Since the end of August 2020, I have been on the roads of France with my bicycle. The objective of this trip is to discover lifestyles based on well-being and ecology by focusing in particular on three themes: permaculture, herbalism and eco-construction. I travel from farm to farm or construction worksite to confront reality and learn different techniques. In order to be as ecological as possible, I decided to make this trip mainly by bicycle and train for long distances. The goal is not to use the car and to study if I am able to use soft mobility permanently in order to respect my ecological wishes.
That was for the original idea. Two and a half months later, reality thwarted my plans.
After two cyclo-touring trips in New Zealand and Iceland, I thought that travel in France was going to be a piece of cake. Except that it is not. First, I am just too loaded. Between the bivouac things, the change of clothes and work clothes, the boots, the food, my computer equipment and a few books, I have to ride with about forty kilos of luggage. It is too much. The slightest variation on the road slows my progress. Despite my cycling habit, I find it very difficult to move forward at a decent pace. I cycle around ten kilometers an hour and it tires me. I do not know if it is just the weight or if it is me who is not in great shape but I am moving at snail speed.
Also contrary to what I thought, the corners I cycled through were far from flat. Poitou-Charente, Normandy, Brittany, Limousin are not flat. They are hilly with little permanent climbs and descents which pulls a lot on my legs and tires me more than a good big climb. Yet I thought that after Iceland and its difficulties, I was going to be able to face anything. After the constant wind, the rain, the damaged roads and the big climbs, I had the idea that I was ready for everything. Except that does not seem to be the case. I even find this trip in France more difficult than my cycle through Iceland. There, I was doing an average of 80 kilometers per day. At the moment I am barely reaching sixty. Despite a terrain that I think is easier to cycle on.
However, I tried to leave as light as possible. But work items (clothes, boots, gloves) are necessary and I feel that I need the few books that I carry with me in order to continue to discover and learn by reading. Of course by removing all that I would go back below the thirty kilogram mark and the bike and my legs would suffer less. But that would mean no longer doing the trip I want to do, which is not a tourist trip to discover a country or an initiatory trip with surpassing oneself. No, my trip is a transition, a questioning, a reconversion. And in this journey, the bicycle is only one mode of transport. And not the main theme.
Since cycling is difficult and I have to reach my destination on time, I took the train a lot. Way more than I expected. And what I saw and experienced depressed me. First of all, with the exception of TER, it is almost impossible to travel by bicycle through France. In addition, faced with the heavy weight of my luggage, I considered equipping myself with a trailer in order to lighten my bike. But trailers are prohibited on all trains, so I gave up on the idea. TGV and transiliens are not suitable for transporting bicycles and even less for loaded touring bikes like mine. The few times I took this kind of train, the transportation and the journey were far from simple. In addition, permanent handling has an impact on the durability of my bike. By dint of being handled in an inappropriate way, it risks weakening. In the TER, the situation is a little better but depends heavily on the regions. The arrangement of trains for transporting bicycles varies between reserved and well-appointed spaces and a simple space set back in the middle of the corridor. In addition, with the rise of the soft mobility movement, the presence of bicycles is multiplying in trains. At rush hour or in the small TER of barely two cars, cyclists and pedestrians find themselves in confrontation for every available space and everyone end up being grumpy.
Add to that the prohibitive cost of train tickets. Where bicycle transport often comes in addition. Almost all of my monthly budget is spent on train tickets. And the often disparaging and refractory attitude of the controllers who seem to take a dim view of the arrival of bicycles on trains. A female controller told me in a dismissive tone that she was there to transport people and not bicycles and that it was unrealistic to think that trains were going to be equipped for transporting bicycles in the future. “With what money?” she almost spat on me. This puzzles me. Why does the SNCF not understand that it has everything to gain from mass development of bicycle transport? Why make life more difficult for all those people who are ready to combine train and bicycle and therefore pay for it? Why postpone them so that in the end they give up the train journey and therefore its financing? Why are many European countries and Japan capable of massively developing the offer of trains combined with cycling, but not France? Why do French political guidelines favor the use of fossil fuels rather than common sense?
Fifteen years ago, I remember loading the bikes of my parents, me and my brother into special transport wagons on several trips across Europe. I remember wagons where sixty bicycles could be hung vertically on hooks. I remember employees helping us tie them up. I remember the ease with which the trip went. Why would it not be possible to re-equip the trains with these bicycle wagons? If fitting out the trains in service for transporting bicycles is too expensive and causes discomfort for other users, why not simply go back to this older, simpler and more ergonomic practice?
With all these complications, between difficulty pedaling, hilly terrain and the complexity of transporting by train, I realized that my mind was spending more time focusing on the bike and train ride rather than the journey itself. And the experiences that I do. And that all of this created stress, anxiety and sadness. I was not enjoying doing what I was doing because complications had taken precedence over simplicity. The point of my current trip is to focus on the chosen themes. On learning. And not on transport. The train and the bicycle are only means of transport during this trip. The transport between the chosen places must be done in simplicity and without constraints. Faced with these findings and with winter coming, I decided to change my mode of travel. So I am going to use the little 206 car of my parents, who do not need it, to move between the chosen places of learning. I will try to carpool to avoid using the car alone and to reimburse the costs. And I will be using the bicycle the rest of the time. Because of course I keep the bike with me. Car use should be as frugal as possible, make long journeys easier and avoid spending too much money on a tight budget like mine.
I see this choice as a step backwards in the face of my ecological wishes and my questioning about travel. This makes me wonder about a future where travel will be impacted by the scarcity of fossil fuels. If the current complications made me back down would I be able to move into a future without a car? Or does it perhaps highlight my unrealistic travel choices? Choosing places all over France is obviously not the right choice for travel by bicycle only. If I want to focus on soft mobility, maybe I have to accept that travel as it is understood today may not be the same in the future. It may be necessary to return to more local travel and accept to reconsider distances on human scales and not on car scales.