Many people find it hard to imagine riding a bike, let alone to undertake a journey such as Cycloasis. Well, travelling by bike is a wonderful experience! For over 4 months my bicycle and four bags were all I had on this extraordinary journey of encounters with many special people, being close to nature and in touch with all elements that surrounded me.
How often I crossed people in France saying to me: “Vous êtes courageuse!” Then I used to ask: “Courageuse, pourquoi, comment!?” Then they would look from my bike with the 4 bags, to my legs and then up to me again while making a gesture indicating the difficulties of climbing. Besides that difficulty, they could not imagine doing such a thing on your own (particularly as a woman!). Some asked me what I was thinking while biking and added: “Isn’t that lonely?!”
NO! Biking is the most exiting way of travelling and you and your thoughts are completely FREE! Besides, I was not alone. Even on the road I met many people and had surprising and heart-warming encounters everywhere in France.
As French cyclist Julien Leblay (he travelled several continents) eloquently wrote in his little book ‘Le Tao du vélo’, “The solitude, which seems to many a burden, actually becomes the best vector for encounters. The bicycle transports with it the very concept of travel.” (free translation)
And as he further says: “Folie et force habitent ce drôle de voyageur …” – Madness and strength inhabit this strange traveller. Indeed!
Besides, I had my Santos Travelmaster or ‘Travelmonster’ as I sometimes called it. It has been my most loyal companion all along the more than 2000 km of this Cycloasis tour through France while visiting the eco-projects (see map). I even had it with me sometimes in the bedroom of a ‘Chambre d’hôte’, to make sure nobody would be able to steal it – my bike was my everything!
This superb bike did not let me down once! I never had any pains whatsoever, nor did I have any technical problems. Sorry A-Bikes and Roel, not much work for you afterwards, but I will drop by anyway! Santos, you make absolutely wonderful bicycles that are up to the task and a joy to ride! My ‘Tour de France’ was actually peanuts for the Travelmaster.
And appreciation it also received from other bikers, travellers and locals. A group of Brazilian tourists absolutely wanted photos with me and the bike. Once, I set at a terrace having lunch in a tiny village and two workmen stood up from their table and saw my bicycle parked. Without hesitation one said to the other: “ça c’est haute gamme!” True, top notch it is!
Cycling experience in France
Contrary to what many people think (and me too in the beginning), riding a bike is relatively safe in France. Despite the fact that, unfortunately, separate bicycle lanes are still rare. French, including trucks, are very respectful and apply the mandatory rule to overtake a bicycle with a distance of 1,5 meters while using the indicator. It was actually the foreigners, including the Dutch (they are used to separate bicycle lanes almost everywhere), unfamiliar with this rule, which would overtake too closely. Of course separate cycling tracks were always safer, but still hard to find. I have seen some encouraging efforts in for instance the ‘Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon’ (Provence), where they wish to stimulate cycling.
The more so, I was pleasantly surprised while entering the surroundings of Nantes still at about 8 kilometres before the city centre, to find a complete infrastructure with separate cycling lanes! Nantes was the biggest city I have entered during this journey and as a cyclist you immediately feel the effect of a pro-cycling city policy. It is no surprise either that Nantes will be the Green Capital of Europe in 2013. The city and its longstanding policy for good public transport systems and cycling facilities is an example to many others, also outside France! It shows that policy can make a difference by just taking the lead in changing habits of its citizens.
Train and bike
I cannot leave out the excellent experience I have had with taking my bike on the train. Although it must be said that bikes and TGV’s, the high speed trains, are not a very happy marriage in France (also see my earlier article), in some regions, such as Pays de la Loire, on the local trains this is a different story.
When I walked up to the platform in the Nantes train station (fully accessible to bikers and wheelchairs!), I saw many bikers and was somewhat worried whether we would all fit in the train. I knew some local trains only have a few places for bikes. Then the train entered into the station and to my pleasant surprise there was a whole wagon just for bikes! It got even better.
The doors opened and two young guys of the SNCF railway company helped to get all the bikes on board in this special compartment. You received a number and could then pick up your bike at the station where you had to get off and they would put the bike for you on the platform. This was first of all a security measure, as the distance between the entrance of the train and the platform was too wide and risky. However, it also was very efficient and most of all, very customer-friendly!
This shows that public transport (indeed not privatised) has its value when cost-cutting on human service is not at the forefront of the policy. It was a pleasure to see these two young men smiling while doing their work and kindly informing the bike travellers on whatever queries they had. Bravo SNCF! One can only hope that this will be rolled out to other regions in France … and abroad!
There are many more bikers around who visit eco-projects in France and some in Spain. Young people who want to show possible alternatives and travel low-cost. The bicycle is the perfect way to do that! Cycloasis is also connected to this network. Read the stories of these fellow cyclists!
Also watch the blog Vie simple, manger, prier, aider, of Pierre Hamon, a fellow cyclist and gentle young man that I got to know on two projects where we both participated. He cycles for one year through parts of Spain and France, visiting interesting initiatives that stand out. Check them out!
An interesting initiative in the Netherlands. A variety of public, private, academic, ngo entities and experts on cycling joined together in a network that provides services and policy advice in- and outside the Netherlands on research, planning, policy-making, product development, manufacturing, construction or building, etc. It also helps organising work/policy visits to the Netherlands.
Watch their video Cycling for everyone on how the Netherlands became a leading cycling nation (by the way, also thanks to the oil crisis in the ’70 of last century!).
On the 7th and 8th of November 2012 the Dutch government organises the International Cycling Safety Conference. This conference intends to be the premium forum for researchers and development engineers in the field of cycling safety, addressing new research topics and safety solutions.
The ultimate cycling joy!