Paris, France and cycling go hand in hand. From the Tour de France to the Vélib—the bike-share network in Paris—every aspect of French life, real or imagined, involves the bicycle. Taking to the Paris streets one beautiful spring morning, we decide to explore everything this gorgeous city has to offer, from the narrow cobblestone streets through centre ville to the rolling hills of the nearby forests.
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Of course, every ride has to start well, and in France that means meeting friends for petit déjeuner at L’Échappée Belle, our bike shop of choice in Paris. It’s always a welcoming spot for cyclists to have a strong espresso in the lounge area before rides. Over croissants, one of the owners, Romain, helps us with some last-minute adjustments to our bikes. We then head southwest toward the famed Bois de Boulogne, once a royal hunting ground that today is a 2,000-acre park on the edge of Paris. It features a 5-kilometer uninterrupted loop for cyclists, complete with a climb and faux-finish- line.
We exit the Bois and cross the Seine into the suburb of Saint-Cloud [pronounced “Clue”], where there is another nature reserve, the 1,000-acre Domaine National de Saint- Cloud—usually called the Parc de Saint-Cloud. A commemorative plaque in this park reads: “On 31 May 1868, James Moore became the winner of the first race for vélocipèdes in France.” Moore, then 19, was an Englishman living in Paris who was friends with the Michaux family that conceived and built the first pedal-powered two- wheeler, known as the vélocipède. The following year, Moore also won the world’s first city-to- city road race: the 130-kilometer Paris–Rouen. The 1868 race, over a 1.1- kilometer gravel course in the Parc de Saint-Cloud, required permission from the French Emperor Napoleon III to use the royal park for a sporting event.
Today, the park still has a small farm and boasts dozens of car-free roads to explore—and it’s a mere 10 kilometers from the center of Paris. Saint-Cloud also offers some of the best views of the city and after a few photos we set out again around the park’s winding, hilly roads, through tunnels of trees, along dirt roads and cobbled paths; we even negotiate some switchbacks —an unbelievable experience high above the iconic French capital.
The sun is shining and our ride quickly lengthens. The Château de Versailles is only 10 more kilometers away, so we ride there next. The road to Versailles is an exceptionally beautiful one, taking you from Saint-Cloud through La Forêt de Fausses- Reposes—another former stomping ground of French kings —and into the town and its world-renowned château. We admire the great golden gates of Louis XIV, Le Roi-Soleil [“the Sun King”], whose crest crowns the gates into the palace. The colossal 17 th century structure, built by 36,000 workers using 6,000 horses, is the largest and most ornate palace in the world. This is where Greg LeMond started his famed final-stage time trial into the Champs-Élysées to come from behind and defeat Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour de France by the smallest margin in Tour history: eight seconds.
While our breakfast croissants have perhaps not entirely settled, the smell of crêpes is calling and we find the closest crêperie to spend the next hour discussing our bikes. Our friend Foucauld is riding a new sub-800- gram-frame Bura SL by NeilPryde—and he has still not stopped talking about the bike! He took it through its paces up and down the switchbacks in the Parc de Saint-Cloud, and he talks about a positive connection through his body to the road. It is the lightest bike he has ever ridden, and yet, he says, it maintains a stiffness that firmly translates effort into power. With crêpes and more coffee consumed, we head back to Paris to check out the scene in the city.
The next part of our weekend ride takes us to the northern section of Paris and the narrow streets of Montmartre, around Avenue Junot and along the Rue de l’Abreuvoir—made famous in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris” as the corner where Owen Wilson’s character Gil is picked up at nighttime by F. Scott Fitzgerald, played by Tim Hiddleston. The climbs in Montmartre are not long and it’s still city riding, but they are steep and narrow, with near-8- percent grades on cobblestones. This is where, in the 1940s, crowds exceeding 100,000-strong came to watch the famous Cyclo- Cross de Montmartre, a criterium-style ’cross race through the streets contested by 150 riders who had to hoist their bikes on their shoulders to run up (and down) the monumental flight of 300 stone steps that lead to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur.
The reward for us is another stunning panorama of Paris from the Butte de Montmartre. From here, we descend through Paris’s 9 th arondissment and pass the former Café de Madrid, where Henri Desgrange, the owner of L’Auto (today’s L’Équipe sports newspaper), lunched with his staff in November 1902 and conceived of a race they called Le Tour de France.
We continue toward the Seine, and as the weather is holding beautifully we decide to ride along the banks of the river to the Palais de Tokyo, a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, where we take another coffee break. Sense a theme to riding in Paris yet? Coffee is key…and the city’s coffee scene is booming. In the past year, more than half a dozen cycling-related coffee shops have opened in Paris. This is unprecedented for a city known for a coffee culture, but not necessarily the best coffee.
With the weekend winding down, we find ourselves riding toward the sharp setting sun and into a gentle breeze along the water. The sounds of children laughing and street musicians fill the air. We ride back to L’Echappée Belle and go our separate ways…already planning the next ride to more quaint locations in and around the beautiful city of Paris.
Locations in Paris:
Le Peloton Café
Cycles St. Honoré
La Chouette Cycling Café Paris
Dose Dealer Café
La Bicyclette (Another great bike shop and meeting point)