Riders head toward Place de la Concorde, where the revolutionary guillotine once stood in Paris. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
PARIS ― When my editor emailed me about doing a story on Fat Tire Bike Tours in Paris, I immediately tried to think of an excuse not to do the story. Navigating through the streets of Paris on a bike? I couldn’t imagine a worse way to spend an afternoon.
First, a little background. I live in Paris. I have a bike. It is in the garage, covered in three years of dust. I rode my bike (then brand-new) exactly once, and was so terrified of getting smashed by one of Paris’ crazy, screaming, fist-waving drivers that I never rode it again. I prefer the city’s super-efficient-when-not-on-strike metro system for getting around town. Or my own cowgirl boots, thank you very much.
At least, that’s the way it was until I heard about Paris’ Fat Tire Bike Tours. The company was created 12 years ago by none other than David Mebane, a Texas A&M grad, and is staffed mainly by people like me ― people who speak with a drawl and tend to bring over suitcases filled with Velveeta and Ro-Tel tomatoes. So I said to myself, “Oh, just go. People bike around town all the time ― crazy people, but still.”
So on a spring day ― overcast, but according to the weather forecast, no rain expected until that evening ― I reluctantly walk to the Eiffel Tower and meet the group that for the next four hours I’d be cruising around town with. Our leader: Jeff Puckett, a 23-year-old Texas A&M grad with a degree in economics and finance who should have majored in drama. Puckett’s dark Levis slouch down over his two-tone gray suede Nikes, and, so we can always spot him in our small pack of 25, he wears a bright red Fat Tire Bike Tours T-shirt. He is here to teach us a little about Paris and to keep us from getting creamed by cars and motorcycles. But mostly, he is here to entertain.
“The Eiffel Tower,” he says, looking up at the city’s famous landmark while pacing back and forth. He is always in motion, making any patch of ground beneath him a stage. “Crazy stuff. Ten-thousand metric tons. The site of the first bungee jump in Europe. Anyone know who this was? A.J. Hackett, from New Zealand. He didn’t get permission to do this. He jumped and then he pulled himself back up and he did it again. Eight times! I’m glad he did. It’s a cool sport. What else?” he says, pausing, as if he’s just hit the “Eiffel Tower” search button in his head and is waiting for the results to pop up. “You know, the French hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built ― I would, too. It was painted yellow. Can you believe that? Now it’s three shades of brown. You know how often the Eiffel Tower is painted? Every seven years, and it takes 15 months to paint it ― it’s done by hand, by mountain climbers. Who’s seen it sparkle?” A few people raise their hands. “You’ve got to see this. It’s every hour, at night, on the hour. It’s like a Christmas tree on steroids.”
And with that, we’re off to get our bikes at Fat Tire Bike headquarters, just around the corner.
It has started to rain. Just a little.
We pick out our bikes ― either blue or red ― and Puckett gives us a few rules of the road before we begin the tour: “The theme of the ride is DOMINATION,” he says. “We are taking over the streets of Paris. Stick together. Don’t leave a gap so cars can get through, and if they try to move in, just put up your hand like this (he raises his hand) and give them the ‘Power of the Palm.’ If that doesn’t work, shake your finger at them, and say, ‘Non, non, non!’ It works. Trust me. Dominate!”
My big red bike is named Road Runner. I hop on and immediately feel comfy on its fat, oversize seat. It’s like the La-Z-Boy of bikes. Dominate? Is he serious?
We ride to the large building at the end of the Champ de Mars, and we all stop. Puckett hops off his bike and stands over us on a small wall before he’s asked to step down by French authorities. “The French are really creative when it comes to naming buildings,” he says, pushing his Justin Bieber bangs to the side, which he does often. “This is Ecole Militaire.”
We find out that Napoleon attended school here. Then Puckett sums up decades of French history: “The thing to remember about the Louies: The 14th built everything, the 15th partied through everything, and the 16th paid for everything. The 15th was a party animal ― he had over 300 mistresses ― but one of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, suggested that he build this school, and he did.”
Time to get back on our bikes. “We’re going around to the super-intimidating baby blue fence on the other side,” he says, “but first we need to cross the road here, and then get on the sidewalk. Dominate! Don’t make eye contact! Don’t show fear!”
A car is coming, closing in on our gap to cross. Puckett is already off in front of us, his red T-shirt a beacon that we instinctively follow. “Dominate that Mercedes!” he shouts back in our direction, and we do. Soon, we’re all riding in a pack, as instructed.
And I notice something odd. I’m having fun.
We ride to Eglise du Dome ― “The Dome Church, another creative name, right?” he says ― where Napoleon is buried, then to Les Invalides. “Originally built by which Louis?” he asks us. “The 14th!” we all say together.
Over the bridge, it’s on to the Pont Alexandre III, with a quick stop to hear its history ― it was built to celebrate the alliance of Russia and France in the 1900s, because “back then, the countries of Europe were like high school cliques” ― and then, with two hours already behind us, we make an ATM (advanced technical maneuver) to cross the Place de la Concorde and stop in front of the obelisk, which is where the French Revolution got started, and where as many as 3,000 heads literally rolled (it was the site of the guillotine that lopped off the heads of both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, among others). “Louis XVI was guilty of nothing more than being a big nerd,” Puckett says, and then we walk our bikes into the Tuileries Garden for lunch.
As I’m drinking my cafe creme, not paying attention to the weather, the skies turn purple. Within seconds, it is pouring rain and it is also time to get back on our bikes. Everyone but me either has a raincoat or bought the one-euro poncho from the Fat Tire Bike shop before leaving. It is windy and 55 degrees (according to the weather on my phone), and within seconds, I am completely soaked ― my jacket, jeans, hair, everything.
Suddenly, I am not having so much fun.
Then we stop, Puckett shakes his hair, and he shows us all the secret, no-line entrance to the Louvre. Then he leads us back to the “very, very awesome” Assemblee Nationale, the first republican house in France. By then, the wind and rain have stopped and the sun is shining. Our tour is almost over.
We slow-bike back to where we began, and as we ride, I chat with Rebekah Sager, a fashion writer from San Diego, who is with her 16-year-old son, and Rachel Cook and Lisa Campbell, both in their mid-20s and from Australia, who are each traveling solo through Europe for a few months. “I liked it. It was really casual and fun,” Cook says. “I didn’t want to do a long, boring tour.”
After returning our bikes, we exchange e-mail addresses and say our goodbyes, and I walk to the nearest metro stop to go home. When I get back to my apartment building, I head straight to the garage and check on my old new bike, still leaning against the wall. Its fat tires are flat, but other than that, it is perfect.
Dominate, dominate, dominate.
If you go:
Fat Tire Bike Tours: Four-hour, English-speaking bike tours through Paris offered twice a day every day except Christmas.
Also has tours to Versailles and Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, plus specialized tours.
The company has outposts in Berlin, Barcelona and London.
By Ellise Pierce, McClatchy Newspapers
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)