Paris: Biking to the Arc de Triomphe
By Theadora Brack
Celebrating the new bike lanes on the right bank in Paris, let’s take a sentimental journey! Pop open a Coke, crank up Claude Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” and prepare for some bumpy late 19th century time travel along avenue Foch. This centuries-old promenading stretch is my favorite spot for gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe. Each time I tumble flat.
Pump it up
Don’t forget les bicyclettes. Ladies, this includes you! By the 1890s, thanks to the introduction of the Starley Rover Safety Bicycle and its handsome pneumatic tires, “all Paris was a-wheel,” and women were not only pedal pushing in public but also “unblushingly” flaunting menswear or something “alarmingly” like it. Oh, la la.
So what to wear? “The first costumes were mostly home-made affairs, designed by the riders and made up by work-women sworn to secrecy,” reported Scribner’s magazine in 1895. Exercising in public was brand-spanking-new then, see.
Possessing “real legs,” excitement about the bike craze and its newly-adopted garb quickly spread, and soon women were spotted biking all over Paris, wearing gaiters, straw caps, high-collared blouses with leg o’mutton sleeves and tight, tailored bodices, along with knickerbockers and short bloomers, adding “one charm more to the Bois de Boulogne!”
During the Gay Nineties, you were in with the in-crowd if you were seen pedal-pushing the new status symbol. Thanks to mass production, it was also an affordable sport. Everyone was “mounting the steeds of steel and rubber” or learning how to ride. In sheltered bicycle rinks, lessons were available for 12 to 15 Francs. Two favorite rinks were located in the Bois de Boulogne and along the Champs Élysées. And like today’s Vélib’ Bike Program, bikes could be rented by the hour.
Even photographers, artists, and writers got caught up in the frenzy. In fact, the bike makes more than one cameo in Émile Zola’s “Paris” novel (1898). Marie, his protagonist, sings the praises of bicycling by saying:
“If I ever have a daughter, I shall put her on a bicycle just to teach her how to conduct herself in life. . .By wearing rationals [sensible clothing] women free their limbs from prison; then the facilities which cycling affords people for going out together tend to greater intercourse and equality between the sexes . . . In this lies the greatest advantage of all, one takes a bath of air and sunshine, one goes back to nature, to the earth, our common mother, from whom one derives fresh strength and gaiety of heart! Just look how delightful this forest is. And how healthy the breeze that inflates our lungs! Yes, it all purifies, calms, and encourages one.”
Get set! Go!
Now, let’s glide on over to the Arc de Triomph. FIRST one to reach the monument buys the vin chaud! As we make our way up the wide, park-like avenue Foch (formerly, the avenue du Bois de Boulogne), keep your eyes and ears open for Claude Debussy’s old digs at 23 Square l’avenue Foch.
Here the composer wrote, “There’s nothing more musical than a sunset!” I couldn’t agree more. Tip: The Arc de Triomphe at l’heure bleu makes a dandy of a backdrop for your Paris photo op. So plan accordingly!
Arc de Triomphe
Like a sympathetic angel in a Wim Wenders film, the Arc de Triomphe looks down on the city of Paris from her post on top of the hill of Chaillot. Located at the center of the heavily trafficked Place Charles de Gaulle, she is the key piece of L’Axe historique—a series of monuments that starts at the Sun King’s equestrian statue in the Musée du Louvre courtyard and ends in the outskirts of Paris at La Defense.
Flashback: Although the Arc was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, she didn’t reach her full regal glory until the 1860s, when city planner Baron Haussmann made her an urban center of attention. At 165-feet-high and 150-feet-wide, she’s the second largest triumphal arch on earth (the only larger one is a slightly expanded replica in Pyongyang, North Korea). “The pile of stone for a pile of glory!” is how Victor Hugo described the Arc de Triomphe’s overpowering allure.
L’aimant (the magnet)
Her domineering stature has also made her the perfect staging ground for pageants, parades, and demonstrations. Often called L’aimant, she’s attracted lovers, suicides and daredevils!
Winding it back: In 1919, French aviators were somehow left out of the planning for the WWI victory parade. They were quite sore about it, so they decided at an impromptu meeting at Fouquet’s bar on the Champs-Elysées to “repair the affront.”
Lieutenant Charles Godefroy was assigned to the task of rectifying the omission. On the 9th of August (three weeks after the parade), he flew his Nieuport biplane through the womb-like arch with the greatest of ease, after practicing with a wooden replica of the same size. It was a risk worth taking, as the aviators were never left out of any future celebrations!
In fact, nowadays the French Air Force provides the finale for the Défilé militaire du 14 juillet (The Bastille Day Military Parade) the oldest and largest military parade in the world, which has been held each year in Paris since 1880. If you’re in Paris at this time, don’t miss it.
Historical tidbit for the road: The fabulous Wright Brothers financed their flight experiments with the profits made in their bicycle shop during the 1890s Bike Boom! It paid off when they took off in 1903. Flight attendants, take your seats!
Clipping from Debussy again, “The century of airplanes deserves its own music!” So keep on biking and flying!