“This is when we bond,” I apparently said to a fellow cyclist the second night of our Cycling for Libraries tour, when there were 16 of us in a hostel room with triple-tier bunk beds. She reminded me of the phrase several nights later, but by then the crowded room had blurred together with all of the other experiences that made us a close group. A close group of librarians (and spouses, and partners, and friends, and cyclists, but mostly librarians) from Russia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, The Netherlands, England, Canada, the United States, Romania, Croatia, Latvia, Belgium, who’d started out merely sharing an interest in cycling and in making the journey from Amsterdam to Brussels.
The tour started out on a hot, sunny day, but by the second day it grew cooler, then cold, then rainy and cold. The beautiful haunting sand dune scenery along the coast of The Netherlands gradually morphed into a ride along the dikes into challenging winds. The cycling got harder. And harder. (And then a bit easier, until the last hills in the city of Brussels.)
And yet – the first windy day, when I thought I could never make it, the wind was so hard, my toes were so cold – I came to a rest stop and people who’d arrived before me were clapping and cheering. We cheered for everyone, like the finish line of a marathon (except that we weren’t done, not yet, and had further to go that evening). I was often buoyed by the good spirits of my fellow travelers and tried my best to help others as well (if nothing else, by sharing my trail mix which included hugely popular dried cherries). On some of the rainy days, the rain stopped at lunchtime, and our travel chef (a real chef, from a restaurant in Finland, who made wonderful food for us) had delicious soup ready for us. One early evening, after cycling through rain for most of the afternoon, the sky broke open and revealed a beautiful rainbow over a traditional Dutch windmill and field. We shared moments of wonder and surprise, like when the trail suddenly cut through a field of miniature horses that barely moved as we made our way. And celebrations, like the small stopping into a bar for a quick coffee or drink, or singing for someone’s birthday (we all wanted to be sung to by the Latvian librarians with their rich choral voices), or a midsummer sauna party, or sampling the beer of the Abbey of Affligem where we stayed one night.
And somehow those special moments made it worth the difficulties, or were more appreciated because of them. The truth is, bikes had flat tires and breakdowns; people fell, suffered minor and not so minor injuries. Hostel rooms were sometimes cramped and showers, down the hall, after waiting your turn—spit out tepid water. (I mention this because sometimes, at the end of the trip, we tell only the good parts, and then newcomers are surprised by the difficulties.) And this year, there were worse things: a bike theft, money stolen from a hostel room. Even, the very last night in Brussels, outside the European Parliament, another bike stolen. The owner, although upset, took it in stride. He said something like, I made it here, and have my health, and my wife, and the experience. It’s just a bike.
We arrived. We made it to Brussels in the late afternoon, a busy traffic time, and the car drivers didn’t appreciate the way our escorts held up intersections so that we could stay together as a group. There were steep hills, and cobblestones, to contend with, but – we’d arrived! And we’d bonded, oh yes, probably bonded for life.
The following day we made a grand photogenic entrance at the plaza by the European Parliament and there was a small ceremony, including a banner and proclamation and cups of nonalcoholic bubbly, as we were greeted by members of the European Parliament and the Civic Agenda group (in charge of cultural institutions such as libraries). That evening we were hosted at a dinner. It felt a bit strange to step out without the yellow vest, to see colleagues and friends in regular clothes, to not have to worry about the ride the following day.
And it felt harder still to say goodbye.
Here is the route we took, more or less.
We had a video team along with us … view the videos on the Cycling For Libraries site, or watch them in the playlist below: