Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ride the train, berijd de trein.

As a prelude to our upcoming Dutch Mountains posting, I wanted to chat with you about train travel. Of course, as Americans, our prior experience with trains was little more than hearing freight trains in the distance on summer nights while playing kick-the-can as 7-year olds, waiting at the occasional train crossing when our handy short-cut was thwarted by loads of coal, chickens, and hobos headed for somewhere else , and watching toy trains chug through miniature landscapes ... past the depot, through the tunnel, oops the caboose just fell off and the dog just stepped on all the miniature people at the Depot. Yep, that and some flashbacks of old Western movies and of course, Blazing Saddles, represented our whole paradigm on trains until we moved to Europe.

To reach our favorite cycling destination in the Netherlands, we've been spending lots of time on trains and thus immersing ourselves in a very different transportation culture. This is quite a change from our "toss all the gear in the car and gas 'er up" mindset that we honed in the land of plenty (except for public transportation options, that is)! It requires a different preparation mindset and different expectations, but the rewards are outstanding and we get a double-bonus by being in a country with such a great cycling infrastructure. That is, we can count on never having a worry on getting to or from train stations purely by bike wherever we go in the Netherlands. There are special provisions for bikes everywhere -- on the trains, at the train stations, even on roadways fairly remote from major villages or cities.

These train trips start out as we navigate our road bikes through the streets of Amsterdam with a weekend's worth of belongings in backpacks. It's at this point that we really appreciate how well-oriented our city bikes are to uneven, cobbled road surfaces and heavy loads -- it's tough on the road bikes and we're always a bit nervous on our tiny-tired bikes as we weave our way along the canals and past the hoards of tourists to the train station! Twenty minutes later though, we're on a train with our bikes gliding through the flat countryside. It gives you a great feeling of self-reliance -- it's really liberating not to have to rely on a car and to achieve your travel objectives solely by bike and train.

We learned quickly that 1) you have to buy a separate ticket for your bike and 2) you have to board on one of the special cars with a bike sticker above the door. Now, the downside to #2 is that most people carting bikes on trains aren't carting around their fancy racing bike -- instead, they are carting around their daily driver ... their 1983 pickup truck of bikes ... their beater bike. And this is the part that makes me the most nervous and serves as fodder for the rest of this story. It always goes like this: the train pulls up. You spot the special bike sticker and as the train slows, you start walking toward it. The train keeps on moving though, so you walk and then start to run because now the special door is 100 yards away. You realize that the best bet would have been to stand still and wait for the next sticker. You finally make it to the door, carry the bikes up the steps into the train car, and place them oh, so carefully along the wall (in a special bike area). You line up the bikes for you and your traveling companions, brace them so they won't move an inch, triple-check to ensure that the cranks and skewers are aligned in such a way that no contact will be made .... no scratches on the carbon fiber surfaces, no scratches on the components, no inappropriate bike-to-bike contact. Then, you lock the bikes together just to make sure that should bandits storm the train with guns a blazin, bandanas covering their faces, and horses awaiting their getaway ... that they would have to take all the bikes together and not just one.

Seconds before the train pulls away, it always happens that someone shows up with the beater bike. You can see him coming ... it's happening in slow motion. You want to jump out of your seat and hit the button to close the door. You beg to hear the conductor's whistle signaling imminent departure, but alas, beater bike guy makes it on. You know it won't be pretty. You know that beater bike guy has no clue that instead of owning a car, you invested a car's worth of savings into a high-end bicycle. You stand up, to make your presence known and to make an awkward attempt to head-off the inappropriate bike-to-bike contact that's sure to happen. It's all happening in super slow motion, but you just can't seem to move quickly enough. You've ceased to breath because of the anxiety. Beater bike guy's basket nicks your saddle -- then, out comes the kick-stand. His jeans are making contact with your wheel -- what if something on his shoes snags my rear dérailleur and rips it off the bike?!!! Then, with the kickstand extended, you clue in on the impending lean. Mathematical calculations are whizzing trough your brain! Will it touch?!! Will it touch?!! What if the train lurches forward suddenly?

Beater bike guy leaves the bike in mid-lean and starts his walk into the main train cabin. His bike is in free-fall. The kickstand has yet to make contact with the ground. The handlebars are turning -- the basket is in full motion. The rear panniers are making their move toward your aero wheels. Your bladed spokes are cowering in fear. You try to reach for the beater bike, but you're not fast enough. It's all a blur -- not just a scratch, but a full disintegration of your carbon fiber frame flashes before your eyes. You envision spikes, blades, and big fangs extending from the beater bike and ravaging your beautiful frame -- your recreational art -- your prized steed that allows you to escape to a world of bliss. You envision millions of carbon fiber particles filling the air as your bike meets its end. Oh, the humanity, you think.

The train eases from the station as beater bike comes to rest. A stillness fills the air. Tears well up in your eyes -- just preparing themselves for escape should your frame have been damaged. You survey the situation -- taking it all in. No contact. No contact. Thank you, thank you, thank you ... no contact! Sweet, glorious music fills your mind.

For the next two hours though, you watch the bikes like a hawk. Every time the tracks shift, the bikes move and sway. You hope that the kickstand doesn't fail and allow 50 pounds of steel, rubber, and plastic to violate your prized ride. Finally, it's beater bike guy's stop. One last contact with his jeans -- one last bump of the saddle by his basket and it's over. Serenity -- sweet serenity. The bikes are alone as we complete the journey. They arrive damage-free and apart from the now expected and somewhat humorous anxiety, the trip is pleasant and just plain easy.

We exit the destination train station, toss on our backpacks, and mount our bikes. We experience our typical feeling of disorientation, find a map of the town (usually on a big sign that also shows the bike routes), and ease into a bike lane headed for our hotel or camp site. Sometimes it goes super-smoothly and sometimes our journeys are filled with multiple beater bike experiences and track repair work requiring multiple train changes and just a lot of hassle. I'd still much rather worry about a scratch on my bike and some hassles than deal with rush hour traffic and road rage!


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