The tranquillity of the bright Parisian morning is abruptly shattered as a herd of gendarmes race around the corner, shouting and waving their arms. Passers-by turn and stare as the uniformed posse swiftly close on their fleeing quarry - a small man in a Spider-Man costume and trainers. But they are not quite quick enough. As the first officer makes a desperate lunge for his legs, "Spider-Man" leaps, grabbing the sheer side of a modern tower block. In the few minutes it takes for a crowd to gather, the wannabe webslinger is already 10 stories up, and moving swiftly towards the summit, another 38 stories above his head.
Meet Alain Robert, the self-styled "Spider-Man", and arguably the world's most famous freeclimber. Without the aid of ropes, harnesses or even a safety helmet, Robert has conquered over 70 of the world's most imposing buildings - from the Eiffel Tower to the Empire State, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Today, he is taking on the impressive Total Tower in La Defense, the principal Parisian business district, again with just his hands and feet.
Glinting in the early autumnal sunshine, the metallic building bears more than a passing resemblance to the Canary Wharf tower - another of Robert's conquests - not least in its height. As Robert recedes up the side of the shiny skyscraper, the gendarmes seal off the road below.
The crowd swells, and a local TV crew arrives. Robert reaches the halfway point, roughly 100 metres above us, and one of the policemen pushes us back further: "I have seen a man try this kind of thing before," he tells me in broken English. "He didn't make it." To reinforce the point, he makes an elaborate gesture with his hands: "It was like a massacre."
Oblivious, Robert swiftly reaches the summit, and manages a wave to the crowd before he is arrested by more police officers on the roof. The entire ascent has taken a little over 20 minutes; roughly the same time it would take to climb the stairs.
One hour, and presumably a severe ticking-off, later, I meet Robert outside the local police station. "I don't normally climb that fast," says the diminutive Frenchman, grinning and flicking back his long hair, "but my car is here and I had to do it in double- quick time to avoid a parking ticket." He is clad in green-leather trousers and a battered leather jacket, and sports an earring in the shape of a peacock feather. His hunched and twisted body bears the scars of three decades spent freeclimbing. Over the past 11 years in particular, the climber, who looks like the love child of Quasimodo and Iggy Pop, has shunned the mountains where he learnt his trade for the thrill of "buildering", or urban climbing - taking on giant buildings with just his trusted climbing shoes and a small bag of chalk.
Robert, who lives near Montpellier in south-eastern France, has broken more bones during his career than he can count, but claims he has suffered only five "serious" falls, between five and 20 metres. One of these, from the latter height, left him in a coma for three weeks.
"Some people, even though they have watched me, say, `Maybe that guy has a trick'. They cannot believe it is true," Robert says, "but I am just using my bare hands." His injuries have left him with severely restricted mobility in his limbs - as much as 60 per cent - and an inner- ear problem gives him vertigo. Yet still he climbs ever higher and quicker.
"Even I don't know why I do it, but I like it," says Robert. "Even when the doctors told me it wasn't possible, still I tried very hard to climb again. It's the best feeling there is. In many ways, maybe it is similar to sex: it is having a big pleasure in doing something you really like. But then, sex is very short and the climb is long."
Robert's wife and three sons understandably don't share his enthusiasm. …