What’s it like to ride day after day often for long distances (over 150 kms)? Each day is different depending on terrain, elevation, wind, local culture, human interactions, as well as how rested you feel and how well you are in yourself. Yet each day there is an unchanging bedrock experience. It seems commonplace to say that it is simply about pushing the pedals, meter after meter, kilometre after kilometre. However, that obscures something essential that happens when the experience is extended over long periods of space and time that seem, when one is in the moment, to stretch to a receding vanishing point.
Each rotation of the pedals is instantaneous and infinite. A Cartesian logic overtakes one: I cycle therefore I am. But the “I” is not a monad, a single, indivisible thing. I am in many simultaneous modes of being. I am a physical entity, aware purely of muscles, spasms, sores, aches, breath. I am a shuttering eye capturing image after image of rolling mountainous landscapes, plots of maize, women singly or in small groups, school children in blue uniforms, men on spindly, battered bikes laden with hundredweight sacks of coal or a pig or a goat, villages of baked mud brick and thatched roof huts. I am a consciousness hyper vigilant of every twist and turn of the road, of potholes and the sudden emergence of rumble strips and speed bumps. I am a mind in a meditative trance hypnotized by the long stretch of highway curving into an infinite distance.
Each morning I wake between 4:15 and 4:45 AM. It takes me an hour to decamp: ram sleeping bag and pillow into their stuff sacks; undo my cot; lather on the butt cream, squeeze into my cycling gear; gather and stow the electronics (IPhone and Garmin cycle computer) that have been charged by the battery pack, and so on. I do all this in the dark with a dim head lamp strapped to my forehead while hunched in my tent, supposedly a two-person affair that is barely enough for me and my most basic gear. Once all that is done I am ready to undo the tent. Then comes the struggle to stuff everything into my duffle bag which until the last moment has been under the slight extension of the fly. With some effort of tugging and squeezing interspersed with a few choice curses mumbled under my breath and a promise to self, always unfulfilled to rid myself of half my things, I manage to squeeze the bag shut.
As I do this I am aware of similar activities all around me, small spotlights jiggling round and up and down, the clanging sound of disassembled tent poles and swish of tent fabric; dim figures hunched under heavy bags moving it to the support truck; others, up earlier or quicker at decamping, chatting away around their first cup of tea or coffee. Once my bag is on board the truck I am ready for my cuppa. An enormous pot of filtered coffee is placed on the drinks table at about 5:45. We sit on folding army surplus chairs sipping and waiting for the breakfast call, which comes at about 6:00. Most have already grabbed plastic bowl or plate and cutlery from the tableware bin. Next to the bin are three tubs of soapy water, rinse and disinfectant. We are all on automatic pilot so accustomed to the necessary rituals of washing our hands (soap dispenser and water cleverly organized at the back of the truck) and rewashing our dinner ware (before and after eating).
Porridge is our staple breakfast with bread and various spreads. Nutella is a great favourite among the riders. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises: pancakes or scrambled eggs and for meat eaters sausages. Light has dawned; the sunrises are often spectacular and we gape in awe unnamed by the sight even after three months feeling like prehistoric humans worshipful that the Sun God has come to us yet again. Then it is to the business of the day. The breakfast is wolfed down and by 6:15 the first riders are saddling up and pushing their way out of camp.
At this point in the Tour natural groupings have occurred based principally on pace. There are the experienced, strong riders who are fast and are off from the get-go at a rapid clip. The fastest of us, C, however is a loner on the cycle but always congenial and helpful in camp. He is always the first into camp, never stops for a break except briefly for lunch. One memorable day, out of Lusaka, when the lunch van was held up by heavy traffic, C arrived at the designated lunch stop well before the van and armed with a banana pressed on to the finish.
There is an unlikely duo who have formed a close friendship, although of very different backgrounds and histories, who now ride together every day. They call themselves the “Wild Cats” after a local energy drink, which they stop and consume every afternoon. Their motto is “old and strong”; they are in their late fifties, early sixties. They may arrive among the last in camp but they tackle every day no matter how tough and they finish every day.
Then there is the “Wolf Pack”, a trio of strong riders who derive their name from one of their number, a German called Wolfgang, a formidable athlete, tall, powerful and fearless. He took a bad tumble a few weeks back that would have felled a lesser mortal. He emerged with a badly bruised shoulder and a gashed knee and kept cycling until the knee became swollen with infection and to his chagrin forced him off the bike for a few days. He is joined by a Swede who is a thoughtful, considerate man whose calves and thigh muscles are of iron and thicker than my waist. He has ridden every kilometre of the Tour to date. The last member of the trio is a Canadian who has become stronger and stronger over the course of the Tour.
I am slow, but not the slowest; probably near the top of the bottom third of the riders. I have a heavy bike (31 pounds unladen) and with heavy rear pack on the rack, full water bottles, thicker tires, I carry a lot of weight. Each day’s ride is different. I can never tell at the start what I will be like. There are days when somehow the energy is there and I can be up in the middle of the pack; there have been days when I am depleted and end up riding with the sweep. (The sweep is the crew member who rides behind the last rider as the security measures.) Most of the time I cycle on my own, which I prefer, because then I can ride at the pace that suits me, which might be faster or slower depending on conditions. Now and again, I have ridden with one or other person or group. Riding with the Wild Cats was particularly helpful on a couple of the roughest road days in Tanzania.
I am surprised by the distances I can now cover. I am no longer daunted by days in succession that might exceed 170 kilometres. The other week I was exhilarated to do a double century (100 miles) back to back. The terrain was rolling hills and a fair degree of cross wind. That was about eight hours in the saddle each day. The next two days were shorter but not appreciably easier. First, 124 kms but with 1720 meters of climbing, some of it steep gradients. The final day, coming into Lusaka was 100 kms, which now seems almost a dawdle even with the climbing (I used to think 65-75 kms was a solid day’s biking). The downside was the very heavy traffic on the narrow road, the main highway into the capital city, with little or degraded shoulder. It was nerve racking and required intense vigilance as heavy trucks and buses roared past as if in a desperate race with the devil. Worse yet were vehicles coming from the other direction to overtake, each time passing perilously close to us. We are all so extremely safety conscious (Tallis, the Tour leader, has drummed it into us that the rule here is “right of weight” not “right of way”) that the merest hint of an issue will have us immediately off the road to continue only when it is safe to do so.
The most common form of local transport is Shank’s pony; everybody walks, often long distances. Groups of men, women and children carrying their basic farm implements to their plots of land; women toting large bundles on their heads; uniformed school children strolling to and from schools.
The kids have eagle eyes. They can see a “mzungu” (white person) from a great distance and come running at speed to the road side. We are such a curiosity, a circus that seems to provide a brief touch of colour and drama to what seems to us the unrelenting sameness of their daily lives. Small children, often enough a baby cradled in the arms of an older child (i.e. 8 or 9 years old), in tattered clothes, standing by their thatched mud-brick huts, calling out: “how are you, how are you, how are you, how are you”. Even toddlers who are just forming words have learned the formulaic phrase. It is not a greeting; it is almost a liturgical chant that rises to a pitch even as you have passed by. As we pass through a series of villages or smaller collection of dwellings the chorus is repeated in an endless cacophony every few yards. Sometimes the older kids will ask peremptorily, “what’s your name” and from time to time we still get the demand, “give me my money”. I’m not sure what they understand or know; the younger kids are repeating what they know from the older kids. We wave as we pass or we might answer, “fine, how are you” at which they will burst into giggles or uproarious laughter as if they had played the greatest joke on us.
Now and again we have brief conversations as we stop at a village for a cold drink (if we can find a shop with electricity and a fridge). There is curiosity at what these mzungus are doing on bicycles, which turns into astonishment or disbelief when they hear that we have been traveling this way from Cairo. They look at my grizzled visage and say, ah, you are strong and shake their heads for them it is a madness. They can see no reason or objective to such an undertaking.
There are two points of relief: a lesser and a greater. The lesser is the lunch stop, usually about half way to our destination of the day. The van departs camp at first light of day and within an hour or so has arrived at a suitable road-side stop. An awning is unfurled from the roof of the van to provide shade, the camp chairs are put out, as are a hand-wash and drinking water stations. Tables are set up and Lulu begins the lunch preparations. A couple of times, needing more rest, I have started my day’s cycle from lunch. Then I assisted in the lunch prep, slicing tomatoes, cucumbers or fruit. Bread or rolls are laid out. There is a a small bin of cheese and often enough leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. As with breakfast the lunch stop is not prolonged. Depending on how I am feeling it may be twenty minutes or a half-hour. Then it is back on the road. I am always surprised by how stiff and recalcitrant my leg muscles feel after even such a brief stop. It takes ten to fifteen minutes to get back into the cycling groove and face the next 70 or 90 kilometres.
The greater point of respite is arriving at camp. The sight of the TDA truck and tents in the distance provokes a wash of relief as one who spies an oasis after a hard desert crossing.
I am still, after all these weeks, astonished that I have made it, crossed these distances in an environment that is unfamiliar and poses questions about one’s place in the world. Arriving at camp initiates another set of rituals: there is always a pot of soup to replenish one’s reserves; clamber the truck to fetch one’s duffel; lug it to a suitable site to camp (the best sites are taken by the fast riders who may have arrived two or three hours earlier); unpack and set up the tent; strip out of the cycling gear and, if we are lucky, there may be a bucket shower. By then (5:30 pm) it is almost time for the rider meeting where Tallis will impart any important information and review the next day’s navigation. Ten minutes later we are eating supper (after washing hands and dinnerware). By 6:15 it is growing dark and a half hour later I am in my tent snuggling into my cot. Another day done.