The Nightmare of Taking Your Bike on the TGV, and The Glory of Being Done

October 27, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Travelling is often a logistical snake pit. Normally the best thing you can do is relax your facial muscles, grip your bags strongly and keep your head up for the signs. Getting from Montpellier to Paris with my bike required more than the kind of traveler's grit that I'm used to. In hindsight, it didn't have to. Which, yes, is often the case.


I woke up before sunrise the day before I expected to leave for Paris. After breakfast, I headed to the train station with the intention of buying a ticket on a bike-friendly train. It didn't matter at what hour it left, or how long it took, so long as I could get my bike on it.


At the station, I was directed from the local train counter to the TGV (high speed) desk. I was told I couldn't buy tickets on the slower local trains to Paris. Approaching the TGV desk, I was stopped again. This time I was told I couldn't buy any tickets for the next day. Afraid of running into bike-related issues if I came back the same day I planned to travel, I sought out someone else for information about bike regulations. What I had read online had been a total confusing mess.


A woman in a red vest (indicating her ability to provide information) told me that I could not, under any circumstances, take my bike on a train leaving Montpellier unless it was in an housse. This is a heavy duty bike bag that can be purchased at sporting goods stores and requires near-full disassembly of the bike. I asked her where I could get one, and she directed me (rudely) to a local sporting goods store.


I should stop to mention at this point in writing that I already feel my blood churning again.


I found the sporting goods store, but it was closed. Unable to find wifi nearby to look up more information, online advice, or prices, I waited. When the store opened, I went in and looked for an housse (rhymes with “loose”). They had none, and the ones that they didn't have were 80€. I talked to the bike mechanic about riding the train with a bike. Impossible without an housse, he said. And they didn't have any and there weren't any other bike shops in town.


Because laying down on the street wasn't an option, I went back to the train station to wrangle more information out of somebody if it killed them. The TGV website clearly stated that there were trains available which allowed assembled bikes. At the ticket counter, I convinced the man who had previously shooed me away to let me talk to an agent. I insisted to her (kindly, I think), that I needed to get back to Paris with a bike. She insisted that it was impossible on any trains leaving from Montpellier. I asked her if any TGV trains accepted bikes, and she said yes. I asked her if any of those trains left Montpellier and she grunted. I said that well then even if they didn't go to Paris they must go somewhere that has another train that goes to Paris. She turned the computer monitor away from me and told me that no, that wasn't possible. I asked if I could take local trains instead of the high speed rail, since local trains ran from Montpellier all over the country and all of them accepted bikes. No, she said, not to Paris. But then to somewhere else, I said, which had trains that ran to Paris. I thought my logic was pretty airtight, but there wasn't any air in the room that she hadn't already sucked out. It was not possible, she said, to take a train to Paris with a bike. Not at all possible without packing your bike into an housse.

I did not want to spend €80 on a bike bag that I needed for one 3-hour trip. Especially when I already had a box in Paris for my bike and luggage for my return trip to San Francisco. It just didn't make sense. I walked away from the counter and found another information agent that I hassled with the same series of questions. I pushed the limits of my French in being as kind as possible while prying for options, ideas. None came.


I decided that all I could do was return to my hosts' apartment and do some serious online research. On my way back, I stopped in a pizza shop. Behind the counter was a 20-something kid wearing a deep v-neck and shaggy long blonde hair. Were it not for his perfect French accent and mannerisms, you could swear he was Californian. We immediately slipped into tutoyer-ing one another, rather than employing vous as the polite impersonal pronoun as is standard with customer-employee interactions. He asked how I was doing, and I laid it on him. My whole morning. As my pizza cooked, we looked at housses online at the nearest sporting goods store. €120. No problem, he said. When he takes the TGV to Nimes with his fixed gear, he just takes the wheels off, wraps the whole assembly in plastic or garbage bags and brings it on board with him as luggage. The news was so good that I made him repeat it a good number of times before I accepted that I was getting every nuance in translation.


Leaving with my pizza, I was more hopeful but still full of questions. Why did they demand an housse, if it wasn't actually necessary? Did his strategy only work because he had a small fixed gear instead of a huge touring bike, fenders and racks, and 5 bags? Was this only possible on trains leaving for Nimes, and was there still going to be a problem heading to Paris?


I headed back to the apartment and searched online more. What my research revealed was that every person's story was different. What it came down to was how kind the controller of the train felt toward cyclists, it seemed. L. had an housse that he was willing to sell me for €40. Fine, I thought, if that really solves my problem then to hell with the money. But it didn't fit.


Many of the things that people told me that day were factually untrue. One such thing was that there were no other bike shops nearby in the city. L. walked me to one only a block from his apartment. Once inside, I talked to the mechanic about my issue. He spoke too fast for me to fully understand. But he gave me a cardboard box that a bike shipped in. With it, I figured I could make my own housse. The only problem was that it was massive, far bigger than the box that my bike was shipped in.


I left the box outside of L.'s apartment and walked to the local supermarket. There I bought the biggest garbage bags I could find–the ones made for hauling yard debris. I also bought a rolling of packing tape. Between the cardboard and the packing tape, I figured I must be able to construct something capable of bringing my bike onto the train.


That night I consolidated my bags into the smallest units I could. I threw away whatever extra items I could manage. I left behind trash and extra food, but not much else. Mostly I utilized clever packing to put all of my six bags (four panniers, a handlebar bag, and the guitar case) into only four (three panniers and the guitar). All of my expensive and important stuff was in one bag, my camping stuff in another, my clothes in the third, and the guitar in the fourth.


Figuring that I would have a better experience with people under less pressure, I went to a local SNCF office instead of the train station to buy a ticket. In my best and most polite French, I explained my situation to a woman sitting behind a desk in front of me. She gave me her friendliest grimace as we both crunched on the problem. Give me a ticket to the least popular train, I said. Less people means less problems with luggage. She printed a ticket for the 6:20am train to Paris. Technically the ticket was not refundable. But, she said, if the controller does not let you on the train, I will be working tomorrow. Have him sign the ticket and I will refund you the €83. It was kind, but that still meant my worst case scenario was being stuck without a ride home.


I sat on the couch that night for a long time staring at my things. After a while, I measured a section of the cardboard box. I cut it into a long wide strip with my knife. I folded the strip up and wrapped a bicycle tube around it. Then I stuck a pen through the loop, making a handle. It was unruly, about the size of an art student's largest portfolio. But I figured it was possible to carry on my bike. Then I stared at my things some more. Almost without exception, no one was confident that I could get onto the train to Paris.


I checked the total road distance, to see if I could ride my bike there on time. It would have to be considerably more than my previous best days. Beyond grueling, I was sure that I couldn't physically pull it off in time to make my plane. I had to get on the train.


That night, I went out for drinks and burgers with L. and his friends. I'm certain that I appeared distant, hopelessly focused. I was planning for the next day. At 4am, I would wake up. I would get dressed and quickly eat. Then I would gather my things and ride to the station. Once there, I would get out my tools and disassemble my bike. I would wrap it in plastic and consolidate everything on the train platform. Then I would walk onto the platform and hope for the best.


Somewhere between the beers and the burgers it started to rain. I quipped to L. that I sure hoped it wouldn't be raining at 4am.


That night, as I lay on the couch for my four hours of sleep, I listened to the rain. It came down harder and harder. I visualized how I would cover everything with the plastic bags, how I would disassemble the bike, what I would say.


When I woke up, the rain was sliding with a determined sound from the gutters. I opened the shutters and watched it stream down from the sky in sheets. No matter, I thought. This was the trip, getting home.


After eating, I wrapped my things in plastic and made three trips down the stairs with my bike and bags. I used the bike's odometer, even though it was only a few kilometers to the station. If I was going to do this, I wanted it to count.


The wind was strong and the rain heavy and constant. The cardboard box's carrying handle worked well, but it operated like a sail in the heavy wind. I was constantly overcorrecting my steering and driving myself madly along the wet roads and sidewalks. The damned thing was heavy, too, and I occasionally had to rest my hand on the handlebars. This made the entire steering problem considerably worse. The road ahead of me was closed in the direction I was heading, but open to oncoming traffic. I was unwilling to get lost on the winding French streets and rode down the wrong lane. It was not unreasonably dangerous in the light traffic of the early morning. Two blocks from the station, the road was flooded. I watched several vans timidly proceed through the deep water, watching for the shallowest splashes. At the far end of the sidewalk, I found a route that was uninundated and proceeded to the station.


At five in the morning, train stations are not strictly the least shady places on earth. I kept a close eye on my various bags as I worked deliberately to disassemble my bike. I used the plastic bags that had protected my items in the rain to wrap up the frame and the tape to hold everything together. When it seemed a reasonably tight and sturdy package, I folded the cardboard on the ground. I placed the bike on the folded cardboard and taped it into a casket. I followed up by cutting off extra pieces and forming everything into the smallest package that I could. When I was finished, it was 8 minutes before my train was to leave (although I had worked quickly and given myself over an hour). If I had had the time, I would have taken a picture of my creation, I was very proud of it. I cut a handle into the box and carried everything onto the platform. The train was waiting.


When I reached the platform, I made a well-meaning mistake. I saw the train controller and asked him the best place for my box. There was no good place, he said. It could not go on the train. I told him that I spent the previous day talking to employees at the station and they insisted this was the best method and the best train. It didn't matter, he said, there was simply no place on the train for my box. I asked if there was a car for luggage, he said there wasn't. I asked if there was a better train I should have bought tickets for, he said it was simply impossible on the TGV, regardless of the train. I switched from logic to compassion and explained that after two months of bike touring I just wanted to go home. He was unphased, and told me to talk to the porter just down the platform.


I carried my things to the porter who told me the same thing, it was simply impossible on this or any other TGV train. He told me to talk to the controller, who I said had told me to talk to him. He walked over to the controller then walked away without looking at me. I walked to the controller and asked him what the porter had said. Nothing, he responded. It's not possible. There's no space for it on the train. It could go in front of a seat, I said. It would fit. I could stand for the the three hour ride. Impossible, he said, there's just no room on the train. As I began to feed him the human interest angle again, he began to intentionally speak French too fast for me to understand as he looked away towards something else he could do.


As speakers throughout the station announced the departure of the train, I thought about what the woman at the ticket counter had said. I wouldn't be able to get on the train, but at least I could get my money back. As I was getting out my pen to ask the controller to sign a ticket, a man ran off the train. He told me and the controller that he rode the TGV all the time with his bike and baggage. He just takes the wheels and wraps it in plastic.


I did that! I nearly shouted, in French. I tore open the box to show him that the bike was wrapped in plastic. I pulled the bike out and kicked the box away, onto the platform. The man looked at the controller, and told him, insisted to him that it would fit. The controller said that it wasn't regulation sized. Regulation is a meter, the man argued. He got down onto a knee and stretched his arm against the bike. It's not more than a meter, he said. It would fit. When I picked up the bike again by the top-tube, the man raised his voice to the controller, “hand luggage!” he said, “now it's not a box, now it's hand luggage!”


“S'il vous plaît,” I said. “S'il vous plaît.” The controller grunted and looked away in a mannerism that suggested reluctant acquiescence. The man turned to me and asked me if I needed the box. I said that I didn't and he grabbed it to go put it somewhere out of the way. I have thought numerous times about whether and how sincerely I remembered to thank him.


The train was leaving in moments and I nearly ran to my car, which was far down the platform. It was an action that took considerable effort. Once on the train, I slid my bike onto a high luggage rack. I found space for my bags on a rack below. Then I looked around and saw all of the other space on the train where my box could easily have fit. But I was no longer in a mood to be spiteful. I was on a train to Paris, and my bike was on the train with me.


As the train pulled away, almost instantly, I couldn't help but run through the morning's events in my head a few times. What had gone right and wrong, what I could have done better. Eventually my overstimulation settled to a simmer and I fell asleep against the window.


After about an hour, I awoke. The familiar French countryside streamed by at impossible speeds outside. My plan previously was to assemble my bike at the Gare de Lyon and ride the few kilometers to R.'s apartment. To return just as I had left. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to find a corner of a busy train station for bike assembly, only to disassemble it again the next day for my flight. Instead, I decided to take the metro with my bike and luggage in hand.


In Paris, I waited for everyone else to leave the train before taking my bike down from the luggage rack. I got my bags off the train and carried them down the platform to the station. That short distance was incredibly fatiguing. I stopped to arrange my things as well as possible. I wrapped the bike in more tape, securing the unit as tightly as possible. I put straps on my two heaviest bags and put them over each shoulder, crisscrossed. Then I walked towards the escalator.


I was carrying everything that I had needed with me for 41 days of bike touring, and the bike itself. My muscles fatigued quickly and I stopped often to rest. Busy Parisians bustled past me, often knocking into the bike frame or bags. I had to make one transfer, and the other platform was far. I had to take another long walk. Once I finally made it to my station, I moved towards the exit. The man in front of me watched as he let go of the door and it slammed closed on my bike. A young girl held it open for me and smiled. I smiled back.


Above ground, I had made it. Without leaving anything behind of value, I had made the full round trip of France. My hands were shaking from the physical effort of carrying the heavy bags. And writing this now, two days later, my shoulders are still sore.


I punched the door entry code to R.'s apartment and then rang his bell in the vestibule. He wasn't home. No matter. I left the bike in the vestibule and took my bags to the nearest cafe. I had only a few hours to wait for him, and the whole thing would be done.


For those interested in taking the TGV with a bike, I now know that I made two big mistakes. I tried to protect my bike too much with the cardboard and I stopped to ask the controller where to put it. I think everything would have gone smoothly if I'd simply wrapped it in plastic and walked right onto the train.

The Last Days of Riding

October 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

And so I took the canal from Montauban to Toulouse. In fact, I was helped greatly by my host who rode with me to another canal that later met up with the Canal du Misery. Good thing, too, because I thought as we were riding there that our route was a series of ever-decreasing circles. (I've felt this way often when navigating cities and villages in France, that something circular-seeming is the straightest line). Finding it on my own would have been a lengthy process. And I didn't have time on my side.

Canal. Canal, canal, canal; canal. I arranged to meet my next host outside of a metro station at 6:30. As the hour approached, I realized that the chances of arriving there on time were disappearing. My perfect record of timeliness would be shattered. Towards 6:00 I was still well outside of the city. I managed to pull off some of the best follow-your-nose city navigating I've ever done and found my way straight to the metro station a half hour late. My host was not there.

I waited a half hour and tried to find wifi, but there was none nearby. I eventually asked a couple of English-speaking girls nearby if I could use their phone. My French is good enough for a lot of things, but politely asking if I can check my email on someone else's phone is not one of them. We talked for a while about what was going on in their lives and about my trip. The English girl asked me if I had fallen in love with a French girl yet. Because, she said, isn't that why American men come to France? I told her that I came to ride my bike and see the country. And besides, I had a pretty girl waiting for me back home.

I got in touch with my host and arrived at her apartment late, well past dark. I had no real interest in going out and seeing the city alone and tired. Instead I ate and got some sleep.

Graciously, my host in Toulouse allowed me to stay an extra night. I was able to spend the next day exploring the city by foot. I must have walked a dozen miles, because I was out from about 10am to 10pm. I stopped at various cafés. First for coffee and later for beer. At each stop I watched the people and I wrote. The better things I might have written in my journal, as they come out more freely and easily. I took few pictures in Toulouse, although I found the city to be beautiful.

Toulouse or not Toulouse.


I wandered into a power plant that was also an art museum and watched 10 minutes of a bizarre film about the history of the plant, and then I had another beer someplace, and then I went home to rest.


Sky, water, power, Toulouse.


The next day was the second day that I spent on the canal, so: canal, canal, canal. I arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon in a bad mood. Partially because of the canal and partially because I have a hard time staying positive when I'm hungry. I found a bakery and ate a croissant, found a tourist office which pointed me towards the nearest campground. It was my last night camping on the trip, and I just barely found two trees that were right for the hammock. The showers didn't look inviting so I changed and started dinner. While cooking, a gaggle of cats pestered me for food and fought each other as they whimpered and circled me. I scared off the bigger, meaner ones and fed the kitten. I had made up my mind to avoid the canal the next day so I got out my atlas and plotted a course for Armissan on local roads. It felt really good to be drawing up a route again. It didn't look considerably longer than the winding canal.


The sun setting over the last of many, many campgrounds.

It was raining in the morning, so I packed up my wet hammock in the dark. There is a walled medieval city on a hill just outside of Carcassonne. I had passed it the previous evening without seeing a decent place to stop for a photo. I plotted a route that circumnavigated Carcassonne with the intention of finding a better vantage point for a picture. Which I never really did. It's just one of those things that you have to go see for yourself.

The area outside of Carcassonne was a mixture of trashy and overdeveloped. I passed large grocery stores and considered stopping for road food that I was desperately low on. Instead I pressed on, not feeling right about it. Just outside of the most developed area, I had to take the highway for a short stretch in order to reach the departmental routes that I would spend the rest of the day on. As soon as I found them, the entire atmosphere changed. The world returned to the state of immense beauty that I found in the massif central. I wound through, climbed and descended rolling vineyards and farmland.

Eventually I passed through a small village with a superette. I left my bike outside, as I've come to trust villages like this. As I wandered the aisles, I filled a shopping basket with the essentials: peanuts, yogurt, avocados, apples, cereal bars and a can of beer for lunch. Near the register there were a couple of small tables and a coffee machine. It was clear that this was a neighborhood watering hole. I bought a bad tasting and utterly satisfying 0,60€ coffee and had a conversation with an English gentleman who lived in the village. We chatted politics and the lives of young people and of old people. He reassured me that my trip was a “check in the right box.” He also timidly proposed that a Romney presidency might be a bad thing, and I told him that he didn't have to worry about offending my political sensibilities.

I left packed with food and feeling good. The road remained beautiful and after noon I stopped to eat lunch and drink a beer near a tennis court. I was outside of a village schoolhouse and listened to the children as I dried my hammock and enjoyed the sun.

My hosts were in a small village outside of Narbonne. I found their house but it seemed to have only one entrance: a gunmetal gray fence at the end of an alley. I knocked and then waited and then knocked again. Then I waited. Eventually my host's son walked by with two bags of garbage. We introduced ourselves and he let me into the house.

I didn't spend much time that night with the family. Mostly I planned for the next day, which I anticipated would be grueling. It was 100km in the best case scenario. And since I had to find my way through three towns, it would certainly be more.

The most enervating thing on a long day's ride is the setting sun. I think that my total mileage per day could be considerably greater if I could take longer breaks and stop more often. The setting sun is always a threat, even as I leave at dawn.

And so, I left at dawn. The hills and vineyards outside of Armissan were draped with fog and it took my a long time to get only a few kilometers. I stopped often to take pictures of the morning bloom set behind the rich fog.


Morning blooming through fog outside of Armissan.

Viewing the Mediterranean was my last goal for the trip. I could see it from on high after I ascended through the fog to a rocky hilltop. And again, speeding quickly through winding roads down towards the shore. As I coasted at top speed along the road, tires humming, I had another moment where I felt and remembered the true joy of cycling. Getting there on your own power, and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

This was my last day of riding. Narbonne to Montpellier. This is where I planned to stay with a couple of college-aged kids for two nights before taking a train to Paris. The day's ride was often some of the prettiest and most fun that I've done on my voyage. At times I felt my heart beat in my chest. Resoundingly a reminder of the great joy that can be had on a bicycle.

There exists a narrow peninsula that reaches out to the town of Sète. A bike path runs the entire length of the peninsula along the beach. If you can manage to follow high-traffic poorly-marked roads for a good long while, you can take that bike path.

My ride on the beach was pleasant. Before and after that stretch of beach was nightmarish. This is why no one really recommends you bike tour on the southeast coast of France. It is gorgeous, but it's car-friendly and only occasionally a good place to ride a bike. Signage is poor and major highways trace their way up the coast. Sometimes the departmental routes dump you onto larger roads for an unavoidable and unenjoyable white-knuckle shoulder-hugging kilometer or ten. One of these segments had me against a jersey barrier while large trucks blew by. It would have been an appropriate time to be afraid. Perhaps the southeast coast will eventually be a gorgeous place to ride, when the planned EuroVelo route is complete.

I followed my nose into Montpellier and managed to find my hosts' apartment without a ton of trouble. My contact was L. but only his roommate was home. I sat on their couch and wrote while his roommate worked on homework. When L. arrived we talked cycling and eventually cooked dinner at a full table. We didn't go out that night because L. had class early. It was just as well, since my sleep schedule isn't appropriate for a social life.

When I awoke the next morning, I went to the train station and began the nerve-blistering process of getting back to Paris with my bike.