I am a slow rider. I don’t have the force of many of the others, although noticeably improved from when I first set off from Cairo. In the context of this Tour slow does not carry as such the extolled benefits of “the slow movement”, which advocates the slowing of life’s pace and a move towards a more organic way of living. We are not a “slow movement” Tour. The schedule is fixed and demanding. Each day we must make it to camp before night falls. On the longest days I may be in the saddle for up to eight hours or more. Distance is not the most telling factor; climbs and, above all, wind are more determinant of difficulty. More than once we have as a group sighed with relief after a particularly long route telling each other it will be easier the next day for the distance will be shorter only to discover that the reverse was true: shorter but tougher. There would be more climbs, steeper climbs (which we would check and check again on the ride profiles that many of us had downloaded onto our phones) and invariably difficulty was directly proportional to the strength of the head or cross winds.
A couple of weeks ago, it struck me what slow means. I had for once decided to start my cycling day at lunch. The lunch truck leaves camp at about 6:00 in the morning. Within the hour, Lulu, our lunch maestro, has set up at the pre-determined kilometrage (that particular day it was at 75 kms on a 152 km day). The cruiser’s rooftop awning has been unfurled, chairs and tables laid out, food preparation underway. By 8:30 or 9:00 the first of the riders begin to arrive. (Lunch time is on a different schedule on Tour.) These are our elite group.
I leave lunch a little before they arrive. It is a border crossing day and I am able to get through the formalities quickly and be on my way. I arrive at camp much earlier than my usual time. Normally, I am there by about four in the afternoon, which gives me just about enough time to have a quick post-ride drink or bite (the cook prepares a soup each cycling day), grab my bag, set up tent, get out of my cycling gear and wash in whatever way I can before it is time for the rider meeting, supper and bed.
That day was different. I could choose the best site for my tent, level ground in the shade. The daily post-ride soup was hot. Above all I had the gift of time. I could lollygag, have a little lie down, and, unheard indulgence, read my book, which has been barely opened for three months. As I bathed in this luxury, I reflected: this is how the other half live. On Tour riches is not dollars or cattle, it is force and speed. You can indulge in a more leisurely breakfast, longer coke stops, interesting detours, more local interactions because you know that you can quickly make up all that time.
Over the last few weeks I have noticed a change. I have, after three months on the road, become stronger and faster as if some energy boost has finally kicked in. I am more often able to keep pace with riders whom I could never match before. Others have remarked on it too; they jokingly ask what drugs I’ve been taking. It feels good and, unexpectedly, it opens a door into another aspect of slow that had niggled at me but, which I could never quite pin down.
A Tour like this is a journey into the unknown. The dark continent is not Africa; it is oneself. It is not that one has set out on a voyage of self discovery, a Livingstone to discover the source of one’s personal Nile. Yet, it inevitably becomes so. As one by one or in small groups riders pass me by receding into the horizon, I am not simply slow. I am being left behind. A primal anxiety, like a power surge in an electrical storm, rises sharply and abruptly in my gorge. For a few seconds I am not a cyclist on an adventure filled with marvels, but a toddler, a displaced person, dragged across borders in a Europe still devastated by the impact of the war, often left alone in corridors or waiting rooms confused, uncertain and afraid. The moment passes and I am back pedaling across Zambia or Malawi or Botswana, alone and happy in my solitude.