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There are few realms in which I feel superior to the French. They look better, dress better, eat better and exercise better judgment when it comes to true love and global politics. But there is one area in which I am sure my sloppy, chaotic American childhood has made me stronger–sports. Although I am possibly the worst athlete to ever emerge from the Connecticut suburbs, I am confident that I could beat any random stranger on the streets of Paris in any sport they chose.

There are of course excellent French athletes. This country fields winning football teams, swimmers and near-the-top tennis players. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is known to be fond of running. In the recent Olympics, France even won a gold medal in handball, which I am told is a real sport that requires talent and practice.

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But this is not a culture that values everyday athletics. Only 6 percent of French adults belong to a gym. Even among the elite, the American habit of sending children to soccer practice every afternoon hardly exists. Sporty children simply aren’t rewarded. The best French universities could care less if little Pascal plays excellent tennis; they only look to his calculus results.

Nevertheless, the French are obsessed with their physique and French women in particular take a dim view toward cellulite. And while the average pharmacy is rich in lotions and potions to fight all sorts of weight gain, the new French affection for hamburgers is overwhelming traditional remedies. More stringent medicine in required.

Enter aquabiking–the new practice of putting a stationary bike in a swimming pool and having people pedal on it, in their bathing suits.

“It’s the most disgusting thing I have ever heard,” says my husband Florent as I ready my kit for my first foray into French athletics.

“Why? People go swimming in a public pool,” I respond. “They sweat.”

He scrunches up his face. “This is worse. Much worse.”

I fixate momentarily on axle grease and soupy water, but push it out of my head. French magazine La Femme Actuelle touted the practice as a surefire way “to tone the legs and abdominal muscles, without pain.” While I am confident of my superior athletic ability, I am the first to admit that Parisian women have some nice looking gams.

“I think they know something we don’t,” I tell Florent.

“Whatever,” he says.

I choose a small facility in the 11th arrondissement, notable for being among the first pioneers of aquabiking. Inside it feels like a spa, hot and steamy with a tiny swimming pool full of steel spinning bikes that look like they are being sterilized inside a giant dental tray.

It is Sunday, an inviolate day of rest in France, so the mood among my fellow bikers—hung-over club girls and middle-aged housewives–is heavy. Eyes are averted as we put on our bathing suits, take a quick pre-shower and don plastic shoes. Everyone finds a bike and waits, faintly  pushing on pedals that to my mind offer no resistance whatsoever.

But then the instructor arrives. He enters the room with a booming “Bonjour mesdames,” and bounds to the front of the pool. There he drops his robe, and holds, for just a moment, a David-esque pose. We all turn to take in a tattoo that runs down the side of his sculpted torso and under a tiny speedo of glittering blue cloth. The ladies sigh. The mood lightens. Let the cycling begin.

“Alors,” he says. “On va travailler un peu aujourd’hui?”

The ‘work’ as he puts it begins slowly. We are told to pedal softly for about five minutes while we stretch our arms, backs and necks. Then we pedal harder at 45 second intervals but since the bike offers little resistance, this requires balance rather than strength. I wobble dangerously toward my neighbor, a stout lady with a beehive hairdo and burgundy-tinted glasses.

“Not so much bouncing, madame,” says the instructor gaily. “Try to be even. Rise above it.”

To explain he holds his arms out and reaches toward the heavens, biking more and more vigorously until he creates mini tidal waves with his considerable thighs. “Pousse, pousse, pousse,” he shouts joyfully. The ladies begin to sweat profusely and the pool water develops a fine sheen. A woman in a white coat comes in and takes small sample of water and slinks off. It becomes unbearably hot and despite my better judgement I dab my face with swimming pool water.

“Voila,” shouts the instructor, as the ladies hit their crescendo. “C’est le aquabiking! Say no to cellulite. Non, non, non.”

Oh woman actually gasps in ecstasy. “Je dit non. Non,” she cries.

And then, suddenly, it stops. The instructor slides off the bike, floats on his back and instructs us to hold our legs above the water in what appear to be abdominal exercises. The club girls give it a try but most of the older ladies simply ignore him.

“Ca suffit,” says my neighbor with the beehive.

And we are finished. We haul ourselves out of the pool, united as soldiers that have survived the front. Not as easy as it looks, they say to me. No, not at all, I say strangely cheered by the experience. On my way home I swear my thighs feel stronger, sleeker, more Parisian.

The Verdict

Pluses: Aquabiking feels like a cross between a facial and pilates. My pores opened; I did sweat. For a moment my thighs may have tingled with exertion but I can’t be sure.

Minuses: It’s a little like exercising in the Amazon basin just after a midsummer downpour. Be prepared to feel like you are sucking in indeterminate amounts of questionable steam and water.

Where to workout in Paris

Municipal pools. There  are 38 public pools in Paris many of which offer aquabiking or aquavelo. The price is right but be warned that they recommend you arrive an hour ahead of the thirty minute sessions.

La Maison Popincourt. This place is nice and clean but charges 30 euros per individual session. This is expensive in the US, extortionate in France.

Club Med gym. These are the most prevalent gyms in Paris. If you are American and move here, this is probably the gym you will join. It’s high-end Waou chain offers aquabiking.


  • Harper Montgomery

    I’d like to hear how this aquabiking pans out in the long run & why it is so popular amongst a group of Parisian ladies who otherwise don’t love to exercise. Alas, you’ve left me quite curious abo

  • I’ve always been curious about this form of ‘exercise’ and since La Maison Popincourt space is close to me, I might give it a try, if only for the engaging commentary. Thanks for this fun tale!

  • mia

    LEAVE A MESSAGE I’ve stumbled upon your blog in the middle of the night, grumpy cos my insomnia is keeping me awake again, and now I can’t even remember why I was in a bad mood. I laughed so much reading this post!! ^^ You have a great writing style and sense of humor. I’ll definitely be visiting your blog often from now on :)

  • […] a pool is already offered at luxury wellness spas like Cal-A-Vie, and its growth across Europe in France, Italy, and Spain inspired French expat Esther Gauthier to bring it to the Big […]

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