The other evening we crossed the border into Namibia. The ride was the longest of the whole Tour: 208 kilometers. Like much of our journey through Botswana the road was a flat, straight road stretching endlessly to the horizon through an arid landscape of shrubs and small trees. Our route is home to an array of wild animals: elephants, impalas, giraffes, hyenas, lions and more. Signs posted along the highway warned to be careful of the them, particularly at night.
Although we strained our eyes to catch glimpses of this animal kingdom, we were rarely rewarded. So we rode along through kilometer after kilometer of a road substantially empty of people and traffic. There was none of the array of villages, roadside procession of farmers, workers, women with loads on their heads, or children rushing across fields to greet the passing circus of mzungus (“whites”) in their weird lycra outfits that we had become used to elsewhere in our journey. To our chagrin there were also no “coke stops”, the small shops that provided us with much needed break and refreshment.
There was much talk among us in the days leading up to “208”. For just about all of us it would set a distance record. (For many of us there were many distance records broken and then surpassed all along the Tour.) There was much speculation about what conditions would be like and how we would fare. The number acquired a magical property inspiring awe and trepidation by its sheer magnitude but it was not unique. We are a Tour of numbers and the riders have become, each in their way, statisticians or, perhaps more so, numerologists obsessing over the secret meanings hidden in the numbers.
We began in Cairo with 88: the number of riding days, which to us seemed endless. At each rider meeting the white board sets out what section we are about to embark on. We calculate riding days, rest days, the weeks that passed, the weeks that remained as hard numbers and as percentages. We stare at the itinerary listing the daily kilometrages straining to divine our future like augurs reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.
We marked the passing of each thousand kilometers with some form of ritual, a brief wild dance, an incantation or a stone cairn placed on the verge until at three or four thousand that particular marker had lost some of its aura only to regain it, like a waning and waxing aurora, at six and seven thousand kilometers. Over beer the other day two of the riders were comparing totals: the most number of kilometers ridden in April. They were subscribers to a site where cyclists could compete against each other. In that group of 3,000 subscribers from around the world our riders were number 33 and 40 respectively. Number 40 had lost a couple of days through accidents, including finding a dentist in Lusaka to refix an artificial tooth pulled from his mouth by an innocuous seeming toffee.
Another rider, our fastest, is constantly figuring out different metrics to define his Tour. Recently, he sat at our table, all lit up. He had just calculated the total number of meters climbed since the start of the Tour: 47,000. He, like all of us, take note of our daily numbers: average speed, maximum speed, elevation rise and fall, cadence, hours in the saddle, minutes at lunch or coke stops. We maintain an inner chart that tabulates and compares our progress over time.
We live by these numbers, as if they are the most tangible, the most real aspect of what we are doing. We did “208”. The next day is “161”. The week (five riding days) is “830”, the equivalent of 5 centuries (100 miles) back to back. The numbers have become the chronicle of our lives and the measure of our worth.