Bike Cities

A quick take: How bikes are working in two cities.

From The New York Times: In Portland, Cultivating a Culture of Two Wheels.” It’s a good take on everything the city has done to integrate bicycles into daily life and how people have responded. The accompanying video version of the story — here — is also worth checking out.

From Der Spiegel (the English version for German-challenged types):Vive la Vélorution:

Paris Rental Bike Scheme Goes Global
.” A fairly detailed story on how Paris’s celebrated free-bike system works (in a nutshell, a big French advertising firm does all the work in return for the fat profit it enjoys from municipally granted billboard rights). The story mentions that the free-bike idea is spreading through Europe and may even be tried in Chicago. Somehow, it’s hard for me to imagine the scheme working here. My take on the Paris system was that it looked well tended and thought out. Few municipal services, even those undertaken with private partnership, seem to work well in the States. I also think that somehow Americans have a penchant for senseless, wanton vandalism that would make it hard to keep the nice urban bikes on the road.

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Le Grand Schlep

OK, I won’t ever do this again, but:

Got up at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to the airport for a 10:15 a.m. flight. The easiest way to get there would have been a 60 euro cab ride — that’s about 80 bucks — but the nice clerk at the hotel found yesterday that no cab company had a car big enough to take my bike box. So that necessitated hauling my unforgivably heavy suitcase, with rollers, and my inconveniently piece-o’-pie-shaped bike box (visual aids will be provided) the quarter-mile or so to the nearest regional train (RER) stop, across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens.

I’ve found Paris in August to be a city that’s late to bed and late to rise, so I knew I could probably haul my luggage right up the middle of my hotel’s little street; after that, the wide sidewalks on the Rue de Virgiraud would suffice. I knew I could pull the two pieces at the same time because I did it when I arrived here 10 days ago; then, however, I had a nice convenient bus ride from the airport, and my bike box rode in a truck with those of all the other PBP types.

I went downstairs from my seventh floor room in the hotel’s tiny elevator, just big enough for me and my suitcase. I paid my bill, pulled my suitcase out to a likely place on the curb, then wrestled my extra-large piece o’ pie out to the street. I lined everything up and started pulling. At the top of the street, the Rue Casimir Delavigne, is the beautifully restored Theatre Odeon. A stationwagon taxi drove a slow circle around the Place de Odeon, and I hoped the driver would see an easy fare and stop. But he didn’t. I continued up to the deserted main street, leaving the bike box behind when I encountered an obstacle, then leaving the suitcase and retrieving the bike. That’s how I got down the multiple flights of stairs into the Luxembourg RER station, where I bought a ticket to Aeroport Charles de Gaulle.

The fare gate was equipped with a door to admit passenger with luggage, but it was locked. I stood contemplating what it would take to lift everything over the gates when a door opened next to the ticket agent’s office and a tall, neatly dressed and vaguely Yves Montand-ish personage appeared. He was going to open the gate so I could take my suitcase through. Then he saw the bike box.

“What is it?” he said, in English.

“My bike.”


“But. …”

“No. It can’t go. It’s too big.”

“But I brought it on the train from St. Quentin yesterday” — an irrelevant fact even though the St. Quentin train was also on the RER.

“No. It is forbidden.” I had the feeling that was one of Yves’s most used phrases in English.

I had no choice but to plead. I mentioned the fact my flight was leaving today, that I had to get home. I said “please” several times, and the desperation in my tone was not an act. In the back of my mind I was thinking that I’d already been told that a taxi wouldn’t carry the box and that a van shuttle was out of the question because the box was too big for that, too. How would I ever get this thing to the airport if this guy didn’t relent?

Yves didn’t face me directly as I tried to cajole him. He looked at the dark ticket window. I heard him say, “It’s not fair.” Then I saw that Yves was looking at a younger guy in the ticket office; he said something to his younger colleague, who shrugged his shoulders. Finally, he said, “OK. But if you have a problem. …” “Yes — it’s my problem,” I said. Yves opened the gate, and I hustled my stuff down the stairs to the platform. The rest of the trip to the airport was without incident. (If you happen to travel to Paris, the RER trip into the center of the city costs 8.20 euros and is well worth it; just don’t make the trip with an oversize piece o’ pie bike box).

But then there was the airport. As I expected, I had to do the same routine there that I had at the train station: carry one thing up an escalator or stairs, then go back for the other. Several times I had to leave my suitcase unattended. During one of my back-and-forth trips, when I’d left the suitcase at an elevator, I noticed three soldiers, two men and a woman, wearing combat fatigues and carrying automatic rifles. I rode up the escalator behind the woman, who stood facing backward down the escalator with her rifle carried at the ready. It was a little unnerving. The three soldiers got off ahead of me and very casually began walking in the same direction as my suitcase, about 30 meters away. Very casually, they stopped to take a look at it. Unattended luggage. A bag big enough to take out a good piece of the terminal if it were packed by unfriendly travelers. Oh, crap.

“It’s mine,” I said. They turned and looked at me. I wasn’t even trying to communicate in French at this point, and I think that and my hapless appearance suggested that I was on the level as far as the bag was concerned. They motioned I could take the suitcase and go, and I treated them to a demonstration of my dual bag-hauling trick. At the end of the hallway, I reached a point where I had to go up a short escalator to the departure hall. Once more up with the suitcase, leaving the bike box behind. When I returned less than a minute later, three new soldiers were gathering around the bike box. I came back down the escalator, and one of the three said “what is it?” “Mon velo,” I said, a piece of French I was ready with. To my relief, they believed me, and told me to take it up on the elevator. I pointed up the stairs to my suitcase and said, “That’s mine, too.” Nevertheless, when I got up there a couple minutes later, two of the soldiers were regarding it with apparent suspicion. “Votre valise?” one asked when I came up. “Oui,” I said. She motioned for me to go, and I did the two-bag stunt again.

I finally made it to the check-in line and handed over both suitcase and bike box. Now all I have to do is get that stuff through customs at home.

[And now, officially … back on home soil. All my luggage made it. Good to be back!]

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One More Paris Picture


Paris-Brest-Paris ended this afternoon — most of the folks I started with made it in the last couple of showery hours before the the deadline — and a couple hours later, the sky cleared. Amazing. It’s a perfect summer night here, the moon and stars out and the searchlight from the Eiffel Tower sweeping the sky above the city

I’m flying home in the morning. A great trip, but a little too long on the road for my tastes; and I have to say that the last few days, when I’ve been pretty much on my own, show me to be less than a perfectly content solo traveler. Oh, I love walking and walking around this place, but I really miss sharing it with my travel partner in chief. ‘Nuff said.

The picture above shows the towers of the Church of St. Sulpice. about a 10-minute walk away from where I’m staying. Ever hear of St. Sulpice (who could also be known as St. Sulpice the Boring)? If you believe everything you read on the church on Wikipedia, the church was built during the 17th and 18th centuries and was the site of the baptism of the Marquis de Sade. Really. [Also, it’s apparently the setting for some scenes in “The Da Vinci Code.” Woo-hoo!]

Again referring to the Wikipedia, the towers are unbeloved by fans of church architecture. However, during the restoration or whatever is going on up there, the pair of them are quite striking in that sodium vapor light. As always, I’m surprised to find these old monuments are much more than that; St. Sulpice is still a working parish.

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My current obsession: How I’m going to schlep both my big-a** suitcase and my bike box to the Paris airport (de Gaulle) on public transit for my flight home Saturday. Wow — that’s making my pulse go up just writing it. There’s no doubt that Paris does commute trains, both subways (the Metro) and suburban lines, very well. But just like the New York subway, the Metro isn’t particularly conducive to hauling personal cargo.

In the meantime, I’m camped out in a little hotel in the Latin Quarter called the Grand Hotel des Balcons. From what I can see, all the rooms in the hotel face west out onto the street, the Rue Casimir Delavigne. And every room has a little balcony. I’m up on the seventh floor (the top one), so I’m taken with the view even though I’m so close to the apartments across the way that I can practically inhale the occupants’ cigarette smoke.

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Your Paris Church of the Day

As part of our pre-PBP Paris sightseeing mini-frenzy, I found myself standing in front of a few churches again today; not just churches: structures that were centuries and centuries old, that were built to fulfill some promise or other to God, that were built as an expression of this king's or that cardinal's clout and deep pockets. But most of all, structures that, whatever the secular goings on that raised them, took shape at the hands of some inspired artists.

I took note of the church above and below when I started studying the sculptural elements above the main entrance and wondered whether the lower scene — a man who looks like he's about to be stoned by an angry crowd — depicted the death of St. Stephen (first martyr and, since I like my dad before me share the name, a subject of personal interest). I noticed that the initials SG and SE were carved on either side of the entrance: SG for St. Genevieve, some of whose remains turn out to be interred here, and SE for St. Etienne, the French for St. Stephen). The church is St.-Etienne-du-Mont, after its setting atop a hill above the Latin Quarter; it was completed close to 400 years ago.

Back to the sculpture above the entrance. The resurrected Jesus holds pride of place just below a rose window. He's got a spiky-looking halo and looks irresistible and a little pissed off.

Immediately above the doorway, a supine St. Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone.

I don't mean to sound irreligious. I was brought up with some version of these scenes, and I find them stirring and moving on a deep level (I even went into the church, dipped my fingers into the holy water font and crossed myself). Part of what's moving to me, though, is the idea of the generations and generations of mostly anonymous artists, artisans, and laborers who erected this city of churches. What a legacy they left.


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Sacred Heart, Sacred Bike Ramp


My first full day in France was spent walking around central Paris with the general goal of getting to the Sacre Coeur cathedral on the top of Montmartre. We (friend Bruce Berg and I) saw lots of old Paris stuff on the way; that’s not meant to be dismissive, but the city has a feel and appearance that just sort of swallows you up. The Seine. The bridges across the Seine. The churches — we also stopped at the Madeleine, which until today I didn’t know was French for Magdalen. The public buildings, like the National Assembly and the Louvre and the Palais Royal. The public squares and parks, like the Place Vendome. The place is big, it’s filled with history and beautifully made buildings, and it’s hard to conceive when you drop in that it has a life quite apart from your search for a public toilet or a panini sandwich and an Orangina. But it does.

Thom and Kate went to Montmartre in 2003, when I was out riding to Brest and back. They didn’t tell me that much about it, though, beyond the fact they had a great day up there. I was a little taken aback by the crowds in the streets leading up to the top of the hill where the cathedral is built. People are drawn by the dramatic spectacle of the church up there and also by the view the hilltop affords. But there’s a whole Fisherman’s Wharf aspect to the scene, too — some of the surrounding streets and parks are packed with tourists and shops and street performers.

The one added attraction today: a downhill bike ramp that starts right up at the cathedral and twists down the southern face of Montmartre to a spectacular end in the park at the foot of the hill. I asked one of the workmen what it was for — actually, first I asked if he understood English — and he told me that there’s some sort of X Games-like downhill competition up there this weekend. I suppose it’s not any crazier than ski jumping — but that’s still pretty crazy.


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