Travel: Vive Paris! Vive les flics! Vive les rollers!

Forget the `City of Light' - on Friday nights, it's speed that takes over the French capital. Jasper Winn gets his skates on and goes for it
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The Independent Travel
HOW WOULD you like to sweep through the centre of Paris with a police motorbike escort stopping the traffic, and the oh-so-cool Parisians lining the pavements to cheer your passing? Well, you can, this Friday and every other rain-free Friday of the year.

There are only two catches. There's no limousine; and you've got to be able to in-line skate. Oh, and you're not going to be alone, but just one of anything up to another five thousand skaters.

In the UK, street-skaters are seen as nascent bag-snatchers or hit-and- run assassins in training. As soon as the wheeled-up in London find a dream smooth expanse of tarmac, the local council are down on it spreading gravel and putting up "don't even think about it" signs.

But the French have a different attitude. Les rollers are seen as chic and sportif, bringing the glamour and sexy athleticism of the ski-slopes to the heart of the city. French films like Diva and Subway cast skaters as a metaphor for urban cool. And Paris has way better roads than equivalent cities - glass-sheened skating pistes running from one icon landmark to the next.

Where do the police out-riders come in? Well, about 10 years ago, a bunch of in-liners began skate-touring Paris at night. Doing the sights at speed caught on and soon there were mobs of a couple of hundred rolling the roads. And then more, to the point where the organisers bet they could get 5,000 blade-runners on the streets at one time by 2000. Well, they hit that figure early in 1998, and now they're pitching for 10,000 by the millennium.

What started as fun and a mild eco-protest against cars, soon became a movement. But the French like their revolutions to be well organised. So, founder of Pari Roller, Boris Belohlavek, roped in the police. And they entered totally into the spirit of things: for the weekly late- night runs they put cops on skates and send siren-blaring flics-en-motos ahead to clear the roads.

As an old-hand, long-distance road skater, I was keen to try anywhere that in-liners were actually encouraged. My skate-in-Paris plan was simple. Take the Eurostar to Gare du Nord, stash my gear in a locker, skate with les mecs, book into a cheap pension for what was left of the night, and train back to London the next morning.

It kind of worked. The train arrived in the early evening, and I did my Clark Kent routine, stripping down to shorts and singlet, lacing on my Zanstra Skeelers and hefting a daypack with camera and water bottle. Everything else went into the locker. The pension I was going to worry about later.

Skaters' solidarity broke down Parisian reserve on the metro to Porte d'Italie, the starting point for "Friday Night Fever". Isabelle was Lycra- clad and nervously rolling her skates back and forth. "I came on the randonnee for the first time only three Fridays ago. It's wonderful, it's addictive, but it's also very fast and you have to keep up with the crowd."

"Just how far?" I asked.

"Three hours, maybe 27 kilometres. And if you don't keep up, you might as well have stayed at home! They just go on without you."

At the Porte d'Italie, crowds of skaters were gathering in the blue neon glow falling on the plaza outside the cinema. I mentally divided the bladers into three rough categories. "Ramblers" wore sensible clothing, and reflective strips and silly hats. Some had children with them. The "urban guerrillas" - killing the time before the start by slaloming through chicanes of upturned polystyrene cups - were dagger-thin kids from the tough quartiers, wearing baggies and riding clapped-out roller-skates. Their spiritual heartbeat was supplied by a mule of a man who carried a club-size sound system, thudding out jungle music, strapped to a frame on his back. The "chic-rollers" were the disco queens, skate-divas, roller-jocks, the two six-foot-without-wheels Valkyries in black catsuits, the marathon-Mercuries and the hundreds of others who'd brought clubland out onto the streets, and put it on wheels.

Actually, there were beginners, too, taking Buster Keaton pratfalls as they tripped over the kerbs amid the swirling storm of better-balanced legs. Fred, one of the Pari Roller officials, looked at them pityingly. "They want to make it with the group, but, you know, every road from the Porte d'Italie is downhill - you have to be experienced to make the trip."

The hyperactive Boris had climbed onto a balcony to aim his loudhailer at us. "SKATE ENSEMBLE! SKATE VITE! OBEY THE POLICE! HAVE FUN!" And we were off. Downhill. Down a dark street. The 3,000 or so of us averaging, what, 20kmph? More? There was the whirr of wheels, the occasional thud as one of the Buster Keatons sped out of control into the hoardings at either side of the road.

A ripple of up-raised arms ran back through the crowd to warn of dangers ahead - rough tarmac or cables across the road, scatterings of gravel, or fallen comrades. All required fast steering or jumps to avoid one being tripped or pulled down. The anticipation of a 3,000-strong domino-effect kept the adrenaline levels high. High enough to sweep us across the Seine, and up to the Pere-Lachaise cemetery (I imagined Oscar Wilde muttering something like "No man should do anything that leads to him perspiring in public," or Jim Morrison looking over the thousands of scantily clad, frenzied, speed freaks and just screaming, "YEAAAH!").

Stopping under a block of flats, those in the know pushed to the front and began to chant, "DE L'EAU, DE L'EAU!". Shutters, high above, were thrown open and women in nightdresses bucketed cold water down on our heads. Meanwhile, I'd run into Janine and Sasha, two English girls working in Paris, who'd seen the bladers stream past their flat the week before. "We've got to do that," they said looking down at their new skates. "Actually, we were late for the start, so we had to take a taxi to catch up ... but we're going to finish, however far it is."

As we pushed off again, I looked back at the crowd of skaters. The mass movement was so smooth and rapid it was as if the buildings on either side were rattling past us like trains, and we were stationary. The sensation of speed only came when I saw the shoe-bound Parisians standing on the pavements, heads turning to watch us pass. There were cheers, clapping, occasional frustrated horn blasts of cars held up in side streets by the police.

And then, at the Palais Royal, the world of the winged and that of the earthbound met in one traffic jam. The river of skaters ran into a streaming opera audience exiting onto the street. Tattoos, Lycra and combats hit mink, Dior and bow ties with a speed differential of about 18kmph. With sirens and flashing lights, the police sidelined us into the square, where kinetic energy pulled the fittest into a wild, snaking conga of hundreds. Others, though, took the chance to collapse onto the ground, or to light up cigarettes.

A French couple - young professionals, skating hand-in-hand - were ecstatic. "It's a kind of revolution in the streets. It's so good to go around Paris late at night so fast, with the traffic stopping for us. Like this, you have another vision of Paris."

By the time we reached boulevard Saint-Michel, and the last leg of the randonnee, I'd got used to the speed, gone beyond exhaustion, and had fallen in with a group who obviously shared the same cardiovascular capacity as me. We weren't in the forefront anymore, but we still had enough breath to talk. This, perhaps, was the real magic of skating with Pari Roller - to talk with strangers, with Parisians, with strange Parisians in Paris!

After the last grinding ascent up avenue des Gobelins (was that Janice's cartoon-sheep daypack I saw ahead of me? Another taxi?), past the tapestry factories, we sped back into the Porte d'Italie. I joined the skaters collapsed at the pavement tables of the Canon d'Italie and ordering beers. Which was about when I discovered that the station lockers, where all my possessions were stored, had closed for the night an hour earlier.

I resigned myself to a night of bar-skating in Saint-Michel, a Lebanese takeaway at four in the morning, and drunken conversations with poets and prostitutes in darkened bars. At dawn, I skated back to the Gare du Nord, reclaimed my clothes, luxuriated in a shower and then climbed aboard the Eurostar for breakfast, the Saturday papers, and a snooze until woken at Waterloo Station. It's true: you gotta have wheels to travel. But it is nice to take them off sometime.

FACT FILE

in-line skating in paris

Go skating

`Friday Night Fever' takes place every Friday, summer and winter, when the streets are dry. Autumn is good as there are fewer skaters and the pace is less frenetic. Skaters gather at 40 Avenue d'Italie for a 10pm start. Further information from Pari Roller (tel: 00 33 1 43 36 89 81). Hire skates in London (outlets in the phone book), or if you are arriving and leaving within shopping hours, from Nomads in Paris (tel: 00 33 1 44 54 07 54) or one of three branches of Roller Station (tel: 00 33 1 42 78 33 00).

Getting there

It is possible to leave London late on Friday afternoon and return early Saturday, giving just enough time to skate and have breakfast. Return tickets for two at non-peak times on Eurostar (tel: 0990 848 848) are currently available for a total price of pounds 119. You must travel between 21 January and 14 March, buy the tickets seven days in advance, stay over Saturday night, or for at least three nights, and return on a Sunday. Ordinary returns cost from pounds 89 per person.

Further information

Book accommodation before starting the skate near Porte d'Italie or Gard du Nord. You need to be a fit and - if not experienced - determined skater: you must be able to cope with downhills and stopping and fast steering skills are essential to avoid serious accidents. Carry a warm-weather layer, a water bottle, spare francs for a taxi or phone in case you drop out, a map of Paris, emergency rations (though there are shops en route), spare socks, and a pair of light shoes. Muster any French phrases you can - you will use them. French Tourist Office (tel: 0891 244 123, premium- rate line).

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