Biking the Dordogne Valley: Paris to Saint Émilion (Part One)

After having spent a couple of nights in Paris visiting friends, it was time for my real adventure to begin. The plan was far from simple, but it was rather straightforward. I was going to take my bike and all my gear on the train down to Bordeaux where I would transfer to another train to Libourne. There, I would assemble my bike and pack up all my gear and the bike case, load it into a taxi, which would then transfer it to my hotel in Saint Émilion. I would then hop on my bike and ride the scant 15 kilometers from Libourne to Saint Émilion, probably adding on another 30k or so since, 15k? I mean come on, that’s basically a warm-up.

That was the plan.

Step one was to get from the center of Paris to the Montparnasse train station (my hotel was in the 9th Arrondissement, my bike was in the 2nd, and Montparnasse is in the 14th for those keeping score at home).

Getting the bike to Montparnasse was, well, a royal pain in the butt. Everyone seems to love Paris cobblestone streets, but I doubt many of them have had to schlep a suitcase and ginormous bike case on them while having to avoid plastering the hundreds of completely oblivious Parisiens to said cobblestones (Really? You can’t see the 6’4″ [sorry, the 1m93] man approaching seemingly towing all his worldly possessions? Don’t you think you might want to, I don’t know get the hell out of his way?).

I posted this photo the other day, but it is worth sharing it again here. These hostilely oblivious blokes pretend to have no idea that they are blocking both the entrance to the restaurant and the sidewalk.

Keep in mind that most French people are at least a foot shorter than I am and probably weigh about 200 pounds less as well. Plus I had about another 100 pounds or so of gear that I was schlepping along. You would think that my appearance in their path would not only cause them to jump out of the way but also wave their hands in capitulation since there was likely an invasion underway.

Nope.

I have come up with a new term to describe the French: hostilely oblivious. It simply can’t be that they don’t see, they choose to be oblivious since it is the only possible way that someone of their collective stature can have any power at all.

That’s my theory at least.

I made it to my metro stop at Les Halles and as I descended into the station, there was another painfully clear observation to be made of the French: they do not give one shake of a rat’s tail of care about people who are differently abled. To get to my subway line, I had to descend 83 steps (yup, I counted) and climb another 62 (counting steps is kind of a thing with me; insert Rainman joke if you must). Not only was there no elevator to be found anywhere there was not even a single escalator (well, that is not entirely true as there was one but it was going up when I needed to go down).

Not an easy schlep.

Normally, I am used to people staring at me on the Paris Métro as I am almost always the tallest one on it (but that affords me no advantages like, say, people getting out of my way–yes, hostile oblivion occurs, even thrives, below ground in Paris as well). This time, however, I had the addition of an enormous suitcase-looking thing (my bike), so the stares were longer, more intense, and puzzled (“c’est bien quoi, putain?”) this time.

When the opportunity arose, I opted to sit with all my crap to put the Frenchies at ease. Nobel Peace Prize? Here I come!

Fewer steps once arriving at Montparnasse, and there even were escalators (in both directions) and an elevator! I decided to take the latter, having to share it with three apparently completely able-bodied Frenchies who were dragging exactly zero bags of luggage with them–how on earth do the French stay so slim when they have such an allergic reaction to anything that resembles exercise?

Once the train was listed (they don’t post the track until twenty minutes before departure, which they claim is due to the fact that the track might change [it never does]), there was a mad dash for the track (my theory is this is one way that the French government can ensure that the populace gets their heart rate elevated for something other than the World Cup).

My car was the first on the track which is normally not good since all the Frenchies that were in that car would have already beaten me to every last space for luggage. Had my car been the last, however, despite having all that crap with me, I would have been the first one to the car since the French passengers would have had to have stopped, yes, right in the middle of the onrushing crowd, to have at least one cigarette, and to complain about how long the train was and how incompetent the current President was as a result.

It was a double-decker TGV, and so I immediately schlepped my bike to the upper level (the French will never lug their bags up the stairs unless absolutely necessary. Luckily, there was a spot large enough (almost) for my bike.

No bike in there. Nothing to see. Move along.

A quick note on bikes on the TGV in France. Not all TGVs take bikes. When they do, there are perhaps four, yes four, spots on the entire train (which probably takes up to several hundred people or more). If you are lucky enough to be on such a train (it is virtually impossible to get that information from the SNCF), you have to reserve ahead of time (for 10€) the space. How one is supposed to reserve a spot on a train that may or may not (much more likely for the “not”) allow bikes is a very good question.

For which I have no answer.

There is another way, however. One may, legally, take a bike on a TGV as long as it is in a bag, box, or another such carrier, and you do not let the conductor know that it is a bike. It’s that last part that always blows my mind: you know it’s a bike, the conductor knows it’s a bike, hell, my bike carrier says “bike” on it. But as long as you don’t say anything, it’s OK.

Explain that one to me.

Two bags. Neither has a bike in it. Swear.

More tomorrow (hopefully)….

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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