Seeing Paris, up close and quickly Motorcycle: There's an exciting view of the city available to those brave enough to tour, at high speed, on the back of a bike.

June 14, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It is a gorgeous afternoon in Paris, and I would love to go for a long, rambling walk. But I'm going sightseeing. And you're thinking how wonderful sightseeing in Paris is on a gorgeous afternoon.

But, I am going by taxi.

Even worse, I am going by motorcycle taxi.

Paris taxis are a terror. Because nearly every driver drives as if he were in a stock-car race, they have always scared me. And motorcycles almost everywhere go too fast, don't they?

But before I came to Paris, a small mention of a motorcycle taxi service there had caught my eye, and I decided if I had a free afternoon, I'd give it a try.

But now I'm wondering: Am I crazy?

"It will be OK," says Silvan Sebastian, who introduces himself as my "p-lot" - that's pilot. He means driver, but I'm sure pilot is probably more fitting. We are going to fly. I know it. But he has laughing brown eyes and a warm smile. I feel better. He says he has been riding motorcycles 11 years and never had an accident. Even better.

But I'm still not convinced that this is a good idea.

Sebastian unpacks a helmet for me from a side-pod. It is equipped with a microphone and a long wire to plug into his helmet so that we can communicate during the ride. He shows me how to put on the helmet: thumbs inside, squeeze my head in. It's heavy.

He explains how to get on the cycle. Step on the foot rest, a hand on his shoulder, the other on the back storage bin and swing up and over with my right leg. Just like riding a horse.

"You can hold onto my waist or the two hand grips by your hips," he says. I consider it.

"I think," I tell him, "I will hold the grips. I don't think your waist could take how hard I'm going to hold on."

He laughs.

The motorcycle taxi service is called SP2. It is available 24 hours a day, by reservation only. Drivers on sturdy BMW 1100 RT motorcycles will pick you up in the city or suburbs and whisk you away - to your next appointment, to the airport or on a sightseeing tour. My hour of sightseeing cost 400 French francs, about $80.

Sebastian and I are on our way to the Bastille. He takes it easy as we pull away from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower and head toward Les Invalides and Napoleon's Tomb. We are just a few minutes into this ride, but just as I start to think I might actually enjoy it, Sebastian turns onto an entry ramp for the Quai des Tuileries, an expressway along the Seine.

We go faster. I am looking over his shoulder, trying to read the speedometer. I sit back; I don't want to know. We are passing speeding cars. We are heading into a tunnel, and Sebastian is now making his lane the lane markings between the speeding cars.

"You know," I say tentatively into my microphone, "this is how motorcycle accidents happen."

"No," he says. "It is all right. I am motorcycle p-lot!"

"Is it legal?" I ask as we roar within inches and past a police car.

"Of course," he says. "Did I not just pass a policeman? Did he stop me?"

It's a point. But I am still relieved when we are off the highway and back on the crowded streets.

When we get to the Bastille, Sebastian stops so I can take pictures, and then we are off again, breezing down long, winding streets filled with bakeries and outdoor cafes. We go to Place Vendome and stop by the Ritz and the expensive shops of Jeux Descartes and Chanel, and then we are off again, on our way to the fashionable rue du Faubourg St.-Honore and the president's palace, the well-fortified Palais de l'Elysee, where Napoleon abdicated.

All along the way, Sebastian is telling me what I am seeing. He apologizes for his English, but it is very good and it is charming with his French accent. And I am not afraid anymore. It's fun. It's more than fun. It's wonderful, weaving through traffic in the warm breeze of a sunny afternoon.

Usually, Sebastian is carrying businessmen to the airport or high-fashion models to a daylong shoot. It is rare that a tourist wants a sightseeing tour, but SP2 is willing.

SP2 is owned by Jean-Christophe Saliou, a 29-year-old entrepreneur. He used to work for French television, and more than once guests were late for various shows because they were caught in traffic.

"One day, I had my own bike, and I said, 'I'll come get you.' I told myself then, this was something that could be done," Saliou says. "After I had managed a messenger service for four years, I decided to give it a try."

With the help of the messenger company he was working for, he was able to get financing and started the business. He now has 10 bikes on the streets, and all his drivers are at least 30. Most are married with children. All speak English and are trained by police officers and have at least five years' riding experience.

"It is the only such service in Paris since 1959," Saliou says. "There were once four such companies, but they all made mistakes and went out of business. We have studied and learned.

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