PARIS--The Metro was on strike. Or maybe it wasn't. There seemed to be some confusion in the coll-ective-bargaining consciousness as to whether the RER, France's intercity train service, would alone be immobilized, or if the work stoppage would also devour the Metro. In a perfectly French half-measure of insoluble logic, some of the Metros were operating on a reduced schedule, some were not. And no one knew what would happen tomorrow. It was a phenomenological strike.
I stood on the Platform at La Bastille, weighing my options. We were staying at a three-star hotel near Place de Clinchy, a modest residence whose manager was feckless in the art of summoning highly coveted cabs. "Oh, sorry, ezz impossible," he informed us.
I considered renting a car. But Paris has fairly rowdy traffic on a good day. This was not a good day. The Biennale des Antiquaires, the Mondial de l'Automobile, the Fete de Jardin and a dozen international symposiums were in town. Every hotel in town was booked solid. If the Metros shut down, traffic would lock up like a waterlogged engine.
The third option I considered, gravely. Motorcycles are wonderful transportation, efficient, fun and agile. Practiced riders can slip in between cars stalled in traffic with eel-like grace. You can park them anywhere--no small consideration in a city where parking places are more rare than smoke-free restaurants.
But, of course, there is a downside to motorcycles: death. Or at least serious injury to one's head, spleen, elbows or legs. I had plans for my legs.
Furthermore, I would not exactly describe myself as an experienced rider. Sure, I'd taken the lonesome highway trips on the big Hogs, to Myrtle and Daytona. I'd topped out on a Kawasaki 1200 at around 150 mph. Child's play. Dicing with aggressive, unforgiving Parisian traffic on a motorcycle with your loved one riding on the back is playing with high-amperage mortality wearing wet socks.
Even so, I needed to get around the city. I disembarked at The Etoile stop and walked down Avenue la Grand Armee, where the motorcycle shops are clustered.
A critical difference between cars and motorcycles--as in critical care--is that while cars have gotten progressively safer (Explorers notwithstanding), motorcycles remain as deadly as ever. Maybe more so. Recently I took a wet-leather-red Ducati 916 for a test ride. This is widely considered the finest sport bike in the world. With 109 hp at the crank, this Italian hyper-bike has a power-to-weight ratio of about 1:5.60--that is, one hp for every 5.6 pounds, including average-sized rider. That other red Italian, the Ferrari 360 Modena, has a p/w of about 1:8 (400 hp/3250 pounds). The Ducati accelerates with a snatching, violent blurt of fierce, palpitating power that can easily throw you off if you haven't positioned your weight well forward. At first, it overwhelms your senses, like really hot sex. The bike's huge brakes will likewise launch you over the handlebars. Also like really hot sex. And the bike is so twitchy, like a Chinese fighting kite, the slightest bumble can result in a nasty high-speed spill. See above on really hot sex.
As I walked up Grand Armee, I was amazed that so many Parisians prefer these mean-tempered, high-speed adrenaline pumps in the city: Hayabusas, Yamaha ZFRs, Honda CBR1100s. Jesus, boys. In a hurry?
These machines are menacing, motorized sociopaths, all fat tires and sharp angles and jutting chins, the frames shrink-wrapped with composite faring like a comic-book hero's musculature. They promise nothing but speed, heartache and saddle sores. The holy mission of one of these machines is to turn you into creamed corn under some city bus.
I could think of no other class of vehicles so wholly unsuited for urban use. It's like using a Lambo Diablo to bring back mulch from the Home Depot, or making your Corvette do double duty as a golf cart.
Some blocks down from the Arc de Triomphe, I found a scooter rental operation and put down $125 for a three-day rental of a blue Yamaha 125 scooter, with helmets. Not exactly a motorcycle, a scooter--patterned after the classic Vespa of Roman Holiday fame--features an engine under the seat and an open frame, so that you sit with your feet flat on the floorboard.
These are quiet and tame transportation, fun and easy to ride, even for novice bikers. Rebecca and I saddled up and forded into dense Parisian traffic along Rue de Pompe. Soon we were riding, hipbone to door handle, with Paris taxis swirling in Brownian motion around the Arc de Triomphe.
In 15 minutes, we had two close calls in which drivers simply disregarded our presence, squeezing us off the road or forcing me to grab front and rear brakes and slide the bike out of harm's way. Within the hour, we'd almost been broadsided by a car speeding through a red light.
I was beginning to see the light. Parisian bikers prefer hot sport bikes for practical, not glandular reasons. In the high-stakes, split-second world of competitive urban traffic, the rules are reversed for bikers. The more powerful and agile a bike, the safer for all concerned.
The lesson here is that, for all vehicles, there should be minimum standards of performance. Cars that can't get out of their own way can get out of the way of others. For buyers searching for safety, remember: A little extra horsepower can prevent an accident, and that is better than all the airbags and baby-buggy bumpers in the world.