Best Biking Guide to Paris
And Day Trips Outside Paris!
By Rose Burke
This guide is dedicated to tourists who are interested in exploring Paris and its region by bicycle. Bikes can be the perfect way to explore this great metropolis. Two wheels can simply see the sights faster than two feet. Have you ever tried to walk around the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower? Give yourself an hour. By bike, it’s 10 minutes. Bicycling has more advantages for the tourist than the “Métro,” where you pop up in one part of the city, then another, without seeing much in between. On a bicycle, you sense how streets run into one another, how neighborhoods change from posh to poor. You feel the pulse of the city.
Paris, compared with other cities in which I have lived and bicycled, Washington D.C. and New York City, is much kinder to cyclists -- geographically, meteorologically and psychologically. First, the city is flat and relatively compact. Crossing the city takes about 45 minutes. Second, the weather here is mild, rarely dipping below freezing, making year-round bicycling a possibility. Third, French drivers are comparatively kind to cyclists, yielding and giving way without beeping. Remember, this is the country where the Tour de France was born! However, the most important reason for biking around Paris is food. How else are you going to merit those three-course gourmet lunches and dinners?
But my guide is not only about Paris, but also about biking in the entire Ile-de-France -- the region around Paris. More than half of my guide is comprised of “self-guided tours” to parks and tourist destinations in and around Paris, including Versailles, Auvers, Giverny and Chantilly. I show you how to use the public transportation system -- a dense network of subways and regional and long-distance trains -- to transport you and your bike to a starting point or destination. Other bicycle guides to Paris or France assume you have a car to get the starting point. Not mine! My guide comes from my own experience of living and biking here -- without a car -- for more than six years. If the answer to your question about bicycling around Paris does not appear here, I will personally answer it. That’s my guarantee.
3 Les Grandes Bruyères
91470 Boullay les Troux, France
tel +33 (0) 1.60.12.05.65
fax +33 (0) 1.60.12.06.56
TABLE OF CHAPTERS
(in order of appearance, not noted by page number)
1. Paris Bike Paths
2. Best Times to Bike
4. Distances and Speed
7. To Wear or Not Wear a Helmet
8. First Aid
9. Where to Find Maps of Paris Bike Paths
10. French Roads
11. Basic Bike Vocabulary
12. Rules of the Road
13. Priorité à Droite
14. The Most Important Rules of the Road
15. The Exceptions
16. Riding Tips and Etiquette
17. Managing French Traffic Circles
19. French Road Vocabulary
20. Bringing Your Bike to Paris
21. Shipping Bikes by Plane
22. Getting Your Bike from the Airport to Paris
23. Bikes as Carry-On Luggage
24. Renting a Bike
25. RATP’s “Roue Libre” Rental Program
26. Commercial Rental Locations
27. SNCF Rentals Around Paris and France
28. Buying a Bike
29. Used Bikes
30. Independent Bicycle Shops in Paris
31. Taking Bikes on Mass Transit
32. Taking Your Bike on the Trains
Shipping Your Bike to Your Train Destination
Storing Your Bike
36. Bicycle Organizations
37. Guided Bike Tours
38. Rose's "Best Bike Rides Around Paris"
I. Sundays Along the Seine
II. Around The Bois de Boulogne
III. The Bois De Vincennes to Chinatown
IV. The Canals of Paris
V. Up In the Clouds of Saint Cloud
VI. The Greenways of Southern Paris
VII. The Royal Route to Versailles
VIII. Van Gogh Country: Auvers-Sur-Oise
IX. Monet’s Muses: Vétheuil and Giverny
X. The Charms of Chantilly and Senlis
1. PARIS BIKE PATHS
The city of Paris has finally committed itself to building a rational system of bicycle paths. This commitment is part of the government’s plan to reduce automobile traffic, which totals 2.7 million vehicles a day, by 5% by the year 2001. This is quite a radical move. Before 1995, the city inadvertently encouraged more cars into the city by building vast underground parking lots. In December of 1995, when most bus, Métro and RER conductors decided to strike at once, that all changed. Parisians managed to get to work somehow, many by walking or biking. The mayor’s office counted 380,000 bicycles on the streets. By 1998, the media were advocating a Paris without cars. A poll in March 1998 showed that 89% of Parisians approve of the “Plan Vélo.” The government is realizing that to be pro-bicycle is politically very popular.
The city laid its first 50 kilometers of bike paths in February of 1996, getting rid of 600 parking spaces in the process. The main routes run east to west and north to south. The city claims that since then it has created 141 kilometers of “pistes cyclables.” These bike paths vary in quality, from being expanded lanes shared by bus and bike to veritable bike lanes that are separated from automobile traffic. . Since the city laid the routes, the number of cyclists using them has doubled. Bike commuters now average 2% to 5% of total commuters, compared to under 1% before 1995. It’s not yet Amsterdam, but it’s a start.
2. BEST TIMES AND DAYS TO BIKE
Some avid bicyclists take their bikes out any time, any day. But for cyclotourists, it’s much more pleasant when cars abandon the roads and leave them to the two-wheelers. Thus, the best time of day is outside of rush hour: generally between 8 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Note that the days are long in summer and short in winter. In the summer, when the sun sets late, why not consider a romantic evening ride on the Champs Elysées? The best days of the week are Saturday, Sunday, holidays and school vacation periods, of which there are many in France. However, while Paris itself is excellent for bicycling on a Sunday, well-known bicycling routes, like the Canals of Paris, will be filled with families out for a spin. The best months are June, July and especially August, when Parisians leave "en masse" for vacation. My perfect day for a bike ride in Paris? -- A Sunday morning in August.
The temperature in Paris rarely rises beyond 90 degrees Fahrenheit and rarely dips below freezing. It rarely snows. Instead, it rains. Some years are drier than others. Thus, the weather is moderate and permits year-round cycling. Take my well-earned advice and check the weather forecast before your bicycle adventures! The day may start out with rain but may clear up beautifully by noon, or vice versa! Once, we started out on a sunny but blustery fall day on a trip to Giverny. The weather turned to cold rain within a half-hour! The daily newspaper, USA Today, also available in Paris, has a good weather page. If you can understand or read French, you’ll find the “météo” (weather forecast) on the Minitel (the French information system) at 3615 METEO or by calling 08.36.68.08.08. (When asked to fill in the number of the “département," key in “75” for Paris.) France, like most of Europe, goes by the metric system. If you’re not proficient, just remember that 0 (zero) is freezing, 5 is chilly, 10 is cool, 20 is warm and 30 is hot. (Those temperatures in Fahrenheit are 32, 50, 68 and 86.) The conversion for Fahrenheit from centigrade is 1.8 X centigrade + 32.
4. DISTANCES AND SPEED
France measures distance in kilometers, but you may only function in miles. So that’s why the rides in this guide are given in both English and metric systems. Some cyclometers can keep track of a trip in both measures, some just one. Choose the system with which you are comfortable. As a rule of thumb, to convert kilometers into miles, divide kilometers in half and add about 10% of the kilometers. Thus, 100 km would be about 60 miles. The exact conversion is 1 kilometer = .62 mile. One mile = 1.6 kilometers. How long will it take you to finish a ride? To find that answer, you’ll need to know how fast you ride. I always seem to ride at an average speed of 10 miles an hour or 16 kilometers an hour. That’s not very fast. It’s the speed of the average bicyclist in moderate shape. Thus, it takes me two hours to ride 20 miles. That’s not including breaks, stops to check the map, etc.
No matter where you bike, wear comfortable clothing, preferably bicycle shorts or pants, which are made to stick to your body and not get caught in the bike. While many Parisian women wear skirts on bikes, this can be dangerous. The cloth can get caught in gears or wheels. If your pants are baggy, stuff them in your socks or secure them with clips. Wear bike gloves. Avoid all-cotton or wool clothing, which retains sweat and takes long to dry. Consider wearing blends or synthetics. I prefer wearing dedicated bicycling clothing; my husband insists on wearing jeans. However, on one recent trip during which it rained, he swore he would buy some nylon pants.
By French law, your bike must be outfitted with a bell and reflective elements on the pedals. Lights in front (white or yellow) and back (red) are required from sunset to sunrise. Bicyclists rarely get cited for these kinds of violations alone. It’s usually in combination with a more serious violation. (More on that later!) It’s always a good idea to carry a "télécarte" (telephone card on sale at bars and cafés with the “Tabac” sign), emergency phone numbers, maps, identification, spare change, water, food (at least an energy bar), as well as a small rag or "towelette."
If you intend to take the rides in this guide, I advise using a cyclometer, which keeps track of distance (as well as many other parameters.) Note that you can detach your cyclometer mid-ride without losing data. For longer rides, I suggest you carry a pump for your tires, as well as a patch and tool kits.
If you are a bicycle commuter, and must ride during rush hour, consider investing in a good anti-pollution mask. According to a recent test by the French Institut National de la Consommation (National Consumer Institute), of six masks, only one passed. The Respro-brand mask, made in Britain, was the only one able to filter 85% of diesel emissions, the most toxic. I wear the Respro mask and find it comfortable, breathable and well designed. The retail price is about 300 FF.
7. TO WEAR OR NOT WEAR A HELMET
People often ask me whether it is illegal for a bicyclist to go without a helmet in Paris. According to French law, wearing a helmet is not obligatory but is strongly advised. We strongly advise it too. Most deaths resulting from bicycle injuries are due to concussions suffered by bicyclists who don’t wear helmets.
8. FIRST AID
If you hurt yourself, you’re usually not far away from a “pharmacie” (pharmacy), which is the place to go for minor cuts and scrapes. French pharmacists give first aid and will treat a wound and put on a bandage. They will refer you to a doctor or hospital, if necessary. Pharmacists will also diagnose minor ailments, such as a cold or flu, and can suggest over-the-counter remedies. Doctors and hospitals will usually treat you first and ask questions later about health insurance. The usual practice is to pay the doctor, obtain a receipt and seek reimbursement with your health insurance company.
9. WHERE TO FIND MAPS OF PARIS BIKE PATHS
Maps of the Paris bike network are available on the Internet at www.ratp.fr/Sortir/planvelo.htm. They are also available at the "mairie" (town hall) of each arrondissement or at the Mairie de Paris (Paris Mayor’s Office), Métro Hôtel de Ville. The map can be ordered free of charge by Minitel, code 3615 Paris, key word BRO. Look for the “Paris à Vélo Plan des Pistes,” item No. B041. Maison Roue Libre also has the map in limited quantities (see section 25 for the address).
10. FRENCH ROADS
The highways and roads in France are in very good condition, but have narrow or no shoulders. Main routes are systematically ranked, lettered and numbered: "A" for “autoroutes” or expressways (forbidden to bicyclists). "N" means “route nationales” or national roads. "D" is for “routes departementales” or state and county roads. D-roads and other lesser roads are the route of choice for the bicyclist. France also has a network of hiking paths, “sentiers de grande randonée,” coded GR on signs and maps. These roads are usually passable with a mountain bike. The highways and roads are color-coded on French maps.
11. BASIC BIKE VOCABULARY
Pointing goes a long way in talking to the French about bikes. So does English. Some terms are the same, like cable, chain, dérailleur, or Presta or Schraeder valve. But just in case you need a certain word, here’s a basic list.
antivol --- locks
balade à vélo --- a bicycle trip
bicyclette (not commonly used) --- bicycle
cadre --- frame
cassé --- broken
casque --- helmet
chambre d’air --- inner tube
changement de vitesse --- gear shifters
compteurs --- cyclometers
compteurs sans/avec fil --- cyclometers with or without wires
cyclist --- a cyclist
dérailleur --- dérailleur or gear mechanism
l’éclairage --- lights
faire du vélo --- to go bicycling
forche --- fork
frein --- brake
guidon --- handlebars
huile --- oil
jantes --- rims
lever --- manette
panier --- basket
pédale --- pedal
pompe --- pump
pneu --- tire
rayon --- spoke
roue --- wheel
rustines --- patches for inner tub
sac --- bike pack
selle --- seat
vélo --- common word for bicycle
VTC (vélo tous chemins) --- multipurpose bike, city bike
VTT (vélo tout terrain) --- mountain bike
SPECIAL NOTE ON THE "ILE-DE-FRANCE": The term, which literally means “island of France,” refers to the greater Parisian metropolitan area. This region comprises eight “départements,” which are similar to a county in the U.S. There are a total of 96 departments, each with a number. Ile-de-France comprises Paris (75), Seine-et-Marne (77), Yvelines (78), Essonne (91), Hauts-de-Seine (92), Seine-Saint-Denis (93) Val-de-Marne (94) and Val d’Oise (95). These number are used in everything from zip codes to maps. Data searches on the Minitel or Internet frequently make reference to these numbers.
12. RULES OF THE ROAD
French driving law is codified in the “Code de la Route,” which also applies to bicyclists, with certain exceptions. Some French bicycle advocacy groups complain that the “code” is not well-adapted to bicycles. There is some truth to that. For example, most road signs are posted with cars in mind, without little thought of how they apply to bicycles. For example, in the Forest of Saint Germain, there are many roads that prohibit traffic, but that sign is obviously meant to apply to motorized traffic. Use good common sense. In any case, I always advise to do what is safe over what is legal.
13. PRIORITÉ À DROITE (YIELD TO THE RIGHT)
One of the oddest and most important rules to remember in Paris is “priorité à droite” (yield to the right), which means that traffic coming from the right has the right of way, unless marked. Thus, even if you are riding down a main street, traffic coming out of side streets on the right has priority. Think “right gets the right of way.” Most cars slow at the intersection, but some do not. Outside of Paris, this peculiarity is generally abandoned. You’ll be constantly reminded of this with signs like, “Vous n’avez pas la priorité,” or “ceder la priorité.” Translated they mean, “you don’t have priority” and “yield the priority.”
14. THE MOST IMPORTANT RULES OF THE ROAD
Why are these the most important? -- because violations of these rules result in accidents. According to statistics from the City of Paris, bicyclists breaking the law are to blame for nearly half of all accidents involving a car. Most of these -- 12% -- are caused by bicyclists who ride through red lights. The important rules of the road:
*Obey all traffic lights and signs.
*Ride on the extreme right side of the road, except to pass, turn left or go straight ahead at certain intersections. Do not whiz between lanes or down the center lane, as you see motorcycles or other bicyclists do.
*Signal in advance for right and left turns.
*In general, ride single file. Standard bikes may be ridden two abreast in unpopulated areas during the day.
*Bikers, except those under eight years old, are forbidden on sidewalks, except when the street is cobbled or under repair.
*It is forbidden to attach your bike to the portable metal gates used around construction sites and public buildings for security.
*You are forbidden to transport people on your bike, except for young persons under 14 in specially made seats or trailers.
*It is forbidden to ride the wrong way on a one-way street.
*You must yield to pedestrians who are on the street.
*If there is a “piste cyclable” (bike path) on your route, you must use it, especially if it is marked as “obligatoire” (obligatory).
*Motorists must drive at least one meter away from cyclists.
*Each bike must have working brakes, a bell, lights from and back, and reflectors visible from the back, side and pedals.
15. THE EXCEPTIONS
As a result of talks between the bicycle advocacy groups and the Paris city government, some concessions have been made to the law in favor of bicyclists. Bicyclists are now permitted to use bus lanes, and ride in “aires piétonnes” (pedestrian zones), unless expressly forbidden.
16. RIDING TIPS AND ETIQUETTE
The most important “code de la route” is common sense. Plot out your route before you go with a map. Avoid riding in drivers’ blind spots, which is about mid-car on either side. On the other hand, don’t be too timid. Let yourself have room on the road. At first you’ll want to hug the right side of the road, even on narrow streets where there really isn’t enough room for a car to pass safely. In this case, “take the road.” Ride in the middle, where you will stay away from the real danger: the sudden opening of a car door! According to statistics from the City of Paris, this type of accident accounted for 14% of all collisions caused by a motorized vehicle involving a cyclist. My one and only accident, not serious, was riding into a car door as it opened on a wide and otherwise clear boulevard! In general, be courteous to cars and passengers. If you feel unsure or intimidated by any traffic situation, bring your bike to the curb, dismount and walk.
17. MANAGING FRENCH TRAFFIC CIRCLES
The French prefer “ronds-points,” or traffic circles, to standard intersections with a light. They are the bane of a bicyclist's existence. If you’ve ever watched the traffic at l'Etoile (the biggest circle in Paris whose proper name is Place Charles de Gaulle) during rush hour -- it’s right up there with watching airplanes take off -- you probably wonder if there is a method to all of this seeming madness. There actually is. Remember, priority is on the right, even on a circle. To get through a traffic circle, do as the vehicles do. Enter cautiously, but with conviction. Keep up your speed but be ready to brake. Head toward the middle, then veer outward toward your street when it is in sight. Use hand signals. Let cars entering the circle go ahead of you. If you hug the periphery, you’ll block other vehicles trying to get into the circle that have the right of way. In any case, do not attempt to ride around l'Etoile! Take the service road around l'Etoile, rue de Tilsitt, which has a bicycle path.
Paris is building more parking spaces for “deux roues,” (two-wheeled vehicles), a term that includes bicycles as well as motorcycles. These are the best places to park. There are also 46 roofed and lighted sites (550 spaces) near Métro and RER stations in the Paris metropolitan region. For a complete list, see http://www.ratp.fr/Env_q/Env_r/Env_r_mob/mobilite3.htm. The transport system says that 500 more spaces are in the works. Otherwise, I usually park and lock my bicycle to signs on the sidewalk. Never leave your bike out on the street -- locked or unlocked -- overnight. Most apartment buildings or hotels have a small space or parking garage where you can stow your bike.
19. FRENCH ROAD VOCABULARY
absence de signalisation --- no road markings
allumez vos phares --- put on your headlights
attention! --- watch out
chantier mobile --- road crews
chaussée deformée --- bad road surface
circulation --- vehicular traffic
circulez au pas --- proceed at walking pace
convoi exceptionnel --- oversized vehicle
couloir de bus --- bus lane
déviation --- detour
fermé --- closed
feux --- traffic lights
fin de chantier --- end of construction
Ile-de-France --- the Paris metropolitain area, literally, “island of France”
interdiction de --- it is forbidden to
interdit --- forbidden
itineraire conseillée --- detour
piste cyclable --- bicycle path
piste cyclable obligatoire --- mandatory bike path
priorité à droite --- yield to traffic from right
privée --- private (no one admitted except habitants)
rallentir --- slow down
rappel --- reminder (of speed limit)
route barrée --- road closed
route glissante --- slippery surface
sauf riverains --- road forbidden to all but resident vehicles (bicycles are usually allowed)
sortie d’usine --- factory road exit
verglas --- ice
20. BRINGING YOUR BIKE TO PARIS
I discourage tourists from bringing their bikes to Paris for two reasons: 1) Air freight of bikes varies in price and degree of service from airline to airline. 2) Getting to Paris proper from the airport is difficult whether you’re carrying a boxed bike or unpacking and riding it into the city. However, if you are going to stay in Paris for more than a month and plan to use your bicycle often, bringing it along may be best. Nevertheless, consider buying a new or used bicycle here before making that decision.
21. SHIPPING BIKES BY PLANE
Check with your airline before ticketing about fees and procedures for transporting bicycles. Prices and rules vary from airline to airline. On US Airways flights from the U.S. to Paris, for example, the carrying charge is $50 one-way if the bike replaces one of the two bags of your baggage allowance. If the bike is transported as excess baggage, it is subject to even higher fees. Bicycle boxes ($15 on US Airways) can be purchased from the airline or sometimes obtained from your local bike shops. Of course, you must obtain the boxes well before the departure. Call the airline to find out exactly where to pick up the box, how much they are, and whether there are any in stock. Ask whether you need your ticket and/or passport to purchase a box. Packing requires taking off the pedals and turning and sometimes dropping the handlebars. Getting packed boxes to a major airport is no mean feat.
22. GETTING YOUR BIKE FROM THE AIRPORT TO PARIS
OK, so you’ve managed to recuperate your bike from baggage claim. Now what? At either Orly or Charles de Gaulle airports, the problem is transporting your biked box to your hotel or residence. I recommend taking a Roissy bus, which will stow your bike boxes underneath in the baggage compartment, from the airport to the city. Or order a taxi station wagon (“break” in French.) Alternatively, you might build your bike at the airport for the short sprint to the RER. At Orly, you might try to illegally take your bike onto the Orlyval, which links up to the RER. I am sure some dare-devils will try to ride their bikes directly into the city, though this is something I would not do. To get from CDG to Orly, or vice versa, take the Roissy bus. For information on transportation options at the airports, see http://www.adp.fr.