Day 9 : Return journey by train
I had set the alarm for 6:30. We got up and quickly packed our stuff. The station was exactly on the other side of town. It was about 5 km by bike. In the village center there were no signs indicating the train station, so we ended up cycling in loops. We hadn't eaten yet but didn't want to go to a bakery out of fear for 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 made it to Brioude. By now we each had an enormous pile of unnecessary cash in our wallets. 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 towards the train to throw our bikes in. That all went well. We hadn't lost any time yet, this was the earliest train possible.
Bram's bike fell over while he conductor stood next to it. He tried to explain to Bram, in French, 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 eventually I translated. He started to enact how Bram could fix his bike with a piece of rope, so 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 just like Charlie Chaplin, because he was as least as odd. We sat across from a guy who also had a thick head and hands, just like Bram a few days ago. I wondered if he also had a sun stroke, but that seemed unlikely as he was so pale. He probably just never cycled.
Without much difficulties we arrived in Clermond-Ferrand. From there we needed to go to Paris. There was a Thalys, which is a fast train that only stops a few times. We hoped we could bring our bikes on that one. I went to a helpdesk to buy tickets. I asked the man for two tickets to Paris, that was possible. Then I told the guy 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 started to leaf through a thick book to figure out if it was allowed. After asking his colleague he said it was possible.
Nice, then we were all set, that didn't take more than 5 minutes. However, then he asked where we would go afterwards. 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 allow 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 jamming his keyboard increasingly harder. Then he started to sigh and puff, looking for his colleagues, and again checking his book and computer. That took about 10 minutes, after which 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 onwards, but didn't know the exact words for that, so I don't know 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 enough time to figure out how to say in French that it was fine and we would figure it out when we got to Paris.
After 25 minutes we finally obtained two tickets Clermond-Ferrand - Paris, bikes allowed. We still needed to wait 1.5 hours before it left, so we did groceries. We each bought two 2 L bottles Oasis as 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, they were all way too expensive. We didn't need anything, because we had our Oasis. After we got some rest in the train we arrived in Paris. Before we reached the main station we passed a few smaller ones. We arrived at 'Gare-Lyon'. It was kind a shock to be in this mass of people after cycling over backroads for days. The station was huge, there were at least 30 platforms.
There was a Thalys from Paris to Brussels, which we hoped to catch. I just hoped that it would also leave from 'Gare-Lyon. According to Bram it would make sense if all big trains would leave from the same station. I stood in line for one of the desks, of which there were about 40, but only a few were open. After waiting for almost half an hour it was my turn. I asked for tickets to Brussel, with bikes. Again a confused look 'bikes?'. You could really 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. So no Paris - Brussels by Thalys with bikes.
Then how were we supposed to get there? Those people behind the desks clearly never travelled by train themselves, because they only searched for direct connections. After 10 minutes they told us there was no train going from Paris to Brussels. After some discussion with colleagues they figured out we should have a layover, with local trains, which did allow bikes. After 25 minutes we finally received a ticket to Lille, which Bram already new we needed half an hour ago.
The train to Lille would leave in 50 minutes. That shouldn't be a problem, where it not that it wouldn't leave 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 put in the ticket'. I put the ticket in and the gate opened. Bram tried to push his bike through but exactly half-way in the gates closed again.
Bram's bike is now stuck on its rear end in a gate in the Parisian subway. He can't pull it out because the gates are closed and we have about 40 minutes left before our train leaves somewhere on the other side of the city. I put in my ticket so that at least Bram can enter the station. The gate opens for 1/10 of a second and closes again. That was it, no more tickets left and Bram's bike is still stuck. I can't stop laughing, but we do have a problem. Fortunately, someone comes to our aid with a special key that opens the gates. Bram's bike is free. He is now inside with his bike, but I am still on the outside. Meanwhile the lady opened a special gate large enough for my bike. Bram's panniers are still on the outside, so I want to give them to him. The lady calls me back saying I should take the large gate. I can't because I can't carry my bike and Bram's panniers at the same time. I turn around while the lady is getting angry and we are running out of time. Somehow I manage to carry everything simultaneously and take the large gate.
We finally made it to the metro station, hoping the doors of the subway carts is wider than the general entrance. We realized there might be the same pneumatic doors on the other end. We already lost 10 minutes out of the 50 we had just getting into the metro station. Now we needed to find line D. Line D was one story below us. We carried our bikes down the stairs while trying to make sense of the signs and schedules. Since we only had 40 minutes left there wasn't a lot of time to figure everything out. Line D consisted of 4 different platforms, 1, 2, 3, and 4. We couldn't get what was the difference between them. We hadn't any time left so took platform 1. That was another level lower, so by now we were three stories below ground level.
We got into the next subway, it said something regarding 'Gare-du-Nord'. That was a good sign. I decided to ask someone anyway. While everyone was looking at us because they have never seen a bike in the subway, the person nodded 'no'. With only 30 minutes left he explained that lines 1 and 2 ran counter clockwise, while line 3 and 4 go clockwise. We got out of the subway cart and ran up the stairs with our bikes and down another flight of stairs to platform 3. After 5 minutes another subway arrives. As far as we can tell the second stop will be Garde-du-Nord. The ride takes about 15 minutes, then we jump out. We need to go up three flights of stairs to get to the train station. We run as fast as we can because our train is scheduled to leave within 5 minutes. There we are, at a station with 50 platforms. Fortunately we quickly find our platform on one of the monitors. We get on our bikes and race through the station. While standing on our pedals we zig-zag between the people. Quickly we arrived at the right platform. The train is still there and we were happy we made it.
After a calm ride we arrive in Lille. There were military personnel with machine guns and police at the station. It is heavily secured. There is an enormous line before the desks, so we tried to buy a ticket using the computers. Half of them are broken. The ones that do work have a touch-screen that required you to push on it with your entire weight. After 15 minutes of messing around we manage to get a ticket to Brussels. There are apparently no trains to Antwerp or Liege. We sit down to eat while watching the signs with departing trains. It becomes clear there are trains to Antwerp and Liege after all. Due to the long lines there is not enough time left to exchange 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. It turned out that the train we were about to take came straight from Lille. So it would have been better to wait for 20 minutes in Lille and just take this train directly. Those ticket computers were even worse than the people behind the desks. At the station in Toucoing was a guard with a dog. It was a small station with no-one present except Bram, me, and one other guy. That seemed a useless job. The train from Lille arrived. We put our bikes in a special area for bikes, in the front of the train. The next stop was Gent. From there we can took the train to Brussel. Back home I looked up a map of the Belgium railroads, it looks just like spaghetti and is completely unsuited to travel large distances.
In our cart we see a bike. It is an old R.I.H. with a canvas pannier. A real classic steel racing bike. On the other side of the train sat a man reading a book. After a while the conductor comes by to check tickets. He asked if the bikes in the next cart are ours. Yes, they are. He asked why we didn't buy tickets for our bikes. We don't answer. It wasn't even possible to do so on the computer in Lille. The bikes cost 5 euro a piece to bring along. The conductor asked the man with the book if the classic bike is his. He turns out to be English and it is indeed his bike. He seems a bit surprised when the conductor asks him in flawed English if he has a ticket for his bike. The man is a real English gentleman, but does seem a bit annoyed. He had asked the people behind the desk in Lille twice if he needed a ticket for his bikes. The ensured him he didn't. The conductor was adamant, he wanted 5 euro for the bike.
By now we were laughing about the childness of the situation and the clumsiness of the conductor, the trains between France and Belgium are such a mess. The English man looked at us and said he thought it was ridiculous. He of course had been waiting for an hour at the desk in Lille. Since the conductor hardly knew English we just told him that the trains here were a mess. The English man also had to pay 5 euro, but he didn't keep that in a wallet. He retrieved 50 euros from his sock, that was really fitting to his steel-retro-speed-bike-with-canvas-panniers look. The conductor said 'I giev jou fouretey faiv and nekst steetion you have to buj another ticket for the baaik'. The Englishman went crazy, because he need to travel to Leiden in the Netherlands, which is only 100 km, but because the Belgium railroads are such a mess he needed to transfer three times and pay 5 euros every time.
We decided to not buy any more tickets for our bikes. The English man asked what we were going to do on our other train rides. I said 'just push your 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' and he had needed to carry his bike over the beach for a while because the bicycle paths suddenly ended on the border. Unfortunately we needed to get out at the next station, while he needed to transfer his bike to the special bike carriage.
The conductor also felt it necessary to tell us that next time we should take our panniers of our bikes, because otherwise he couldn't hang them _ by the front wheel_ so they certainly wouldn't break. We decided not to buy a ticket for our bikes for the next section, going from Ghent to Brussels. We didn't get checked. By then we were getting close to home, it was 8 o'clock when we reached Brussels. We went towards an exit, but there was no desk to be found. It turned out that there was an enormous second hall on the other side of the station, you just happened to need to know that, without any signs.
We could get a train to Hasselt, which was about a two hours bike ride from home. The train arrive there around 10. We again didn't buy tickets for our bikes, they didn't deserve that money when everything was such a mess. Even if they would check we could still buy them on the train for the same price. The train to Hasselt was ridiculously slow and stood still for at least half an hour total during all the >20 stops. It took an hour and 15 minutes to travel 40 km. The 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 euro 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 nearly put the money in his hands.
Finally in Hasselt, after sitting in trains for 14 hours, it took another two hours to cycle home. This had been a nice start of the 100 cols tour, but we also knew the real climbs wouldn't start until our next trip.
Distance cycled : 62.61 km
The section of the 100 cols tour we cycled this trip is highlighted in yellow