If you have travelled to Europe before then you will know just how well connected the rail system is. As a form of travel, trains often offer up a more affordable and sometimes even quicker option than car or plane travel. So if you are exploring France by bike, then you will certainly want to know how to take your bike on French trains.
Our latest cycling trip to France was a bikepacking holiday. This meant instead of hiring a car and driving from point to point, we made our way to each town by bike. Instead of suitcases filled with belongings, we had smaller bags strapped to our bikes, holding everything we would need for the next five weeks.
This wasn't our first foray into bikepacking, we had done a couple of shorter trips back home in Australia. But this was taking it up a level. Whilst we planned to ride as much of our route as possible, travelling with our bikes on trains in order to get from one city to another was also our intention. This would allow us to traverse regions a lot quicker and easily stick to our broader holiday itinerary.
The route we plotted would take us from the West coast of France, through the Cognac and Dordogne regions, with a loop to Bordeaux. We would then traverse across to the Pyrenees before eventually making our way to the French Alps and then over into Switzerland. We ended up catching two different types of trains on this trip – the fast TGVs and the slower regional trains. Preparing to travel with your bike on these two types of trains is vastly different.
We had completed some research prior to our trip and realised quickly that putting our bikes on the TGVs would require them to be partially dismantled and fully enclosed in a form of bike bag. This is so they can fit into the luggage compartments. Our dedicated planning section on trains gives a full run down on the specific dimensions, but basically a conventional soft bike bag used for air travel won't fit. This didn't so much matter for us as due to the way we were travelling we didn't have a conventional bike bag! Our bikes arrived in France in a cardboard box which we discarded at the airport once we assembled them in Paris.
After some online researching we discovered Japan also has a similar requirement for bikes when taken on trains. They need to be dismantled and fully enclosed when taken onboard. The Japanese have designed a specific piece of equipment to assist cyclists with train travel. It is called a rinko bag. Pretty much it's a very lightweight sack made of nylon. It ticked a lot of boxes. Given we were bikepacking we couldn't have anything bulky, and when it wasn't in use, it folded down to the size of a water bottle. It was also light weight. With the benefit of watching a few YouTube clips we were sold on using them for our trip and ordered some from an online bike store in Japan.
So armed with our rinko bags, we packed our bikes and walked onto the platform. Of course, there were a few stressful moments as well. Train travel is popular and getting on and off train carriages holding a bulky dismantled bike isn't necessarily the easiest of tasks. With the TGV trains you are allocated a specific seat and carriage. Working out where the carriage stops on the platform is very important. This is because it really is first in best dressed when it comes to using the luggage racks. As it happened we were always able to find a place for our bikes – sometimes we just had to get a little inventive.
From Bordeaux we were joined by another friend of ours who had their bike in a large Scicon soft bag. This bag is super convenient as you don't need to detach the handlebars. In terms of packing your bike for travel it doesn't get much simpler. Unfortunately the downside is this bag is also quite bulky. Ultimately making it too big to fit into the luggage compartments of the TGV.
Our friend got onboard and left their bike in the aisle. During the journey the conductor was not impressed. They spoke with our friend, letting them know the bag was too big to be travelling on the TGV. They threatened to kick them off the train at the next station. Our friend pleaded their case and were thankfully allowed to remain on the train – but it was at the discretion of the conductor. Definitely keep this in mind if you plan to use a larger bike bag on the trains.
If you have no other option than to use a larger bike bag, there is a provision on some TGV services to pre-book this as larger luggage. You will need to do this in advance when you book your tickets and your bikes will be loaded into a separate luggage area on a special carriage. We don't have any experience of doing this ourselves.
Travelling with a bike on French regional trains is very convenient and also free. Unlike the TGVS, there is no requirement to pack the bike away. So no need to dismantle it or store it in it's own self contained bag. Instead, there are sections on the carriages which are designated for bike storage. Often these are found at the front or end of the carriage. Each train is slightly different but in the main, you will generally find some vertical hanging hooks which you put around your bike wheel. The bike then hangs in place securely. You are obliged to use these hooks when they are available.
We had a situation where a train conductor was upset with us as we had stored our bikes incorrectly. Basically instead of using the hooks, we decided to just lean the bikes up against each other. This was so we wouldn't need to take off our bikepacking bags. When the conductor saw our bikes like this they weren't happy. We quickly took the bags off and stored the bikes from the designated hanging hooks. To be honest, the hanging hooks are far more secure and we should have done this in the first place. Lesson learned – when there are set storage facilities for bikes put in place, use them.
We don't have any personal experience of using the other French train networks when travelling with bikes. Depending on the train network you travel with you may be required to pay a fee for taking your bike with you. Be aware of this when you are booking your reservation in advance. In an effort to help you navigate the different systems refer to our dedicated planning section on trains.
Whilst travelling with a bike on the French trains can sometimes throw up its own stresses, we found it to be very worthwhile. It was a much cheaper and often a quicker way to travel. It also made navigating the larger cities a lot easier too, as you didn't need to ride your way through any city traffic when using trains to get from point A to point B.
One thing we will do differently next time is to restrict any train travel to the Regional TER trains. Whilst they don't travel at the same speeds as the faster TGVs, they are a lot easier to navigate with a bike. Not needing to disassemble the bike before taking it on board is also a huge plus. Another plus is there are no extra fees to pay to take your bike with you on this network.
We hope you can learn from our experiences of travelling with bikes on French Trains. All in all we found it a really great way of covering longer distances and exploring more of the country too.
Waiting for the TGV train, with the bike packed into the Rinko bag.
By the end of our trip we had mastered getting the bikes packed away for travel on the train. We highly recommend using a piece of foam padding as a handle!
Many of the carriages on the Regional trains have specific storage areas for bikes as pictured above.
1. Research any restrictions prior to purchasing your train tickets. Be aware these are different for each network. You want to know well in advance whether you need to disassemble your bike or not prior to arriving on the platform.
2. The French Regional trains – TER – are the easiest and cheapest train network to navigate with a bike. While the trip might be slower it is definitely the most convenient.
3. Consider using a rinko bag for a lightweight and handy solution to help with bike travel on the TGV trains.
4. If you are disassembling your bike for train travel, seek out an empty train platform if possible. We found the end of the platform is generally quieter and provides a good space to work with.
5. Avoid travelling during peak commuter times. (In some cities you will not be able to take a bike with you during these times).
6. A bike symbol on the outside of a train carriage denotes that carriage has more space for bicycles.
7. Make sure to validate your ticket prior to boarding.
8. Be nice when dealing with train conductors. It can sometimes be at their discretion whether you are allowed to travel with your bike. A smile and a 'merci beaucoup' can go a long way.