It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time.
We’re here in Belgium, staying at my cousin's house, and the first leg of the Tour de France was coming through. Right here, through this very town.
“And there’s a family ride before it begins,” my cousin mentioned. “You can ride along the race route and if you finish, you get a prize.”
Ride the Tour? Get a prize? My 15-year-old son, Addison, was all in. And since the other bike fit me, and only me, I was selected as his team member.
We had trouble finding the starting point, where we had to get the official stamp, for the prize of course. The man handed us the stamp, then frowned.
“There’s the long course, and the short course, but it started two hours ago, and the course closes at noon.”
Sure, sure, we said, only half listening (he may have been speaking in Dutch). We were off and racing, following the small red arrows posted along the route.
The scenery was beautiful. Bucolic Belgium. Fields of potatoes, fields of grain, brick farmhouses and cows the size of small trucks.
“Are we doing the short course or the long course?” I asked Addison, huffing behind him up a hill.
“Long, of course,” he called over his shoulder.
Did I mention he’s 15? And fresh off track season?
“I’m not sure we’ll be able to finish by noon,” I called back.
“Of course we will. I’ve got it all figured out.”
So on we rode. The weather was gorgeous, if a bit hot. We’d forgotten sunscreen and water, since I was envisioning a few leisurely miles through the woods. But there were the cows, and the potato fields and the Belgian towns with churches and cobblestone streets.
It appeared we were traversing half of Europe, with no sign of turning around. We were the only people on the course, most times the only people in the entire world, biking and biking and biking.
“Should we turn around?” I shouted to Addison.
“I’m sure we’re almost there,” he said.
Did I mention he was on a 10-speed mountain bike and I was on a pedal pusher with only three gears? It was the kind of bike, to quote my cousin, that is meant for a flat jaunt to the grocery store down the lane to buy a single head of lettuce.
Not really racing material.
In short, I was dying. Then the church bells began to toll 12 o’clock. High noon.
We were in a lovely little town. It was filled with people. A lot of them seemed to be wearing official biking gear. They were all lined up. There were police blocking traffic.
We were trying to turn right. We were trying to follow those helpful arrows. They were going lead us right back home, to sunscreen and water and lunch and our families and our futures. We had so much to live for. So much to bike for.
“Can we go this way?” I asked a policeman. He gave me a Dutch laugh.
“No one can go this way,” he said. “It is illegal. This is the Tour, you know?”
Yes, we knew. At least, my quadriceps knew. They were screaming, “You deserve a medal! Or a yellow jersey! Or at least a sandwich.”
We called home, back to my cousin’s house. “Bad news," they said. "You’re an hour away. All the roads are closed. We can’t come rescue you until after the Tour has come through.”
“Also,” they mentioned, “we think you did both the short and the long route. Maybe 25 miles?”
“Yes,” my legs said, “that makes sense.”
And so, we hunkered down in the lovely town of Overijse. We bought lunch and drinks at the gas station and joined the gathering crowds along the Tour route. Official cars zoomed by. A parade of sponsorship cars flew past, blaring French music and throwing hats and nylon Frisbees. It was fun and festive. For three hours, it didn’t seem to matter that we were far from home or that my sunburned arms had turned the color of raw hamburger.
Finally, finally, after hours of waiting, there were helicopters above and official police motorcycles ahead and then, the pack, Le Tour. Riding incredibly fast, and incredibly close together, they passed in a blur of color and muscle. The air temperature dropped 10 degrees as they whipped along the course.
Quick as a flash, it was over. The crowds dispersed, the road became a legal road again, and we hopped back on our bikes.
All of Belgium headed home with us. The air was filled with the excitement of families making their way on bike and on foot. We biked down small gravel lanes, past a field where wheat was being harvested, just in time to catch a fistful of chaff in our mouths.
We were on cobblestones streets that stretched to the horizon. You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden down cobblestone lanes at the end of a 25-mile ride on a bike with no shocks. It’s an unforgettable treat, like being shaken to death.
I kept checking the map on my phone, convinced that I had somehow made the switch to a stationary bike, because no matter how many times I looked, we were still 48 minutes from home on a bumpy road in the middle of a potato field.2 comments on this story
It was undeniably beautiful. But I thought perhaps I would not make it out alive.
Then, familiarity. “We’ve been here before!” Addison shouted. I jiggled along behind him down another stretch of cobblestone, through the woods, past a lake and a palace, and up our very own street, where the crowds (i.e., family) stood cheering.
We were too late for a prize, too late for everything but a hearty dinner and an early bedtime. But it didn’t seem to matter.
Because who gets to say they biked the Tour de France the day before their 40th birthday?
Me, that’s who.