Still life with bicycle

Paris has a long association with cycling. Consider the early 19th-century velocipede craze or Art Nouveau advertising lithographs by artists such as Alphonse Mucha. Since it began in 1903, the Tour de France always ends with a dash into Paris. The Velib’ bicycle lending program in Paris is known, admired and studied worldwide. But there are less obvious sides to Paris and cycling.

Much more than fashion, a sense of style pervades Paris. The elegantly turned-out man preparing to ride away on his folding bicycle on a November afternoon looks unmistakably Parisian. And the open-ended wrench (or spanner, as the British would say)? It’s a fine touch, the sort of artful prop one might find in a fashion shoot. But no, it was real, part of something I spotted during a flâneur’s moment on a Parisian street.

In December 2008 Philippa and I spent a relaxing couple of hours at the Musée de la Mode et du costume at the Palais Galliera (currently closed and undergoing renovations) We had been drawn there by the enticing title, “Sous L’Empire des crinolines 1852-1870.” Wandering amongst the exquisitely theatrical Second Empire gowns and accoutrements from the era of the Empress Eugénie left us feeling languid. We drifted outside; the bicycle at rest on the stairs seemed to fit the mood perfectly. It appeared to be slouching, languid and perhaps even rakish.

The louche bicycle lounging outside the Musée seemed a far cry from the carefully marshalled, almost official-looking picture postcard view of the Velibs. But look below and you see something decidedly less official-looking. For several days we had seen the child’s bicycle with its long-dead rear tire. Was it abandoned? A work of art? And the almost backwards seat on the Velib’ beside it? There is a story here. But you will have to make it up for yourself.

On a mid-October afternoon we walked from the National Library towards Bercy Park and lingered on the Passerelle (footbridge) Simone de Beauvoir to gaze at the Seine. It is still a working river that rewards those who take time to look quietly and slowly. In the near distance the barge Alternat drifted in front of the floating swimming pool anchored to the bank.

The Alternat was skilfully piloted and as we watched (in line with our general philosoply of “no schedule, no rush”), it pulled in and was tied up just below the bridge. There was another bicycle.

Because Philippa and I walk so much in Paris, our Paris is very much a city of slowly encountered vistas where bicycles often seem to complete the scene, somewhat like punctuation.

With so many bicycles, there is great variation, including states of repair or disrepair. In the image below, the deformed wheel seems to tell us something important about Paris and bicycles: it is sometimes a risky or precarious encounter.

On an August day the month dwindled away but not the heat; tired of walking, we sat outside at a small café in the 3rd and drank red wine in the shade. Even the bicycle opposite the café seemed to be feeling the heat, sinking into the earth and returning to nature.

We are so used to seeing locked bicycles in varying states of disarray, that they often earn only a passing glance. However, the assemblage shown below demanded a second look. It was not just a front wheel and forks locked to the pole. It was a unicycle locked to a pole and the owner had prudently removed the seat.

A Paris without bicycles would seem incomplete. Even though it was a raw, damp and grey December day when I took the photo below, the bicycles seemed oddly at home and so did we. They had been there for days, perhaps left behind by students who had returned home for the Christmas break. Maybe the cyclists saw that the snow was winning and were waiting patiently for the return of better cycling weather.

Less than a week later, it was Christmas Day and we were walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg. Sun-starved Parisians positioned themselves to soak up the rays, the ducks in the Medici Fountain paddled calmly, friendly snowball exchanges erupted here and there. And a bicycle wheel wondered if it would ever be reunited with its missing pieces.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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6 Responses to Still life with bicycle

  1. Alison says:

    This is a delightful and very whimsical piece. Thank you for brightening my Friday afternoon. Perhaps you’ve brightened the whole weekend?

  2. Gifford says:

    This is so helpful. Would you be so kind as to recommend a few basic overview histories as well as yr preferred guide(s) to orient us literally? And any other books to give us a sense of contemporary ongoing political issues? Many, many thanks.

    I loved the Melting Bicycle.

    • A good general history of the city as a whole would be Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones (Penguin Books, 2004) or The Invention of Paris: A history in footsteps by Eric Hazan (Verso, 2010). If you are interested in the Marais more specifically, we recommend The Marais: A historical and architectural guide, by Alexandre Gady (Le Passage, 2005). The last book is the most lavishly illustrated and includes walking tours as well as history. As for contemporary politics, you’d do best to read up in current magazines and journals. The subject list from The Economist will get you started. Once you get to Paris, go to the Red Wheelbarrow in the Marais and ask Penelope for her recommendations. She’ll know what is new and noteworthy.

  3. Rob Gorrell says:

    Great post. I will have to send you copies of our “Bad things that happen to bicycles” pics from our trips to Paris.

  4. Phil Beard says:

    Very well observed. The bicycle may be King in Paris but as your photos remind us it is frequently subject to the most degrading treatment – I’ve seen some specimens that appear to have been blow-torched into oblivion.

  5. Pingback: The queen in the tower | Parisian Fields

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