The digital clock on the gps showed 22h37 as I puttered up and down the pencil-straight, tree-lined drive. 9462… I scoured the quiet darkness for what I thought was the house number or any lit-up sign announcing “De La Sabliere” Bed and Breakfast. 19, 21, 23 read the numbers on doors… either this was one long a*$ street or that number had nothing to do with the street address. European addresses. They never made any sense to me.
Grabbing the 6-page itinerary I’d printed up – and neatly bound in plastic sheet protectors – I re-read what I’d typed into Google Maps. Gasselte, Drenthe, Kosvlies Street. No other numbers, no phone number and no Internet as my Droid is not internationally compatible. In a final attempt to avoid defeat on this quest to find my destination, I rummaged through mental images of the Airbnb photos of De La Sablière… shrubs, hedges, quaint farmhouse tucked behind. It was like remembering that a particular cyclist was wearing spandex, utterly unhelpful in narrowing anything down.
It was the first time since I’d arrived in Amsterdam 36 hours earlier that my precious itinerary had failed, but oddly it was also the first time I felt a little bit of adrenaline, and hope.
The last week had been a tough one. Breaking up with my boyfriend of a year and a half on my birthday was undoubtably the low point, and while relieved for a decision I knew was the right one, I had departed the following day in a daze of sadness and nervous about traveling to race the World Cup in Koksijde and Superprestige Geiten alone. I’m incredibly lucky to have the most wonderful friends and family who rallied around, and made it clear I’d best go get it done. Optum mechanic Evan had graciously tuned up and packed up my two bikes for me, and most of my race gear was already in bags from previous travel so that helped.
At the same time, with so many overwhelming logistics to coordinate, my strategy was to plan out every detail ahead of time and to rehearse the whole itinerary in my head over and over, and the plastic-sheet-protected itinerary was my travel Bible! The first 36 hours happened utterly on autopilot: Work all day Friday, hurry home grab my bags, get a ride from my mom to the airport, fly overnight to Amsterdam, get my rental car, drive 3+ hours to Koksijde, build my bikes in the parking lot, do the course pre-ride, go to the number pick-up in town.
At the number pick-up, the officials would not give me my parking pass until the managers’ meeting had ended, so I had to wait an hour and a half in the lobby. For the first time, I had a lull in the itinerary and I sat outside the meeting room at a table to wait. The next thing I knew, garbled voices awoke me from a deep sleep. My head was on the table, drool drizzling out of my mouth, my wallet fortunately still lying safely beside me.
As the meeting dispersed, I pulled my hat down low and slunk in to grab my parking pass, then headed to my hotel and slept for 11 hours.
In the morning, I connected with my trusty Belgian mechanic Glenn and his lovely girlfriend Tatjana in the center of Koksijde and we drove to the course.
They took care of my bikes and kept positive spirits going all day.
The race. I had a decent start and even crossed the line after lap one in my goal 10th place, but I was barely hanging on and I just didn’t have it that day.
I rode the sand fairly well, especially the tricky sand descents, but got crushed during the run sections and the power sections. I finished 17th, still my best finish at a World Cup but not near the result I know I’m capable of.
While it’s one thing to overcome adverse conditions and travel setbacks, it’s another thing entirely to tough it out with a broken heart, and emotional fatigue was hitting me for sure.
A friend had reminded me that travelling alone can be an adventure, but it wasn’t until I was stuck in the dark in the Netherlands that I smelled the whiff of adventure ahead.
Hope appeared in the form of a tall, lanky Dutchman fiddling with electrical paraphernalia in his yard on Kostvlies Street. I pulled to the side of the road, stepped out of the car and yelled over, “Excuse me, do you speak English and would you help me please?” As the words rolled off my tongue, I cringed. May as well have pulled on sandals over white socks and tossed a passport carrier necklace and bulky camera around my neck. I was THAT tourist.
“Oh yes,” he replied, putting down his tools and breathing eddies of alcohol fumes all over me. Stepping back slightly, I explained my situation. “Oh well, yes you have the postal code there. Well come into the barn and I have wifi and we’ll look it up. Well I didn’t know there was a bed and breakfast here.” Apart from his prolific use of “well” he spoke flawless English. Vivid images of a barn strewn with hoards of empty bottles and a cache of chains and handcuffs had little deterrent effect over my exhaustion and I nodded eagerly to the offer. He led me to a innocuous, brightly lit, tidy workspace and looked up the bed and breakfast on his iPhone, giving me detailed directions, a house number, and a showing me photo of the front to I would recognize it.
A short drive later, Maria answered my ring with a warm smile, and invited me straightaway into her kitchen for a coffee and cake. She then gave me a tour of her and her husband’s beautifully restored old farmhouse. They’d both been previously married and lost their spouses, and had met later in life and married and now were retired and had just recently opened De La Sablière with one gorgeous guestroom with a large comfortable bed, coffee maker, chocolate waffle treats, tasteful furniture, and a spacious bathroom.
They had been living full lives, travelling, raising horses, working successful businesses – but had now focused their energies on hosting guests and making them feel at home.
Right away I knew this was a special place and a lucky find on the Internet!
Since the race in Geiten was only about 2 miles away and was at 10am, I anticipated having the whole following afternoon to sightsee so I asked their suggestions on where to go. “That’s silly for you to drive around, you won’t be able to see anything. Let me drive you around.” Maria offered.
I hardly slept at all that night, and to be honest I had very few expectations for the race in Gieten, and had no idea if I’d even find anyone to pit for me, but I showed up to the race nevertheless. As I was in the process of getting things together in my car, a jovial middle-aged man came and knocked on my window. “You ride for Optum! I worked for the Optum women’s team for one month in Europe this summer. Come, come use our trailer, and anything you need, you say. I am Gino.” And Gino wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He brought me into their RV where his wife Anja was flipping pancakes on the tiny camper stove and their daughter Ana was holding their puffy white dog at a table.
Since I had no trainer, I set off down a road on my bike to warm-up, found a few side roads and then finally a picturesque bike path that wound through a leafy forest.
Gino pitted for me and little Ana walked about kilometer to the start to take my clothes and was at the finish line with them and a clean towel to wipe off my face. Oddly enough I felt good and had a strong race, rode all the sand sections well and finished 7th.
Afterward, Gino hosed down my bikes and insisted that I email him about coming back over the Christmas week: “You will stay with us, you don’t pay anything, you just be nice to us. We pick you up at the airport. And we give you mechanic.” Ah the Belgian super fans! It occurred to me that there’s something special about traveling alone; you’re more willing to talk to people and more likely to discover new places and friends.
That afternoon, Maria and I took a drive around the countryside.
She told stories of her life’s adventures and work, of her daughter who runs a bed and breakfast in Nicaragua, of her relationships and friends. We stopped for lattes and apple pie at a little café.
It was the most incredible afternoon that I never would have experienced had I not been alone.
“You are alone, so I’ll cook you dinner,” Maria insisted. And she cooked a traditional Dutch meal of baked endives with a salad and chicken. “Do you eat coconut oil?” she asked as she was cooking, and I had to chuckle. Once we discovered our kinship for crazy health foods, she bragged about her breakfast concoction of oatmeal with chia, flax, fruits and I learned my one Dutch word of the trip, “Murbei” which means mulberry.
I’m so grateful for my time at De La Sablière, for their kindness in a tough time, and if anyone is reading this please check it out if you’re ever there in the Netherlands!
Out of the trip came the inspiration and the means to go back to Belgium for racing over Christmas week. Tatjana graciously offered her family’s home to stay, and Glenn will mechanic and lend his car. I’m so excited to go back and be able to race the same races I did last year – Namur, Zolder, Loenhout, Deigem. They are such awesome races.
So, all was not in vain even though my results were not stellar.
Love lost is not something I want to be tough about. I don’t want to be the kind of person who can just block it out of mind and race at 100%. But I do want to be open to the new love and new adventure that is around, and to always be grateful for the good people in my life. So, I guess this is a thank you to all of you.