wears a helmet... Will you by any chance be visiting family in mid-July? Would love to see you! Hope all is well. Hello to MCM.


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