A Bunch of Flatlanders
Last year, when we announced plans to go on a bike and barge trip to the Netherlands, friends of friends, who were “serious” bikers, said that they were saving that trip to be one of their last—more than implying that a biking venture in Holland was something to reserve for one’s dotage.
Belgium, our destination this year, is probably also not the place that "serious" bikers might choose. And, at first glance, our group that gathered at the Brussels airport in early August seemed to back up that idea. All of us were post 60, and a couple were post 80. Even Rolf, our German guide, was 73 and had been leading these trips since his retirement as an air traffic controller for the German military in his 50s.
One woman, Carolyn, was using a cane. A cane? It turns out that she had had a hip replacement less than two months before. But she was still planning to get back on the bike. We learned that her husband Peter had ridden in the senior Tour de France in his early 60s. He had climbed many of the same steep trails that the biking champions did in the “junior” competition. Retired now, he still maintains an office at the company in Michigan he once directed and goes in most days just in case he’s needed. Except when he and Carolyn are off on biking trips. They came with their friends Vonnie and John, married only a few years before after both being widowed. They knew they were right for each other after joining in several biking adventures.
There were Wendy and Michael who live an isolated but satisfying existence on the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. They warned us not to come visiting if we thought we would find flat trails near their home. Plus, we had better know the ferry schedule if we even wanted to get to their island. We should also plan our trip there in advance since they also spend time away from home doing good deeds on non-biking jaunts to places such as Nepal and Ethiopia. Their description of a harrowing adventure that involved staying huddled overnight at 15,000 feet because of fear that they could not safely get back to base camp at a placid 12,000 feet was the stuff of both wonder and nightmares.
They were joined by their friend Roxanne from California, who added a new grandchild to her family during the trip. Believe me, she didn’t ride like any grandmother I’ve ever known!
Two women from Massachusetts, Maureen and Sheila, who have been biking and traveling together for many years, kept assuring us that we could graduate from Easy biking trips to Moderately Challenging ones in places like Southern France and Eastern Europe because they had been on those many times.
Mae and Bob from Blacksburg, Virginia, where Bob is the biggest booster for Virginia Tech (having sent all four of his children there and having never missed a home football game in years) are also veteran bikers of both easy and hard trails. They even sported backpacks with built-in water tubes. Were they suggesting that making a stop, even to drink water, was a little too easygoing? Personally, I love those stops. I might even vote for more of them.
And our friends Phyllis and Harvey, who were making their first overseas biking jaunt but had long experience jaunting at home. Phyllis trained for the trip by going to spinning classes five times a week. When we tackled the Hudson River paths from the GW Bridge to Battery Park together, she wanted to keep going to Governor’s Island, which we luckily talked her out of. What would be next, I wondered, the Verrazano Bridge? The training must have prepared her well because she noted that she stayed in 8th gear (on our 8-gear bikes) almost the entire time we were riding in Belgium, except for one steep climb over a bridge near Wetterin when she was forced to drop down to 7th. Sure, she was bragging a little, but she was just revealing the truth. (To be truthful, I must confess that I rode in 6 or 7 most of the time, and on that bridge I dropped down to 4. I think Audrey had to drop gears, too, but she had better excuses than I—after all, she was wearing a knee brace to support the healing MCL she had torn skiing in February and a back brace to strengthen muscles and bones in her lower back. My excuse—too much belly and occasional cramps or gout in my feet that called for healing daily applications of Advil.)
Audrey and I had chosen to make the trips to Holland and Belgium not to see how many miles we could cover in a day or how quickly we could cover them. And we understood our biking limitations. We wanted, as risk-free as possible, to see a country from close on the ground and have direct contact with people in even small settlements, the kind of thing you can’t do as well on bus or train trips. (For example, we had coffee among a group of Flemish-speaking locals in miniscule Temse under a big bridge that we had puffed across and entertained by a dog of horse-like proportions. And we were probably the biggest lunch crowd seen in a while by a tiny but well supplied deli in a town not far from Rupelmonde, the birthplace of Gerardus Mercator of mapmaking fame. We even walked and rode through an underground tunnel to get from one side of the river to the other and enter Antwerp.)
Sure, you could call us “flatlanders,” but we traveled with high-minded biking veterans, and none of us are doting (except, maybe me).