Somewhere near the border between Holland and Belgium at the Hotel Hofstede Landduin
We are a mob of bags and bikes and boxes. At 3:30pm, my hands are covered with grease and I sit down next to my bike, for which I have no workstand. I'm fighting with the rear derailleur, trying to get the thing to come together correctly. We've been traveling for the better part of a day and despite the fact that I managed to sleep quite well on the flight across the big ocean, I'm getting tired and I can tell.
We all are.
I coax my roommate Jen out of bed to come into town to find shampoo and food and other supplies, convincing her that she'll feel better if she stays awake during the day and waits to sleep until at least 8pm. Later, we roll out as a group and ride bikes along the manicured bikeways that run through the country and into the town, turning eventually to find a loose dirt road that creates the sliding motion of cyclocross. Suddenly I have the feeling of home and Maria curses us while the earth moves unpredictably under her tires.
"You're a natural!" I shout back.
"I hate you guys!" she replies. She's laughing.
The air is warm and thick, the sky a little heavy. Roads are long and straight, symmetrically lined with trees. Heading home takes us through intersections stacked 10-deep with cycle-commuters lined up at red lights. Kate Powlison, our official cycling advocate (see: Bikes Belong!), calls out excitedly: "Bicycling traffic jam! Awesome!" and takes a picture.
Back at the hotel we spend time unpacking boxes and taking inventory of all of the hydration and nutrition supplies that we've transported from the states. Dinner is fish and pasta and vegetables under a covered veranda with Wilfred, our host and head of the Reve Tour operation, and his adorable blond-headed nephew. I eat three-point-five plates of food without an inkling of shame because all of the women around me are doing the same. We are experts in consumption and most of us have spent the past four weeks putting on a little extra weight to bolster us through the near-month of depletion that we are about to face.
It takes all the restraint that I have not to stuff a pile of food into a napkin to take back to the room. In the morning, I'll throw constraint to the wind and begin with the napkin-wrapped buffet-burgled sandwiches. Calories calories calories.
The Calm Before the Storm
Wilfred runs the show here at Reve Tours, so we listen to him carefully: "Today is the last day of true rest. Enjoy yourselves. Recover, eat, be calm."
I'll be honest. We're not always calm. But as the true start of this adventure draws nearer our anxiety is slowly replaced by a sense of quiet determination and an almost uncanny feeling of confidence. The crew around us is good. The countryside around us is new and fresh. The feeling inside of us is renewal and lightness and bravery.
A mechanic and the owner of a local bike shop comes to check our work, fixing brakes and checking connection points. He takes us on a sunny spin through bikeways and country roads that lead to a sweet outdoor spot for lunch. Shiny legs and sporty sunglasses. Fast bikes parked gingerly in the ample bike parking area. We're in Holland. This is bike territory. Of course I'm eating carpaccio salad in a blue-black kit with the Eiffel Tower poking out of the back pocket… why wouldn't I be?
The rest of the crew starts to arrive in the evening. More sun and an outdoor meal in the raised gazebo. We could get used to this … but we probably shouldn't.
The morning teaches us our first lesson: transfers will be the most challenging part of this crazy rodeo. We pack, organize, cull, stuff, roll, smash, and then drag our coffin-sized luggage behind us to the van. Breakfast is at the local cycle track - another exercise in three trips to the buffet: hard-boiled eggs, yogurt with granola, bread with meat and cheese, bananas, oranges. Then back for more to make travel versions which I will put in my purse and eat in the van while we drive to the town of Blengy Mine in Belgium.
We meet the rest of the Reve Tour group: a rollicking band of 28 Dutch and 7 Belgians (six women among them!!) and then roll out to ride the 14k that will take us to Liege for a lap around the 6k prologue.
It pisses rain as we dart and bob through unfamiliar traffic patterns in Liege but we make it to city center unscathed and suddenly the production that is the Tour de France is there in front of us, gleaming. Closed roads, detours and snaking lines of trucks and buses already in position for tomorrow's big event. Small children cheer from us from under cafe awnings. Photographers with credentials hanging from their necks ask us for photos. The city is alive and sopping wet. The prologue follows a main thoroughfare and crosses slippery sections of brick.
We get lost riding home and hide under the overhanging ledge of a building while we figure out how to get home.
Shoes filled with rainwater. Jackets soaked through. This is like every ride we've ever done in Portland except in Portland we don't have to worry so much about getting lost. Such is the adventure of navigating through new country.
Tomorrow is the first real day of riding and despite the challenge looming, the Reve Tour staff has made us calm, the hearty dinner has given us strength and the sheer energy of being surrounded by so many amazing, mortal, human, determined cyclists has made our spirits more daring.
Support has been pouring in: hand-written notes, emails, tweets, Facebook messages. Believe me when I tell you that we start this ride tomorrow with all of those messages in our hearts. We believe now more than ever that this is possible. That together, we will make it. The six of us together on the road. The six of us together in the midst of this incredible larger group of riders. The six of us together with your support.
Keep it coming. Tomorrow we truly start the ride of a lifetime.
Allez! And thank you!!