Riding his way into history

Riding his way into history

It’s very much a case of “have bicycle, will travel” for the distinguished Monsieur Paul Dubrule, founder of the Paul Dubrule Hotel and Tourism School in Siem Reap.

In 2002, at age 68, Dubrule travelled just over 15,000 kilometres by bicycle from the French town of Fontainebleau to Siem Reap to attend the grand opening of the school that bears his name.

Last weekend he returned to Siem Reap to attend the inaugural Paul Dubrule School Family Bicycle Rally. This time he travelled by air but packed his trusty cycle in a large case and brought it with him in baggage, ready to ride to glory again as the rally’s guest of honour.

And while unpacking the cycle from the case last Saturday morning, he told 7Days, “This is the bicycle I used when I made that trip in 2002. It was specially built for me, and it’s made from titanium. I brought it back to Siem Reap to ride in the rally, and after that I will leave it here as a memento for the school.”

Knowledge of the epic bike journey is now part of the school’s legend, but while the where and when is known, the why is not.

Consequently the big question when meeting Dubrule is: Why?

Why ride a bicycle for 15,000 kilometres when there are such modern wonders as aeroplanes?

Dubrule’s retort revealed his quirky humour. He explained that by setting out by cycle he arrived at the school just as it was completed. Had he gone by airplane, he would have arrived too early.

Tsk tsk. But seriously, he said it was one of those things many men do in late life – meet a challenge while the mind and body is still able.

“I like bicycling,” he said, “I was turning 68 and I thought, ‘OK, I do it now or I will never do it.’”

Dubrule is one of the leading figures in the world of international hotels and, as the co-founder of the Accor group, owners of the Sofitel in Siem Reap, he’s been coming to Cambodia since 1984. At the turn of the century he decided that his hometown Fontainebleau and Siem Reap should officially become sister cities.

“In late 1999 and 2000 I was the mayor of Fontainebleau and I wanted to join the two cities. I had negotiations with the Siem Reap governor at that time, the then King Norodom Sihanouk, and the president of the senate.

“They all agreed to the idea. But I felt I had to do something further. With the development of tourism in Siem Reap and the lack of education in the tourism sector, I figured the best thing was to build a school. My idea was that the city of Fontainebleau would offer the school.”

Wrong. Dubrule hadn’t taken into account the vicissitudes of democracy and in an election he was promptly voted out office.

“Joining Fontainebleau with Siem Reap was a great idea, but the voters did not see it that way. They thought it was fantasy. I thought the issue would be good for my election, but it gave me nothing,” Dubrule said.

But Dubrule had still promised Siem Reap a school. He said, “My mayoral successor didn’t want to have anything to do with a school in Siem Reap. But I had given a promise, so I decided to undertake it myself.”

The idea of bicycling to Siem Reap for the school’s opening also had its genesis during Dubrule’s mayoral tenure.

Fontainebleau created another sister city partnership with Konstanz in Germany, and Mayor Dubrule rode his bicycle to that city to meet the mayor.
A colleague said that after setting a precedent, he should also travel to Siem Reap by bicycle.

“What a crazy idea,” Dubrule said. “But since I was also crazy, the idea started circulating in my head. After one year I said, why not? And since I was no longer mayor I had some time to spare.

“The school was under construction, and I said I will come for the grand opening. The school was finished and had just opened with the first 60 students. At that time, after eight months of cycling, I arrived.”