Having been evacuated from Pakistan and admitted to hospital in Cyprus, I was hoping that things didn’t come in threes and that this foreign venture – three girls, a Renault Kangoo and a penchant for comical hysteria – would go to plan. Surprisingly it did!
Katy Winton (http://www.facebook.com/KatyWinton; http://kinesismorvelo-katy-winton.posterous.com/) came back from Round One of the British Cycling Cross Country Series with the Buick clan and spent the week exploring the delights of Norfolk: my home town of Wymondham; the county capital, Norwich; the countryside (with my Mum as tour guide); Thetford Forest with Dad, Imo, Michiel and Chris; and the wildlife – my best friends!
On Friday we packed up the van, bought travel insurance (!!), baked an obscene amount of Easter goodies and set our alarms for 3.30am the following morning. We were ready. Well, I was. Winton was still rummaging around in a localised bomb site formerly known as Imogen’s room. (Imogen had travelled back to the Netherlands with Michiel earlier in the week).
The journey down to Dover was without any trouble, and to reward Katy for her flawless drive we were deposited at the end of the A2 facing the famed White Cliffs of Dover, to which she exclaimed “WOAH” and subsequently took a fair while to compose herself. Thankfully Dover is very quiet at 7am on a Saturday morning so our time spent sat at the roundabout admiring the cliffs didn’t inconvenience anyone. We trundled onto the dock and up to French Boarder Control where the man in the hut smiled and waved us through in a manner which implied it was really not worth his while trying to engage with us! Next up we were ushered into Customs’ vehicle check. Apparently which vehicles are pulled in to be checked is random, but I’m fairly sure the bloke took one look at us and thought “this will be a laugh!”. He was correct. Having asked us a few questions about where we were going and what we had packed, the man asked Katy to step out of the car so he could take a look in the boot. Katy obligingly got out, but decided this would be a good time for some stretching! Having been fetched she eventually got round to opening it, and out fell the track pump and an array of wheels. Two short girls in a high-roofed Pope-mobile style van with two bikes, eight wheels and enough rice cakes to fuel a small army didn’t seem to phase the chap. The automatic shutter door which we were to exit out of, however, did phase us. Unsure of whether it was okay for us to leave, and mindful of the ease at which it would look like we were trying to do a runner, Katy crept the Kangoo forward and waited, and crept, and waited. Nothing. The customs man had to once again come round the side of the van, this time to wave us forward. The sensor was really very close to the shutter. Or maybe we were just very close to idiocy. Back out on the dock and giggling like school girls we needed get in lane, Katy asks me “who are we going with again? DFS”. Yes Winton, Sofa Seaways, for a comfortable crossing! We laughed so hard we couldn’t move. Eventually we parked up in Lane 53, ready to board for our crossing…with DFDS.
I packed a rucksack with the flask, two bananas, two yoghurts, two spoons and two oat cakes each and we settled ourselves down for the crossing like an old married couple.
Arrival in France warranted donning our shades and performing an enthusiastic high-five. We were so stoked at being in mainland Europe we decided that once we were on the motorway we should stop at an aire for a wee calm down. We also had to fit the headlamp adaptors, make sure our high-vis jackets were to hand, test our alcohol breathalysers, attach extra indicators, drape a French flag to the rear-view mirror and put on our garlic necklaces just to make sure we were fully legal to drive the 30km until we were in Belgium.
Having escaped the very strong gravitational pull of Merelbeke’s one-way system and road works combination we arrived at the van der Heijdens in Drunen, the Netherlands. Imogen and Michiel greeted us with a huge hug and even bigger smiles. Cute! We were introduced to Hans and Regina, Michiel’s parents, and sat down for a cuppa (from Imogen’s English Tea supplies). Enticed by the promise of some jumps, Katy was keen to get out on the bike so we checked-in at our hotel and she joined ‘the kids’ for a blast around the forest. Our hotel was 4km from the van der Heijden household and right on the edge of the forest. Perfect.
We joined the vdH family for tea and then got a guided tour of Michiel’s jersey collection. Some hours later we headed back for some much-needed sleep.
Following a very comfortable kip, Katy and I tucked away some porridge and headed for the race course just down the road at Nieuwkuijk (said ‘new kike’). Imogen met us there and the girls headed out for a few laps, chatting and smiling and getting the lined dialled. In the afternoon we took a brief look around Drunen before heading for the city of Den Bosch. En route we visited Kamp Vught, a Nazi concentration camp. The museum displays were in Dutch but you didn’t need to be able to read them to understand the enormity of what happened there, or to feel a harrowing sense of incomprehensibility.
The mood was lightened as we drove to Den Bosch when Michiel pointed out a house with “midgets” in the garden. He meant gnomes. A rare mistake, and all the more funny for it! We continued our cultural tour of Noord-Brabant, taking a look at the famous St John’s Cathedral and testing the stroopwaffle quality of a local public house.
Monday was race day. Katy and I went to the vdH’s for breakfast. Jam sandwiches is the breakfast of champions it seems! We packed up our lunches and headed to Nieuwkuijk in convoy with Hans and Imogen. Hans, it transpired, can get you in anywhere vaguely related to Dutch cycling. We were waved through into the team area of the venue and parked up next to Giant. Casual.
Imo and Katy got signed on and we set up the turbos for their warm-up. Having finalised their sock combinations, they put on their race faces and got down to some sweating.
Winton bagged herself a tenth place, second row, gridding and rolled up behind the cycling world’s most decorated rider and living legend, Marianne Vos. Not bad. Imogen was not so well placed on her grid, called up onto the sixth row as “last but not least”. From the gun she soon proved she was, by no means, ‘last’ or ‘least’.
With the girls underway, I scrambled across to the tech/feed zone with four wheels, a track pump, a backpack full of bottles, a slight limp and my sunglasses falling down my nose.
Having placed (read: dropped) what I was carrying in the centre of the double pit it took me some time to figure out who was coming from where and when. Thankfully I could face the same direction to see both approaches, though rather unhelpfully Katy and Imogen managed to arrange themselves so both would come through the pits at similar times. Add into this little panic the fact that everyone fed from the outside of the pit lane (I wasn’t about to do differently), and I was left performing some fairly nifty high-speed, course-crossing, bottle-swapping shuffles, all this whilst shouting “Up up up Katy you enduro legend” and “YEESSSS Imo, you’re going like a train” etc. Imogen had a stonking race, moving up the field each time I saw her and grinning like an eejit as she came through the pits with third place now in sight. Katy was going well too, looking strong and pegging back and passing the handful of riders in front of her towards the end of the race. I saw Imo catch and attack the third placed rider and quickly build up a very healthy gap. Now we were both grinning like mad! I gave her a final shout as she exited the pits for the last time and headed down the finish straight which was two deep with clapping and congratulating spectators. I went back to the pit for Katy and once she had gone through headed to the finish whilst listening to Imogen being interviewed over the PA – IN DUTCH! I just made it in time for the podium where Imo and I had a big hug and I no doubt blubbed something about being incredibly proud. I waited for Katy to finish whereby I dispensed isotonic drink and pain killers for a very bad back. Two great rides and three very happy girls. We watched the men’s race and then headed back for the Dutch classic we had all been waiting for: frikandel and frites!
As if Dutch sausage and chips wasn’t exciting enough, we decided to visit Efteling themepark on Tueday. All I am going to say about this is that sitting next to Winton on a rollercoaster is an absolute treat; I cannot recommend it highly enough!
After some tea and a quick nap it was time to say our farewells and head for home. A safe trip and a sound sleep later it was time to say goodbye to Katy, my Tight For Life buddy, and wave her off on the train back to Edinburgh, though not before I’d made her the best scrambled eggs on toast she’s EVER had!
So, like I said, it all went to plan. It was an absolutely brilliant few days. Now starts the planning for the next trip…