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It seemed so straightforward at the time. How hard can it be to take a bicycle across the European rail network? Four bike rides and four train rides later I wasn’t so sure, particularly when a heavy backpack and awkward camera bag were thrown into the mix.
The bike in question was no fold-up bike, instead a rather beautiful Trek road bike that I needed to return to an emigrating Englishman setting up base in Burgundy.
Part one – Kent to London Bridge
Thankfully, the first leg of the journey took place on a Saturday when there were no restrictions on bringing a non-fold-up bike on the train. If it had been during commuting hours in the morning or early evening during the week, I would have been forced to cycle the 20 miles or so to London St Pancreas station through the rush hour traffic, but as it was it only took a gentle spin down the hill to the station.
Another benefit from travelling early on a Saturday is the lack of passengers, meaning I could camp out with my bike and bag next to the train door and start planning my route across London.
Part two – London Bridge to London St Pancras
A steady climb on the gentlest of inclines for the five miles or so ride to St Pancras along the mix of cycle lanes and narrow squeezes that make up a typical London ride.
To book a place for your bike, you need to either call the EuroDespatch Centre on +44 (0) 844 822 5822 or visit them in person in St Pancras. The EuroDespatch Centre is not the most obvious place to find and you need to arrive with your bike at least an hour before departure. Head north up St Pancras Road, keeping the station on your left and towards the north of the station on your left is an underpass where you’ll find EuroDespatch on your left.
Even if you’ve booked and been given your reference number, there’s no guarantee the bike will be on the same train as you which is disconcerting if you have a connection to make at the other end. Thankfully, my bike was on the same train. If it had been on a later train, I would have missed my connection entirely – as it was I nearly did anyway…
When you arrive at the Centre, you drop your bike off and you are handed a receipt to show at the other end.
Part three – London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord
Sit down, relax, put on a squirt of deodorant and take your place on the train for the two and half hour sprint to Paris. On arrival, you can ask one of the guards which carriage the bike is in. Wait next to this carriage, usually in the middle of the train, for the luggage cart to turn up.
Unfortunately, you can’t just step onto the train and take your bike as the luggage cart driver is usually the only one who can remove the seal to unlock the locker. In my case, this took a worrying 15 minutes, with only a one hour connection and an unfamiliar ride to Paris Gare de Lyon to make.
When the driver eventually arrives, you show him your receipt and you should be able to take your bike straight away as long as you give him your receipt.
Part four – Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de Lyon
With an unfamiliar route and only a few screengrabs of the map to guide me and less than half an hour left to make my connection, this was always going to be the most risky part of the trip for the 3 mile sprint across Paris.
As it was, Paris has changed considerably since I last cycled there some 15 years ago. Now there are multiple cycle lanes tucked inside the pavement, although a number of pedestrians were oblivious to their existence as they strolled their Gallic stroll.
This does cut down on the encounters with the traffic, but the highlight was crossing the notorious roundabout on Place de la Bastille with its antiquated system of priority to those coming onto the roundabout, but is in actual fact each man for himself as far as I could make out.
With the downhill gradient and some ‘flamboyant’ cycling, I made it with a good 10 minutes to spare and found my TGV train to Burgundy.
Part five – Paris Gare to Lyon to Dijon Ville by TGV
While you can book a place for your bike on Eurostar, they explained that they were unable to help with the next leg of the journey. You are supposed to book a place for your bike when you book your ticket, but the ticket itself was booked through Eurostar, so it’s not exactly a perfect system. My understanding is that you can book a place via Rail Europe on +44 844 848 5 848.
The storage itself is generally at one end of the train and to store it you hook the bike so it hangs vertically, a concern for the spokes on the wheels, but the bike seemed undamaged at the other end.
Without a booking, I simply stuck the bike on the train and hoped for the best. The ticket inspector didn’t ask and I didn’t tell, but I’m sure you could pay your £10 or so on the train with a suitable little lost boy look.
Part six – Dijon Ville to Beaune by regional train
With only five minutes to make the next connection, I ran off the train, secured a ticket and jumped on the nearest carriage just before the doors closed.
With my luck clearly in, there was a bike storage area right in front of me along with a couple of fold-down seats to keep it company. No ticket inspector turned up, but my understanding is that there’s no charge for these regional trains for bringing a bike.
Part seven – Beaune to my destination
With the hard part behind me, all I needed to do was to find the correct exit from Beaune’s ring road and head off into the countryside. After a couple of laps, thanks to some typically eccentric signage, I took a punt on the right direction and weaved my way to a roundabout with a very welcome sign pointing to the village and my final destination.
After a long day, a ten mile cycle through the beautiful valleys and vineyards of Burgundy along the Route des Grands Crus was a magical way to finish the journey in the knowledge that a beer and good company was just a half hour away.