How to take a bike by train in Europe

So when I was booking the trip I was nervous about taking my bike on the train in Europe. I’d heard stories about TGVs just not accepting bikes, about the Eurostar bike service taking 24 hours. Fortunately I persisted.
Eurostar now has a bike service where your bike travels on the same train. It costs £20, and you have to book in advance at a different office to the ticket office. The leaflet also has lots of dire warnings about accepting no responsibility for incorrectly packaged bikes. Well, I turned up to the baggage office, handed over my bike and everything was fine. Arriving in Paris and I immediately went to the middle coach where the bikes were hanging. Signed a form to say it was in good condition, loaded the panniers back on and away I went. Simple. Cost £20 though.

On to the TGV Est from Paris, which AFAIK is the only TGV line that accepts bikes, and also simple. You can’t book a bike ticket online, and SNCF, the French rail operator aren’t very helpful. But give Deutsch Bahn’s UK ticket office a call. They speak English and are very helpful, and have no problem booking bikes on to French trains.

At Gare de l’Est again I was nervous. What if the DB guy was wrong? What if it’s a different TGV with no bike space?What if the French rail workers are unhelpful? I needn’t have worried. On TGV Est bikes go in coach 11. My seat was booked in coach 11. There are 4 seats at the side that fold up to allow space for 3, maybe 4, bikes. I wrestle my bike on and settle in, then a german couple gets on with their bikes. Not a problem, due to clever seat bookings we get to sit next our bikes.

The only problem came getting off. The train was 5 mins late into Karlsruhe, so it was a short stop to get 3 bikes and luggage off. One of us stood in the door holding it open as we passed the luggage out in a chain and manouvered the bikes out.

I then had to get the inter-regional express train to Konstanz. There were becoming more and more people with bikes on the platform. I’d been told by the DB booking centre that you can’t reserve a place, it was first come first served, but that it “will be fine”. Hmm, but what about all those bikes. Well, the inter-regional express train turned up, with 6 coaches, 3 could take 12 bikes each. Plenty of space.

Moral is, forget what you know about British trains and bikes, Europeans have this sorted. Simple.

Dunwich Dynamo 2009

How to begin writing a post about the Dunwich Dynamo?!
The “Dun Run”, as I’ve heard it called, is a crazy overnight 120 mile unorganised mass bike ride from London to Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

This was my first year. After failing to get any friends interested enough to actually take part, I set off to Greenwich where at 6pm Barry from Southwark Cyclists was doing a feeder ride from the foot tunnel to the start at London Fields. Through the foot tunnel and waiting for Barry I met Omar and a couple of others. Shortly after 6pm Barry and more people turned up and off our group went towards London Fields where the ride starts.

At London Fields I was chatting to Omar and others waiting to set off. Omar is also cycling his first dun run alone, so we agree to set off together.

We got the “official” map for a £1 donation and carried on waiting. The sea of bikes was impressive, a real bike porn show. Everything from commuter hybrids, tandems, Bromptons, carbon fibre fixies, vintage racers, recumbents, and even a penny farthing. At about 8:30 there were enough other people going, and me and Omar set off.

The route leaves London along the Lea Bridge Road and then through Epping Forest. Up to the forest it was still light and fairly uneventful. Once at the forest, with the trees crowding overhead it started to get gloomy. The line of blinking red bike lights stretched as far as the eye could see, which was going to be the predominant theme of the night!

I lost Omar somewhere – he was on a fast racing bike, I’m on a slower older racing bike with a pannier full of red bull and cereal bars. But I cycled along with various groups, dodging the lairy drunkards coming out of pubs and making good progress.

Once the sun has set it was very dark. I caught a couple of guys with bright headlights lighting the road ahead, and they were going the perfect speed for me.  I followed them for a good 10 miles until they stopped for a break, then I was on my own. It’s a very strange experience cycling in the dark. In the countryside there is no artificial light, and my cheapo front light does nothing the light the road ahead. I could just about make out white lines on the road so I knew if it would turn, and the horizon so I know if the road was going up or down. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was going uphill or downhill until I saw my speed climbing or felt my legs working harder.

The cycling goes well, I was feeling great as I reach the feeding stop half way at Great Waldingfield village hall. So great I even though “hey, I could cycle back to London after this.”

The queue goes for miles so I don’t wait for food, but I relax for about half an hour, fill my water bottles and meet up with Omar again. We set off again into the night following the blinking red lights. I lose Omar again as he goes off with a group of racers.

The next 30 miles is also great. I catch a group of racers all riding together. They’re quick on the flat and downhill, and I struggle to keep up. But they were useless hill climbers! I would lose them going downhill, scared of potholes, but reach the bottom and coast up the other side past all these racers. I started to wonder if they stopped at the bottom just to punish themselves going up the other side!

I took a wrong turn somewhere. I was cycling along at the front of a group of cyclists and missed a turn. A cyclist catches up and asks if it’s the right way, so I say yes, and he says OK, and the group speeds into the distance. Then I check the route again. Wrong way. Oops. Oh well, the others will just have to work it out themselves. (sorry)

Back on the right track and it suddenly gets light. It’s a very strange experience watching the sunrise while cycling. It seems wrong somehow. But I guess I would normally be in bed. And what a sunrise.

Note the red sky at morning (shepherds warning).

By now I’m into the last 30 miles. My legs are tired, and the thoughts of cycling back to London are long gone. Finally I see a sign saying “Dunwich 7”, and I know I’m nearly there. Already there are cyclists heading back to London, cheerfully saying “Morning”.

Just before 6am I arrive at the cafe by the beach and queue for what seems like an hour for a full English breakfast. But what a breakfast. I could have had two of them, but that would mean queueing again! While eating I’m chatting to a girl at the same table, she literally fell asleep in mid sentence, and I left her peacefully snoozing.

On the beach and I dip the bikes tyres in the sea. I find Omar and we discuss our rides. He arrived about an hour before me when the cafe queue was only 10 minutes. It starts raining. I have only my waterproof cycling jacket, the cafe is very very full, and there is nowhere to shelter, so I just get wet. Next year bring a poncho just in case! Omar also says he heard they apparently printed and sold 1000 maps at the start, making this year the biggest ride ever!

Omar’s family arrives to whisk him back to London, while I’m waiting for the coaches organised by Barry from Southwark Cyclists. The trucks arrive to load the bikes, and chatting to guys in the queue it turns out I was supposed to collect a ticket from Barry the evening before at London Fields. I paid my £25 a week earlier and have a receipt, but didn’t get a ticket. I find Barry and fortunately there is still space. Phew. Bike loaded on the truck and I have nothing to do for 4 hours until the coaches leave.

By now it is sunny, and I have no suncream. Oh well, I’ll just do what everyone else is doing and get a great British lobster tan on the beach.

1pm arrives and there are still 200 bikes waiting to load onto trucks, but both trucks are full. Could be a disaster, but Barry from Southwark cyclists takes it in his stride and manages to get another truck for more bikes and to squeeze as many bikes as possible into the luggage bays of the coaches. Around 1:30, only half an hour late, we set off for London in a huge convoy of about 10 coaches and 3 trucks.

The convoy converges at Smithfield market and bikes are unloaded. No system in place, just a guy on the back of a truck holding up anything from £50 boneshakers to £3,000 carbon fibre Cannondale’s and saying “whose is this?”. No one lost a bike though, the system works the same as the conveyor belt at an airport baggage claim – what if the guy who decides to claim my bike is standing next to me!

The final cycle back home to Bermondsey is agony. My knees are like two blocks of frozen treacle.

Arrive at home in Bermondsey at about 7pm, so 25 hours to go nowhere. But in the this case the journey is the destination. What a fantastic experience.

Finally, a big thanks to Barry at Southwark Cyclists for organising the coaches.

Next years ride is 24/25 July 2010. I’ll be on it!

New bike: finished!

I’ve finished the new bike! I stripped everything off the frame, cleaned the frame and components, and put new wheels, tyres, chain and brake/gear cables on it. It’s also got my Brookes saddle from my Brompton on at the moment. Frank and Al have named it the “Rainbow Rider”, and it seems to have stuck!

New bike

So, I wanted a bike that was very cheap so I didn’t mind locking it up and leaving it alone in London. As great as the brompton is, it’s so valuable I’ll never leave it anywhere outside home or work and sometimes it’s useful to be able to cycle and leave the bike. So I scoured gumtree and found this old peugeot racer. Advertised as £70, got it down to £55. It just about works, but needs a lot of TLC, and a new chain, front wheel and tyres. Pretty neat though for £55!

To B or not to B(rompton)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I got back and have read about other cyclists setting off on their adventures.
I went on a Brompton, it’s part of the branding of the site and the tag-line. It was a fantastic ride, and very reliable apart from an issue with tyres. But there were niggling problems. Braking was tricky with rims overheating. Carrying luggage was a pain with the trailer. If there was a way to improve the brakes (I think the only way would be disc brakes) and carry all my luggage on the bike so I didn’t have the trailer, I’d have no hesitation about setting off next time on the Brompton.


But I’ve seen other fully loaded touring bikes, and they look so much easier. No brake issues, no luggage difficulties. And it’s left me wondering about my choice of bike for the next trip. Decisions.

But it will probably be at least two years until next time I set off, so it’s not a decision I have to make any time soon.

Spring cycling

Well spring is here and I’ve had my first few rides of the year. Today is a gorgeous sunny day and I’m sat in Hyde park before the RGS monday night lecture starts.
It’s odd cycling again without luggage after so long riding pulling 60kg in a trailer. When I arrived in Istanbul I was in great shape and when I went out on a few rides around Istanbul without the trailer the bike would surge ahead on each pedal stroke after I was so used to putting enormous force into the pedals to keep a combined mass of over 130kg in motion. 30km plus from the golden horn to the black sea and back was a short ride.

Now after 6(!) months of lazy London living the 6km to work tires me out and each pedal stroke is hard work rather than a surge forwards. In short, I’m very out of shape.

I missed the sign-up deadline for the London to Brighton this year, but I’m going to do the double distance bikeathon and the Dunwich Dynamo. That’s a 120mile ride from London to Dunwich on the suffolk coast. Overnight, starting at 8pm. Google it for more info! Anyone want to join me?!

Aix-en-Provence – Day 3

Up about 8 for breakfast and to organise things. Everyone else gradually emerges and we miss our 9:15 planned hotel departure time by half an hour.
Look around La Ciotat which is a traditional fishing town trying to keep its heritage while attracting tourists but not losing its traditional industry. On the outskirts we look around the out of town shopping areas and the immigrant communities living in social housing.

Tass loses his bank card in an ATM that eats it and we lose an hour sorting that out. At the hotel there is a problem with payment and we lose another half hour. Now well behind schedule and we have minutes to catch 3pm bus to Cassis. Which we see pulling out of bus station as we get there. Try thinking of all sorts of plans to get to cassis including taxis (not enough in the town for all of us during the off-tourist season), boats (imagine the form filling if something went wrong) and eventually hire two minibuses.

Set off again at 5:15, then immediately one bus gets a flat tyre. Me and Tass get it changed pretty quick, but now ridiculously late. Buses have to be back in La Ciotat by 7.

Quick look around Cassis, which is a very nice seaside resort with lots of ladies carrying dogs in handbags. You know the type. Then drive to station, drop everyone off and Tass and Mike drive the buses back to La Ciotat and try to catch train from there. For once a plan works. We all end up on the same train to Marseille and get to hostel by about 8.

Now it’s 9 and we’re going out to get food and drunk. Revision will be tomorrow morning instead since we lost so much time today. I’m off to the airport at 11am tomorrow, but everyone else is staying on until the evening to see Marseille during the day.

Good fieldtrip, great group, good sights, interesting geography.