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Originally published June 12, 2010 at 7:08 PM | Page modified June 13, 2010 at 12:36 PM

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Tour de Paris: See the city by bike

Explore Paris on a bicycle tour.

Special to The Seattle Times

A classic Frenchbike race

The Paris-Roubaix bicycle race is a prestigious 165-mile, one-day competition held each April since 1896.

Nicknamed the Hell of the North, its calling card is the 28 rough cobblestone stretches on which the race is usually decided. Until 1967 the race started in Paris, but now it starts about an hour north in the town of Compiègne (it still finishes on a velodrome in Roubaix).

Knowing we'd be in Paris during April, my family and I hooked up with Sports Tours International, a British company that offers bus tours to watch the race at selected spots. It also offers an option for those with their own bikes to ride parts of the course the day before the pros race.

Watching world-class cyclists speed by an arm's length away was exhilarating. As was the mad dash back to our tour bus after the riders would pass; we'd dodge tiny cars, motor scooters, and spectators on bicycles then motor to the next viewing point.

An STI tour costs $230 per person (including travel from London; it's the same price if you meet the tour group at the start point in Compiègne). See www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk. (Sports Tours International also has numerous Tour de France trips — the bike race is July 3-25 this year. )

If You Go

Paris by bike

Here's a rundown on companies offering bike tours in Paris. Most also rent bikes, often for about 15 euros (about $18) per day.

Fat Tire Bike Tours: This is an American-owned company with English-speaking tour guides. It offers four-hour day and evening bike tours of Paris as well as longer tours of Versailles and a Monet's Garden tour. Cost ranges from 28 euros (about $35) for the day trip to 70 euros (about $85) for the Versailles tour. The evening tour includes a boat trip on the Seine. www.fattirebiketours.com

Paris Bike Tour: Offers three-hour bike tours with multilingual guides, including English speakers. Bike tours also can be combined with a guided museum visit. Cost is 32 euros (about $39) for bike-only tour; 49 or 59 euros (about $60 or $72) for bike and museum tour. www.parisbiketour.net/uk.

Bike About Tours is run by U.S. expats (like Fat Tire) and features English-speaking guides on its 3 ½-hour tours that focus mostly on Right Bank sites and landmarks. Cost: 30 euros (about $37). www.bikeabouttours.com.

Paris Velo Sympa: French guides offer tours in English and other languages and, along with the standard Paris bike tours, the company has unusual tours such as Paris at Dawn (starting at 6:30 a.m.) and night bike tours. Cost: 34 euros (about $42). www.parisvelosympa.com/en/index.

Viator: This large travel company books tours worldwide, including bike tours in Paris. www.viator.com

Paris tourist information

See the website of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau,

http://en.parisinfo.com/

Short and cheap Paris bike rentals

Vélib is a public bike-rental system in central Paris, with self-service rental and pay stations that are easy to find (there's a kiosk about every 300 yards). Bike renters purchase daily or weekly subscriptions for an unlimited number of rides, and pay only for the hours that they actually use a bike. Just return the bike to any Vélib station when you're done, pick up another one next time you want to ride; there are thousands of bikes.

Cost is one euro (about $1.23) for a daily subscription and five euros (about $6.25) for a week. Rates are calculated on a half-hourly basis; the Vélib bike system is intended mostly for short in-city errands and commuting. The first half-hour (with unlimited rides during the subscription period) is free, with rates escalating from one to four euros for each subsequent half-hour.

Note that Vélib pay stations take only American Express cards or major credit cards that have a microchip and PIN (personal identification number), which most U.S. credit cards don't have.

More information: www.velib.paris.fr (click on the Union Jack flag to download English-language information)

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At the edge of a twisting tornado of Parisian traffic — tiny cars, jumbo tour buses, putt-putting motor scooters — our bicycle tour group is poised to make what seems like a death-defying dash across the Place de la Concorde. Essentially a 20-acre roundabout between the Champs-Elysees and Tuileries Garden in the heart of Paris, it's famous for, among other things, being where Marie Antoinette and thousands of others lost their heads, guillotined during the 18th century Reign of Terror.

"What we're doing now is called an ATM, an Advanced Traffic Maneuver, OK?" says Bubba Brooks, our fearless 23-year-old Fat Tire Bike Tour guide. "We're going to pull out into the square here, we're going to hang a left. We're going to run a red light — don't worry, I've done this a few times before — then we're going to head to the middle of the plaza, all right?"

If you say so.

Gripping our handlebars, the 12 of us await Bubba's signal. "Go!"

And we're off — pedaling into the cobbled roadway en masse, the way a pod of orcas would work together to seek a favorable current in Haro Strait. In no time at all, we traverse the massive boulevard and easily slip into our own little safe haven — our own lane, sorta — far to the right edge of Place de la Concorde.

There's safety in numbers. Our group is highly visible to the heavy traffic that circles the Place de la Concorde's fountains and the 3,300-year-old obelisk of Luxor which, pro-cycling fanatic that I am, I recognize from the final stage of the Tour de France race.

In little more than a minute, voilà — we're at Tuileries Garden, our ATM complete!

"That wasn't too bad," Bubba says.

Not at all, and minutes later — our trickiest maneuver of our four-hour bike tour behind us — we're walking our bikes across the expansive garden, the Louvre museum directly ahead of us, headed to an outdoor cafe for lunch.

Fat Tire Bike Tours is an American-owned and operated company that features English-speaking guides. It's one of a number of companies that offer bike tours of Paris, a city that in recent years has become more bike-friendly.

Along with some 230 miles of city bike lanes (some shared with city buses — not as scary as it sounds), Paris encourages cycling with a curbside bike-rental system called Vélib (which translates roughly as bicycle freedom). Every 300 yards throughout the city, you'll find fleets of Vélib bikes — some 20,000 in all — available for rent, accessed via a sidewalk self-service pay station.

Taking the tour

Fat Tire and several other companies rent bikes and offer tours. And expansive parks such as Champ de Mars, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, are big enough that one could spend the afternoon with minimal vehicle contact by pedaling in the park, to the nearby Trocadero Gardens, and on wide pathways on either side of the Seine River.

Our tour group met under the Eiffel Tower where — amid the hundreds of tourists, schoolchildren, gun-toting soldiers, and African vendors offering trinkets — we saw our tour guide Bubba holding high the Fat Tire sign. We took a pleasant 10-minute walk to the office, where we picked out our bikes; received a quick lesson in operating the comfy, if tank-heavy, three-speed cruiser bikes; and got tips on how to ride safely in the city in a pack.

Then off we went. Note that I didn't mention that this is where we picked out our helmets (although they are available at Fat Tire). That's because cyclists in Paris don't wear bike helmets. During my recent 2 ½-week visit to Paris, I saw hundreds of folks pedaling bikes and not a single person wearing a helmet.

From the Fat Tire office we pedaled the firm hard-packed dirt surface of Champ de Mars south to our first stop at Ecole Militaire. Bubba described it as France's West Point, an elite military college that counts Napoleon as one of its alumni. He points out bullet holes on the building's exterior from the time of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The city's history is mind-boggling, and we're just getting started.

We head out onto the streets on what, with such a large group of riders, feels like our personal bike lane. We pass the otherworldly UNESCO headquarters building and stop at Place de Breteuil.

Here Bubba shares his deep admiration for Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and microbiologist who's honored in the center of the plaza with a stone monument. In the fall Bubba, an Oklahoman whose been a Fat Tire guide for two years, will begin working toward a Ph.D. in plant and microbial biology at University of California, Berkeley (I'd venture he'll be the only one in the department named Bubba).

From there it's a leisurely 10-minute jaunt up Avenue de Breteuil, during which I chat with some of my fellow riders. They're from Arizona, Texas, Chicago, London and beyond.

"We'd borrowed bikes before when we were here visiting our daughter," says Yvan Baeten, a Belgian who's riding today with his wife, Magda Wirix. "This is very nice, going with a guide, because you learn so much."

Bubba stops us just outside the eye-catching, gold-laden Dome Church which houses Napoleon's tomb. It's surrounded by the massive 17th-century building Les Invalides, a former military hospital which today is the Army Museum. Because this is a bike tour, here and at other landmarks we don't enter the church or museum, but straddle our bikes while Bubba feeds us tidbits of history.

A bike tour is a terrific way to familiarize yourself with the layout of Paris and learn just enough history to figure out what you want to pursue on your own. And get a little exercise, too, although Paris is mostly flat and our pace slow. A Fat Tire Bike Tour never will be confused with a health club spin class. But it's the perfect pace for safe sightseeing.

We pedal some more, crossing the Seine River on Pont Alexandre III, considered Paris' most ornate bridge. It's adorned with gold statues of winged creatures and heroic figures and leads eventually to the Champs Elysees district and the Arc de Triomphe.

We skip the Arc de Triomphe, however, and once across the Seine, go right and pedal a vehicle-free bike path east to the Place de la Concorde, where we'll make our ATM.

After lunch and a stop outside the Louvre museum, we head back to Champ de Mars for goodbyes and some final photos aboard our bikes. In all, we rode about six miles.

"I did one of these tours last year in London," Jeremy Barton from Yorkshire, England, tells me as we take turns photographing each other with the Eiffel Tower in the background. "It was lovely, just like this one."

Ooh, London. Next time, for sure.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer. Contact him at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

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