Rob Ennals > Travel > Simon and Rob Invade and Conquer France

Day 1, July the 16th: The Prologue

Cambridge - Bayonne - Biarritz (approx 6 miles)

On the driveway

At 3:30am on July the 16th, Simon awoke to find me sleeping on his driveway.

Normally, when one finds a scruffy looking young man lying on one's elegant driveway, wearing polyester thermals underneath tatty shorts, and curled up round a couple of dirty black bags, one's reaction is to run back inside one's large, well secured house, and wait for them to go away.

In this particular case however, Simon was vaguely relieved.

I had been supposed to come round to Simon's house the previous afternoon, but hadn't. At 10pm, when Simon was feeling well past ready to retreat to his nice soft bed, he had phoned me to find out where I was, and discovered that I was in Bedford. I had a good reason to be in Bedford, but this was not a good enough reason to require Simon to stay awake to meet me, so Simon had gone to bed, and arranged to meet me at 3:30am, the next day.

Over time, I had ceased to be in Bedford, and gradually started to be in Cambridge. By the time that I was fully in Cambridge, and not in Bedford at all, I was feeling very tired. Realising that, wherever I went, I was likely to fall asleep, and that wherever this was, I would not be able to reliably wake up for 3:30, I had decided to sleep on Simon's driveway, and so thoroughly spoil the ambiance of a previously very good neighbourhood.

Starring bleary-eyed out of his front-door, Simon tried to recall why he had got up at 3:30am, and why he was relieved to see me asleep on his driveway. Eventually he realised that it was because he was about to take an early morning train to France, and then spend two weeks cycling up steep mountains and living in fields accompanied by me - and that this was to be his holiday.

I got up, and failed to pronounce something about bicycles.

The parcel

The bicycles in question were disguised as a big shiny black thing. The French railway people don't like bikes, but if one disguises them as something else of equal size then they somehow cease to be quite so offensive. The packaging efforts hadn't made the bikes significantly smaller, but had made them a lot harder to carry, and this seemed to be what was important.

I was of the opinion that the primary reason the French required people to carry bikes in bags was that it was a pain in the arse for cyclists to have to do it. The French were thus able to say "we allow bikes on trains" while doing all they could to prevent anyone actually doing so.

In fact, the official regulations require bikes to be carried in special bike bags. Unfortunately, such bike bags cost around 100UKP each, and are too bulky to carry on a cycle tour, requiring one to throw them away at the start of the trip and buy another set of bags for the return journey. We had thus decided that it would be far easier to use a home-made polythene-and-duck-tape bike-bag, and use the "I'm bigger than you are" approach if challenged about it.

In Transit

A few minutes struggle brought Simon, me, the black obelisk, and other assorted bags to the station - which was closed. Shaking the front door failed to make the station any less closed, so I, Simon, and the assorted objects decided to sit outside the station, and wait for it to change state.

After a few minutes, a small lady appeared, did nothing of any note, and then went away again. I began to get worried, but Simon reminded me that it is unusual for a train to leave it's starting station before the station has actually opened. Several further minutes later, Simon was proved right as the small lady appeared again, opened the door, and then retreated back to wherever it is small ladies retreat to.

Being early in the morning, the train inspectors weren't awake enough to complain about the obelisk, and so the train journey to King's Cross was eventfully uneventful. Somehow the luggage managed to fit onto the tube train to Waterloo, leaving me to speculate if a record had perhaps been attained for the largest object ever successfully transported on the London Underground.

One result of carrying a large object with one is that one suddenly realises how far away everything is from everything else, and how many staircases there are in-between. Going through the tube system we discovered staircases the like of which we had never imagined. A definite sense of relief was felt on arrival at the Eurostar terminal - a sense that was somewhat dented when the auto-checkin device flashed a big error light on being presented with Simon's ticket. On seeing the error light, another generic small train-lady appeared, studied our passports, and eventually decided to let us go into the terminal.

The luggage scanning area was similarly threatening. It soon became quite obvious that our mysterious black object was significantly wider than the x-ray scanner and so would not be x-ray scannable. This was quite worrying, as the only way to open our bike bag was to tear it open, making it rather hard to reassemble. Fortunately, the customs people couldn't be arsed to work out a way of scanning it, and so just waved us past. I suggested that the next time I smuggle illegal weapons into France I will carry them in an enormous black bag.

Crossing the Border

An uneventful Eurostar journey brought us to Paris, at which we had to change stations using the Metro. After much faffing, I managed to find a ticket machine that took credit card, and bought tickets that looked like they were probably the right kind of thing.

As with the London Underground, the Paris Metro was unprepared for people with large luggage items, and, as Simon carried the bike bag through the entry barrier, it decided to slam shut on the bikes. I reacted immediately by jumping on top of the machine, and pushing the barriers back with my feet. This position was held while Simon slid all the other luggage through the barriers. On reflection, we realised that we had been filmed on CCTV, and I had been wearing a King's Splash-top with my name written across the front. Never mind.

We arrived at the second station just in time to catch our train to Bayonne. This was what the French consider to be a slow train, but by British standards it was a very fast train. We left our luggage leaning against a door we hoped wouldn't open very often, and settled into a cabin containing a pair of French Canadians. After a few hours spent slagging off each other's countries, and failing to find comfortable sleeping positions, we arrived at Bayonne.

Rob's Nuts

On unwrapping our bikes, we discovered that, although the bikes had survived largely intact, I had lost a nut from my rear wheel. This had two effects. The first was that I couldn't get my wheel central, so it rubbed on the left brake. The second was that the wheel wasn't locked in place very solidly, and so there was a risk that it would vibrate and possibly even come out.

We decided that it would probably be ok for a while, and so set off for Biarritz, with the intention of finding a bike shop the next day. All was going well until we came to a downhill stretch. Entranced by the opportunity for extreme speed, I forgot about the state of my rear wheel and began to build up speed. My rear wheel didn't like being forgotten about, and reacted by causing my inner tube to explode, somehow managing to also tear a hole in my tyre. I freewheeled to an wobbly halt, and meditated on how foolish I was.

Simon decided to whiz ahead to Biarritz in search of the campsite, while I walked along the pavement, pushing my crippled bicycle.

Surfer Land

Biarritz turned out to be the surf capital of France, and our campsite was accordingly full of surfer dudes, most of them Dutch. While the people seemed very nice, the campsite organiser seemed distinctly dodgy. He insisted on keeping Simon's passport while we stayed there, and refused to let us drink Orangina bought at his shop in his bar. More importantly, the showers were cold.

We obtained the address of a bike shop from some friendly Dutch cyclists, and retired to bed.