It all started at the foot of the Montparnasse tower. It was a Friday night and the excitement built with the anticipation of a night skimming along the streets of Paris. The open areas of Montparnasse slowly filled with people. They arrived from all directions, some from the station and many from the streets. Experienced Rollers with yellow tee-shirts zipped through the crowd, getting ready to control the mass of speeding Rollers.
Pari Roller leaves Montparnasse at 10pm every Friday night all year round and has been in operation since 1994. To join in this fabulous event all you need is a pair of rollerblades and the ability to stop, particularly the ability to stop on a downhill slope. The route changes each week, winding its way through the Paris’s many fabulous streets. 30 kms later, tired but exhilarated, you arrive back at the Montparnasse tower, at around 1 am.
You notice the start by the subtle shift in the crowd. People slowly glide towards the street in preparation for the off. The size of the crowd is spectacular, usually in the thousands and on the best nights up to 15,000. In fabulous French style, the Rollers are left to enjoy themselves with only six police: three at the front on motorbikes guide the event and clear the road, leaving three on rollerblades to deal with a crowd of thousands. The police only got involved when the numbers of Rollers grew each week. In an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, the Prefecture decided to form a rollerblading squad.
The start is slow and the difficulty of trying to rollerblade in a crowd becomes apparent. You shuffle forward and then forward some more until finally the crowd spreads out a little and you can open up the throttle. As you begin to move freely, you are able to glance around for the first time to see an open and clear street ahead just for you. It now fills with a stream of Rollers, some of them cruising along holding hands while others zip through the crowd and on down the street.
As the Rollers stream along, hand signals show an approaching corner. Hands are raised like a Mexican wave and angled towards the corner to indicate the change in direction. Watch out though for two hands raised high in the air; this means stop, sometimes for a fall, sometimes for a hill and sometimes because the Rollers are stopping while further streets are cleared.
As the crowd builds at the stop, the party atmosphere intensifies. The mass of excited hyped Rollers start to chant. The apartment windows open and the locals come out to join in the game. The chanting starts: “De l’eau, de l’eau!” More windows open, buckets and bottles appear, and water starts to rain down on the sweating masses. The fun escalates, the chanting builds, and the street becomes a Roller party, with the local residents joining in from the many balconies and windows. Suddenly, there’s movement again and the shuffle starts. To shouts of “Allez, allez!” the speed builds and we are off again.
As you skim along, you start to notice the magnificent streets and buildings. All the sites you have seen or have yet to see take on a surreal quality as you approach them at night. Can you imagine the sight of the Eiffel Tower lit at night appearing in the distance at the end of a river of Rollers, finally growing to take up the whole sky as you pass it and turn towards Les Invalides?
At the halfway mark, it’s time for a break. Sitting down suddenly reminds you of your feet; the roads you’ve traversed have had an impact. You sigh as you tug off your blades and peruse the crowd. Well-traveled Rollers keep going, and perform their acrobatics in the spaces available. A young boy with the boundless energy of youth plays amongst the sitting groups.
Refreshed from the pause, with your feet again strapped into your blades, it’s time to hit the streets. This time the route passes through the vibrant Paris nightlife. You see packed cafes and restaurants. The street is lined with locals and tourists enthralled with the spectacle. There’s much shouting and cheering and the flash of cameras as you go past. The odd impatient daredevil tries to cross the road in front of the speeding mass and only manages to make it because of the dodging skills of the Rollers.
Hands are raised and the Rollers slow. What new excitement awaits? Oh no! Cobblestones! Suddenly your legs vibrate. Your wheels dip into the ruts but somehow you manage to stay upright. Your head tells you keep going. Slowly? No, that’s worse! Faster? Yes, that’s it.
The end of the Place appears. It’s smooth road again. Ahead, the wonder of the Arc de Triomphe rises from the end of the street. You turn left. Now you are on the Champs-ElysÃ©es. You head down the hill fast towards the Louvre in the distance. But why is everything blurry? It’s those cobblestones again, all the way to the bottom of the hill! As you build speed, the cobblestones work like jackhammers on your legs. Your whole body vibrates but the cobblestones keep on going. The impact stops you from accelerating down the hill; braking is not required. The joy of not having to brake seems small reward given the battering your body is taking but desperation will grasp at any straw. At last, the hill is over. You turn a corner and the cobblestones are gone.
Across the Seine again. Another group is enjoying the balmy evening. Cheers ring out. Our sister group, all on bikes, are following their own route around the city.
Finally we’re on the homeward stretch. The night has been a fabulous adventure and it ends as we turn the last corner towards the Montparnasse tower. One last task is required, and that is to catch the final train. A quick dash down the Metro escalators and steps only to see the rear of the last train pulling away. An alternative must be found.
Heh! You have a map of the city. You have blades. You are a Roller. What else do you need! À la vent!
Robin Sands lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he had the pleasure of running into BP’s Executive Editor at French lessons. After they blitzed the field in French Pictionary (don’t ask, it was really quite freaky), she conned him into writing an article about his fabulous Pari Roller experience.