Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lettre à la RATP/Letter to the RATP

En français : 

(English translation below)

Cher RATP,

J'imagine qu'un agent RATP pensait qu'il serait une idée sympa d'ajouter de la musique aux annonces de nom de station, sur la ligne de tramway T3. Bien que j'applaudis cette initiative de tenter de rendre le système des transports en commun à Paris une expérience plus agréable, permettez-moi de vous expliquer pourquoi cette initiative en particulier est un échec.

Prendre les transports en commun à Paris est une expérience tellement désagréable, que je fais de mon mieux pour l'éviter autant que possible. Dans la mesure du possible, je préfère marcher, courir, ou prendre mon vélo, pour aller à ma destination. Lorsqu'il pleut, je suis contrainte de choisir entre me faire tremper à vélo, ou prendre le tramway. Ces jours-là, je monte dans le train avec les autres Parisiens. Plus de places assises, des poussettes multiples, des visages fermés (que l'on comprend aisément), des pickpockets et voleurs (je me suis effectivement fait piquer mon téléphone sur la T3) sont les joies que j'anticipe ces jours-là. Jusqu'à dernièrement, j'arrivais à me réconforter (me mettre sous calmants, si vous préférez) en écoutant mes chansons préférées sur mon baladeur mp3. Les voix apaisantes des mes chanteurs favoris m’emmenaient dans un autre monde, où je pouvais temporairement oublier les déficiences hygiéniques de mes co-voyageurs. J'observe qu'une grande majorité de passagers a également opté pour cette thérapie, des écouteurs étant présents dans la plupart des oreilles.

Cependant, ce matin, ma rêverie musicale a été brutalement interrompue par la musique beuglante sur les haut-parleurs du train, pendant les annonces des noms des stations. La cacophonie de ce son de mauvaise qualité, mélangé avec ma propre musique, me donne envie de sortir du train, me tourner vers le ciel, lâcher un hurlement perçant, et commencer à courir comme Forrest Gump, me distançant du tramway, du métro, de la tour Eiffel, et du reste de Paris, voyageant vers la campagne, les annonces cacophoniques devenant une mémoire distante et vague.

Alors, s'il vous plaît, ne mettez pas de la musique sur les haut-parleurs pendant les annonces. Une simple voix lisant le nom de la station est parfaite.

Merci de votre temps.

In English:

Dear RATP,

I imagine that an RATP staff member thought it would be a nice idea to include music along with the station announcements, on the tramway line T3.  While I applaud the effort in attempting to make the public transportation system in Paris a more pleasant experience, please allow me to explain why this particular attempt has failed.

Riding the metro and tramway lines in Paris is such an unpleasant experience, that I attempt to avoid this whenever possible.  I prefer to walk, run, or bike whenever possible, to get where I need to go.  On rainy days, I have the unfortunate choice of being soaked on my bicycle, or taking the tramway.  On these days, I enter crowded trains with the rest of Parisiens.  Standing room only, multiple strollers, understandably unsmiling faces of other passengers, pickpockets and thieves (I did have my phone stolen on the T3) are what I look forward to on these days.  Up until recently, I was able to console (sedate, if you will) myself, by listening to my favorite tunes on my mp3 player.  The soothing voices of my favorite singers take me to another place, where I can temporarily forget the hygienic deficiencies of my travelling neighbors.   My observation is that a large majority of passengers have opted for this form of transportation therapy, as headphones and earbuds are present in the ears of most passengers I see.

On a few recent occasions such as this morning, my musical reverie has been abruptly interrupted with the blaring music on the loudspeakers in the train, during the station announcements.  The cacophony of this poor quality sound mixing with my own music makes me want to exit the train, open my mouth to the sky, release a piercing scream, and start running like Forrest Gump, leaving the tramway, the metro, the Eiffel Tower, and the rest of Paris behind me, as I journey to the countryside, the cacophonous station announcements becoming but a vague and distant memory.

So please, do not play music on the speakers during the station announcements.  A simple voice reading the station name is perfect.

Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bike road trip from Paris to London

A year since my first bike road trip from Paris to Bordeaux, I decided to embark on another adventure, this time to London.  I really lucked out with beautiful weather during the whole trip, which I'd say is unusual for this time of year in Paris and London.  I met a few challenges on this trip, but it was a pleasure again to be rolling out in the countryside.


Here is an overview of the main stops:

A: Paris
B: Gisors
C: Forges-les-eaux
D: Dieppe
E: Newhaven
F: Brighton
G: Sutton
H: London

The trip by bike took just over four days; five days including the return trip by Eurostar.

Most of the gear I had with me on this trip was the same that I took on the Bordeaux trip.  In addition, I attached a bag to my handlebars for things I would need to access often while on the road: water, snacks, and sunscreen.

I had done no preparation whatsoever for the Bordeaux trip.  Since that trip, I have been cycling to work everyday.  The commute is 13km round trip.  This is not an extreme workout, but I assumed that it would be sufficient to better prepare me for the London trip.  My performance on the London trip ended up about the same as on the Bordeaux trip.  I guess proper training would involve cycling with heavy gear over longer distances.

Time for a new bike?

I'm still using the bottom-of-the-line mountain bike I had on the Bordeaux trip.  The following are the pros and cons of my current setup.  I'm considering getting a new bike, or at least making some changes to my current bike, to make the trips easier and be able to enjoy riding even more.

- Cheap. If it is stolen, it's only a minor drama, not the end of the world.
- Sturdy tires.  I have not had a single flat tire in over 4000 km.  I occasionally (though rarely) have to travel on unpaved roads, so this is a major benefit.
- Suspension. Front and rear suspension makes traveling over most bumps almost unnoticeable.
- Heavy-duty bike lock.  After my first bike was stolen, I purchased a heavy lock at a motorcycle shop. This gives me peace of mind if I have to leave my bike alone in public for a while.

- Cheap.  Since the bike was cheap, the material is probably heavier than what I would get with a more expensive bike.
- Sturdy tires.  I'm sure I could whiz by much more quickly if I had some ultra-thin tires and tubes inflated up to maximum pressure.
- Suspension.  I believe the full suspension may contribute to the heaviness.  Since I rarely travel on unpaved roads, I think I could live with only front or even no suspension, if it could make the bike much lighter.
- Heavy-duty bike lock.  This adds to the already significant weight.  In all the hotels I stayed at when touring, I could leave my bike in a secure place (either in a private parking or in the room itself).  So I'm sure on my next trip I'll carry a lighter lock.
- No panniers.  Most of the weight of my gear was carried on my back.   Even if I don't get a new bike, at a minimum I should install panniers to distribute the weight away from my body a bit.

France versus the UK - Challenges

Based on my experiences cycling from Paris to Bordeaux, Paris to Dieppe, and Newhaven to London, I can say that I feel much more at ease cycling in France than in the UK.  Of course the experience will vary depending on where in these two countries one decides to cycle, but on the routes I've travelled:

- Hills. The routes I travelled in France were generally much flatter than in the UK.   From Brighton to Sutton I saw one sign warning about a 15% grade, and another for a 16% grade.  These signs were on a route recommended by a Brit who described the route as "almost flat".  If this is "almost flat" for Brits, I'd like to see what "hilly" looks like!  I'm pretty much a novice to bike touring.  I haven't trained, and my goal is really to just be outside, not necessarily to push myself to test my physical limits (which seem to be pretty low :) ).  So, I think I'll plan my next trip for Belgium and/or the Netherlands... :)

Quiet country road in France, entering Picardie
- Traffic.  One of the craziest areas I've biked in, in France, is probably Place de la Concorde, in Paris. Here's a satellite view, where you can have an idea of the traffic there.  I can say that I've felt more comfortable cycling in Place de la Concorde than in many areas of the UK.  A few of what I thought would be remote roads in the countryside in the UK turned out to have many cars, going fast, with narrow lanes and not much visibility.   The epitome of this was Pebblehill road, which I describe later.  Fortunately, the majority of the trip in the UK was quiet.

- Roundabouts.  Although riding on the left side of the street didn't pose a problem most of the time on long distances on a single road, intersections and roundabouts were a bit trickier.  I navigated many roundabouts in the UK as a pedestrian, walking my bike across each section.  I have a feeling that I was probably a bit overcautious here, and that most cyclists would probably have no problem riding these roundabouts :)

Despite the challenges biking in the UK, once in the small country roads, the scenery was beautiful and the ride enjoyable.


Day 1: A sunny start in Paris

On day 1, the trip gets off to a good start in Paris.
At the Arc de Triomphe
Bye-bye Paris!

Day 2: Forges-les-eaux to Dieppe: the Greenway (avenue verte)

The morning was a ride from Gisors to Forges-les-eaux which went much faster than I anticipated.  I arrived at Forges-les-eaux around noon, and decided to continue on to Dieppe, which I had initially planned for the following day.
Just me and the cows

A bike/pedestrian pathway runs from just outside of Forges-les-eaux to Dieppe.  Removed from traffic, running mostly through scenic farmland, this is the perfect route for bike touring, strolling, or roller blading.  I would like to come back at some point and just spend the day here, either on bike or roller skates.   Something to look forward to as warm weather approaches...
The Avenue Verte in Beaubec-la-Rosière

Day 3: The Dieppe-Newhaven ferry

The ferry ride from Dieppe to Newhaven is about four hours. I took it on an early Sunday morning, and it was quite empty.  I had never ridden a ferry like this before, so this was a new experience. The only ferries I'd ridden previously were for short trips (about a half hour): at New York and at Bordeaux.  This ferry was huge, with plenty of places to sit, shop, or eat.    There were some seats which resembled seats on an airplane, except more comfortable with much more leg room.  This is the way to travel!
Arrival at the Newhaven port

Day 3: Brighton

I was lucky to have magnificent weather as I came into Brighton.  I discovered the Undercliff walk, a welcome flat stroll for several kilometers along the beach leading to the pier.  I took it easy this day and mostly walked.
Lunch break between Newhaven and Brighton
View from the Undercliff walk leading to Brighton

As I approached the pier, I discovered the Brighton Mile / Sport Relief.  I wasn't too sure what this was about, but I assumed it was some fund-raising/charity event, as I saw men, women, and children of all ages, shapes and fitness levels, running.  Some were dressed in costumes such as cheerleaders or rabbits.

Without a cloud in the sky, and with the warm temperatures, the sunbathers, street performers, and the pier, I almost thought I was in Santa Monica.
Brighton beach
Brighton beach

Day 4: Devil's Dyke

After a tough climb going up Dyke Road leaving Brighton, I was rewarded with this view:
View from Devil's Dyke

The Pebblehill detour

On the route from Brighton to Sutton, I came across a street called Pebblehill road, about 15km from Sutton.  This is a very beautiful area, with trees lining the road, on a steep incline (16% grade) with no visibility around bends, little room for cars to pass cyclists, and no path for pedestrians.  Upon seeing this, I hesitated for a while, and when I didn't find any reasonable alternative paths, I decided to go for it.  
16% grade
Debating whether to go up Pebblehill road:

Just then, a resident of the area saw me and we chatted for a while.  He told me that he had been living there for 15 years, that there had been four cyclist deaths up this passage (I haven't been able to verify this), and that he refused to walk up this passage.  He recommended an alternative route, which went through private roads, on a very steep and narrow footpath, with two fences I had to lift my bike over.  I felt like I was on a reality TV show, my endurance and willingness to continue being tested. In the end, it took me an hour and forty-three minutes to navigate less than one kilometer.  But when I finished, I felt like a warrior who could accomplish anything!  Raaawwww!!
The narrow and steep footpath I took 
Hurdle #1 - Almost there...
Hurdle #2 - Over this and it's back to the road! 

Day 5: London

I made it!  It was a pleasure to see Big Ben and the London Eye as I cycled up to Lambeth bridge.
At London
In front of Big Ben
And to finish the trip, a nice meal of Guinness battered fish and chips, at a pub:
Fish and chips


How could one of my blog posts be complete without at least some statistics and a chart?

The following table and chart show my performance progress (or regression :) ) as the trip went on.  I excluded the Pebblehill detour, because it was a statistical anomaly, not within the bounds of the typical values for speed and distance (i.e., it would bring down my stats too low and make me feel less proud of myself. :))

Trip segment Path Avg Speed (km/h) Distance (km) Time (hours)
Day 1-morning Paris-Gisors 10.5 76.4 7.3
Day 2-morning Gisors-Forges-les-eaux 10.6 49.7 4.7
Day 2-afternoon Forges-les-eaux-Dieppe 10.9 57.1 5.2
Day 3-morning Newhaven-Brighton 4.5 21.9 4.9
Day 4-morning Brighton-Pebblehill detour 8.8 58.8 6.7
Day 4-afternoon Pebblehill detour-Sutton 7.7 19.4 2.5
Day 5-morning Sutton-London 8.3 18.0 2.2
8.8 43.0 4.8

301.2 33.4

What next?

It will probably be a while before I can go on a long tour again, but I'm already thinking about possible tours to do next.  There are a couple of 3-day weekends coming up in April and May.  Based on my how I did during this trip, and assuming on a shorter trip I'll have a lighter load, I could plan for about a 200km trip one-way over 2.5 days, returning the afternoon on the third day by train.   On a regular 2-day weekend, I could plan for 100-125 km trip.  For a more relaxed trip, I might first take a train out of Paris and start the cycling in the suburbs or countryside.  Here are a few possibilities (not sure if the trains connecting Paris to these cities allow bikes):

3-day weekends:
Paris-Le Havre

2-day weekends: