Skates and Snails

by Ilan Vardi

1. The Friday Night Skate

Hey, I've been living in the Paris area for the last three years, a return to my birthplace after many years in North America. Shortly upon my return, I had my first opportunity to wait twenty minutes trying to the street, stopped in my tracks by the Paris Friday Night Skate. For those of you who haven't heard, every Friday night at 10 p.m. there is a three hour ride through Paris attracting between 2,000 skaters in Winter and 30,000 in Summer. The ride has a rolling enclosure allowing skaters to travel freely on major Parisian thoroughfares. The enclosure is ensured by Parisian police traveling on motorcycles, mopeds, and roller skates, and there are numerous volunteer staff members keeping pace at the front, marshalling intersections, and helping stragglers.

My initial visceral reaction, negative of course, could not be backed up by any rational explanation -- I just didn't like it, though I knew I was right, kind of like Hammurabi when he wrote his code. My gut reaction was caused by my instinctive dislike of large herds of humans, the Friday Night Skate therefore representing the antithesis of my view that individuality is the key to fulfillment.
I still sought a valid reason, and the closest I came was the fact that nowhere in the mass of skaters did I find a single racer -- it seemed to me that if the ride had validity, some good racers would participate, just for the fun of it.
I've been racing bikes for the last 20 years, and I really like the fact that if you get two or more cyclists together, they usually start competing with each other. Whereas joggers don't mind having other joggers blow by them, there is something about the bicycle that motivates even the most casual riders to chase each other down and basically, just go fast. It seemed to me that the opportunity to go way fast on Parisian boulevards would seem way cool to racers, and that if there any people like me and my cycling buddies on that skate, the ride would rapidly degenerate into an unofficial race.

In fact, everything I found out about the Friday Night Skate confirmed my original reaction. Further observation of the rides produced no sign of any competitors -- all the skaters were sheepishly following the prescribed pace. Indeed, I estimated that 80% of the participants wore the same basic uniform: No pads or helmet, jeans, and an large backpack to shift their center of gravity a foot higher and a foot backward. No surprise then, that most of the skaters required all their powers of concentration just to stay upright.

I finally found objective confirmation when I learned that there are an average of five serious accidents per ride, a situation which forced the organizers to include two following ambulances to provide first aid. To make things worse, I also learned that the ride has numerous foreign participants who, apart from being unable to skate, cannot speak any French, English, or German, a situation complicating emergency care.

The complete irresponsibility of the staff was made clear to me when I witnessed the ride crossing the heavily cobbled St. Germain des Pres. Though any Parisian ride longer than half a mile necessarily involves cobblestones, the ones in front of St. Germain des Pres church are particularly treacherous. At the tail end of the ride was a rank beginner being towed across by a staff member. Not only was the guy not proficient enough to deal with this obstacle, reason enough to exclude him from the rest of the ride, but he was totally livid and looked to me as if he had just bonked. In any case, the responsible decision would have been either to put him in one of the ambulances so he could get a glucose drip, or to give him a Power Bar and subway ticket, so he could take the Metro to the start/finish area, from which the ride was heading directly away.

To get to the point, I started roller skating this last September, and I made a vow never to take part in this ride, for all the reasons given above.

2. The Sunday Afternoon Skate

The Friday skate has a Sunday afternoon analogue named "Roller & Coquillages" which literally means "Skates and Seashells." The obscure nomenclature was chosen to suggest the relaxed nature of the ride, as opposed to the Friday Night Skate whose official name is "Friday Night Fever." Indeed, unlike the Friday Night Skate, it is intended to be a low key event accessible to relative beginners. Personal observation of this ride, and especially its dearth of injuries, had made it seem much less objectionable to my person.
Amusingly, this ride was further evidence of the competitive community's complete lack of imagination, this time of runners. Since the average speed of the Sunday Skate is less than 10 mph, running behind the skaters would provide the perfect venue for an informal race. I once queried a staff member whether any runners followed the ride, but, after a protracted interchange necessary to convey this difficult concept, I was assured that no one had ever attempted to do this.

So, after 4 months of skating, I had yet to participate in any of the daily Parisian group skates -- a three person pace line having been my largest skating group. My wife, who is even more critical of mass rides, categorically refused to participate in any group skate. However, on Sunday, December 23, 2001, she was off with her mother to do some secular shopping and I was reduced to my previous bachelor existence. It therefore seemed natural to indulge in the silly behavior that had characterized my life alone.

So, at 2:00 p.m., I set out towards the Place de la Bastille to the start of the ride. It was about 40 degrees and sunny, and I warmed up by blowing by a couple of aged cyclists, which also helped allay any insecurity about my ability to keep up with the ride.
I showed up 20 minutes later, so 10 minutes before the start of the ride. The first thing that struck me about the skaters waiting around was that at least 20% of them (including the staff) were smoking cigarettes. I would only come to understand the true meaning of this during the ride. Otherwise, at least a third were French residents, this being the proportion of people talking on cell phones.
One of the staff members standing next to me seemed to have the shaved legs of a cyclist, which merely served to show how little he knew about that sport, since no cyclist rides in shorts only in 40F weather, unless he's a professional racer doing a Spring Classic.
I was about to ask someone where the Bastille prison was, but my troll was thwarted by a call to line up for the start. I lined up and was soon joined by some guy planning to do the ride while holding a powerful dog on a leash. After 5 minutes of waiting, we slowly started down towards the Seine and I made valiant but fruitless efforts to get clear of the dog. After reaching the Seine, we stopped again, and I used my extensive criterium racing experience to move right up to the front of the group by stepping up to the sidewalk and passing about 2000 people.

We had to wait another 5 minutes to get police approval to commence the ride. Once the ride started for real, I immediately realized the marshalling problems, because 5 seconds after I got going, two tourists pulling luggage crossed the street right in front of me.
Anyway, we picked up a little speed and crossed the Seine, at which point we immediately hit some cobblestones. These weren't too bad, but I have no doubt that they presented a formidable obstacle to beginners the ride was designed to include.
After the cobbles, we were flying down the Left Bank of the Seine past the Notre Dame cathedral, though I don't think too many people were taking in the scenery.

In fact, what the ride reminded me of most was driving on Parisian freeways, which, if you who haven't had that privilege, is exactly the same as driving LA freeways. If you haven't had the opportunity of experiencing that either, what I mean is that you are traveling on a rather broad highway with a lot of people cutting right in front of you in seemingly random fashion while others go too fast or too slow for no apparent reason. Like freeway driving, it made the most sketchy beginner's bike race seem like a military drill team.

At least, it wasn't too dangerous, as I was able to push away anyone who seemed headed into my person. They didn't seem to mind too much, as they mostly seemed unconscious of their surroundings.
As I said, the ride was like a Parisian freeway, which also means standing still a lot of the time. Thus, when we got to St. Michel, the police escort stopped us for 10 minutes for no identifiable reason. We rode another 2 miles before stopping for a further 5 minutes. At that point, I decided to check out the front of the ride to see what this would be like.
To my great surprise, I discovered that the front of the ride is the worst place to be. In fact, the front consists of a row of staff members making a human barrier intended to block anyone from passing. This was doubly annoying for me since they decided to slow the pace for the climb to Montparnasse. The "climb" was about 100 vertical feet in one mile, i.e., a 2% grade, which, in cycling jargon is better known as a "false flat," though, in all fairness, there were several 3% "walls." This is why this part of the ride was conducted at less than 5 mph.
I immediately figured out that this pace was intended for the benefit of the numerous smokers participating and officiating. How else could people do three hours of physical exertion on three packs a day? Only later did I come to realize that the name "Roller & Escargots," i.e., "Skates and Snails," was a more appropriate moniker for the ride, not only in honor of the characteristic Gallic dish, but also to characterize the skate's pace.

Now, after years of racing bikes, I know that people who want to go fast on Monday's ride are the ones who didn't go hard enough on Sunday's ride, but this was Sunday! And, anyway, who could resist a mile of open pavement pointing uphill?
So there I was behind this human wall, chomping at the bit. I also kept banging my skates against the staff's and losing my balance in the process. Maybe this was because I was too close, the official minimum following distance being 3 feet and 3.37 inches, but I noticed staff members bashing into each others skates as well.

It occurred to me that this situation was totally unnatural -- as far as I can tell, group skating is inherently linear. Indeed, the width of the skater's stroke creates a natural tendency to set up pace lines in which skates won't tangle, unlike cycling, in which slower speeds produce compact bunches which have riders rubbing shoulders, literally. My thoughts during the ride were more sanguine as I recalled the scene in "The Howling" in which New Age werewolf Patrick McNee suggests to ancient werewolf John Carradine that he channel his energy into killing cattle instead of human beings, and the latter responds: "It just ain't natural!"

About half way up the climb, we reached a small declivity which, to the numerous chain smokers, must have seemed like the long descent immediately succeeding the Pyrenean ascent of the Col d'Aspin and immediately preceding the epic climb up the Col du Tourmalet. My dense physique favors descents, and like a stock car racer slingshoting to the win in the final straight, I was catapulted ahead of the pack at 6 mph. I reached this dizzying speed coasting, and it was the corresponding narrow stance which enabled me to slip through the human chain.
I was immediately commanded to let myself be assimilated into the collective. I responded by putting on my best look of disgust, as if to say: "Guys, I'm coasting faster than you're skating!" But obviously to no avail.
I glanced at the half mile of pristine pavement beckoning before me, and, for a brief moment, considered making a run for it. I decided to put this off to a time when I would be good enough not to get caught.
My return to the fold brought back some unpleasant memories: Trying to ride with tourists, but realizing that I would need extra sets of brake pads if I were to maintain their pace, and being out on a training ride on the day of the Muscular Dystrophy Tour and passing 1,000 people on a half mile, 5% grade. I also thought of Tour de France riders after the 1995 post Casartelli ride complaining that the hours of funeral procession pace had tired them out more than a normal stage.

In fact, what puzzled me most were the staff making pace. I haven't yet mentioned that numerous staff members were enjoying themselves, either by socializing, by doing their best sheep dog imitation herding skaters, or by marshalling intersections. These last were having fun skating because their job required them to stop and then rush back to catch up to the group.
However, the staff at the front were simply skating at a crawl and seemed very serious about the progress of the ride, one guy was in constant radio contact with the broom wagon. I just kept wondering what kind of person would spend three hours of his free time for free just to lead a procession... By the end of the "climb," I just kept repeating to myself: "The horror, the horror..."

When we finally completed the mythical ascension up Mt. Parnassus, we came to a well deserved stop. Still lost in an Apocalyptic vision, I looked up to wife! "What are you doing here?" she was screaming, followed by: "I want a divorce!" Anyway, the story was that, after shopping at the Galleries Lafayette, she had noticed the ride coming up then easily spotted my cycling jersey and tights in the sea of backpacks and jeans. I simply related my impression of the ride so far: "The horror, the horror..." and prayed that our marriage could be saved.

As for the ride, I realized that the only way to get any kind of workout would be to hang out at the back, then ride past the pack whenever there was open pavement or an uphill, the latter causing most participants to stop dead in their tracks.
As I let the whole ride pass me, I noted that the complete lack of physical self-expression, that is of getting some speed going, was sublimated in other ways. One guy had decided to do the whole ride backwards. Other forms of hotdogging, e.g., skating on two wheels, were all characterized by the fact that they could be practiced comfortably by individuals with a heavy smoking habit.

Indeed, a thorough search revealed one other person in cycling togs, and one 60 year old guy with Salomon TR racing skates wearing running tights and a fleece jacket -- everyone else had the above mentioned urban uniform. You see, the popularity of roller skating in Paris is in part due to the fact that it is not regarded as a sport by the locals who, unlike their provincial counterparts, have a horror of aerobic activity. Years of hanging out at the Cafe de Flore taught me that acceptable Parisian sporting activity consists of two weekly sessions max at the gym, two ski trips per year, and the month of August sun tanning on some beach. Of course, a pack of cigarettes a day keeps the appetite away, allowing Parisians to preserve a trim figure, despite their limited level of athletic activity.
The few fitness skating practice their sport exactly once a week when they all congregate on the banks of the Seine early Sunday morning. They make sure to spend at least 50% of their workout standing around discussing the relative merits of their racing skates, and the rest of the time doing pace lines up and down the one mile stretch of open road. Of course, this only occurs during the six months of the year that the banks are closed to traffic.

The above digression was intended to help one better understand the following phenomenon: One of the aformentioned urban warriors was the unique skater shod in 5-wheel racing skates. Yes, he was wearing jeans and carbon fiber skates. Moreover, for reasons best known to himself, he felt compelled to impress the staff by riding in front of them on the Montparnasse climb then coast on his real wheels with his legs spread eagled. Who knows, maybe he thought that doing this trick was the reason that racing skates don't have a rear brake. Anyway, he succeeded in wowing the staff, but unfortunately, the cumbersome combination of wrist guards and ski glove prevented me from giving him an "L" sign, the international "Loser" symbol.

To get back to the ride, life at the back was hardly less annoying than at the front. Staff members kept yelling at people to speed up and keep with the group, and I quickly scoped the staff to see if any toted cattle prods. When I didn't see any, I half expected them to nip at my heels like self-respecting Border Collies. I found the cattle/sheep analogy rather depressing and started realizing that I was not enjoying this ride at all.
Indeed, back in 1996, I made a vow after seeing the movie "Muriel's Wedding" that every ride had to be like "Dancing Queen," i.e., my motto on a ride was "have fun or head home." So, I was giving serious consideration to bailing, especially since we were once again close to my house. My deep thoughts on this subject would be interrupted at every intersection by feelings of profound embarrassment at the sight of pedestrians waiting for this oversized crowd to pass so they could enjoy the luxury of crossing the street. "I'm so sorry," I wanted to say to every single one of them.

Anyway, I decided to hang in a little longer, as we were heading towards the Right Bank and nearer the Bastille, which I assumed was the final destination. We crossed the Seine all right, but since the Parisian bridges are national monuments meticulously maintained to preserve all of their original splendor, the crossing was another mini Paris-Roubaix.
This time around about half the group decided to avoid the cobblestones and, like an army of ants, they crawled up up the smooth sidewalk, thereby flouting the official rule to stay on the road at all times, the officials being unable or unwilling to stop the skaters from swarming around hapless pedestrians.

After crossing the river, we stopped for the n'th time, but this pause had special personal significance -- it was the one in which some skater bashed right into me. I saw him coming at the last second, so managed to push him away, and he very politely informed me of his beginner status as he bounced off and continued on unfazed.
We then turned left onto the rue de Rivoli, and I noted that the ride was headed in the bus lane, but that the police and staff were skating on the otherwise deserted street. I decided to finally let off some steam and sped up to 15-20 mph. I was able to pass almost the whole ride in about 1 mile. Things were finally going the way I wanted and I finally got to the ABBA part of the ride. That ended soon enough, as some angry staff member started barking at me to get back in the bus lane. I was evaluating his right to boss me around when a much more pleasant staffer kindly asked me to please get in the bus lane. I acceded to this polite request and immediately noted a train of skaters passing me on the road I had just vacated. That wasn't too serious, because we all had to stop soon enough, at exactly the point where the final stage of the Tour de France gets to the rue de Rivoli.
Anyway, at this n+1'st stop my attention turned to one of the skate policemen who was wearing a helmet, but hadn't bothered to buckled his strap. Since there was nothing better to do, I first tried to imagine some way of mentioning the subject of his helmet, then toyed with the idea of "accidently" knocking it off his head once we got rolling again. However, with only about 3 minutes of solid effort under my belt, I was still alert enough not to mess with the fuzz.
So, we eventually turned off and reached the avenue de l'Opera. We were heading up to the wide boulevard de l'Opera with our side ofthe street totally closed off and going at a reasonable pace. A pace much too slow for Mr. Carbon Skates and Jeans: He decided to pass the whole group on the other side of the street, that is, against traffic and outside the rolling enclosure.
I'm not sure what it's like in skate racing, but in bicycle racing, a double yellow violation is a serious offence. Plus, this supposed racer found someone dumb enough to draft him, so he was putting others at risk as well. This is for those of you who thought my "Loser" opinion was uncalled for.
After l'Opera, we turned off on some street I had never been on, and I tried moving up on the left. Apparently, the same thought had occurred to a bunch of people, included staff members, who started trying to pass me without too much room to do so. I had my fill of being pushed around, so I moved back to the center of the road, when all of a sudden, the ride stopped at some square. I had no clue if this was the end of the ride, and it took me a while to find a staff member to ask. In fact, it was the half way mark, at which point was a traditional 10 minute stop allowing the majority of people who hadn't bothered to bring any food or water to get some. I was sufficiently hydrated since I had a large water bottle stowed in my jersey pocket.
It was 4 p.m., and an hour and half had elapsed, so apparently there would be another hour and a half of riding. I pointed out to the staff member that the sun was setting at 5 p.m., and he mentioned something about a possible shortcut. Anyway, I was supposed to take a train at 6 p.m., so I finally decided to bail, and went home.

I was somewhat tired after 90 minutes of slow skating, but I think this was mostly due to nervous exhaustion. Otherwise, it gave me the satisfaction of having all my opinions about mass skates confirmed. In particular, the Sunday Afternoon Skate lived up to expectations -- the competent staff combined with the effective police enclosure provided a safe environment for beginners to leisurely discover the charms of Parisian pavement. My critique is more a reflection of my personal prejudices and peccadilloes than anything else -- I just didn't like it.

Well, if you've managed to make it this far, you have come to realize that I am quite the critical guy by nature. Yup, nothing relaxes me more than finding something annoying to criticize and the Skate and Snails ride gave me enough raw material to help me relax right through the traditionally trying Christmas season!

Appendix, March 24, 2002

I didn't think it was possible, but I had another "Skate and Snail" experience today:

My wife and I were skating on the banks of the Seine when she was seized by an "emergency" which had to be dealt with immediately. Given the proximity in space-time of the start of the Sunday Skate, I thought that this would be the best bet for a welcome skate rest stop.
How wrong I was. Despite years of hosting an event gathering tens of thousands of skaters each weekend, no amenities had been installed, e.g., portable toilets that are commonly available in the US for any event surpassing a few hundred participants. In fact, even the toilets of the sponsoring skate shop were closed. We were told by skate organisers that the only possibility were the toilets of the adjacent cafe. Catherine made a bee-line for the entrance. The following is a description of what she related to me.

How my wife learned the proper speedskating posture

As is typical of Parisian cafes, the toilets were downstairs, in the stairs being of the very narrow spiral type, not the most convienent for a skater in quest of relief. The real shock came when she discovered that the bathroom was a "Turkish toilet." This is the Parisian term for the third world commode consisting of a hole with two anti-slip surfaces for your feet (slipping not good). She managed to do her business, and in so doing, finally figured out the "air chair" posture that characterizes good skating form. Maybe such toilets should be provided in all speedskating training camps.
I can attest to her improved form, as she managed to attain much higher speeds in the ensuing ride.

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