Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mitry Mory, France

Friends: Its been an extra pleasure these past few days bicycling around Paris, sharing the streets with the legions of freshly reborn cyclists on rental bikes. Even if their battery-powered head-lights and tail-lights didn't make them so obvious, their shining exuberance, bounding about with the heightened zest of the recently unshackled, would distinguish them from the veteran cyclist and make them stand out. They all sat a little higher on their seats, proud and delighted, gazing all about as if amazed at how much there is to see freed of the confines of whatever metal box they had formerly been imprisoned in as they were transported about the city.

The locals are taking advantage of the bikes as much as, if not more than, those visiting-- shopping, running errands, commuting and venturing to locales they might not otherwise. Not all Parisians have space in their apartments for a bike, nor feel comfortable leaving a locked bike out over night, so easy access to a rental bike is meeting a tremendous need. And with the streets of Paris greatly diminished of motorized traffic in August, the city is presently a bicyclist's paradise. Even the pay toilets are now gratuit. Not even a rainy Monday could discourage the use of the rental bikes.

The rain had me marooned in my tent until two in the afternoon out in a cornfield twelve miles from the city line, where the night before I was amongst a crowd of a couple thousand in the Cité de la Musique park watching John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" from 1940 starring Henry Fonda on a giant inflated screen. Several hundred of us took advantage of the free, fenced-in valet bike parking. After the screening the six or seven people staffing it were literally sprinting to retrieve and deliver bikes as fast as they could, easing whatever impatience those of us in the long, long line in the post-midnight hour might have been feeling.

The rain kept me from tracking down the Tour de France offices, as had been one of my Monday objectives. Besides seeing how extravagantly bike-themed it might be, I was hoping to learn what town had won the best-decorated award and who the runners-up might have been. I was hoping too for an array of photos of their decorations either hanging or in an album. I was hoping also for a poster of this year's race, The World in Yellow, of the bike-configured continents. But that was no longer necessary, as I lucked into one Saturday when I biked out to Compeigne, 50 miles to the northeast, the stage 3 Ville Arriveé where I was trapped on the wrong side of a fence for four hours awaiting the peloton's arrival.

When I inquired at Compeigne's tourist office if the city had had any special exhibits or displays honoring The Tour, the woman at the desk rewarded my interest by taking down their "World in Yellow" poster and letting me have it. Little did she know how much it would be appreciated. One of the several reasons I was drawn back to Compeigne was to visit its Vehicle Museum, which included a bicycle collection. Getting the poster easily made up for the bad news that the museum was closed for renovation. Compeigne also lured me back, as it is surrounded on three sides by a ten-mile wide band of forest that was just begging to be camped, something I was unable to do a month ago in my race to keep up with The Tour.

Compeigne has been the start city for the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic the past thirty years. The race is older than the Tour de France and equally storied. The woman at the tourist office traced its route through the city for me so I could ride it myself, starting in the cobbled Plaza de General de Gaulle, going past the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), over the Oise River then off into the wind-swept fields of Flanders and its assorted stretches of cobbles that have earned the race the sobriquet "Hell of the North."

After a night in the forest, undisturbed by its population of deer, I returned to Paris on a road I had yet to try, that supplied the easiest access to the city of any that I have attempted. Before "The Grapes of Wrath" I went in search of Oscar Wilde's grave in the sprawling Pére Lachaise cemetery. After seeing the grave in "Paris Je T'Aime," a recent movie celebrating the twenty arrondisements of Paris, I wanted to verify that it was truly plastered with lipstick-stained kisses. Indeed it was, even more dramatically than the movie indicated, half-way up all four of the twelve foot high walls of the tomb. It was also splattered with graffiti of adoration in several languages. There was a steady stream of devotees, but no kissers, just photographers. The Dublin-born Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46. An unnamed admirer paid for the tomb. Evidently the graffiti is accepted, otherwise the tomb would be fenced off as is Jim Morrison's in another sector of this cemetery. Morrison's grave remains the only one of thousands in the cemetery with a fence and a guard. While I stopped by Morrison's grave, a young woman gave the guard a potted yellow carnation to add to the forest of flowers adorning his grave.

Hanging out in the parks of Paris outside the tourist orbit, the city takes on the demeanor of a third world country. Their grassy expanses were packed with Africans, black and Arabic, and a few Asians. Occasionally I'd glance up from my book and have a momentary lapse forgetting where I was. If my eye caught a rare Caucasian, I'd think, "Ah, a gringo, I'm not the only one." Even as this trip draws to a close, flying back to Chicago tomorrow, the array of nationalities had me pondering travels elsewhere and contemplating where to next, perhaps that Istanbul to Cairo ride that Eelco, the Dutch cyclist, planted in my mind three months ago as I was setting out for Cannes.

Later, George

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Paris

Friends: Paris will soon become known as one of the premier bicycling cities in the world. Just last month, on July 15, the city initiated a bike rental program that has been a runaway success. The city scattered 10,000 bikes around Paris that can be rented any time, day or night, with a credit card for a mere euro per day. The most optimistic projections were that there might be 30,000 uses per day. There have been 70,000. The city is scurrying to put another 10,000 bikes out there.

In my four years of passing through Paris after the The Tour de France I have never seen so many bikes locked up and being ridden about the city. I was struck by the number of bikes to be seen immediately as I entered the heart of the city even before I learned of this new rental program. It is too early to assess what effect it has had on taxi and bus and subway use or the mental health of the city.

As I lingered in the plaza in front of City Hall along the Seine, just three blocks from Notre Dame, awaiting the evening's "Critical Mass" bike ride, a continual line of people stood waiting to rent one of the bikes locked up there. The bikes are of one size and style--a swooping woman's type frame with three speeds. Each comes equipped with fenders and lights and a front basket.

A similar program was given a try in Lyons, France's second largest city. It was so successful, Paris decided to try it as well. Part of the city's burgeoning bicycle consciousness may be attributed to the great popularity of its weekly "Critical Mass" ride. Most cities around the world stage the ride the last Friday of the month. Once a month isn't enough for Parisians. They have a ride every Friday. Most Critical Masses are scheduled to coincide with the rush hour commute. The Paris ride doesn't start until ten p.m., when traffic has considerably thinned and motorists aren't in such a frenzy. Nor is it called a "Critical Mass."

One of the organizers I spoke to was only dimly aware of the term. It is a critical mass though. The 800 riders on this ride took over the streets, remaining in a bunch riding through traffic signals as a unit as in every Critical Mass I've been a part of in Chicago. Each week's route is planned and available on the group's website. The guy I talked to was dumbfounded that rides elsewhere just randomly follow whoever is leading it, and can indeed be hi-jacked by whoever is at the front, even if there is a pre-determined route.

The Paris version is very organized. There were twenty or so very gung-ho young men wearing orange day-glow jackets who "cork" the intersections, standing guard through red lights holding back cross traffic. When everyone has passed, they race ahead to their next assigned intersection. As I awaited the ride's departure, one of the officials came over and asked me if I had ever been on the ride before and then briefed me on the procedure. He said the group would take an hour to ride twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) to a park, take a 20-minute break and then bike back to where we started following a different route, arriving back around 12:30. He warned that there would be officials flying past on the right or left calling out that they were passing. The feel of the ride wasn't much different from Chicago's Critical Mass, other than the later hour antagonizing fewer motorists. Unlike Chicago, hardly anyone wore a helmet or rode older, vintage road bikes. It was a much less anarchistic crowd as well, mostly mainstream, conventional-looking folk, and not the predominance of twenty-year olds as in Chicago.

My panniered bike attracted a bit of attention. I rode the entire ride with a woman who had just returned from three years of touring in South America. It was her first touring experience and she was still in a state of euphoria and most pleased to be able to share her experiences with someone who could fully appreciate them. She had set out on her travels as a typical backpacker with her Mexican boyfriend. After a couple of months they decided to exchange their backpacks for bicycles in Buenos Aries. They were immediate converts to traveling by bicycle, discovering what a richer experience it was, exalted by their freedom and independence, not having to rely on buses and trains and taxis to get where they wanted to go and being able to camp, freed from having to search out hotels.

She is busy saving money so she can get back at it. We talked about kids throwing stones at us in Bolivia and the winds of Patagonia and our favorite foods. She pointed out various landmarks along our route. She warned me that on the hour the entire Eiffel Tower would glitter with lights, a feature that was introduced for the Millennium and has been continued since. We rode right along side it as well as a few blocks down the Champs Elysees just as I hoped the ride would.

As I biked into Paris Friday afternoon, there was so little traffic and so few people about I thought it might have been a holiday. And it was to a degree. August is the month when many take their summer vacation and Paris becomes a semi-ghost town. All was desolate and quiet other than the tourist corridor along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower past the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay and Napoleon's Tomb to the Notre Dame Cathedral. With so few locals in town, I feared there might not be a Critical Mass ride. If there hadn't been, I was prepared to attend the the free outdoor movie, a nightly event all of July and August. But the officials at the tourist office were well aware of the bike ride, as it started right there in their plaza in front of City Hall, and assured me there would be one.

My evening's riding partner was staying with a friend in an apartment so cramped there wasn't even room for her bike, otherwise she said I could have stayed with her. Instead I got to camp. That was no tragedy. I knew of places to camp less than an hour's ride away out towards the airport. With a near full moon, I had no problem finding a spot in a field by 1:30 pm. As I headed out of the city, for the first several miles I passed a handful more people riding the rental bikes. Night riders in Paris had formerly been a rare site. Hopefully, they will all be full-fledged converts.

Later, George