Square Wheel & Homeless

Wilderness woods

Cycling has becoming a lot easier, I’m getting used to the weight and I have it set up so I’m comfortable, well as comfortable as you can be on a bicycle. Today turned out to be a tough day though, I had been cycling for five hours so stopped in a nice picnic area on the edge of a village. It was more like someone’s garden than a picnic area, it had neatly trimmed bushes around the perimeter a few trees in one corner, lovely cut grass, a bench and a picnic table. It was on the corner of a small country lane and had four large rocks at the entrance to stop vehicles driving on the grass the only real clue to it being a public picnic area was a fairly large bin next to the trees. I decided I was going to rest here for a couple of hours, maybe even get some sleep.

I had been riding the D27 through forest and lots of steep hills, pushing the bike a lot so I was hungry and tired. I lay all my gear out on the grass to dry, had my jacket spread out on one half of the picnic table and my cooking set on the other half. I was cooking rice and making a coffee when the sky started to change, it seemed the dark clouds had appeared from nowhere and the breeze had picked up. I’ve started getting good at knowing when it’s going to rain, there are a lot of signs when your constantly outdoors. The obvious is of course the clouds and their colour but you pick up on other things like a change in the breeze, that birds fly around in circles then hide in trees or foliage, it seems birds don’t like it either and they can tell when it’s going to rain. There’s a change in the feel of your surroundings, like the air becomes dense.

I needed to cover all my gear and quickly, I tied a ridge line between two of the trees and hung my tarp over it, with the ground sheet underneath this makeshift shelter, I quickly gathered everything I had laid out earlier and put it under the tarp. I then sat on my ground sheet and ate my rice whilst it rained. The rain wasn’t heavy but vehicles coming from the direction I was heading had their lights and wipers on so I waited an hour or so. I still had to set-off in this light drizzle and head into the rain.

The afternoon was also tough the gears on the bike wouldn’t engage properly and the back tyre went down. I pulled into a wooden bus shelter opposite a church at 3 O’Clock and took my panniers off, then took the back wheel off, I couldn’t find a puncture so cleaned the valve, I then noticed that the actual wheel was no longer round but had a flat side. I pumped the tyre up for ages but struggled to get it to the 50 psi I needed, once I set off I had to stop to try to get more air in. I went through another forest then a colourful village (Balimory Style) so stopped at a bakery for coffee, Quiche and a bap. On leaving the village I followed a sign for bikes to Sarrebourg, another forest and more hills.

I spotted a sign for decathlon, I thought I would look at a new bike, it took me ages to find the store, and more hills. The choice’s of bikes was poor, most had front suspension, so front panniers would be a problem, there was a choice of two a €149 BTWin hard tail and a touring BTWin €249.99 with 28″ wheels. The hard talk had rigid front forks but looked cheap quality, the other meant ditching my spare tubes and buying more. The store closed before I could decide, with the thought of getting a new bike and panniers I headed for the Ibis Style hotel, tariff €69, if they had a room I would have stayed but they were full.

I cycled around for hours looking for a place to sleep, I sat in a park and looked on my tablet for camp sites but there wasn’t any for miles, I went around the park which had a lake in the middle, it was too busy with joggers, dog walker and a local kayak club was having a session. At the back of the park ran a railway line with a cycle path along side it, I cycled up and down it looking for a suitable spot but could not find any, I came to the end of the path and back on the road going over the railway line, it was getting dark now. I saw the lights of some jet wash bays and sat in a bay and adjusted my squealing brakes. A few cars came got washed and went before I set off in the dark to find a suitable spot to sleep. There was an old closed off-road in between a dual carriageway, a river and the railway but it was noisy and exposed, I even left town and was on a large road with big stores on each side. I went in every car park looking, ALDI had potential but there were staff inside, they must have been stock taking as it was approaching 22:00. I ended up going back into the outskirts of the town and going behind a hedge between the road and a wire mesh fence of a Bric superstore, similar to B&Q. I propped the bike up on the fence put my groundsheet just under the edge of the hedge on wet grass, my sleeping mat, the sleeping bag, just when I was about to take off my trainers and climb in the sleeping bag when a torch-light appeared, it was the midnight security guard doing his rounds, I attempted to tell him I was lost and couldn’t find a campsite but he didn’t understand a word of English but knew one which was “No” so I packed up under the watchful eye of a security guard and moved on. I pushed the bike and rode it for over an hour but found nothing, I saw the sign for the railway station and thought my only option was to sit in the station until daylight. When I arrived the station was closed and a sign on the big shutters said it opened at 04:45, I’m sure I could survive until then. I wandered through the station car park and at the back of the main building there were steps under a canopy leading down to a subway, at the top was two television monitors with the times of departing and arriving trains and a big black clock with yellow digits hanging from the roof of the canopy. First train to depart was 05:01, surrounding the top of the steps was an ornate metal fence and a plinth, I lifted the bike on the plinth, locked it to the fence and lay my sleeping mat along side and laid down, I was exhausted. My theory was if I was asked why I was there I’d say I was getting the first 05:01 train to Strasbourg.

I lay there in my coat and waterproof trousers on my sleeping mat watching the click tick by, second by second. I saw 01:15 go past, 01:30, 01:45 then nodded off only to wake and see 02:30, 02:45 again I drifted into a nervous sleep, at 03:30 it was foggy and I was cold so I wrapped my tarp around me. Two trains passed in the night, they were really loud, freight trains I think. At 04:30 a railway worker went past, I said bonjour. The station was being opened so I sat up, lights came on, the shutters on the stairs were raised, the television screens were rebooted, I noticed they were still using Windows XP as I watched the boot screen scroll by. I packed my stuff as I watched the 05:01 to Strasbourg depart and cycled round to the front of the Sarrebourg railway station, I pushed my bike into the concourse and it felt warm compared to the foggy darkness outside. I tried to buy a coffee from a vending machine, the first 20 cents went in but all the other coins just fell through.

A guy in jeans trainers and a lumberjack style shirt came into the station and asked for a cigarette, I told him I didn’t smoke. He left but returned four times for a chat, asking me questions about England, my family and what I did, he was homeless and used to work at a nuclear facility but his wife left him and he lost every thing, he was a really nice normal guy who spoke excellent English but was going through a bad patch. We agreed that both of us should never give up, for a guy with nothing he was very positive about everything. I wish I’d asked for his name. The station was a place were the local homeless came to get warm in the morning, there was quite a few that came in chatted with each other, got warm and left.

The Relay news shop was showing signs of life and at 06:00 opened to lots more activity, people coming through the concourse on their daily commute to work, some with luggage, a few with bikes, the station cafe opened at 06:00 too and by 06:30 looked full, people having their morning espresso. It was still dark outside and time dragged. I left the station and cycled to a small bakery and bought a chocolate croissant and an almond croissant and ate them outside.

07:00 I can see the sun rising above the buildings to my left, luckily it’s going to be a nice sunny day, the sun on my face is welcomed warmth.  I cycle back to decathlon pushing the bike up hill one more time, I called in a tyre depot to ask for my water bottles to be filled, the guy who was pulling trailers outside to display in the car park filled them for me. Decathlon was closed, after all it was only 07:45 and they didn’t open until 09:00 so I set-up my stove in their car park and made a coffee, I sat in the warm sunshine drinking my morning Nescafe. I saw a Carrefour further down the street I went for a look, it doesn’t open until 09:30 but I thought I would wait until it opened and see if they sold bikes too and then I would have a bigger choice.

I sat on Carrefour’s car park, cleaned my teeth and had a shave with cold water whilst I waited for it to open, when it did I found out it was a food store only, I bought a yop and water then  returned to decathlon.


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About John Holt

John Holt has worked in the travel industry for over 14 years and comes highly recommended by Trip Advisor for his practical and candid talks on travel destinations. Spending 18 months as a "Local Interest Specialist" for a leading tour operator John has become known as having more practical information than Google.

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