It’s that time of year again, when 10-o’clock sunsets transform the capital into a peddler’s playground and cyclists from all around town make the pilgrimage to the Bois de Vincennes. Slightly larger than its counterpart to the west, it has all the trappings of a Parisian park – manufactured lakes, glitzy restaurants, racetracks, etc., minus the highbrow attitude that so unpleasantly reigns in Boulogne. In addition, there’s a 14th-century château, France’s largest zoo (also, alas, the most poorly maintained), a velodrome, stables, a floral park and much more. The single greatest drawback for a dirt rider is the topography. Although there are scores of intertwining dirt trails, the entire 2,300-acre park is flat – not a single steep descent.
Tucked away in the southeast corner of the city, the Bois de Vincennes is only slightly farther from central Paris than the Bois de Boulogne. If you’re renting a bicycle (see box), you can take the Métro to Porte Dorée; otherwise bike parallel along the Seine to the Pont National bridge. The Bois de Vincennes begins just to the north and east of the bridge, off the boulevard Poniatowski in the 12th arrondissement.
Lac Daumesnil stretches out over the section of the park closest to Paris. Heading east along the lake’s edge from the Porte Dorée, the modern mountain biker gets the distinct feeling of being a displaced model for Georges Seurat’s painting, “Summer Sunday at the Grande Jatte.” It’s a very French way of beginning your “tour en bicyclette.” However, when dodging doggy mess is no longer your idea of fun, the lake’s eastern edge (the Carrefour de la Conservation) provides a gateway to more adventuresome off-road riding.
Biking the untamed expanses of the Bois de Vincennes can be a mixed blessing for serious cyclists. While hundreds of off-road trails can provide endless hours of pleasure, the complex network of poorly marked “sentiers” makes navigating the woods an unwelcome challenge. Fortunately, the Bois is covered with an extensive system of meandering canals, along which run dozens of prime dirt trails. This is by far the most enjoyable way to discover the park’s natural beauty.
Starting at the Carrefour de la Conservation, the path along the canal leads in the general direction of the château. After several kilometers of following the man-made canal, the bike path comes to a T, where two canals merge. To the south lies a large patch of dense forest, with a maze of small dirt trails. To the north lies the Château de Vincennes. Depending on the traffic, which varies from pleasant weekday strolling to frustrating weekend hysteria, the château may be most accessible by any route other than the canal path. Two hundred meters after crossing the Route de la Tourelle, the Allée Royale, an ancient royal entrance to the château, blazes a large lawn passage wide enough to accommodate the king’s entire entourage. It’s not only the easiest way to reach the château, but it’s a nice change from the sun-deprived trails that run along the canals. With the château looming in the distance, this rendezvous point for kite fliers, dog walkers, horse riders, Frisbee throwers and mountain bikers provides the perfect midday picnic spot.
Getting close to the actual château grounds is a feat for cyclists. From the Allée Royale, it entails braving a mammoth intersection, famed for its overzealous motorists. However, the massive stone structure is best appreciated from afar, with the Eiffel Tower in the background serving as a reminder of the park’s proximity to Paris. The pedestrian boulevard that extends south towards the Carrefour de la Patte d’Oie offers the best view of the château, not merely because it’s surrounded by nature’s canopy, but because it runs directly into the Bois de Vincennes bicycle track, a 6.6 km loop that attracts serious cyclists. Forming a triangle with the Rond Point de la Pyramide, the bike track is home to avid athletes, none of whom smoke Gitanes or appreciate being cut off by weekend warriors on shiny, overweight mountain bikes. A fast-paced lap around the four-mile track is a great way to test your stamina.
If being overtaken by high-speed racers starts to take a toll on your ego, the bike track can wait until another day. If escaping the hustle and bustle of central Paris is really what you’re after, tranquillity awaits you on the park’s eastern edge. A subtle exit from the bike track at the Rond Point de la Pyramide will not only save you further embarrassment, it will also point you in the direction of the Lac des Minimes, the only portion of the park that has remained truly unscathed by recreation seekers.
A Detour Worth Making
Paris’s eastern arrondissements are often unfairly neglected because of a supposed lack of tourist attractions. If it weren’t for Père Lachaise cemetery, many visitors wouldn’t venture beyond the Bastille. Nevertheless, en route to the Bois de Vincennes, there is much to be discovered. Hidden among semi-highrise residences, just seconds from the town hall of the 12th arrondissement, the magnificent Promenade Plantée is in blossom, awaiting your visit. Craftfully enclosed in a tunnel of green, this subterranean promenade inventively accommodates both pedestrian and biker. Starting at the far end of Allée Vivaldi, the Promenade runs a relatively short distance (2.5 km) before crossing below the Périphérique just minutes from the Bois de Vincennes. It’s an ideal warm-up before tackling the Bois.