The radio was playing some sort of twangy country music that Erin was humming along to when they crossed back into the Carolinas. Drew was still a bit bleary eyed; yesterday had been a real up and down day. ‘ At least I'll be able to tell my kids I rode with Lance! ' he grinned to himself as the image of Lance Armstrong signing his or rather her number crossed his thoughts.
Of course there was other stuff too, the Express had easily won their competition, all six riders making the finish even if Aidan and Diane were struggling by the end. It had been pretty cool to see Maria and Tina again but the highlight had to be seeing Mum and Dad.
It really had been a wrench saying goodbye again this morning but Mum was keen to point out that he'd be home in a week. He'd seen Mum looking better but considering what she's been through she was looking good. Even Dad was smiling, something that had been very rare the last few months, and understandably.
The bus passed by, Frank tooting the horn and the rest all cheering and waving - yup this weekend had been good. It was good to have friends, friends you could trust and he sighed when the going home bit sank in. They would be leaving Grottoes on Thursday for a couple of days in Washington before flying home, it was likely today would be the last time he'd see the other Express members.
"There she is" an excited shout went up and suddenly there was a mad scramble of bodies heading towards the Bond trio.
"Hey Jim, get security over."
I looked about to see who had come to our aid and was surprised to see Lance, I mean Mr. Armstrong providing first defence against the press pack.
"Best wait inside for a few minutes ladies."
Ten minutes later Lance joined us.
"Well y'all got a temp'ry reprieve but I did promise you'd be at the press conference"
"Thanks Mr. Armstrong" Dad started.
"Call me Lance, look I have to go right now, we'll talk later maybe, I think I need to talk to this young lady."
And with that and a ruffle of my hair he was gone.
"Well young lady, seems you have friends in high places" Mum stated.
Despite my tired state all I could do was grin.
"Come on you two, George wants you both at the Apollinaris press thing." Dad broke in.
"Later kiddo, lets get this over with." Mum suggested.
"...Und the first member of our junior development squad will be our own Welt Champion's wunderkind, Gaby Bond."
There was a lot of cheering and now I knew why I was here. When did all this come about? Mum never said anything before.
It was to say the least a bit embarrassing, I've collected awards and stuff before but here there was a bunch of photographers and if I look as hot and sweaty as I feel, my Grottoes Express shirt was sticking to me in a slightly unpleasant way, how embarrassing. George shook my hand and then helped Mum put an Apollinaris jersey over my other kit, followed by a kiss on the cheek. We posed for pictures before Dad led a bewildered son away.
"Oh thank heavens you're okay Gaby, when we heard from the Germans that you were sick we got worried." Erin exclaimed giving me a hug.
"Um Mum, this is Erin that I told you about? Erin this is my Mum and Dad."
"Pleasure to meet with you Ms Bond, Mr. Bond, I can see where Gab gets her looks.
“Goods to meet you too Erin, thanks for looking after this one. And it's Jenny” Mum replied.
“It's been a pleasure Jenny, would you like to join us to eat this evening?”
“We'd love to but I don't think George would appreciate it if his ‘star rider' missed the team presentation tonight, which reminds me, did you bring anything you can wear tonight ‘Gaby'?”
“Er not really” I admitted.
“Well maybe another time” Erin suggested, a hint of disappointment in her voice.
“Ah Dave, Jenny and the wunderkind”
“Erin, this is George Müller, our Director,” Mum stated, “George, can we slip a few extra bodies in this evening?”
“For die freund auf Gaby?”
„Ja der radler team von Grottoes“ Mum replied.
„Haben Sie nummern?“
“How many of you are there?“ Mum asked a bemused Erin.
“Er ten, nine if you don't count Gab.”
“Neun! Mein Gott !“ he looked at me, Erin then Mum. “Okay Mir ist schwindlig!”
Mum burst out laughing along with George, the rest of us just stood looking confused.
“Sorry guys, Erin, do you think your team could join us at tonight's presentation? Free food, there might even be a few faces you'll recognise?”
“You're kidding right?”
“Dave, moment bitte” George led Dad off leaving us ‘girls' alone.
“Please say yes,” I added.
“I'd be lynched if I said no. Thanks Jenny, you didn't have to do that.”
Mum really was looking better; I think I'm still missing something but gift horses and all that.
“I'd best go find the others, we need to get the bikes squared away and I know Patty will need a while to get ready!”
“Half six at the Ramada, you'll be on the list.”
“Thanks again, see ya later Gab.”
Erin left us; Dad was still talking to George.
“I er could really do with a shower and a change of clothes.”
“That's two of us and I've not ridden. Looks like those two will be a while, come on lets get you cleaned up.”
Some time later.
“So what's happening Mum? How come you're here? Why didn't you say you were coming?”
I squirmed as Mum braided my hair, sat wrapped in a towel in my ‘rents suite.
“Well last first, the doctor only gave me permission to travel on Thursday and I didn't want to get your hopes up.”
“Can't I just tie it back?”
“No, you are going to look smart tonight.”
“In a dress” I mumbled disconsolately.
“If you really want to…”
“I have a choice?”
“Well as you are part of the team I was going to lend you a uniform but if you prefer a dress.”
“Trousers?” I asked hopefully.
“Skirt and blouse.”
“Okay I guess. So why are the team here? I mean it's a long way to come for one sort of race.”
“You are full of questions. Well your Dad and me are flying home on Tuesday, there's a sort of mini tour of pre season warm ups over here, Atlanta, Austin on Monday then San Francisco, LA and Mexico city. George thought it would be a good opportunity to present the 2004 team as a lot of cycling journo's come over.”
“But I thought you couldn't ride?”
“Well I might be a bit sick right now but I'm still on the team, which reminds me, Kat sends her love.”
“What about this dev thingy team, they all think I'm a girl!”
“Er sorry about that Drew, we'll sort that out later but you must admit we could hardly introduce you as a boy when you were sat there in a bra could we?”
True enough I s'pose, people see what they want I guess. I don't think anyone actually said that I was a girl.
“Anyway kiddo what it means is that the team is going to sponsor you, help with travel expenses and stuff.”
“What about the thing with BC? Does this mean I can't join that?”
“No of course not. This just means that you get extra support, George is arranging some stuff and your ole lady has been liasing with the powers that be back home to give everyone at Manchester at least some extra help.”
“So you had a good time in Grottoes?”
“Apart from being Gaby all the time you mean? Yeah, well cool. Oh you don't know about Thursday yet do you?”
A change of engine tone woke me up.
“You awake Drew?”
“Coffee stop and I need more gas.”
I stretched lazily and took in the truck stop we were pulling into.
"Hey what's up Gab?" Aidan called over.
"Nothing, just a bit tired."
"We eating here Frank?" Erin asked.
"May as well, it's quieter than Roanoke."
"We'll tarp the bikes up then."
"I'll give you a hand,” I offered.
Bikes. Now that was weird too.
I'd actually forgotten about my bike so I was a bit surprised to find Dad wheeling up to the suite as I left with Mum.
"Have you seen this thing Jen?"
"Not properly hun."
"Well young um lady" Dad chose his words carefully as someone was just getting out of the lift. "This is quite some machine, Ms Biggs invested a lot in this."
"I know and it was great to ride."
"How much Dave?" Mum enquired.
"Guestimate? Well the Record kit would top two grand, the wheels another thou and even at trade the frame must be worth about seven or eight."
Mum whistled, "its true what they say about amateurs spending more than the pro's. Anyway, how did it go with George?"
"You already know what he wanted to talk about, you could've warned me."
"Sorry luv but that's how he wanted to do it. So?"
“I need to think about it - and talk to Frank.”
“You want to come to the press conference?”
“Give me five, I need a quick rinse.”
“Okay we'll wait for you downstairs.”
We walked along to the lift, which opened straight away, Mum hit G and we started to descend.
“Things are going to be okay aren't they?”
“Which things you thinking of?”
“With you and Dad and stuff.”
Mum stood in thoughtful silence past 7 and 6,“I think so Drew, we've talked a lot whilst you've been over here. I never realised how insecure I was, how much what I did hurt you guys. I really thought I was protecting you but I did just the opposite didn't I.”
I didn't think she wanted an answer so I stayed quiet.
“I hope you'll all forgive me Drew.”
My answer was to close in for a mother daughter hug, (well my ‘breasts' got too much in the way for a mother son.) a hug we held until the ding of the lift announced our arrival in reception. In the end I borrowed a jumper and Mum's long denim skirt rather than the threatened Apollinaris outfit, I did try it on but the cut didn't work with my figure at all!
“So what did George want with Dad?”
“Well its not exactly a secret although we'd prefer if you didn't shout it from the rooves, George has offered Dad a job on the team, working with Mike and looking after the development squad.”
“That mean you are going back to race?”
“I hope so, that's one reason I wanted to come over, to sign a new contract.”
“But you are still sick”
“Yes I am but the doctors are optimistic that I can return to something like light training in a few weeks. If it goes well I should be back racing by Whitsun. So you'll be stuck with me at home for a few months.”
“Brill! If Dad takes the job, does that mean we'll be moving to Germany?”
“We've not talked about it yet so don't worry about if's and maybe's”
“What are you two plotting?” Dad enquired joining us.
“Sprekken zee Doitch?” I tried out my bit of German that Kat had taught me.
“So you riding the bus now Gaby?” Diane asked.
“Um, okay I guess.”
“We'll take the pickup Erin” Derek offered cuddling his fiancé.
“Don't distract him too much Patty” Hooch grinned.
“Okay, I could do with a break and I'm sure Gab can do with someone else to talk to, right young ‘un?”
“Um” you can tell that I was really paying attention.
"So Lance what's it like to have your fans follow you in the peleton?" One wag asked.
"Well there's a first time for everything. I must admit I was a bit surprised."
"That it was a girl?"
"Hey I have female fans!" which raised something of a laugh in the auditorium. "Seriously though, I did wonder where she had come from."
I grinned to myself.
"So do you know anything about her?” another journo asked.
"My spies have been out and I can tell you her name leastwise, Gaby Bond, maybe she can fill you in a bit, Gaby?"
Ulp! Attention swung from America's favourite bikie to where he pointed, me.
A cacophony of voices vied for my attention as I cowered into Mums side.
"One at a time guys, you'll scare the girl half to death, Jerry you get first crack." LA suggested.
Mum squeezed my shoulders in support.
"Gaby, Jerry Bosnich American Cycle Sport, can you tell us a bit about yourself?"
"Go on kiddo" Mum whispered.
What do I say?
"Um, I'm Gaby Bond and I'm in America on an exchange trip to a place called Grottoes."
The questions came thick and thin, how old was I, where did I come from and so on.
"You had a great ride today Gaby, where did you learn to ride like that?"
"From my Mum mostly."
"Is she a racer Gaby?"
"Um guys" Lance interjected, why not ask Mrs. Bond that one?"
Mum stood up and moved forward, I heard a few muffled comments.
"I have been known to ride a few events" Mum grinned.
There was a bit of nudging going on but the current questioner seemed oblivious.
"So what level do you race at?" he pointed his recorder earnestly at Mum.
"Andy!" someone tried to warn him but he blundered on.
"Well a few stage races."
Lance couldn't hold his mirth any longer and burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" the hapless journo enquired of anyone.
"Andy, that's Jenny Bond in front of you." Jerry smirked.
"And?" I started to feel sorry for the schmuck.
"Jenny Bond, Women's World Championi, Ladies Tdf winner?"
"Oh shit!" that brought guffaws all round and Andy turned a shade of red that I had never seen on a face before.
Well after that the Trek US Postal session was sort of hijacked by the Jenny and Gaby show - much to the apparent amusement of Mr. Armstrong.
“Why did you ask Lance to sign your number right there Gaby?”
“It'll be something to tell my kids,” that brought a lot of laughter, “actually it was to stop Lance escaping at the feed.”
“Well I'll be darned” Lance allowed.
“My team, well me included aren't exactly in the same league so we needed something, an edge, to give us a chance of hanging on.”
By this time Lance was shaking his head.
“You'll have to watch this one Lance!” someone shouted.
“I already am. How'd you know that we were planning that Gaby?
“It's what I'd do, classic move, Indurain 1994 Tour” I flaunted my cycling knowledge.
“You got a contract handy Johan?” Lance joked.
Mr. Bruyneel was kind enough to wave some papers much to everyone's amusement.
"Tuesday night Gab, you doing anything?” Don asked.
"Packing, we've got some do on Wednesday so Mrs. Cowlishaw suggested we at least start on Tuesday."
Are we really leaving so soon, it barely seems like we've been here any time at all.
"This is really cool" Aidan stated.
We'd just finished watching the Apollinaris 2003 season highlights, so we'd been through all Mums rides, some I'd never heard of! It wasn't just Mum of course, there was Tina's GC win in Andalusia , Maria had several wins, well all the team at least got honourable mention! Maybe the US Postal team wasn't here but the Gerolsteiner boys were along with a good crowd of journo's and assorted guests. Of course the ‘water boys' jokingly complained about the water on offer that was of course Apollinaris specially imported for the occasion.
With Mum, and Dad at her side, being heavily involved with the presentation I ended up acting as sort of host or should that be hostess to the Grottoes crew. It was actually pretty cool, a lot of the journalists at least knew me by sight and I was even on nodding terms with some of the Gerolsteiner lads.
After all the business stuff it turned into a regular party and I can honestly say I had a good time and I think the rest of the ‘Express' did too. It was great to see Mum so happy even if she was looking quite tired. There had been an awkward moment earlier when one of the journalists asked why she wasn't riding the US series – the official line, at least for now was a lingering illness.
The party broke up a bit after ten and after a hectic and eventful day everyone was quite keen to get to their beds. Mum and Dad arranged to meet us for breakfast so after one last hug we parted.
It was dark long before we arrived back in Grottoes. We had been on the road since we said goodbye to my ‘rents about nine thirty this morning and even though we made good time it was just turned seven when Erin dropped me back at the Walters.
“You look exhausted” Mrs. W greeted us.
“It's a fair drive,” Erin noted.
“To be truthful Joss, I am famished.”
My stomach answered for me with a loud gurgle.
“Hmm, I thought as much. The others are at the Diner so there's plenty of pot roast if that's okay?”
“Thanks Jocelyn.” Erin answered.
“Yum,” I grinned.
I'd said my farewells to the others at the last coffee stop a couple of hours ago. It was strange and I got a bit teary as we said our goodbyes. Aidan snuck a kiss and after spending several hours in Hooch's company I allowed him the same, which got quite some reaction and left us both a bit red in the face! It was with some sadness that I waved goodbye when they passed us for the last time on the ‘Inner State'.
The rest of the gang had a busy weekend too, maybe not on my scale but another impromptu sleepover on Saturday night was something I was actually glad to miss! Jules was a bit miffed about not seeing Mum, understandable I guess, but at least she didn't take it out on me.
With our visit to DC at the end of the week we don't have any trips so its school all the way. Mrs. Pryce in Home Ec had us writing a report on how our dance ‘experience' was affected by what we wore. I was very tempted to tip up the whole Gaby thing but after five weeks of presenting myself as Gaby rather than Drew I didn't think it would be wise. We got home quite early and I got ready for my last ride in America, as I have to return Erin's GT tomorrow – and her other kit.
I decided to go anti clockwise around the circuit I did on my first ride over here. After yesterdays drive my legs were like lead and I was nearly ten miles in before my legs loosened up. I didn't push myself too much, just allowing myself to soak up the scenery, signposts and just the general American-ness of it all. It was much cooler than Atlanta although it was still mild for February. I nearly missed the turn off for Knightly but I threaded my way down the lanes and I recognised some of the roads as I passed near to Ms Bells house in Piedmont.
Soon I was passing AHS and I decided on a last sprint for the Grottoes sign. I sat up and freewheeled for a bit, some movement caught my attention over at the park. Not being in a particular hurry I slowed and rolled over the grass towards the play area. There were several kids sat on the slides and stuff watching what turned out to be Hooch on his BMX jumping around the skate park. I parked the GT against the fence and watched as he popped wheelies, ran rails and generally showed off.
“Hey Chads, catch this Dude, step to manual one eighty and off the rail.”
“No way man.”
“Just run tape alright.”
Chad, a thin kid wearing the tightest jeans ever that still showed his underwear as they hung off his bum, picked up an expensive looking video camera and Hooch set himself up. I watched mesmerized as he launched himself into the maneuver with Chad running along filming the action. Whether he did his one eighty manual thing I've no idea but by the cheering from the gallery I guess all that spinning and jumping was what he said. Another couple of lads picked up their battered mounts and I was just about to leave when I was surprised by a voice next to me.
“He's such a show off.”
“Huh?” I turned to see the girl beside me.
“Hooch, last Fall he broke his arm and three ribs. Manda Dreyfuss,” she offered her hand, “I guess you must be the famous Gaby that he keeps on about?”
“Er yes,” I shook her hand, “are you his girlfriend?”
“In his dreams.”
“He's pretty good,” I said, meaning his riding.
“Well I'll admit I do quite fancy him, but don't say anything, ot oh, he's seen us.”
“Hiya” I managed a quick wave and smile as he scooted over.
“You guys see the manual?”
“We saw” Manda told him.
“Rad weekend Gab.”
“Um yes” I allowed inwardly sighing at the unintended pun, Rad is bike in German!
“Gab was mixing it with these like übermeister riders and like she never said but her Mom is a real kewl bike racer too.”
I could tell by Manda's look that Hooch's enthusiasm for all things Gaby was not going down well.
“Maybe I'll get one of them fancy race bikes” Hooch blundered on.
“I er need to um get off.”
“We're off to the Deli I'll buy.”
“Come on Gaby, it's rare a dollar escapes from Hooch's wallet!” Manda stated.
I felt well stupid walking along pushing the GT in tights and wearing cleats with a bunch of Bmxers. I've no idea why I stayed but I did and the fact that I recognised a few of the other kids from school made me feel reasonably safe. The ‘Deli' turned out to be a tiny sandwich bar that was squeezed into a corner of the local corner shop. The late afternoon sunshine kept the temperature bearable while the ‘bad boys' of the Grottoes bike scene chewed the cud and quaffed exotic sounding coffee, which I bet tasted like instant given its source!
It was turning dark before I finally left to complete my ride back to the Walters.
“Erin called Gaby.” Mrs. W told me when I walked in after stowing the bike.
“Does she want the bike back today?”
“No, tomorrow is fine in fact she's invited you over for your tea tomorrow so wear something nice.”
“Kewl!” the packing can wait.
Tuesday was a bit strange. Very…ordinary. Very…normal. There was nothing unusual happening, the dance was history pretty much; no impending sports fixtures, just normal lessons.
Mrs. W collected us from school so after a shower and quick change I pushed the GT over to the Cyclery; well you can't really ride in a skirt can you?
“Oh high Gaby, lean that up somewhere and come on through.”
I found a spot to park the bike and went through to the workshop.
“Hi Gaby” Mat greeted me from behind a huge collection of springs and tubes that he was working on.
“You're early Gaby” Erin mentioned, I told Joss six.”
“Sorry, I can come back.”
“Don't be so daft, you fancy a cup of tea?”
When two hours later we stopped not at Erin's but at a largish town house on the Piedmont side of town. The trucks headlights swept across the garden, bleaching all colour from the scene. There were lights on and I could hear music inside.
“Why are we stopping here?”
“It's Frank's house, we're eating here.”
“Come on in.”
As we walked up to the door the music stopped and I could hear voices inside.
“Ow, get off my foot Derek.”
Ding Dong, Erin rang the bell.
The door opened, a little too quickly.
“Hi Erin, Gaby glad you could come. Come on in.”
It was dark inside but we were barely inside when the light came on.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY GABY!”
It was all the Express gang; even Hooch and Manda were here. I stood in stunned silence.
“We know your birthday isn't till next week but you won't be around then,” Diane told me.
“Um” I am a blonde of few words!
I was quite made up; that people I barely knew would do this had me almost in tears. I can honestly say that I never expected anything like this; in fact I hadn't expected to see them all again even. My pre birthday party was basically what I think you call a dinner party, at least we all sat at Frank's amazing expanding table for a great meal of fried chicken and salad and stuff prepared by Mrs. Frank, Ellie. It was great; we talked about Atlanta, Warsop, the Express, Lance – well pretty much anything.
It reminded me of cycling club events back home, it doesn't matter about your age or sex, everyone gets on with everyone talking about what we love to do. I never expected any presents, well I mean I thought I was having an ordinary dinner with Erin after all, so it was quite embarrassing to end up with quite a stack of gift boxes and cards. I decided to keep them until my actual Birthday a week tomorrow.
“I promised Joss I'd have you home by now Gaby” Erin told me.
“Time we were off folks” Erin announced to the party in general.
“Don't forget you know what Erin.” Diane mentioned.
I found myself facing my Grottoes cycling pals turning vaguely pink.
“Gaby, I don't think its any secret that you've made a lot of friends in the time you've been here. You've entertained us, worried us, taught us and inspired us. In Atlanta you amazed us and through it all you've remained the quiet English rose we've come to love. We shall miss you Gaby, maybe someday you'll come back to visit, you have great things ahead of you but we, that is all of us here, hope you will remember us.”
By this time I was embarrassed almost to tears by Frank's little speech.
“Just to remind you of us, this is from everyone.” He handed me a package.
“Um thank you, I er” just about burst into tears.
“Come here girl” Erin pulled me into a hug.
We did actually leave not too long after that, but not before a round of more tearful farewells.
Wednesday, our last day at Augusta High and our last day, full day that is, in Grottoes. The morning PA announcements included what was described as a ‘pep' rally straight after lunch in the gym hall. The morning classes were really strange in that they would be our last classes in America. As a result we spent a lot of time on farewells, I've never left a school before, except when we moved up to secondary from the juniors. By lunch we were all exhausted from saying goodbye!
The ‘pep' rally turned out to be a sort of official school farewell thing. Principal Roberts made a speech and Sandy's mom, Mary Jones spent five minutes telling everyone how the exchange visit had changed not just her own but others views through our attitudes and stuff. I haven't the foggiest what she was on about but when I looked at Rhod he had a shitty big grin on his face so maybe its something Em did.
Maddy Bell 13.06.06 © 2006
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