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Back in the 90s I was a regular visitor to Paris. We’d stay near Père-Lachaise cemetery with my sister-in-law, and I used to escape on my bike whenever I could, dicing with the Parisian traffic, and sometimes riding out with local clubs. It was a great way to get to know the city and how it hangs together, but the Parisians I knew all thought it was a rather eccentric pastime.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a cyclist that I notice these things, but for me one of the most visible changes to the Paris streetscape since then is the bikes. Now there are hipsters on their brightly colored fixies, but more importantly the ubiquitous vélib. It always seemed insane that such a tiny minority of Parisians with cars should be able to make the city so unpleasant for everyone else, and the vélibs seem like a significant step in the right direction. Paris is suddenly crisscrossed by bike lanes, and while the authorities still have much to learn from the Dutch, they’re mostly better built than the lanes Londoners have to cope with.
Another element to this, that as a cyclist I notice, is how close regular vélib use is to a training program for the time-poor cyclist. Time was when most cyclists believed more was better, and professionals would routinely spend 35 hours per week or more pedalling. These days sports science tells us that the law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly with cycling, and that most of the benefits of a 7 hour day in the saddle can be had in an hour or less, and all the better if it’s done at a brisk pace (late for work maybe?). In fact 3 or so short but brisk rides a week will be better for your fitness than an all-day suffer-fest on a Sunday. All of this means that if you use a bike for transport around Paris, and especially if you’re always in a hurry, you’re probably pretty bike fit. Vélibs aren’t exactly zippy, so if you can propel one of them at any speed you’re definitely fit.
It just so happens that outside of the big cities, and especially in the south, France is one of the best places in the world for road cycling. Quiet roads and courteous drivers (yes I know it might sound bizarre describing French drivers as courteous, but in the countryside they really are, at least to cyclists). Add this to amazing scenery almost everywhere you look, endless villages seemingly untouched for centuries, abundant wildlife, clean air and all the gastronomic delights the countryside is known for, and you’ve got a pretty heady mix. Do it by bike and you’ll see far more of the landscape and be free to stop and smell the roses whenever takes your fancy.
So if you’re a regular Parisian cyclist, you’re probably fitter than you think, so why not use that fitness for something more enjoyable than getting to work and take a cycling holiday this summer? Unlike traveling by car you experience the landscape really intimately; the sights, the sounds and the smells, and in France that’s so worth doing. An unexpected benefit is that the calories you burn on the bike give you an insatiable hunger – perfect when the food and wine are so good!
Lead photo credit : Velib' in Paris, photo by Gideon