To Angoulême - Three Seasons Around France: Autumn - CycleBlaze

September 24, 2022

To Angoulême

So before traveling to Angoulême today, here’s a quick preview of the month ahead.  We’re revisiting some of our favorite southern gorges from past tours: the Dordogne, the Lot, and the Tarn, staying at towns we visited before as well as breaking new ground.  And we’ll be taking it much more slowly than we have in the past, with fewer travel days and many layover days for hikes or rides without luggage.  This part of the tour ends in Florac, after which we’ve kept our options open for how to wrap up our nearly nine month odyssey depending on what the late fall weather looks like.  We have a few alternative endings in mind that all end in Menton and Nice, but we’ll keep them to ourselves for the time being.

Angoulême To Cahors, September 24th - October 25th.
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We leave our hotel at 10:30, ninety minutes before the train departs.  The station is only a flat mile away, but we want to allow for an abundance of time - enough so that we could even walk if we have a flat.  Some of that time goes in a lengthy chat in the alley with our hotelier before biking off.  Some of it also goes into walking a long three blocks through the flea market that fills up the streets between us and the station.  Still, we arrive by 11, in plenty of time.  We find a bench in the sun at our departure gate and Rachael watches the bikes while you I try to learn what I can about boarding procedures.

Leaving Saint-Malo.
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Thumbs up for the Nautilus, our home for our too-brief stay in Saint-Malo. If we return someday we’d stay here again.
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Waiting for our train, Angoulême. This is the easiest train station you could hope for. It’s at the end of the line, so there will normally be plenty of time to board or disembark. Also, it’s a flat layout - all of the tracks are on street level, and in parallel. What more could you ask?
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It is of course a great feature of traveling in France that it has such a robust train network.  Like England and Italy, it gives you a lot of flexibility on planning trips or changing itineraries on short notice.

Nevertheless, I really don’t like taking the train even when it’s obviously the right thing to do.  It’s a risk, with so many ways that your trip south (in our case today) could go south.  We’ve got quite a lot of bike-on-train experience behind us now, with our full share of horror stories to our credit.  We approach any train trip with care, planning ahead as much as possible and thinking through contingency plans in case the unexpected occurs.  

And today we’re especially cautious, because we’re riding on the TGV (the high speed express) for the first time.  We booked our tickets a month ago, with space for the bicycles; we’ve checked and rechecked the tickets numerous times over the past weeks to make sure we have the date, time, and requirements right; and I’ve been emailing back and forth with Susan Carpenter recently, picking her more TGV-experienced brain for any issues I should be thinking about.

Which is why we’ve arrived a full hour before departure - I want to allow plenty of time to react in case anything goes wrong.  As it does today.

We haven’t been in the station long when I find an agent to ask which track our departure will be on, since it hasn’t been declared on the departure board yet.  We learn that it’s this incredibly long train already in station, right in front of us; and that we can board now if we wish.  So we walk down the train looking for car number 10, where our seats are ticketed for.  It’s right in the center of the train, about a half mile from either end.

The view one way.
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And the other. This is without doubt the longest train we’ve ever tried to board.
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There’s no bike space in car 10, so we find a nearby agent and ask where the bikes go.  He says that in fact they don’t go at all unless we’ve reserved space, and the huge train only has capacity for four bikes.  We say we have reserved space and Rachael brings up our tickets on the phone to show him, but he won’t look.  Instead he looks at an app on his phone and says that we aren’t on the list and apparently not ticketed for bikes, regardless of what our tickets say.  And all spaces are already claimed, so we’re apparently SOL.

We go through this three or four times, but get nowhere.  So I give up, but then point out that we have folders.  Can we fit them in on the car somewhere?  Oh, OK.

So that’s a huge relief, but of course there really is no space on the car for them  - except in front of the closed door on the side of the train opposite the loading platform.  We load our gear, I cram the bikes near the door and take the small seat next to them, and then thankfully when the agent comes by he gives his OK with the provision that we be prepared to move them if we come to a station where the platform is on that side.  But we can ride, so we’re good - as far as to the Paris Montparnasse Station at least, where we’ll transfer to the train for Angoulême and probably have the same boarding issue to deal with again.

Not too bad, except it’s not the most comfortable spot to sit for three hours. And it’s a bit awkward to shift the bikes to the other side of the train when we come to a station with the platform on the other side. Which does happen. Twice.
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It’s nice to be able to monitor our progress. The TGV has very good WiFi, and an app that shows your progress, speed (144 km/hr!), and upcoming stops. Nice to see how few upcoming stops there are.
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Paris comes, and we do an excellent job of getting our bikes and baggage off and then proceed to find out where the Angouleme train departs from.  There’s confusion and some misinformation involved, resulting on us trying to board the wrong train at one point.  Hopefully we’re prevented from destroying the day by someone who points out that this train isn’t going to Angoulême, and in time (it’s a good thing that we have 80 minutes to work with) we find the right train and attempt to board.

It’s the same scenario - there’s no bike space, regardless of what our tickets say.  I hopefully point out that we have folders, and for a minute it sounds like he’s saying we can only board the bikes if we bag them.  I’m not very good at French though and I’m sure he didn’t mean that, so I mumble something and we proceed to our car to see where we could put them.

The layout on this train is worse.  It wouldn’t be bad if we had Bromptons I think, because it looks like they could fit in one of the empty baggage shelves; but ours don’t really fit.  It’s not clear what we’re going to do, but we put the bikes on anyway and Rachael loads the baggage while I think about it.  I finally end up shoving one as far into a baggage shelf as it will go, and leaning the other in a slightly widened spot in the aisle at the end of the next car - flared out just enough so that a person of normal dimensions can squeeze past if they need to move to the next car.

And then I stand there and hope - hoping the agent won’t walk past until the train is in motion so we don’t get thrown off before it’s too late.  And when we pass that test, hoping again we make it past the only intermediate stop, at Poitiers.  As we do.

So we’re down to one last problem - disembarking with our bikes and bags in the three minutes the train will be stopped in Angoulême so we don’t end up stuck going to the end of the line in Bordeaux instead.  We plan for this as best we can, by starting to haul everything down by the exit platform not long after we’ve left the Poitiers station so we can get positioned before other departing passengers clog up the space.  

With limited options, we do the best we can by leaning one bike against one exit door and the second bike against the other, and then piling all the baggage next to one of them.  We position ourselves next to our own bike so we can keep them from falling over when the train rounds a bend, and when the train approaches the station we monitor the tracks on our side waiting to discover which side boarding will occur on.

It’s a good thing we did this, because by the time the train reaches the station the exit space is fully jammed with passengers and their own mountains of crap.  But they’re not going anywhere until we get at least one of the bikes off, because we’re in their way.

One bike here. Plenty of space!
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The other here. Plenty of space.
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Nothing to do until we’re past Poitiers. Might as well read a book.
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Strategically positioned in preparation for arrival. The other bike is in front of the opposite door.
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ann and steve maher-wearyWhat a saga. Train travel with bikes is great when it works but when it doesn't, it's horrible. Still the train system in Europe is so much better than home, it's hard to complain. Way to go.
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2 months ago
Dramatic skies to the west as we approach Angoulême.
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It all works.  We reach Angoulême, with the boarding platform on Rachael’s side.  I muscle my way through the crowd to her side, and when we arrive I unload her bike, lean it against a wall and when I turn around Rachael’s off with all the baggage and a very helpful man is handing my bike down off the train to me.  What a nice guy!

And, miracle of miracles, both bikes have arrived unscathed, with broken derailleurs or other mechanical issues.  Five minutes later we’re out of the station biking the third of a mile uphill to our hotel, La Palma, and a half hour after that we’re on our way through the historical center to the Italian restaurant we’ve booked ourselves into.

Success!
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The Angoulême Hotel d’Ville. Not shown are the occasional flashes of lightning in the distance.
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Today's ride: 2 miles (3 km)
Total: 299 miles (481 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 15
Suzanne GibsonWhat an ordeal! How ridiculous that your reservations weren't in their records! I guess it was pure tenacity on your part that got you on both trains and off again! Well done!
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2 months ago
Scott FenwickYou deserve a cold one after that day. We often add trains into our plans as our tours are usually quite short. Trains do elevate the stress level. But you took it to a whole new level today. Our experience has been TVGs are very restrictive when it comes to bikes. We carry the BF nylon bags to completely avoid any issues if we encounter restrictive transit options. They roll up fairly small and stored on the back rack. For us, they are peace of mind should we need to take a bus, plane or train on route. Looking forward to your three gorges section. They are all great.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Scott FenwickThe good news (plus the fact that we arrived, of course) was that finding a cold one proved to be easily done.
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2 months ago
Tricia GrahamI think our worst experiences involve trains! Would rather ride uphill in the rain with heavy traffic anda fierce head wind!
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2 months ago
Kathleen ClassenHow on earth could they not honour tickets bought a month earlier with reserved space for the bikes? Except they can, obviously. That is just crazy.
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2 months ago
Patrick O'HaraSue and I felt your stress reading this installment of your journal. Train travel is always a little bit of a crap shoot, and often adds that unwelcome level of uncertainty.....even for two veterans like yourselves. Glad you made your destination!
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2 months ago
Jacquie GaudetFor our trip in 2019, I could not buy TGV tickets online. They wouldn't accept payment via a Canadian credit card. We managed to get tickets in person and luckily, it was the very beginning of our tour and we took the bikes on the train in their cases. There is very little luggage space on a TGV for anything so they were in the way of everyone from Paris to Bordeaux.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Jacquie GaudetYou’re right, there is very little space. It’s awkward even for folks with larger encased luggage. I’ve never tried this before because I didn’t think it was even allowed either with an uncared bike. I was surprised to learn otherwise so I thought we’d test it out. Now that we’ve tried it though I wouldn’t repeat it. Much safer to just factor in the longer travel time and take a regional.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Patrick O'HaraWe got lucky, in retrospect. We pushed the envelope a bit and got away with it this time. I doubt we’ll try the TGV again.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Kathleen ClassenIt is crazy, and makes me wonder if I got something wrong in ticketing. Our tickets state that they include bicycles but there wasn’t a detailed price breakout. Also, reticketing was involved because I got the dates wrong the first time. So maybe something went wrong there.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Tricia GrahamWell. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re right. I hate putting us in someone else’s hands like this, whether they on train, plane or bus. Ferries it’s are different though - I never worry about a ferry passage as long as we’ve gotten our tickets right and arrive on time.

Unless the ferry doesn’t run because of weather or other reasons, which come to think of it has happened to us three times now.
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Suzanne GibsonIt was stressful, but we came away pretty proud of ourselves - for persevering and surviving, but also for staying on good terms with each other through all the stressful moments.
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2 months ago
Rich FrasierOuch. This was so painful to read! I'm so sorry you had to go through that!

Someday, when I have a bit more experience to back it up, I'm going to write a primer on using French trains with bicycles. In a uniquely French way, they've managed to create trains that are not built for travelers. As a result, riding TGVs pretty much sucks unless you have no baggage at all. And with a bike, and if they refuse to honor reservations...oh my!

The trick in my experience is to use the humble TER trains - regional trains. For example, from St-Malo there is a TER to Rennes, from Rennes there's a TER to Nantes, then a TER to La Rochelle, and then a TER to Angouleme. All of these trains would have more ample space for bikes than that accursed TGV.

Now you might object that it would take too long to take 4 trains instead of 2. You might even need 2 days to do the trip! That's a valid objection, but St-Malo to Angouleme is a pretty long trip. Most shorter trips are pretty reasonable. And some of us would trade a lot of time to not have to endure the stress you had to go through on this trip!

It takes some sleuthing to figure out where the TERs go. They're generally organized in a "star" configuration around the biggest cities in each region. They're really set up to support commuters and local people trying to get to and from the local "big city".

Concretely, a Google search for "TER Saint-Malo" will get you to www.ter.sncf.com which will show you what destinations are possible from Saint-Malo. You pick the biggest city (Rennes) you can get to on a TER. Then do a search for "TER Rennes" to see where you can get to from Rennes. What you can do is use this technique from your 2 endpoints back to the middle, where you hopefully find a common city. It's kind of fun, actually, when you get used to it!

In my experience, the general SNCF trip routing website tries its hardest to keep you off of the TERs. And it will often tell you that a trip with a bicycle is "impossible" when in fact that's just not true. (I'm pretty sure that the SNCF makes more money from the long-haul trains).

I hope someone finds this info helpful until I complete my TER "magnum opus" sometime in the future. :)
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2 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Rich FrasierThanks, Rich. Yes, we know about the TER’s, which are all we’ve ever taken in France; and I know my way around the SNCF app. Actually the plan initially was just as you described - we were going to bike from Dinan to Rennes and then catch a regional down to La Rochelle via Nantes, and maybe even visit Il de Re before biking up the Charente. I forget now where the idea of taking the TGV came in - from Susan maybe. An interesting experiment that thankfully we pulled off, but it’s a one and well done.
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2 months ago
Lyle McLeodTo Scott AndersonYes, bikes and TGV's. Much like oil and water they don't like to mix. Back in 2017 we were nearly driven off the deep end trying to figure out getting from CDG to Nantes by train with our bikes and gear (either boxed or built). Like Jacquie commented earlier, there didn't appear to be any way to pre book and pay for a TGV ticket from Canada so at least we were spared the next of frustration of finding out that it's next to impossible to bring bike on a TGV. Turns out we stumbled upon an elegant, and cheaper solution, out of shear desperation / frustration with the trains, by booking a one-way car rental from the airport to Nantes. I believe is was actually quite a bit cheaper than that the TER's were going to be and we didn't have the (big) hassle of transfers in Paris. The drive was very nice too. Who knows whether this would still work in 2022, the current car rental situation seems to be dire everywhere.
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2 months ago