PARIS — Some are struggling with their boots or snapping on wristbands. Others are raring to go, jumping off curbs and executing perfect turns and on-a-dime stops.
It's Friday night, and hordes of inline skating fans are gearing up at the Place d'Italie for a calorie-crunching ritual that has become as Parisian as croissants and coffee — the weekly cross-city rally.
Call it a craze, a fad, a fashion, but if you don't have a pair of inline skates in Paris this summer, you're behind the curve.
The sport has taken the city by storm, drawing people of all ages, races and mindsets to the Friday night rallies where up to 25,000 people join the frenetic, thigh-busting three-hour trip around Paris.
"I like the solidarity. It's different. It's not everyone for themselves," says 27-year-old Nadia Kadri.
"It's the end of the week. Everyone really lets go," says Alex Agi, 18, who has been inline skating for nine years.
But wobbly beginners, beware. This outing is not for the fainthearted.
"The Friday trip is for experts. It's tough, it's speed, it's everything together," says 56-year-old Patrick Brousse, one of the 80-odd monitors who shepherd the massive human train along its route. He said the crowd can stretch two miles and can take between 20 and 40 minutes to clear intersections.
Such is the rally's popularity that it nearly became a victim of its own success.
Last month, a dispute between police and organizers got the sociable workout canceled for the first time.
Police wanted to confine the rally, which changes its itinerary each week, to four routes. Organizers said that would kill the rally's free spirit. Police then withdrew the organizers' authorization.
A week later, 15,000 fans skated, unescorted, through the city in a rally-cum-protest. Shortly afterward, the rallies were given the right to roll, and to choose their own routes, within some security limits.
"I think the police saw that people really care about this rally, that they are capable of motivating themselves and fighting for it," says Boris Belohlavek, head of rally organizer Pari-Roller.
The French capital is not the only European city shaken by skating fever. In Berlin, biweekly Blade Nights attract tens of thousands of skaters. In flat Holland, the sport is at home, and every week thousands of people skate over the canal bridges into Amsterdam.
Paris' love affair with inline skating was born of necessity.
Long viewed as a sport for risk-loving teenagers, adults got into the groove when massive transport strikes in December 1995 left people scrambling for new ways to get to work.
"Before the strikes, inline skating was seen as marginal, but during the strikes people saw pictures on news bulletins of adults in suits, skating. That was the first psychological breakthrough," says Hugues Thevenen, who runs the Roller Station skating shop in central Paris.
But not everyone is happy with the new craze.
Jean-Pierre Gerabek, chairman of the Automobile Club of Paris' Ile-de-France region, complains that the Friday night rallies can cause delays of up to 50 minutes for drivers. He has urged skaters to realize they are taking serious risks on the road.
"Drivers aren't used to people on wheels getting between cars and holding onto the back bumpers," he says.
For skating fans who want to enjoy the buzz but aren't quite up to the bumper-clinging standard, there is a slower rally on Sunday, and also classes.
"At 62, you don't have very good balance. But I have classes every Saturday and Sunday, and I get around everywhere," says Jean-Max Riviere, at his class by the Bastille Opera.
Inline skating has not just given Parisians an ecologically sound way to get around their city. It's also given the long arm of the law faster legs.
France's first inline skating police brigade, boasting 25 officers, is up and rolling. When they are not training or shepherding Friday's tour, the team cruises suburban streets.
"They stop people, do identity checks. These people can go everywhere. They are more mobile than a vehicle and they can go very fast," says police officer and trainer Marc Bella.
But there is another benefit — the hip factor.
"It makes it much easier to have contact with people. The dialogue is easier. People are more welcoming," says a 25-year-old police officer who asked to be identified only as Stephane.
"Also," he adds, "it gives us a better image — the image of young, sporty people. It's not an image of repression."
On the Net:
Rally Organizers: www.pari-roller.com