Much of the Travel Notes section of the book deals with the more complicated aspects of taking bicycles on trains to and in France; on Eurostar and TGVs mainly. The key thing is to reserve well ahead, for the lowest fares. Eurostar can be booked four months in advance, French trains three months ahead. Cyclists who don’t mind dismantling their bikes and carrying them in bike bags can travel on any trains they like at no extra cost, and in first class if wished; but most of the rides described here are unsuitable, because bike bags are too bulky to carry while cycling. For non-dismantled bikes, some TGVs – mostly in western France for some reason – have bike spaces. These cost extra and need reserving in advance; and on TGVs you have to book the bike space and your own seat together, and travel in the bike carriage, which often seems to come with user-unfriendly windows – you need to be under 5ft or over 7ft to enjoy the view. Bike spaces on Eurostar (between Paris and St Pancras only) need advance reservation via Euro Despatch and are more expensive (£30 one way) than TGV bike spaces.
The total bike carriage capacity of a typical TGV (Bordeaux – Paris); Note unsatisfactory window configuration
How to identify the trains that have bike spaces and those that don’t? The best way is via the SNCF website: click the details icon by each train. If you see a little blue picture of a bike, it means the train has bike spaces, which is not to say there will be space available. Once you find the train you want, ring up Rail Europe to see if you can book it.
One of the advantages of not dismantling the bike for rail travel is being able to enjoy the pleasure (weather permitting) of riding through central Paris between stations. Bicycles are not allowed on the Metro, but you can take them on the RER – the suburban extension of the Metro, with a few stops in the centre – outside rush hour. Take panniers off the bike before trying to shove it through the automatic barrier. You may also need to loosen and twist the handle bar.
We were not troubled by punctures until a spate of them held us up on our second trip along the Loire (chapter 5), when we spent time on (and off) the Loire à Vélo trail. Our touring road bikes were not the most suitable mode of transport for this journey.
Few regular cyclists will need to be told to use heavy-duty tyres and carry a spare inner tube. As we discovered, punctures are not always reparable. Also, it’s quicker and simpler to insert the spare tube and mend the puncture later. It also ought to be second nature to feel the inside of the tyre and make sure that the offending thorn, nail or glass shard is not still there. Now mop up the blood.
Here are some words on punctures from an expert cycling information website whose exact url details escape me. I could paraphrase them to disguise the plagiarism, but I hope an apology will do.
“Some people often get an unusual number of flats because they are riding in the gutter instead of the traffic lane. The main travel lanes of most roads are kept fairly clear of glass and other dangerous debris by passing motor traffic. Cyclists who travel in the normal traffic areas of the roadway benefit from this.
“Many cyclists, however, hug the curb out of timidity and an irrational fear of being struck from behind by a motorized vehicle.”
(Could it not be that some cyclists hug the curb out of consideration for other road users, not fear and timidity? And what’s so irrational about the fear of being struck from behind by a motorized vehicle? When that motorized vehicle weighs fifty tons and is being driven by an overweight, overwrought and overtired Serb who has spent the last ten minutes coaxing his motorized vehicle up to its cruising speed and leans on his horn to communicate his displeasure at the prospect of losing all his momentum to a cyclist who is hogging the crown of the road at 10mph in order to reduce his risk of puncture, fear may be entirely rational.)
“The area close to the curb is where all of the glass shards, sharp rocks and other junk winds up. If you ride too close to the curb, you greatly increase the risk of punctures.”
(Good point, but what if the shard-and-sharp-rock-strewn curbside area of the road is a designated cycle lane? Might the Serbian trucker not have a point if he objects to cyclists in the shard-free and invitingly slick general-traffic lane?)
“Riding too close to the curb also, paradoxically, increases your risk of being hit by a car! By cowering in the gutter, you reduce your visibility. You also encourage motorists to pass you even when there is insufficient room to do so safely.”
Good point, but I detect a slightly confrontational and combative tone to these remarks. France is ahead of us in encouraging cyclists and motorists to be more friendly and mutually tolerant. The thought did occur to us that the proliferation of cycle paths in France is a scheme devised by motorists to rid their highways of pestilential cyclists. We dismissed the thought, but may recall it when they start banning cyclists from main roads.
This borrowing is from a cycling website called CTC.
The Michelin 1:200k mapping used to be the long-distance Francophile cyclist’s favourite. But in 2003 Michelin changed the design and scale, losing a lot of minor roads, spot heights and other detail useful to cyclists. You still get meticulous gradient arrowing of anything over 5%, on almost all the roads fit to print, but with this dumbing down, Michelin has lost much of its appeal to cyclists.
France has a dense network of country lanes and the best way to discover them all is with the aid of IGN “Top 100” 1:100k maps. They’re a bit drab but fully contoured and information-packed with few wasteful overlaps. They also depict unsurfaced tracks and paths, but for serious off-roading you’ll do better with IGN “Top-25” 1:25k maps.
These long-distance Francophiles chose the old-fashioned method, relying on Michelin 1:200k mapping, accessed by tearing pages out of a road atlas. These maps may be out of date, but for the purposes of pottering along country lanes they served us well. As a result we were not aware of the ‘dumbing down’ exercise. I’m not sure if Galaxy’s road atlas pre-dated the 2003 deadline, but it very possibly did. I used a 2011 road atlas for most of the rides, and we were surprised how often our maps disagreed, the new version not always being the more accurate. The new map did show quite a few cycle tracks, however. On the minus side, Michelin has now abandoned its traditional, and very useful, habit of underlining in red towns or villages with hotels or restaurants listed in the red Michelin guide. At least, in the road atlas it has.
Michelin’s gradient arrowing referred to in the above excerpt is a vital aid. A single arrow means a steep hill of 5 to 9% gradient: hard work. A double arrow means 9 to 13%: very tough. A treble arrow means find an alternative route. The arrows point upwards, thus: >> indicates a very tough climb if you are travelling from left to right. It is true that our road maps do not have contour lines, but they do include spot heights at the top and/or bottom of many hills, and these are useful aids to interpreting the map and planning a route.
The advantages of our method are cost – the road atlas gives us all France for under £10 – and bulk. If you use 1:100k maps for a long trip, you may need a separate pannier for all your maps. In his book Cycling the River Loire John Higginson acknowledges this problem and recommends posting the maps back to yourself at home when you have left the area. I don’t think we would ever get round to this.
On a more contemporary note, we also use the ViaMichelin website (www.viamichelin.fr) when planning our routes, mainly as a lazy way to establish approximate distances and gauge the viability of a stretch as a day’s work. ViaMichelin does not make any allowance for hills when calculating the likely duration of a journey: it estimates 2 hours for 28km of flat riding and 2 hours for 28km of mountain ascent.
Night trains: after a ride from Caen to Cannes (bravo), Steve R caught the sleeper in Cannes at 9pm and woke up on the approach to Paris Austerlitz at 7am. ‘A very successful experience. There was a bike cubicle at the end of the sleeper carriage and I had been booked into the compartment next to it. The only problem was getting the loaded bike up the stairs and through the door — I had to take one pannier off. The information display at Cannes told me where to stand, very reassuring when the train only stops for a few minutes.’ Ticket booked through Ffestiniog Travel – ‘very efficient and expert.’
Mont Ventoux: thanks to John for the heartening news that there are no syringes or pill boxes at the Tommy Simpson memorial. So it’s true – cycling has cleaned up its act at last!
We are aware of some mistakes in the book – Bordeaux makes a surprise appearance in Upper Provence, the little known author Tolkein crops up somewhere, we owe an apology to Danny Welbeck (Danny le Rouge) for placing him, and not Daniel Cohn Bendit (Dany le Rouge), in the 1968 student riots in Paris; and the highest stone viaduct in France is not 256km long. I am grateful to the chef Marco Pierre White who informs me that Fernand Point did not refuse to serve Germans during the War: he was reluctantly obliged to do so. Apologies to St Brevin for the accent.
It would be particularly helpful to know if you find any incorrect websites and phone numbers. Here’s a start:
Andrevias truffle/foie gras farm, Sorges: 00 33 553050242
The name of the nameless village with the English barman (p229) is Chatelus le Marcheix, nowhere near the Millevaches plateau.
Laurence Perceval informs me that she is giving up the struggle at Les Deux Abbesses, her luxury hotel village near Langeac (St Arcons d’Allier), and has put it on the market. She is not giving up her horses though. As of April 2017 Laurence of Arabians, as she styles herself, has opened a new venture – Les Deux Abbesses en Vert – near Brantome in the Perigord.
The fine establishment referred to in the book as le Manoir de Bigeau, at Poncet near St Jean de Cole between Périgueux and Limoges is now more easily found under the name le Manoir d’Elles, which puts the genial M Pin in his place. It has a website and a new phone number 0533520962. Sad to report, La Cuisance in Arbois (p27) has closed. Sic transit, the pleasure of the puck
The Puy de Dome near Clermont Ferrand is now basically closed to cyclists, apart from the occasional competitive event