Blue Nile Gorge Time Trial
Story and Photos by Brian Hoeniger
The climb up the Blue Nile Gorge – the world’s 2nd largest canyon – has been christened the TDA’s equivalent of the Alpe d’Huez. At 20.05 km long and 1360 m (4460′) up, the grade averages 6.8%, with several stretches of 10%+ and some switchbacks exceeding 15%. For many cyclists this is the biggest ascent they will ever attempt.
Hopes were high that 2014 would witness some new time trial records. However, almost predictably, the riders were first treated to a “TIA (This is Africa), expect the unexpected” curve ball, when the normally straightforward 50 km warmup, from forest camp to the lunch truck near the top of the down slope, included almost 20 km of dusty, shake rattle and roll Japanese-funded construction.
Since it was first completely paved 5 years ago the “gorge-ous” road itself has also deteriorated significantly, from the numerous Ethiopian transport trailer trucks that slowly grind up and down it every day. The lone coke stop is in the village of Filiklik about 60% of the way up and as a final challenge there was also a short off road stretch just before the last set of hairpins.
Undaunted, South Africa Tour mechanic Alex Percival and his custom made bike were on a mission, determined to better the staff record of 1:24:30 set by brother Doug in 2012, and to threaten the all-time mark of 1:17:59 set the same year by Norwegian Pal Fritsvold. Starting just past the bridge over the Abay (“father of rivers”) in 41 C heat, and with Gelada Baboons spectating, he blew past some of the leading tour riders “like they were parked” and crossed the finish line in 1:19:37, tieing the 2nd fastest time ever.
Alex summed the climb as “harder than I’d imagined, given I’d driven the Gorge on the transit up 2 months ago. I remembered the tough corners, and the flatter sections so I knew when to drink, taking only 4 or 5 sips. Having installed a 12-27 cassette the evening before, I had a much higher cadence than normal. I only stood on the steepest sections, and never looked up, focusing on sticking to the white line on the edge of the road, and on breathing slowly to keep my heart rate down.”
Americans Dave Wolfendale in 1:35:12 and John “JT” taki in 1:37:20 came in 2nd and 3rd respectively. 4 other men broke the 2 hour barrier.
Among the ladies expectations of a new record appeared dashed as Dutch star Ina de Visser was suffering from gastro-enteritis. However, true to her doggedly determined nature, she grit her teeth and spun her Trek 8000 MTB to the top in 1:42:22. Her remarkable effort was judged to have tied Germany’s Gisela Gartmair’s record clocking of 1:42:00 in 2010 when timing was to the nearest minute. Canadian Jennilea Horton recorded the 4th fastest women’s time ever of 2:01:52 with American Amanda Cowley less than 1 minute behind her.
All told some 85% of the Biblical Ethiopia section clients completed the Blue Nile Gorge and were swarmed by local youngsters selling warm cokes at the top. To them we say “Enkuan Dese Aleke” (Congratulations!) for your truly Epic performances.
For full race results from the 2014 Tour d’Afrique, click here.