Day 9 : Return journey by train
I had set the alarm for 6:30. We got up and quickly packed our gear. The station was on the other side of town, about a 5 km bike ride away. No signs in the village center indicated the train station, so we ended up cycling in loops. We hadn't eaten yet but didn't go to a bakery out of fear of missing the train. It took half an hour before we found directions to the train station. We quickly cycled there, but not before getting some money from the ATM, so we had a receipt to prove we had been in Brioude. By now, we each had an enormous pile of cash in our wallets from all the ATM visits. We needed to take the train to Clermond-Ferrand, which was about to leave. We quickly bought tickets, jammed them in the machine to 'validate' them, and ran toward the train to throw our bikes in. We hadn't lost any time yet; this was the earliest train possible.
Bram's bike fell over while the conductor stood next to it. In French, he tried to explain to Bram that he needed to fix his bike to the wall. Bram didn't understand a word. The conductor seemed a funny guy. I couldn't stop laughing about their attempt to communicate, but I eventually translated. He started to enact how Bram could fix his bike with a piece of rope so that it wouldn't fall over. I told him we didn't have any rope. Then he gave up and we just left the bike the same as before. The conductor told us we were just like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but if that was true, he was Charlie Chaplin.
We arrived in Clermond-Ferrand with little difficulty. From there we needed to go to Paris. There was a Thalys, an express train. We hoped we could bring our bikes on it. I asked a man at the helpdesk for two tickets to Paris. Then I told him about our bikes. He looked like he was in pain and started to sigh. Then he pushed a lot of keys on his computer and began to leaf through a thick book to figure out if it was allowed. After asking his colleague he said it was possible.
Nice, that meant we were all set and it took less than 5 minutes. However, then he asked where we would go afterward. I told him we wanted to go to Eindhoven. He pulled a strange face and asked how that was spelled. Eventually, he found it in his computer and started trying to buy a one-way ticket Paris-Eindhoven, with trains that allowed bikes. He couldn't find anything at first. Then he asked if it needed to be today. I said 'yes' and he continued searching. By now, he started sweating and hitting his keyboard increasingly harder. Then he sighed, puffed, looked for his colleagues, and rechecked his book and computer. It took about 10 minutes before he told us there were no more trains from Paris to Eindhoven on which bikes were allowed today.
That wasn't a surprise, because there are no direct trains from Paris to Eindhoven, even I knew that. I tried telling him we would take the local train from Paris onward, but I didn't know the exact words for that, so I wasn't sure if he understood. He started searching again. After another 10 minutes of puffing, sighing, and fiddling, he again told us it was not possible, also not with another train. Meanwhile, I had had enough time to figure out how to explain in French that it was okay and that we would figure it out when we got to Paris.
After 25 minutes we finally obtained two tickets Clermond-Ferrand - Paris, with bikes allowed. We still needed to wait 1.5 hours before it left, so we bought groceries. We each got two 2 L bottles of Oasis as a souvenir. For breakfast, we got pizza from a bakery. The Thalys ride went well. It took only 3,5 hours to cross France. A guy with coffee, tea, and sandwiches came by, but everything was way too expensive. Besides, we had our Oasis. After getting some well deserved rest on the train we arrived in Paris. Before we reached the central station we passed a few smaller ones. We arrived at 'Gare-Lyon'. It was kind of a shock to see this many people after cycling over backroads for days. The station was huge, there were at least 30 platforms.
There apparently was a Thalys from Paris to Brussels, which we hoped to catch. I only hoped that it would leave from 'Gare-Lyon. According to Bram, it would make sense if all big trains would leave from the same station. We started waiting in line for one of the many help desks. After almost half an hour it was finally our turn. I asked for tickets to Brussels, with bikes. Again a confused look 'bikes?'. You could see her think, 'would that be possible or not' or 'that will be difficult'. First, she told us that bikes were not allowed in any Thalys, 'but we just came here with one and our bikes'. Then it turned out the section Clermand-Ferrand - Paris was an exception. Paris - Brussels by Thalys with bikes was not allowed.
Then how were we supposed to get there? Those people behind the desks clearly never traveled by train, as they only searched for direct connections. Ten minutes later, they told us no trains were going from Paris to Brussels. After discussing with their colleagues, they figured out we could travel to Brussels via Lille. After 25 minutes, we finally received a ticket to Lille. Bram had already been telling them that was what we needed from the beginning. It was really odd that there was no way to buy tickets on a computer.
The train to Lille would leave in 50 minutes. That shouldn't be a problem, where it not that it wouldn't depart from 'Gare-Lyon' but 'Garde-de-Nord', the biggest train station in France. How were we supposed to get there? I asked the lady behind the desk and she said we should take the subway, line D. Somewhere on the right we would be able to buy tickets. We walked in that direction but couldn't find tickets. A girl behind another helpdesk directed us down some stairs, without stopping to talk to her colleagues. We found another desk: 'two tickets to Gare du Nord please', 'that would be 3 euros', 'OK, can we take our bikes?', again that confused look, 'yes, as long as you can get them through the gates', '..oh, we will...'.
De access gates were pneumatic sliding doors, which closed forcefully within about 10 seconds. Bram put his bike on its rear and against the doors. 'Ready?', 'Yes'. I put the ticket in and the gate opened. Bram tried to push his bike through but when it was halfway in the gates closed.
Bram's bike was stuck on its rear end in a gate in the Parisian subway. He can't pull it out , and we have only 40 minutes before our train leaves somewhere on the other side of the city. I put in my ticket so Bram could enter the station. The gate opened for 1/10 of a second before closing again. That was it, we had no more tickets left, and Bram's bike was still stuck. I couldn't stop laughing, but we did have a problem. Fortunately, some lady came to open the gates. Bram was now inside the station with his bike, but I was still outside. Meanwhile, the lady opened a separate gate large enough for my bike. As Bram's panniers were still on my side I tried to give them, but the lady didn't understand and kept telling me to take the large gate. While the lady is getting angry and we are running out of time, I somehow manage to carry my bike and all our gear through the large gate.
We finally made it into the metro station. We hoped the doors of the subway carts would be wider than the general entrance. We also realized we might have to go through the same pneumatic doors to leave the station. We had already lost 10 minutes just getting into the metro station. Wit only 40 minutes left we needed to find line D, which was apparently one story below us. We carried our bikes down the stairs while trying to make sense of the signs and schedules. Line D consisted of platforms 1, 2, 3, and 4. We didn't understand what the difference was between them. As we didn't have any time to spare we just went to platform one. That was yet another level lower, so we ended up three stories below ground level.
We jumped into the first train that arrived. It mentioned something about 'Gare-du-Nord' but I still asked someone if it would go to Gare-du-Nord. While everyone was looking at us because they had never seen a bike in the subway, the person nodded 'no'. With only 30 minutes left he explained that lines 1 and 2 ran counterclockwise, while lines 3 and 4 went clockwise. This meant our train would circle the entire city before going to Gare-du-Nord. We jumped out of the subway, ran up the stairs with our bikes and down another flight of stairs to platform 3. After 5 minutes, another train arrived. As far as we can tell the second stop will be Garde-du-Nord. The ride takes about 15 minutes. Then we jump out and carry our bikes up three flights of stairs to reach the train station. The station had 50 platforms and our train was scheduled to leave within 5 minutes. Fortunately, we quickly found our platform on one of the monitors. We jumped on our bikes and raced through the station. While standing on our pedals, we zig-zagged between the people. We arrived at the right platform, happy to see that the train was still there.
After a calm train ride we arrive in Lille. There were police and military personnel with machine guns at the station. For some reason it was heavily secured. We tried to buy a ticket using the computers as there were enormous lines for the help desks. Half of the computers were broken. The ones that did work had a touch-screen that required us to push on them with our weights. After 15 minutes of messing around we managed to get tickets to Brussels. There didn't appear to be any trains to Antwerp or Liege. While we sat down to eat, we learned there were trains going to Antwerp and Liege after all. However, due to the long lines, we didn't have enough time to change our tickets at the desks.
To get from Lille to Brussels we had to change trains twice. First, we needed to get out at Tourcoing, a small station at the border between France and Belgium. There we waited for 20 minutes. The train we were about to take came straight from Lille, where we just were. The ticket computers were even worse than the people behind the help desks. At the station in Toucoing was a guard with a dog. That seemed a useless job, as no one was present except Bram, me, and another guy. When the train from Lille arrived we put our bikes in a dedicated bike area in the front of the train. The next stop was Gent. From there, we took the train to Brussels. Back home, I looked up a map of the Belgium railroads. Their network looks like someone threw spaghetti against a wall and is utterly unsuited for traveling large distances.
We saw a classic steel racing bike in our cart, an old R.I.H. with a canvas pannier. Opposite from us sat a man reading a book. After a while, the conductor came to check the tickets. He asked if the bikes in the next cart were ours. Yes, they were. He then asked why we didn't buy tickets for our bikes. We didn't answer. Purchasing bike tickets hadn't been an option on the computer in Lille, and nowhere was it stated that they were necessary. The bikes ended up costing 5 euros a piece to bring along. Next, the conductor asked the man with the book if the classic bike was his. The man turned out to be English, and it was indeed his bike. He seemed annoyed when the conductor asked him if he had a ticket for his bike. He had asked the people behind the desk in Lille twice if it needed a ticket, and they had assured him that wasn't the case. The conductor was adamant; he wanted 5 euros for the bike.
By now, we were laughing about the silliness of the situation and the clumsiness of the conductor. The trains between France and Belgium were such a mess. The English man looked at us and said it was ridiculous. He had been waiting for an hour at the desk in Lille. He retrieved 50 euros from his sock to pay the conductor, which fit his steel-retro-speed-bike-with-canvas-panniers look. The conductor said in broken English 'I giev jou fouretey faiv and nekst steetion you have to buj another ticket for the baaik'. The Englishman went crazy, because he needed to travel to Leiden in the Netherlands, which was only 100 km, but because the Belgium railroads were such a mess he needed to transfer three times and pay 5 euros every time.
We decided not to buy any more tickets for our bikes. The English man asked what we planned to do on our connecting train rides. I said: 'just push our bike in and hope for the best'. He agreed that would be a good strategy. He had spent three days cycling along the coast from Leiden to somewhere around Calais and was now traveling back by train. It had been 'wonderful weather' although he had needed to carry his bike over the beach because the bicycle paths suddenly ended on the border. Unfortunately, we needed to get off at the next station.
The conductor also felt it necessary to tell us that next time we should take the panniers of our bikes, because otherwise he couldn't hang them by their front wheels. That way they certainly wouldn't break... We decided not to buy a ticket for our bikes from Ghent to Brussels. Fortunately, we didn't get checked. By then we were getting close to home, it was about 8 o'clock when we reached Brussels. There was no help desk nor any computers to buy tickets at. It turned out that there was an enormous second hall on the other side of the station train tracks. This wasn't indicated by any signs, you just happened to need to know it existed.
We could get a train to Hasselt, which was about a two hours bike ride from home. The train arrived around 22:00. We again didn't buy tickets for our bikes, they didn't deserve our money when everything was such a mess. Even if someone checked our tickets, we could still buy them on the train for the same price. The train to Hasselt was ridiculously slow and stood still endlessly during all the >20 stops. It took an hour and 15 minutes to travel 40 km. A conductor came by and started complaining about our bikes. We acted like we didn't know what he was talking about. He told us we needed tickets for our bikes, so Bram already took 10 euros out of his wallet, waiting for the man to look up the price. That was pretty funny, but the people across from us had no clue why we were laughing. By the time the conductor had figured out the price, Bram had basically already put the money in his hands.
Finally, we arrived in Hasselt after being on trains for 14 hours. It took another two hours to cycle home. This had been an excellent start to the 100 cols tour, but we also knew the really tough climbs would only come during our next trip.
Distance cycled : 62.61 km.
The section of the 100 cols tour we cycled this trip is highlighted in yellow