A day of complete contrasts and first time experiences. First off, not on the bike today. Well, OK there was a little bit of biking, about 500 yards to the train station in Mulhouse, and about 1/4 of a mile across Paris from Paris Est to Paris Nord.
No, the story today is one of trains, and a comparison of the experience between TGV across France, Eurostar from Paris to London St. Pancras, and First Great Western from Paddington to Taunton.
Mulhouse rail station, both the information desk, even though the conversation was held in basic French, and the ticket office, which was done in competent English, were extremely helpful. Tickets booked no problem. Arriving at the station was also simple, and notably clean, this morning. A proper integrated transport policy sees provision for rail, trams, buses, cycles and cars right to the station door. We waited on the platform for a few minutes before the train arrived, and the TV info boards both kept us informed of the next train, and showed a diagram of the train layout, so we knew exactly where to stand to find our carriage. I was a little confused about the instructions for loading the bike, in that we had been told that the bikes were on the same carriage as the seats. I assumed that meant there was a carriage that was part baggage car, and part seating. Instead, when the train arrived, it was all seating, and the exterior door was standard sized, plus a small lobby, internal steps and automatic doors, but not much room for a bike. Then we realised that there was a line of 4 flip up seats where you can stow the bikes. There are even instructions in French, English and German (and I think one other) on how to stow the seats, tie the bikes in place, and even deploy pedal covers so people don’t bash their ankles. It was a bit of a squeeze with the panniers and other people’s luggage, but actually a brilliant compromise to suit both foot passengers and cyclists. Incomparable to the dirty guards van at the end of the train approach used in the UK.
The train ride itself was smooth and comfortable, no lurching about, and was immediately quite high speed. The route went via Strasbourg first, and then directly east towards Paris. After Strasbourg, the pace quickened again, and a quick look at the iPhone GPS confirmed that we were a tad under 200mph. First time for me on a train that goes that fast! Beautifully smooth, although slightly disconcerting to see the world passing by at such a pace.
Three hours later and we were in Paris. Bikes off, bags on, walk to the end of the platform and out of the station into the hustle and bustle of Paris. Fortunately Jones knew the way between Est and Nord, he’d been here not too long ago and stayed at a hotel between the two. After the last 18 days though, I was always unsure whether he did know where he was going, or just following his nose! It was only a few hundred yards, so easy.
Paris Nord was a different experience. It’s obviously a busier station, and combined with the Eurostar terminal it makes for a chaotic place. People everywhere. Finding the Eurostar ticket office was a challenge, especially as it’s upstairs. They obviously don’t think much of cyclists because there is very little room anywhere to leave them. The ticket lady spoke very good English (distinct English accent, she must have spent time in the UK), but was a bit jobs worth. You have to go and book and pay for the bikes separately, a catch 22 situation – you book the seats without knowing if the bikes will be on the same train. Fortunately Mel had made a call on our behalf and they’d confirmed that there were no other bikes booked, so a good chance of space. The lady marked the ticket as changeable in case there was a problem, but we got her to call the baggage office to check and all was well.
We then had to wander through the station, bikes in tow, right to the very end of the platforms to find the baggage office. The guy there was obviously on his own and having a bad day, rushing about trying to get baggage loaded and unloaded for other trains. After about a 15 minute wait he served us, muttering things about ‘le velo’ to another rail worker who wandered in at one point. We paid the fee (€27.50 each) and left the bikes with him.
We had just enough time to walk back to the concourse, this time carrying bags in hand, grab a quick snack and then get through check-in, passport control (French) and passport control (English), security, and then join the queue for the train. Trying to find the carriage was interesting, as the carriages were marked with a small LCD screen that was hard to read and not very obvious in the first place. But we figured it out, and got to watch as our bikes were loaded with reasonable care to the same carriage as our seats.
The Eurostar left promptly at 15:14 as advertised, so at least punctuality is good. At least it is in the departure department. Arrivals is another thing. We stopped in Lille for over half an hour whilst ‘the scenery was moved’, or at least that’s what I think he said in a heavy French accent. Perhaps it’s a perception thing. If they move the scenery you’ll be under the illusion that the train is actually moving. For all I know I could still be sitting in Lille as it write this, the familiarity of home a clever illusion created by moving the scenery. However, I suspect it was something to do with the signals. So that meant we were delayed into London, but no big deal really. Half an hour extra on a 12 hour journey is nothing to get stressed about. Let’s face it, after being on the bike for nearly 3 weeks, you accept that the world should sometimes move at a slower pace.
Bikes off the train, nice and painless, then the hassle of getting out of the station as they make you go through customs. They could have had that formality on the French side along with all the others.
At last onto the mean streets of London. Jones’ daughter Anna lives right across the road from St. Pancras, so he wanted to say hello on the way past, as any father would. Unfortunately she was out, but we chatted with her boyfriend for a few minutes and were then on our way. We got a text later to say that we had missed her by about 30 seconds, which was a shame.
We threaded our way through busy streets, the remnants of some community event that had closed some streets to traffic but not us on bikes, and after some navigational difficulties as we approached Paddington that had us overshoot and then go in the wrong direction, we were there. Tickets brought, plus supper for the train ride, and off west we went in the evening sunshine.
By comparison with the TGV earlier, First Great Western trains are not clean. Not exactly an extension to the council tip, but not quite as savoury as the French trains. The first thing I needed to do was take a leak, and the toilet was crammed full of you know what and toilet paper. Fair enough, it tells you not to flush the toilet whilst in the station, but unless a rugby team were previously on the train and waited until it got to it’s destination before using the facilities, I don’t really see any good excuse for such a state.
But its not just the toilets that are a mess, the track laying is obviously inferior, as the carriages lurch about at a maximum of 125mph. I even banged my teeth on the glass bottle my drink came in. If you put a proper high speed train on these tracks, the wheels (along with everything else) literally would fall off. The quality of English engineering is obviously not what the French expect. Not a good show for the country that invented the modern railway.
Mr Jones has asked the world to know something about blister plasters. He got sore toes one day cycling in his bike sandals without socks (which seems to be the point of them), and that coincided with the visit to Pascal’s, also a keen cyclist. Pascal was keen to help his friend and recommended a special plaster designed for preventing blisters, the sort that you put on your toes or heels. Jones took a few in case he had the same problem again. He did, but this time only some mild chaffing, and not on his feet but somewhere slightly more delicate. There are two things to know about these plasters apparently, one is that they are difficult to remove, especially from delicate skin, and two, you can’t get all of the glue off. So the third thing that you don’t need to know is that Mr Jones will in future always be dressing to the left.
Miles Covered Today: 600
Total Bicycle Miles for the Tour: 1076
Milestones Achieved: First ride on a TGV train, first ride on the Eurostar. First time cycling in any major city, Paris and London on the same day.
Executive Summary: Life in the fast lane.