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Bicycling in Paris

You've seen those 1930s photographs of Paris—men in berets bicycling the streets, a baguette tucked under one arm; elegant women in billowing skirts gliding past the Eiffel Tower on two wheels. Until recently though, it was difficult for visitors to cycle in Paris without signing up for a bike tour. That changed in summer 2007, when the City of Paris introduced Vélib' —a bike-rental program.

Vélib' (www.velib.paris.fr), an amalgam of vélo (bike) and liberté (liberty), has been a resounding success. You can't miss the silver-and-purple bikes at more than 1,450 docking stations—and growing—all over the city. The environment-friendly intent of the scheme is to complement the public transport system, encouraging people to use the bikes for short trips around town. With more than 60 million trips, the bikes are showing some wear and tear, so check yours over thoroughly.

There are several stands near the Eiffel Tower—one on Quai Branly at Avenue de la Bourdonnaise, another on Bourdonnaise at the corner of Avenue Rapp, and a third at Rue de Grenelle. This neighborhood is ideal for cycling: the roads are wide, there are several bicycle lanes, and most important, the terrain is gloriously flat. Try a relaxing ride across the Champs de Mars, along Rue St-Dominique, and around the Invalides, for starters.

You'll pay €1 a day, or €5 for a seven-day pass, to use Vélib'. If you ride for less than 30 minutes at a time, there's no additional fee (you get a code to use through the day, which allows you to take out a bike whenever you want one). If you keep a bike for more than 30 minutes, you pay an additional €1, then €2 for the next 30 minutes, and then €4 for each half hour on top of that. If you're spending a lot of time in Paris, opt for the €29 annual pass, which has no daily fee. (There is also a combination métro/bike pass available.) The system accepts debit or credit cards that contain an electronic chip that can be read by the French system; not all cards work, but American Express does. If your card is rejected, don't despair: Fat Tire Bike Tours (01–56–58–10–54 www.fattirebiketours.com/paris) offers inexpensive rentals.

Regardless of how you get around, here are some rules to remember: Stop at red lights (or risk a fine), and watch for vehicles turning right, which may not see you. Cyclists are allowed in most, but not all, bus lanes (watch for no-cycling signs).

The French cycle in high-heeled boots and miniskirts, business suits and loafers—so don't worry if you didn't pack the right biking clothes. Helmets are almost never worn (except by kids) and Vélib' rentals don't include them.

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