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Paris by night a skater's dream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PARIS - 10 p.m. Friday, Place d'Italie. Francis Thomas, a k a "Fanta Boy," is here with his wheels on, ready to roll.

All week, the lanky, unmarried immigrant from Cameroon, 25, has waited for this moment. It's what he daydreams about while working as a security guard: the wind in his face, the pavement under his feet, the thrill of streaking downhill at 30 mph.

"Once you've tasted the Friday night ride, you become impatient for Friday to roll around again," Thomas says. "You can't live without it."

After nightfall on the last day of the work week, something strange happens on the avenues and boulevards of Paris. By the thousands, tipped off by the Internet, cellular telephones and word of mouth, people like Thomas lace up their in-line skates and assemble for a 15-mile mass trek through the French capital.

During the warmest days of summer last year, this unusual parade, known as the "Friday Night Fever," was drawing 25,000 people - the population of a good-size town. This year, Boris Belohlavek, 29, a computer engineer who plots the skaters' weekly route, expects 35,000, maybe more.

For skaters throughout the world, this has become the equivalent of the Boston Marathon or the yearly conclave of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts in Sturgis, S.D. It is the sum of their sport/passion/lifestyle. Already, it's an urban legend.

"We're thinking of bringing a group over," says David Miles, 44, president of the California Outdoor Rollerskating Association, speaking by telephone from San Francisco. "I've got some people coming up here from L.A. tomorrow. They keep asking me: 'When are we going to Paris?'"

How exceptional is the Fever? According to Miles, San Francisco boasts the biggest "night skate" in the United States every Friday. Typical attendance there is 350 - or 1 percent of what is anticipated in the French capital as the weather here turns balmy.

The ritual is so unusual that some social scientists have perfected their own skating skills and trail along each week, wondering if they are witnessing the future of their country. Heard that the French are clannish, tradition-bound couch potatoes? Not between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. at the Fever, anyway.

Here, Parisians mix with "banlieusards," residents of the economically depressed suburbs. French of European stock mingle with immigrants and offspring of immigrants.

"You meet a lot of people. There's great ambience," says Andre Baron, 37, an electrician from the suburb of Courbevoie. "I come to make friends - male and female." He has been skating since last May, when colleagues at work needled him about not getting enough exercise.

"At the skate, you get whites, blacks, 'beurs' [young people of Arab origin]," says sociologist Anne-Marie Waser, 39, who has been on in-line skates for a year , following skaters with her questions and whirring tape recorder. "What intrigues me as a sociologist is that we can have so many people together with so few rules."

Set in motion by three whistle blasts, the horde sets off at 10 p.m. from the Place d'Italie in a working-class neighborhood of southeastern Paris. Following a different route each week, the wheeled cortege climbs up and down Montmartre and the other hills of Paris.

Stretched out over as much as three miles, "les rollers" trundle by monuments such as the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, their beauty even more striking in nighttime floodlights.

Belohlavek intentionally charts each course to include at least one bone-jarring passage down cobbled streets.

To provide an escort to the weekly event, two years ago the Paris police department created the world's first police brigade on roller skates. "There are often accidents, people wounded," says Pascal Furbini, chief of the 18-officer detachment.

Irate Parisian motorists, blocked at red lights for 20 minutes or more as the skaters flow by, often try to force their way through the human traffic.

"When motorists see our uniforms," Furbini says, "they rapidly change behavior."

Some members of the Friday night crowd wear "quads," the old four-wheel type of roller skates, but most are equipped with the sleek, modern in-line variety. Real speed demons wear five-wheel models, known as "skeelers."

Like many Fever regulars, Thomas doesn't wear a helmet, and has no elbow, hand, knee or leg padding under his baggy blue windbreaker and jeans. He loves the thrill he experiences when he rockets downhill, knowing that nothing will cushion the pain if he goes down.

Such carefree abandon is atypical, but accidents are common enough that two ambulances follow the crowd. On average each week, five skaters are hurt badly enough to be hospitalized with broken bones, head and other injuries.

One night in October, the Fever reported its first fatality. Pierre Derud, a member of the yellow-shirted volunteer skate patrol, hit a raised fluorescent marker dividing two lanes of a Left Bank boulevard. He was moving downhill, speedster's skeelers on his feet and his hands clasped behind his back. The bump was enough to send him sprawling, and he hit his head on the pavement. Derud, in his 30s, fell into a coma and died.

In the name of freedom and individual choice, the Fever doesn't require skaters to wear helmets. Night skates in the United States usually do - "You have to have a helmet, or we don't want to hear about you," says Mac McCarthy, 45, chairman of the San Diego Skate Club.

As the Fever has spread, threats to its loose and near anarchic character have cropped up. To advertise herself as youthful and dynamic, a right-wing candidate for the Paris mayor's office recently had herself photographed while roller-skating, a development warily watched by longtime Fever-goers.

Belohlavek says the whole thing may be getting so big and cumbersome that it will collapse of its own weight. Rival skating activities are developing, including a less challenging circuit on Sunday afternoons that draws thousands, including entire families.

From authorities may come a demand for more regulation, including the obligatory use of helmets.

Ordinarily, under French traffic regulations, roller-skaters are considered pedestrians and are supposed to stay on the sidewalks. On Friday nights, however, they are explicitly banned from anywhere but the roadway. A government commission is considering whether, in legal terms, a skater moving at 30 mph is really a pedestrian. Changes in the traffic code may be in the offing.

When the Friday night sorties onto the streets of Paris began in 1993, the 20 or so pioneers were afraid they might be arrested. Now the Fever gets an official escort from motorcycle police officers, who clear the streets of cars and people so the skaters can pass.

"To go down the Champs-Elysees with 'motards' opening the way, there is only President Jacques Chirac who can do it," Belohlavek says, "and us."

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