It is almost a year ago to the day that my partner and I boarded the ferry to cycle into the heart of Paris.
Neither of us were particularly experienced cyclists so this was the longest trip we had embarked on since buying road bikes earlier that year.
So the plan; we leave our home town of Brighton first thing on Thursday morning, catch the Newhaven to Dieppe Ferry early afternoon, cycle a few days and nights and make our way to Paris. We anticipated two full days and two half days would get us to our destination. But we wouldn’t stop there, we had planned this trip to coincide with a week-long holiday in beautiful Saint Savin, a tiny village near to Poitiers where we would enjoy good food and carafes of wine with old friends.
Making Travel Arrangements
Before we set off we made sure our travel arrangements would synchronize and that we wouldn’t over-exert ourselves on any one particular day. We learnt you need to plan with sufficient time if you can.
The Ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe is favourable for cyclists as it takes you straight onto the Avenue Verte, a varied cycle route established to link the two capitals. We began planning the trip around a month before we embarked, and quickly realised all spaces on ferries and trains were more limited that we first thought, which made an impact on the structure of our trip.
Lack of availably and changes to ferry times meant we ended up losing a day before setting off and we would be spending more time in the saddle on each day than we anticipated.
The next part of the trip to organise was the trains from Paris to Poitiers. In the UK we take it for granted that we can simply roll our bikes onto trains whenever we like so assumed this would be the case and we can pre-book seats, not a problem, so our descent through France should be pretty easy. However, you need to pre-book one of ten bike spaces on the TGV cross-country train.
IMPORTANT: The online bike booking service is available on the FRENCH site – NOT the UK/English site. There is an English-language version of the FRENCH site, but this is not the same as the UK site. To book bikes online, you need to use THIS LINK.
Taking your bike onboard
It’s worth knowing that if you are extending your trip and using TGV that some (but not all) TGV and Intercités (including night trains) have space for un-bagged bikes.
For services that DO require reservation, you’ll need to book your bike in when you buy your ticket (a surcharge of €10 may apply). Tickets can be booked in person at any SNCF ticket office (at stations as well as in some city centres), or via the English-language voyages-sncf.com. However, I would recommend booking your bike onto the train with plenty of time to spare!
If you do not manage to reserve a bike space you’ll need to break the bike down and put it into a bag, maximum size is 120cm x 90cm they are easy to get hold of and not too expensive, but just like a lot of things in life, you get what you pay for. We bought a pair of lightweight, unpadded bike bag’s, whilst lightweight and relatively easy to fit onto my pannier, moving the bikes from place to place was difficult and the straps didn’t make it home to the UK. If you can, invest in a more durable bag that has strong straps and a degree of padding to protect your bike you’ll have a smoother time getting on and off trains!
So back to the journey, we quickly arrived in Newhaven and queued like all good British folk at the barrier to board the ferry. Handfuls of other cyclists quickly arrived and queued with us, some with expensive looking mountain bikes, couples and large group of men in lycra (to be expected!)
On leaving the ferry the adventure began, Louise invested in the Avenue Verte guide book which proved to the most vital piece of kit other than our bikes. We quickly realised that even though the route is sign posted by little yellow signs, having a backup and gauge of distance was vital. However following an A5 ring bound map wasn’t easy especially whilst cycling, so I managed to create a map holder for the front of Louise’s bike using two hair bands and cable tie. It worked a dream and I felt like an engineering hero!
The first afternoon was a dream, 20 miles of a flat, tarmacked old railway track, designed to suit cyclists of all levels. This was the perfect start to our trip. We gently rolled into the village of Forge Les Eaux where we enjoyed a well-earned dinner.
The next two days varied between 10 hours and 6 hours of cycling per day in intense heat rushing down into quaint French villages and stopping for miniature espresso and re-filling our water bottles.
The third day was a gentle ride where we experienced our first rainy conditions. After two days of sunshine this came as welcome change. The humidity dropped and we could enjoy the ride in a completely different way. The route is really great for leisurely rides, as it follows small B roads and winds though the French country side.
Signage was sometimes patchy and we did get lost but that added to the adventure! And in reality, being lost anywhere along the route was pretty picturesque. With sore legs and slight sunburn we finished the third day 32 miles outside of Paris. Or so we thought…
As we had pre-booked our train tickets we knew we had to be at the Paris Montparnasse train station by 1pm so we left early…very early. It started well, there was little traffic and the cycle routes were quiet.
A subtle mist came down, as the route become more and more urban and gave a mystic feeling as we cycled the grand French avenues leading into the capital. The mist turned into light rain, which turned into a snarling thunder storm. Against the clock we rushed through mud tracks and canal paths trying our hardest to remain stable in the conditions especially carrying the cumbersome bike bags on my pannier.
After a couple of falls, bent handle bars and wrong turns we entered the bustling streets of Paris. Following the route and dodging French traffic was tricky so I have to admit for the first time we turned to GPS. Despite this, the circles we were going round in became bigger and bigger and more stressful to the point we entered an intense cross roads filled with commuter buses and competitive Peugeots drivers!
We muddled our way through and made it to the train station with just minutes to spare. Louise ran to the station boulangerie to grab lunch and I collapsed in a heap of bike bags and sodden water proofs. Dishevelled yet slightly smug we boarded the train. As expected the train was a large futuristic vessel that puts any South Great Western locomotive to shame.
With the bikes balanced in the corner of the carriage we relaxed into the 6 hour journey ahead of us.
Despite a few hiccups along the way there is very little I would change about our first cycling trip, the falls in Paris added to the intensity of the day, the cumbersome bike bags taught me how to manage panniers and the now dog-eared Avenue Verte map remains the most vital part of the journey.
If I did it again, I would book my bike on early and plan the ferry a couple of months in advance. Get your bike out and enjoy this fantastic way to see the French countryside, and to ease your conscience when tucking into French pastries!