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Matthew Beaudin is the communications director for EF-Education First. He recently returned from working the spring classics and filed this story.
“One hundred and seventy-seven euros, please.”
She says this quietly, her face rumpled in apology. I mourn the loss of cash that could have been used for a plane ticket elsewhere, a beautiful dinner with my wife, house cleaning supplies … anything other than giving it to United Airlines.
One hundred and seventy-seven euros. The charge at the ticket counter for bringing my bike back from Belgium for the cobbled classics, where I work as the EF Education First team’s content and communication director. I have a special case that’s all black. It’s right on the line for the oversize limit. I’ve been charged once (now twice) in maybe 40 flights. I’m a terrible liar when asked what’s in the bag.
“What is in it? Clothes? A musical instrument?”
Just say it’s a musical instrument. When the road is downhill and you feel good, it does seem like a harp, right?
I feel the words at the edge of a waterfall, inevitably falling out of my mouth. “A bike. It’s a bike.”
The cost of a ticket to sunny LA later, I’m in an hour-long line at passport control, a thin mist of stress-sweat shining on my forehead. Tired, now wired, grumpy, mad at myself for not saying “art materials” and walking off.
And then I remembered the cows. It was a few days ago. The workday had been long. The kind of day in which one sits in gear ready to ride, run, ski, with half a butt on a chair, held there by the pull of e-mail, meetings, e-mails from meetings. Meanwhile, the outdoors are a string attached to a shoulder. The thread is pulled taut, but neither the laptop nor the door force progress.
Eventually, two hours dressed up as a cyclist later, I leave the hotel.
It’s nearly raining outside, the grey Belgian ceiling some 30 feet above my head or 300. Hard to know. I miss my turn and end up seeing a little breadcrumb of a trail showing up on the GPS. A thin path emerges in front of my wheel, a dark, wet strip of brown paint cutting through the field. It makes sharp turns left and right, winding around property and tracing fence lines. It’s smooth and fast.
I ride by an old cemetery the earth is swallowing inch by inch and a farmer in a dented, old blue tractor. The long green grass runs over my feet and brushes the wheels. The path draws a straight line between two barbed-wire fences, and on my right is a field full of black and white dairy cows. Here, there is no chorus like in the Alps, where cows and the bells around their necks make music, but only the memory of the tractor in the distance and the smell of manure. I stop and look at them. Their big, wet eyes remind me of my dog, Bird. I think of home, and I suddenly think of everything that happens next in this life.
By the time I get back to my hotel only 50 minutes have passed, but I’m still somewhere else. I’m in the field, waving to the farmer. I’m thinking about the lives the people under the tombstones lived. Those 177 euros now seem like a bargain.
And then I’m handing my passport to the man behind plexiglass. He asked me if I’ve had a good trip. I remember the 15 bottles of champagne after our team won the Tour of Flanders. I wonder about the people inside all the houses I’ve ridden by on this trip. One cow, I remember, was eating a mouthful of grass and let out a huge sigh.
“Yes,” I say. “I have.”