The Pavement Ends
The nomad cycling village keeps on moving. With a tour of such intensity and length it is important to take it one day at a time. Almost every morning, since January 15th, our group of nearly 100 people (among riders and staff) has woken up before sunrise, packed up their personal belongings, eaten breakfast and hopped on their bikes for another long day (100 to 170 km) on the road. Come evening, tents are pitched, aching muscles are stretched, bikes are maintained and dinner is served. The starred sky is usually the sign that it´s time to go to the tent, which by now already brings a “home, sweet home” feeling.
The Tour d'Afrique just left Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, where it stayed for one rest day. Sudan is an interesting country of Islamic majority, launched into the media spotlight due to its recent referendum. The largest country in Africa, Sudan is home to the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. This dramatic feature forms a natural divide between the three major cities that are collectively known as Khartoum.
To face the city´s chaotic traffic, we organized a convoy, which was expertly escorted by the police and a group of local riders. At 40km it is the longest convoy of the entire tour, and the heat was oppressive. After an exhausting Time Trial in the morning, no one was really in a hurry, and the group arrived in camp tired, yet happy and safe.
Tomorrow, the Tour hits the gravel for the first time this year, and that will completely change the Tour´s dynamic and the race´s ranking. The mountain bikers, who have been struggling to keep up with the roadies on the flat pavement, will have the chance to take advantage of their more appropriate bikes on the rough terrain, and close the gap on the lead that the road cyclists have established thus far. Paul Wolfe, the man who won the Pharaoh´s Delight section (Cairo to Khartoum), is an example of a road cyclist who knows what is waiting for him, and in his award´s speech this evening, he made that clear, “I must get it while I can”.
Ethiopia, the next country that the tour goes through, will bring a lot more than a new currency and a new language. Everything about Ethiopia is different; the terrain, the scenery, the history, the culture, the food, and even the calendar and the clock will change completely. Most importantly for the cyclists the mountains arrive. Ethiopia has a disproportionate percentage of Africa's land mass above 2500 meters. The terrain is dominated by high plateaus and steep canyons. For the cyclists this means hard work. The highest point on the tour at 3100m is to be found in this beautifully rugged and punishing landscape; and the name of this section is derived from the hardest single feature the group will face this tour: the Blue Nile Gorge- a 1300m descent followed by a 1500 m climb, all in the span of 25 km.
Add to this, the challenge of greater population density, and therefore road congestion, and the cyclists will have their hands full. While Egypt and Sudan have provided challenges in the form of aggressive drivers and large trucks, Ethiopia brings a much more colourful challenge. Every day the group will contend with tuk tuks, donkey carts, pedestrians, goats, local cyclists, along with the usual traffic of day to day life. Cycling in Ethiopia is not for the faint of heart, but it is in this challenging environment, that we will find the most fulfilling rewards.
The riders have already shown a great improvement in their strength, endurance and fitness. It is remarkable to observe the capabilities of a truly determined human being. While some of the cyclists are seasoned athletes, accustomed to hard endurance sports, others have come to see what they are capable of. It may be hard for a very fit cyclist to ride anywhere from 100 to 170 km, day after day in Africa´s extreme conditions; but to watch the less seasoned cyclists pushing their physical and psychological limits everyday, and in doing so discover their own abilities, is a lesson about mankind.
The 16th stage brought extremely high temperatures and very strong cross winds, dropping some EFIers (those who try to achieve the Every Fabulous Inch status). On lunch break, Baastian Van Meeteren said that what he is mostly looking forward to is to see people discover their limits while they still enjoy their ride across Africa. He states that the first section was easy for him, but is aware that the comfort is about to end. Three weeks after leaving Cairo, 2000 km have been ridden in 16 stages. Having left Khartoum this morning we´re one day into The Gorge section. The pavement ends tomorrow, and we will be in Ethiopia in 5 days. But for now we´ll continue on as we always do; one day at a time.
— Cristiano Werneck