Mark and Vic look at a different way of getting to play in the mountains with bikes. To the Alps by train.
Words & Photography Mark
As I start writing this, the strongest hurricane on record, Dorian, is battering the Bahamas. I’ve just read an article telling me that the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than even the worst-case predictions of just a few years ago. The planet is heating up and it’s our fault.
Change on a global scale will only happen when populations act, but the act of populations is made up of individuals each making a choice for themselves. The choices we each make, no matter how seemingly insignificant, add up. One of the biggest impacts we have as individuals on the planet right now and, therefore, one of the biggest differences we can affect, is flying.
“It’s only one plastic straw,” said eight billion people.”
No matter how you spin it, if you want to make a difference one of the best ways to do it is to simply fly less. That’s a bastard when the best places in the world to ride are two countries over.
But there is a way…
I’ll admit from the off that this plan wasn’t mine. My wife is the reckless adventurer in our house, not me. She came up with the idea after a conversation about the ball-ache that is boxing up a bike and dragging it from home to the airport before handing it over to baggage handlers – we watched them throw a bike box around the tarmac while we squeezed into the 28 inches of legroom on an easyJet flight to Geneva.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just rock up at the railway station on bikes and just do the whole thing by train? No boxes. No letting the bikes out of our sight. Just ride door to door on trains for the long bits. There’s even a train platform right outside the Bike Verbier chalet where we were headed.
It remained one of those ‘wouldn’t it be good if…’ ideas that finally crystallised into a mission when we happened upon the environmental comparisons between trains and planes. I knew that trains were better for the environment than planes, but I’ll admit that until I saw the actual data I had no idea of the scale of that difference.
After a great deal of research through googling other people’s experiences of travelling by train with a bike we (well, Vic) came up with a plan consisting of no less than six trains and four intermediary riding stages.
The fine details
We knew that all the legs were theoretically possible, but the real question was whether they could be linked together to create a reasonable journey. The biggest risk was that if one link in that chain broke by way of a missed or cancelled train then the whole journey plan could come crashing rather expensively down. So we decided to mitigate the risk and break the journey with a night in Paris and extend our holiday from seven to nine days.
The biggest risk was the first
Let’s discuss British trains and their undistinguished history with the bicycle. While Northern Rail does accommodate bikes on its trains there are a few problems with their policies that were going to cause us – me in particular – a whole heap of stress. Each train has a maximum capacity of two bikes. To make matters worse for the pathologically organised, it’s not actually possible to book bikes on a Northern train. You just have to rock up at the station and hope there’s a bike space for you.
This meant we had a very nervous first leg to get through. If there was even a single bike already on the train when we turned up, we were in trouble.
With a week to go I was dropped at the station to catch the first train in a recce mission to gauge the likelihood of there being bikes on board when it was our turn. We had the backup of the next train an hour later if the first was full, but if that was also fully biked…? We were playing a game of chance – we just hoped we wouldn’t get that far down the train rabbit hole.
The first leg on Northern Trains to Manchester was the one causing me to lose sleep. The stakes were so high that if we couldn’t get on this train we could blow the schedule and end up having to rebook trains and hotels. The fact Vic was relaxed enough to shrug off the risk of it going wrong from the start just made me worse. “If it happens it happens and we’ll deal with it somehow.” What kind of attitude was that? How is that planning? It caused tension. She just couldn’t understand that what I needed her to do was to panic with me. I thought she was good at planning, but it turned out she was some strange woman with a fetish for taking crazy risks with train timetables. And I thought I knew her.
Barney suggested that I should take a packet of Hobnobs with me to bribe the train guard if the bike racks were occupied. But as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling at 9pm – after setting two alarms on my phone and then another on another phone – a shiver ran down my spine ‘What if he doesn’t like Hobnobs?’…
I see now that I was a little anxious.
Day 1: Burnley to Manchester
Costs: Off-peak return via Northern Rail £10.90 pp
The weather was calm, sunny and warm as we rode the 3.5 miles to the station. We were up and out ahead of time and had the opportunity to enjoy the quietness of riding a bike before the real rush hour began. I was relaxed… right up to the point we pulled up at the station to see not two but FOUR BIKES and riders already on the platform. I went cold! I was about to turn to Vic and break down, when a voice in my head suggested I go and ask them where they were going.
They were going to Bridlington – on a different train.
‘OH, THANK CHRIST!’
My heart rate reduced and I began to breathe again.
Our train arrived on time at 6.35am. It was almost empty. No bikes aboard but ours.
As I sat down in my seat my shoulders finally relaxed. My breathing began to return to normal. The train pulled out of the station with the pair of us, our two bikes and luggage safely stored. I exhaled the first really deep breath I’d taken for days.
I smiled at Vic. She looked back and said, in a rather unsympathetic tone: “Are you alright now? Can we go on bloody holiday now please?”
Manchester to London
Costs: Off-peak 1st class return £110 pp (Bikes free but must be pre-booked over the phone)
I love riding in cities. The ride across Manchester was easy and fun. It’s a flat city and perfect for cycling through before the morning traffic gets going, but by the time we got to Piccadilly the rush hour crowds were pouring out of the station.
We had almost two hours to spare which we spent mostly eating breakfast and people-watching from a café overlooking the station exit. I was now, finally, enjoying myself. For the first time I believed that the journey really was going to be part of the holiday.
The Virgin train and bike experience went smoothly. There’s a door on the engine carriage specifically for bikes, which are strapped into a shuttered cupboard behind the driver. Vic had afforded us a little luxury on this leg by booking us into first class. As the train pulled out of the station we began our long walk with our huge rucksacks through every carriage to the back. I almost concussed at least two small children. But I was still smiling. I was still relaxed. And that’s what matters.
We rode into St Pancras station after an adrenaline-packed one-mile ride in London with two hours in hand.
St Pancras to Paris
Costs: Eurostar return £98 pp plus £80 bike carriage pp
This part of the trip felt most like an airport. We pushed our bikes through the concourse past the shops to the baggage drop-off by the coach park. This was the only part of the journey where our bikes would be out of our sight. It’s clear though that they know what they are doing and it was a whole lot more reassuring than handing them over to airport handlers. There’s an option here to box up your bike and if you want to do that there’s actually a tool station complete with bike stand within the check-in area where you can pack it down, or build it back up if you’re collecting.
We waved goodbye to our bikes as they were wheeled away, like parents seeing off their progeny before a school trip. It felt very strange to be separated from the bikes as we walked back through the concourse towards the security desks.
On board Eurostar it was standard class for us this time. Even though we’d now downgraded from first, my thoughts as I sat down were about how different this would have been if we were now trying to squeeze into a tiny plane seat with the possibility of witnessing our bike boxes being punted on to a conveyor belt. I had no idea what the procedure is for our bikes on the train but I trusted they were being treated like royalty compared to how they would fare at the mercy of easyJet’s finest.
Still having fun. Still relaxed. Still no regrets.
The procedure for collecting bikes when we got off the train was to walk through the station to the baggage collection office. We had researched well enough to know that at Paris du Nord the office is around a half-mile walk from the platform. As it turned out the baggage truck was right outside our carriage with our bikes already loaded on it.
I knew that if this was the UK there would be no chance we’d be able to collect them there and then on the platform. There would be paperwork and extra bureaucracy to be followed back at the office for sure. So I wasn’t optimistic when I pointed out in a conversational manner to the guard that these were our bikes. We were both very surprised when, in excellent English, the guard asked to see our tickets before unhooking the bikes and wishing us well on our journey. This was all going so well. Perhaps too well.
A night in Paris
Costs: 2 nights (outward and inward) £138/night
Our day of trains was over. It was late afternoon, approaching rush hour in central Paris, but we only had about a mile to ride to our hotel. Guided by Google maps we set off. The traffic was immense, but helped by so many segregated bike lanes. The stress here was less the cars and more the insane number of electric scooters that were tearing along our lanes at up to 30mph.
The hotel was close though. Vic had obviously done her homework and made sure that our hotel was happy to store the bikes somewhere safe, which turned out to be the staffroom next to the check-in desk. We locked them up, just in case.
We literally dumped our bags in our room and headed for the streets again to spend the night exploring Paris by bike. Vic once again had a route planned out that would take us first to a bar for a beer and then on to the Louvre before heading for the Tower via the now scaffolded burnt-out shell of Notre Dame. It was mid-July and hot, but riding around the streets of Paris as the sun set and catching the tourist must-sees by bike was simply amazing. I can’t imagine a better way to do it. If you have just a few hours in Paris but you have a bike then you have the perfect set up. Keep away from the main roads, stick to the bike lanes on the back streets and you will have the best view of the city that you could possibly squeeze into a few hours. Bikes are even permitted to ride the wrong way down one way streets – how bonkers is that?
Ending the night in a small restaurant in a back street with a beer, pizza and light breeze blowing the heat of the day away, it was surreal to think that just 12 hours earlier I was stressing like a wound-up ball of emotion on the platform of Burnley Manchester Road station.
I slept well that night.
Day 2: Paris to Lausanne
Costs: TGV €175 pp (£160) (includes second train to Martigny)
A leisurely Saturday morning start was again thanks to the great planning of Vic who booked us on the 10.30am TGV train from Gare du Lyon. The station was a two-mile ride from the hotel, but the traffic was at a sensible level compared to yesterday’s rush hour chaos. It meant we could risk the main route through the city and mix it up with the light traffic.
Gare du Lyon is a massively impressive building architecturally and we both felt a little out of place and intimidated riding up to the main entrance on bikes. It gives off the feel of a very high-class hotel. But no one batted an eyelid at the two mountain bikers on full suspension enduro bikes riding literally through the front entrance. Vic, as I’d now come to expect, had everything in hand for the paperwork. Punching in the reference number at the nearest machine resulted in two impressively sized TGV tickets. But before we could chill out over a gluten-free granola breakfast in the nearest Pret there was the job of packing down the bikes.
The TGV is an amazing train – certainly by British standards. It’s a double-decker train that can reach speeds over 200mph. Our journey from Paris to Lausanne on the Swiss shore of Lake Geneva was going to be just four hours. But for all their high speed and tech you can’t get a bike on a TGV unless you make it fit in the standard sized luggage racks in each carriage. The rule is simple. It needs to be under 1.2m x 0.9m.
Our bikes were Canyon Spectrals. Specifically this model is a 27.5 wheel bike, which was no accident in this case. The wheelbase for a medium is 118cm, which means it will comply with the 1.2m maximum length when the wheels are off.
Now you can get away, so we’d heard, with just removing the wheels and stuffing it all in any old bag. We’d even heard tales of bikes wrapped in clingfilm. My anxiety over this trip would not countenance anything other than a decent, purpose-designed bag. The critical factor for us, of course, was that any bag we used would need to be packed down small enough for us to carry with us. We chose Evoc bags that rolled up small enough to be attached to our bars with a few straps. Not exactly bikepacker-level secure, but for the few miles of city riding we were doing it was just fine.
Packing down the bikes was something we’d practised. I’d managed to get the time for each bike down to under six minutes. The packing of the bikes was not something I was worried about. What I was worried about was the weight of each bike that we had to carry along with the rucksack on our backs and how we would get them onto the train.
The scrum to come
We had been warned about the scrum that was to come as hundreds of travellers rush for the train when it starts boarding, but I was still not prepared for what happened. If you’re travelling light with a single bag I can imagine it could still be a moment of chaotic stress, but it was exponentially worse with a 15kg, 1.2m-long shoulder bag in addition to the 15kg rucksack.
We had reserved seats, as had pretty much everyone else, and yet everyone seemed to board in a manner of panic as if the platform was on fire and this was an escape route. We knew that space in the luggage racks would be limited and so we weren’t proud of what we did next but it seemed the only way. We consciously pushed our indoctrinated sense of British queuing etiquette to a temporary dark place and just did it the continental way and battered through the crowd. We pretended we didn’t realise our bike bags were scattering the weak in our wake. No one seemed to object. They were doing the same, only we had greater mass to hand. Mass x Velocity = Momentum and we had the numbers to win.
By the time we reached our seats I was sweating like a pregnant nun, but it was over in minutes and our bikes were safely stored in the luggage racks. We may have moved a bunch of cases already deposited but, well, c’est la vie, as they say in Paris.
The journey was fast. I mean, boy! These trains go hellish quick. The fact the train is so smooth seems to add to the sense of speed. And the French countryside is just beautiful. Again, my thoughts went back to what the experience could be like 30,000 feet above, attempting to get comfortable in a middle seat with no view. Despite the chaos of boarding this was such a nicer experience.
Once again, I relaxed. I was at peace. I was on holiday.
Lausanne to Verbier
This was Vic’s only planning error. Up to this point her plan had been executed with scientific precision. Margins of error were built in and accommodated. We got where needed to be with the correct paperwork and in the right amount of time.
We got off the train at Lausanne to find that our next train was leaving from the same platform. No dragging the bags through crowds again – we were right where we needed to be. Our TGV ticket was booked through to the next station at Martigny. From there we’d buy a ticket on the platform to get us the last ten miles to Etiez, just outside Verbier.
Both remaining trains were, we had researched, very bike friendly. Bikes could be hung on hooks by almost every door to each carriage. There was capacity for dozens of bikes on every train. We had time to spare so I unpacked each bike and built them up on the platform.
The train arrived on time to the second. It was crowded but the bike hooks were there and with no fuss we were sat in seats soon enough. As we coasted along the spectacular Lake Geneva shoreline, the ticket inspector came through and Vic produced our tickets. But what she didn’t have was a booking for the bikes on this train. Yes, bikes are welcome, but if built up they need their own tickets. Had we left them in their bags they would have been luggage with no charge. Not a biggy – just an onboard ticket purchase and an unplanned expense of SFR28/£23.
Martigny to Verbier – The final leg and warm welcome
Costs: Martigny to Etiez | 18 Swiss Francs return (£15)
Of all the trains so far this was the easiest. Dedicated straps and front wheel slots mean you just roll bikes on and park. This train took us the final short leg to the village of Etiez, where we’d be staying with our friends Phil and Lucy at Bike Verbier. It was them and the chalet they are based in that played a part in the inspiration for this adventure. Their chalet sits just 100 feet from the station platform.
For the last hour I’d been updating Lucy by text on our progress and when we rolled off the train she was there on the platform waiting to greet us. The sun was shining; we were smiling. We set off for a week of mountain biking, but before we had even seen a mountain we’d crossed two countries and gazed out of the windows at the scenery, ridden around the glass pyramid of the Louvre, eaten pizza at 11pm, sipped beer in the heat of a Parisian evening and travelled at 200mph through the French countryside. If we’d flown and dragged bikes in boxes our holiday would have just begun at this point, but for us this was just the next chapter.
Total costs: £460 per person for travel. Plus £276 Paris hotels. Our total costs for travel and Paris: £1,196.
Flight option: (Estimated costs – early booking or the dates obviously change the equation)
- £12 petrol (to airport)
- £80 Airport parking
- £450 Return transfer Geneva/Verbier for two people and bikes (via Mountain Drop-Offs)
- £200 Return flights per person
- £45 Per bike per flight = £180 (2 bikes)
- Estimated total = £1,122 for two.
It’s entirely feasible that you could beat my easyJet price – I think a combination of off-peak dates and cheap flight offers could get it down as low as £850/couple. The Geneva transfer cost quoted here is pricey – an alternative is to take the train from Geneva airport to Martigny and then the local train to Etiez.
Another thing that fell in our favour was not needing a final transfer to the chalet from the last station. This was a decent saving, but might not be an option with other Alpine resorts.
It’s possible to make bigger savings if you start your journey in the South East or London. We reckoned the entire trip is easily done in a single day if your starting point is London. That would obviously give you the opportunity to save on the Paris hotel costs too.
The learning point here is that it’s not a substantial difference between the two options. I’d suggest the main issue is any extra days of holiday you may need to take at each end of the trip.
The cost of change
Action that will help the environment does not require abstinence – it requires change. My argument is that if you want to continue to do the things you love to do, like riding bikes in the Alps, then the way you go about doing that needs to change. That change, in most cases, will be more expensive, but then what we do is a leisure activity and as such we must accept that we have no right to cheap travel. There’s a fair argument that if you are in the lucky position to be able to support a lifestyle that includes £4k+ worth of toys then complaints over modest extra costs to play on them in the mountains are hollow when that extra cost is to the betterment of the planet we are on the brink of destroying.
Premier Extra features
Bikes on Virgin Trains
Bikes on trains from Manchester to London is a straight-forward affair of simply booking them in advance. Virgin Trains are not shy of advertising this fact, although you do have to bear in mind that each train only has capacity for 2 bikes, officially. But at least they can be booked several months in advance. Although, as Vic found out, that isn’t something you can do online. A long phone call later, some vague advice about how to get your bike on the train, we had bikes booked both ways.
Eurostar & Bikes
Eurostar is even easier. They are used to transporting lots of big baggage and just like an airport they have specific provision for over-sized bags and bikes.
Hotels In Paris
Getting a hotel in Paris was straightforward, as you’d expect. The only issue was price. The closer you are to the centre of the city and all the fun stuff the more pricey it gets. But we did at least have our own transport. It’s possible to stay on the outskirts of the city for around £70 but we decided to stay a little closer in at a hotel that was positioned handily between the two Paris stations we’d be using.
We stayed at the Hotel Anjou Lafayette http://www.hotelanjoulafayette.com/
Which we judged the best compromise between our budget, central location and location between the two Paris stations of Gard du Nord and Gard du Lyon. In July it cost us £138 for the rom on Friday night and £148 for the following Saturday. Pricey, especially when you consider that we arrived in Paris quite late on the homeward saturday, but very handy for both stations.
Our research regarding the bagging of bikes for the TGV leg showed up a number of options, from just wrapping them up in cling-film to a Cycling UK recommended bag. There are quite a few options available on Amazon but for our needs, whatever we used had to be compact enough to be strapped to the bike.
We opted for the Evoc Bike Cover as it provided some protection with padding while being reasonably compact. You can use the bag as a simple cover with wheels in place or as we did with the wheels off and the whole bag synched up tight. There’s two compartments inside for your wheels to keep the sharp pointy bits separated from your shiny frame.
We did practice a few times at home before the trip and we managed to get disassembly to bagged times down to around 6 minutes per bike.
If you have just a few hours in Paris but you have a bike then you have the perfect set up to get the best view of the city. Bikes are even permitted to ride the wrong way down one way streets.
Friday night in Paris, in the summer, on a bike is an experience I’ll not forget. We quickly got off the main streets and found the river. Riding along the banks of the Sein on a Friday night, passing pop up bars on moored boats, picnickers with small snacks and large bottles of red wine felt quintessentially French. The random pockets of ballroom dancing was fascinating to watch. This is a city that knows how to end the working week in some style.
Navigating the streets by bike is fairly straightforward right up until you find yourself in a bus lane on one of the main thoroughfares. The roads are wide with multiple lanes and suddenly finding you have a bus inches from your rear wheel is frankly terrifying. It’s easy to stay away from them if you plan your route. Vic had her iPhone and Google maps active on her bars via the excellent Quad Lock mounts system.
The return journey
But how about the return leg? It all went pretty smoothly right up until we reached Manchester Victoria for our final train back to Burnley.
It being Sunday the next train was a couple of hours later so we chose to get train back to Todmorden instead. From there we were picked up by my son who drove us the last 10 miles home. It was not the end we wanted but by this time we were tired enough to take the lift option. Still, 11 out of 12 trains wasn’t bad.
The return gallery
Was it worth it?
I’ve been to Verbier to ride bikes more times than any other destination outside the UK. For me, it’s one of the best places to ride in the world. Here’s a collection of snaps from our week of riding that I think back up that claim.
Where we stayed – Bike Verbier
We stayed with friends of ours, Phil and Lucy who run Bike Verbier from their catered chalet just outside Verbier. They got started guiding and hosting mountain bikers way back in 2001.
While they no longer personally guide riders who stay with them they still provide a fully catered stay in their super comfortable chalet. Lucy’s cooking is legendary and Phil’s experience of the local trails us second to none.
The chalet provides secure bike storage and a workshop dripping with every tool you could possibly need.
The trip on Instagram Stories
We documented the entire journey out and back live on Instagram Stories. We’ve saved the stories on our Instagram page and you can check it out and relive the journey.
Finally, if you have any questions about this article or our trip, then pop them in the comments below and either myself or Vic will do our best to answer them.
This feature was first published in Singletrack magazine issue 127. For more features like this, both in print and online, please consider supporting us by becoming a full member from just £2.50.
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