LIKE MOST FIRST TIMES mine was clumsy, quick, and made me feel uncomfortable, not to mention self-conscious. I didn’t really know what I was doing. My second time wasn’t much of an improvement but at least I was starting to get the rhythm and I kept going a little longer.
Claire, my girlfriend, said I was doing well and that everyone has to start somewhere but I could see that she wasn’t happy waiting for me to improve while she was already more than competent. So the third time would be on her terms: in public where I had no choice but to succeed.
I was worried that people would laugh or stare, but she assured me this was Paris and it was perfectly normal. But I could see before I’d even finished putting on my rollerblades that everyone else was better than me.
My previous explorations on blades had lasted less than an hour — each time abruptly ended by blood and bruised limbs — and I was wondering how far I would make it through the three-hour course.
The route changes every week, taking in different areas of the city. The one I joined would be heading from the Bastille, across the Seine towards the Gare d’Austerlitz, and down the Rive Gauche before crossing the river once more on the way to Bois de Vincennes. After a short break, we would return on a similar route.
An ambulance and several staff — indicated by bright yellow t-shirts — always follow at the rear to keep the group together; should you fall behind you are kindly asked to leave. The pace is gentle, but I knew I’d have to work hard to avoid expulsion.
Having spent only twenty euros on a pair of new skates, they had about as much freewheeling potential as the box they came in.
Harder than it looks
As the group set off, the streets became crowded with the combined movement of thousands of legs, creating a hum of spinning bearings. I became more than a little worried as I edged out into the group and began my clumsy skating.
People weaved in and out of the crowds, others simply rushed past with apparent ease.
Everyone was faster than me: five-year-old children, parents skating with pushchairs, groups of teenagers tied together by shared iPod headphones, OAPs, even complete beginners holding on desperately to their partners to remain balanced quickly overtook.
I took in water, said a confident “désolè” as I fell into the person next to me, and wondered how long before I was fatally wounded. Claire followed close by, ignoring the humiliation of being the second slowest person in the group.
As we crossed the Seine, I took a moment to appreciate the view up the river, with Isle de Cite and Notre Dame cathedral visible in the distance. The brief lapse in concentration, however, made my legs rapidly split in opposite directions and my arms flailed wildly, hitting several passing skaters.
The rest of the journey was spent not enjoying the sights of Paris as I had hoped, but with my head down in concentration on the repetitive push left, push right, push left, push right.
Opposite the Museum of Natural History, with its carefully manicured Jardin de Plantes (that I dared not look at), we made our way across the famous Parisian cobbled streets. The absence of a smooth road slowed my already glacial skating pace to a practical stop, but despite my hindrance to those behind me, the atmosphere was one of support and mutual enjoyment.
“You need to put your feet like this. It is better,” said one man as he skated passed me, demonstrating the optimal position. I didn’t know the French for “You don’t think I’ve been trying to do that?” so I thanked him as he skated off, zigzagging backwards between those around him as if to demonstrate just how much finesse I lacked.
Beginning of the end
Holding back the traffic in Paris is no easy feat, but a brave band of volunteers and a few policemen on mopeds or blades heroically manage the task.
The building traffic jams join in the festive mood of the event by continually sounding their horns until we have passed, which can be up to fifteen or twenty minutes in parts.
It was somewhere in Bois de Vincennes — a grand park just outside the city — that I finally met my end; after half a mile or so of enjoying the landscaped grounds and views over the boating lake, the rough road had taken its toll.
It almost happened in slow motion as the last skaters passed: the yellow wall of event volunteers, the police, the ambulance, and then the bicycles that followed. I had failed to keep up! I could only watch as the peloton slowly disappeared into the park.
For another fresh, human-powered idea for exploring the urban landscape, check out Sightjogging: City Walking Tours on Speed.