The Friday Night Roller 'Rando'

photo: roller start, ave gobelins

An army of people on wheels out for a good time.

Wheeling Around Paris For Fun

Paris:- Friday, 30. July 1999:- When I emerge from the métro at Place de l'Italie it is two hours before midnight and the air has a feel mid-way between Barcelona and Madrid. With the streetlights, the lights from the cinema and from the cafés, the darkness is warm, brown - and bugless.

Coming over from Denfert, the train had a festive air, an air of anticipation. I was standing next to a huge, brown roller person, who was hitting the beat with the travelling guitarist on 'crazy.' The wagon was full of good humor.

At Italie I follow this crew, as they skate away from me through the tunnels, catching them up on the stairs. Emerging on the surface, the southern part of the place is full of the Friday night roller folk and what appears to be spectators, who have filled the café terraces.

Roller folk are getting their gear on, massed in front of the glass-walled cinema complex, while skaters are doing twirls in the Rue Bobillot, against the red lights. Traffic hasn't been stopped yet, but drivers are paying good-humored attention.

It's the Friday night Paris Roller Rando. 'Rando' is short for 'randonnée,' which means tour or excursion. Start time is supposed to be 22:00, and a member of 'Pari Roller Staff' is making announcements with a mini-mego - saying, I think, "We're starting soon."

The weekly tour starts at the Place de l'Italie. Tonight's route heads north to Bercy, Nation, Vincennes; and across to La Villette and down to République, then down through Turbigo to the Seine to pass Notre-Dame. On the left bank, the 'Rando' follows the quays westphoto: pascal bidaux to the Avenue Rapp, where it turns towards the Champ de Mars, where there will be a halt for refreshments.

Then it heads further south to the overhead métro line 6, and follows it east past central Montparnasse and down to Alésia, where it turns up Avenue Général-Leclerc - my avenue - to Denfert and a right turn to follow the métro line 6 back to Italie. The whole trip lasts about three and a half hours.

Pascal Bidaux is suited up and ready to go as far as he can get before the last RER runs.

I am doubtful I am going to get any photos out of this because it is darker than it seems to my old and weak camera. A fellow with a bright red t-shirt with 'Canada' in white on it is getting his gear on and since he seems to have the whole kit - knee pads, elbow pads, helmet - I ask him to stand still for a moment for a photo I know the camera can get.

Pascal Bidaux, who is about 30, is not from Canada but from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is quite near La Village, which I left behind a couple of weeks ago.

Pascal says he doesn't do the 'Rando' every week. One reason is time - the last RER train heading out to where he lives, leaves before the 'Rando' winds up. My guess is he will quit the tour at Notre-Dame. If he goes as far as Avenue Rapp, he'll be cutting it too fine.

I head around the place clockwise to try for a photo of the first wave as it enters the Avenue des Gobelins. The cafés and restaurants along this way are more subdued than on the other side of the place, but spectators have come out to line Gobelins.

There is another crowd in front of the Marie of the 13th, beside Gobelins, and these turn out to be mostlyphoto: 'pari roller staff' cyclists. I cross back to take a position under a weak streetlight; where I can catch the rolling herd as it turns into the avenue from the place.

The 'Pari Rando Staff' is not pushy, because all of this is free and voluntary.

Shortly after ten, about fifteen or twenty minutes, three motorcycle cops on spiffy white BMWs with red and blue lights twirling, wheel into the avenue. This advance guard will chase any moving cars out of the way.

These are immediately followed by the 'Rando' marshal, who halts and waits for the troops to form up. I don't hear what he into his mini-mego, but it is short and the rollers begin to flow past, filling the fairly wide avenue. Some who are turning wide are even coming down my sidewalk.

And they come; whole hordes of them. Pascal Bidaux said it would be a small crowd because of summer - but somebody has stayed in Paris for this besides me.

Le Parisien recommends that inexperienced skaters skip the 'Rando,' but I see plenty who are being helped by friends as they anxiously set off down the slope of the Avenue des Gobelins. Others, inexperienced or not, are taking tumbles and coming up laughing, because at this point they are only 50 metres from the start.

It takes about ten minutes for all of the rollers to pass. 'Horde' is no exaggeration. They are followed by first-aid wagons and police cars - and by the cyclists, who have been told not to overtake the rollers. A few late rollers sprint past the bikes and chase after the retreating first-aid wagon.

According to an oldtimer of 72, interviewed by Le Parisien, the 'Rando' started in the '80's with 20 or 30 skaters, but there are an average of 20,000 on a usual Friday night.

This fellow, Samuel Nieswisky, has written a book entitled 'Rollermania.' In it he writes that there were 15 skating rinks in Paris in 1876. The first dirt rinks appeared in Paris about the time of the Révolution, and a three-wheeler skate was patented in 1813.

The palace of roller rinks was situated in the north of the 16th arrondissement, with a wooden track covering 2000 square metres and an orchestra of 60. It wasn't until after WWI that cheaper skates were made for kids. There were about 30 assorted rinks around Paris, up to WWII. After the war, there was only one and it closed in 1957.

The Main Jaune opened in 1979 at the Porte de Champerret, and there have always been skaters at Trocadéro, at Palais-Royal and out at Le Défense.

It is estimated there are nearly two million roller fans in the Ile-de-France, who roll for sport and to commute. So many commute in fact, that the ministry of sports, traffic safety organizations and the Paris Police Prefecture, are preparing a 'white paper' with the purpose of defining how to meld rollers into general traffic - because they have long since become too many and too fast to be restricted to sidewalks.

Roller skaters until now have been considered to be pedestrians, with whom they have no resemblance as far as speed is concerned.

But where to put them? The bike lanes are too narrow to allow the swifty rollers to overtakephoto: roller fan cafe, pl de l'italie cruising cyclists. The bus lanes are too dangerous - buses can stop quicker than following skaters. Whatever the solution eventually proposed, the traffic rules need changing.

The cafés near the start are full of roller fans inthe warm summer night.

And a little less roadway is going to be left to motorists. For the Friday night 'Randos,' drivers are alerted about the evening's route. If they can't avoid it as it rolls around the centre of Paris, they are advised that it make take 20 minutes or more for the skaters to pass any particular place.

After they leave tonight, disappearing down the Avenue des Gobelins, I take the métro back to Denfert. If I want to see them again, all I have to do is walk up my block to the avenue - at about 01:15 - to see how many have almost made it back to the Place de l'Italie.

This will be after the métros have stopped running. From the Place de l'Italie, I guess they will simply roll on home.

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