Rollin' on the River

(Irish Eyes magazine, July 1997)

by Alison Benney

The velocipede has come a long way since its popularity in the Gay Nineties.  Although the Americans rejected the bicycle when automobiles arrived, the Europeans and particularly the French continued to make use of what scientists consider the most energy-efficient way of moving body weight. The annual excitement of the Tour de France and frequent transport strikes generally renew enthusiasm for two-wheeled transport.

And the Ile de France is becoming even more bicycle-friendly. In addition to the recently installed bike lanes throughout Paris, cyclists and pedestrians get to reclaim the quais on Sunday afternons when they're closed to motorized traffic. There are plenty of bike rental shops in the city, with prices ranging from 70-120F per day; look under "vélo" in the yellow pages or Minitel. Or rent a bike in the Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes for 20F per half-hour.

The successful bicycle tour guides at Paris à Velo (37, bd Bourdon, 4e, tel: 48.87.60.01), in addition to renting bikes, also offer informative and fun tours around town. There are six different itineraries, including one at night, for between 130-190F.

But rugged individualists will head over to the Aux Vieux Campeurs map shop on rue Latran, 5e, pick up a copy of "VTT Ile de France, Les plus belles randonnées autour de Paris" (not only for dirt bikes), pack their water, snacks and bike tools, and strike out on their own on to, for example, the piste cyclable de l'Ourcq.

Canal de l'Ourcq

They say the bicycle path alongside the Canal de l'Ourcq runs all the way to Meaux and beyond. I couldn't say; I don't know anyone who's accomplished the ride.* Although it's a fairly fast, flat track, many randonneurs tarry too long on the way. It's a cycling and hiking trail of discovery and adventure that reveals the layers of the Ile de France, from the Parc de la Villette past the industrial towns, through the pretty banlieue of Aulnay Sous Bois, past farmland and finally - the farthest I've gotten - to the rural village of Claye-Souilly.

The ride can either be fast-paced for a maximum cardio workout or taken slowly with picnics and side trips, even drawn out to an overnight outing. The IGN map "50 Circuits cyclos en Ile de France" is helpful; and if you don't have a bike, reserve a rental at Paris Vélo Assistance, 88, bd de la Villette, 19e, Metro Colonel Fabien, tel: 01.42.01.28.29 (open Tues-Sat, 80F/day or weekend rate of 120F). Then just follow bd. de la Villette down to Metro Stalingrad and the Bassin de la Villette.

Arriving at the start of the canal path at the Bassin, you can change your mind and rent a kayak or canoe to paddle around the enclosure or take the Canauxrama boat back down the canal. But be warned, the canal boat is not a bateau mouche. Its pace is described as "placid," taking three hours to go 5kms, stopping as often as it's moving because of raising and lowering the canal through locks.

Or take your own bike and start at the quai des Jemmapes, just north of République, where the canal heads underground to Bastille. There is a "piste cyclable" on both sides of the canal, as well as a pedestrian walkway, but watch out for the traffic. The second time I tried this trip I got whacked by a car door from a vehicle parked alongside the bike lane.  For the cautious, both sides of the quai are happily closed to cars on Sunday afternoon between 2-6pm.

The canal path begins in front of the Bassin, at Place de Stalingrad, on the Quai de la Loire. Look for the two-lane sidewalk, and remember that for the next kilometer or two, pedestrians, inline skaters and moms pushing carriages claim their share of the smooth surface. The path is fairly well marked and takes you past the Parc de la Villette and - still along the canal - through some sci-fi industrial sites, paper mills, cement factories and warehouses. It veers off momentarily for a view of the SNCF's train switching station, and then returns to the canal and a bit of green at the Parc departemental de la Bergere.

The park features a picnic area, a kids' playground and a tennis court facing the canal, so watch out for flying tennis balls. The canal gets cleaner as one gets farther away from the city, and the number of fishermen increases incrementally. One friendly "pecheur" showed me the smaller fish he had caught for bait with which he was hoping to land a brochet, which he described as "a meter-long fish with teeth." He said that when wild trout disappeared in the '50s, the canal was stocked with black bass and rainbow trout imported from the US. No fish story; he pulled out a fading picture of the impressive bass he caught here 20 years ago.

Just past Aulnay Sous Bois, as you reach the gates of the Foret de Sevran, glance to your left to see if the ice cream vendor is on the bridge (I recommend the citron vert). The forest path itself is dreamy-green and fresh and there are plenty of trails to explore, and benches for resting your legs and re-hydrating.  Past the forest and up the hill lies the edge of Villeparisis, where you can stock up at the boulangerie or sit at the cafe, or browse the open air market.

Or continue on the canal path for another 10 minutes toward the middle of town, where the RER line B stops. You can't take your bike on this train line, so it's not an escape route. There are another bakery and cafe here, but the best choice is to hold out another 45 minutes and, after breezing past grain fields and old barges, lunch at the friendly and pretty - may I say charming - village of Claye-Souilly.

This is where, on my latest venture, I had to turn around, giving up on getting to Meaux, which is 20 kms farther.  For those with the time and determination to push on, however, you'll find a chateau, a medieval site and a cathedral, as well as a train to take you and your bike back to Paris for only 41F.

Rambouillet Ramblin'

For laidback cyclists looking for a scenic promenade through the woods, the Rambouillet forest is the perfect destination. It's only 30-45 minutes away by train from Montparnasse; you can bring your own bike or rent one down the hill from the Rambouillet station; and, starting just inside the forest, the paved bike trail runs for 16 kms through the trees.

The rider is rewarded with blackberry bushes to harvest, a pondside park for picnicking, and even a beach for sunbathing at the Grand Etang de Hollande, just off the Route aux Vaches, with paddleboats for hire and a cafe. Pick up the IGN map 402 "Foret de Rambouillet" or Michelin map 170 "Special cylotourisme."

Folly in the Fast Lane

The new bike lanes around the city are a mixed blessing for city cyclists. On the one hand, the protection gives a feeling of normality, respectability and legitimacy; and it is now possible to traverse the city from east to west and north to south by the pistes cyclables. On the other hand, it's a bit anarchic out there, with inline skaters, delivery vehicles and buses all claiming a piece; and assumptions about the safety in the couloirs are dangerous.

Pedestrians, for instance, still need to get used to the idea that the protected lanes are not their safety margins before crossing the street. Drivers park along the bike lane and forget to watch out for cyclists, and motorcyclists still try to claim precedence at the stoplight. Diesel exhaust is even more concentrated as cars are squeezed into less space, and lane etiquette is evolving, but slowly. And although it's easier than ever to run a red light, the 2,000F fine is as applicable to cyclists as it is to cars. So breathe a sigh of relief, but hang on to your helmets and don't let down your guard.

*Note: Since this article was written, I've accomplished the ride to Meaux twice! It can be done in less than five hours but is more fun taken at leisure.