Friday, 12 February 2010

THE HECTIC 3 DAYS...

                              The road that have been torturing our bodies for the past 3 days...
                              try riding 130 km a day on this...

                                                             Riders sharing their misery...
                     The officials of the national park we crossed interviewed us on our opinion
                     about the park and Sudan... We did not dare mentioning the roads...
                                                  This is how most people looked yesterday,
                                           bruises and blood everywhere. It was a though day.

Finally, I get to write again.... Since my last post, we have been at war... the past 7 days of the tour have been nothing but plain massacre... I have never experienced such a physical challenge and pain ever before. It has been such long and hard riding days that most riders were not able to finish the stages, leaving just a few of us in the now infamous EFI club... Many who managed to hang on to their EFI status would lose it the next day due to exhaustion and shortage of recovery time. Apparently it is the first time that so many people are no longer EFI so early in the tour and there is a name behind this massacre: DINDIR NATIONAL PARK.....


First let me remind you what EFI means, "Every Fuc##ng Inch". It is the ultimate goal, trying to reach Cape Town without having to get on the sweep vehicle or skipping a stage and riding every inch of the race. It is something beyond comprehension to achieve and the more we go further, the more I realise how little chance you have to make it. This race is insane, the distances we ride every day are huge, and if they are not, it means the terrain is just impossible. Furthermore, to stay EFI, you cannot fall sick, you simply cannot fall, as one bad fall and you are most likely not gonna be able to finish a stage, you also have to have luck, plenty of it as road accidents with pedestrians and animals, pot holes and stones lying on roads, etc etc.... So, any way let's talk about DINDIR National Park...

At the beginning of the tour in Cairo, we were told that this year there would be a new route for the tour through southern Sudan as we had been invited by the Sudanese government to cross the Dinder National park. This would mean a bit of a detour and some 340 km on dirt roads. As none of us, (TDA staff included) realized what it actually meant, we all applauded and looked forward for cycling across free roaming antelopes....

One thing did concern me a bit at that stage and it was that we were the first foreigners ever to be invited there as they were starting to "rehabilitate" the park in anticipation of a huge Muslim world conference that will take place in 2017 there... the word "rehabilitate" should have rung a bell...

The now elongated route meant that we first had to ride two long days of 160 km each south of Khartoum before reaching the dirt road that would take us to the park, situated a 150 further south. These two days were already quite epic with a few bad falls and some riders having to be taken to hospital for scans, but luckily, nothing serious. As soon as we hit the dirt, I realised that Sudan seems to only have 2 types of roads, brain new Chinese built tarred and completely destroyed dirt roads.Most of us are using cyclocross bicycles, I am riding a mountain bike, a carbon frame very light mountain bike. If it had not necessarily been the best bike so far on the fast sections of Egypt, now I felt I had made the right choice.... Given the amount of hammering my arms, my knees and my arms were going through after just a few kilometers on that dirt road, I did not dare imagine what other riders were experiencing on their cyclocross bikes. At least I was enjoying the comfort of a robust front fork, and as the kilometers went by, I could see on the faces of the other riders that the next 3 days were not gonna be fun...

That first day on the dirt already took a big tall on the group. It was now another race, with completely different dynamics. No more peloton, no more tailing, it was now a full scale survival operation, and it would last 3 more days... Your physical condition deteriorates rapidly once your body is under such pressure from every corner. Now it was no longer just about pedalling, it was about taking that pain in the arms, the shoulders, the backs, it was about saddle sores coming back as the washboard road keeps on hitting your bud for hours and hours, it was about technical skills of riding through thick sand patches, it was about avoiding falls and not getting lost. Every mistake you made would be paid for the next day. On that first dirt road day, some of the tour leaders missed one flag and ended up doing at total of 180 km instead of the already long 140 km.... That did cost the EFI for one of them the next days as he was so exhausted from the extra 40 km that on day 2 of dirt road, he simply could finish. Tour D Afrique is much more that a race, it is a full scale adventure where small mistakes always end up being repaid.

Riding on the dirt road also had its positive sides. The small villages we were going through were still absolutely genuine, probably like they were hundreds of years ago well before any white man had come through such places. Little round thatch huts would be grouped in a circle and surrounded by a thatch perimeter wall. Kids running completely naked and poultry running all over. It was Africa as I had only seen on some old Tarzan movies. You could clearly see the difference a tarred road makes to a village, much less littering here and building materials were still the original one that had been used by hundreds of generations. As soon as you got to the asphalt road, you got cold Pepsi's and corrugated metal shacks. In one village, I was one of the first riders to pass through, (he he, thanks to riding a mountain bike), an older man stopped me. He clearly was the village chief. With a few words of English he wished me good luck and thanked me about 10 times. I was so touched by this, so much kindness from these people. In the next village, it was a different story, about 20 kids staring throwing stones at me. Stones were flying from every corner and now I had one more challenge on my list, try to escape uninjured from a full scale stoning...

I stopped a bit further, called an adult and shouted in English how upset I was at the kids. He understood quickly the situation and I saw him running towards them shouting just as loud as I had shouted at him... That summed up what we were experiencing, the good and the bad within minutes apart. At the next village, I got literally hijacked by a group of young woman who surrounded me and started singing for me. Never ever before in my life had I experienced such highs and lows of emotions. So, day one on dirt was hard, but it was for me by far the most exiting day, I could imagine where you could have such encounters except on Tour D Afrique.

Emotions were not over yet, at camp that night, I took a ride to the near by village trying to establish if there would be a chance for a hot pepsi. The only thing I got was 3 aggressive dogs attacking me. Two of them looked like they could do with an extra meal whilst the third one looked like he had had that extra meal on behalf of his two mates. he was clearly the pack leader and by now, my nicely shaped calves were his dinner plan. I got of my bike and went straight for the leader, I managed to pick up a big stone before he could launch his attack and as I was gonna throw at him, he run away! I was quite surprised at how well that had worked, the other two who now saw their leader running away did not think twice about taking this fight any further and retreated as well. I now realised why the kids were good at throwing stones, it wasn't just for throwing at the odd foreigner that passed by... Anyway the scene had brought the attention of the villagers and one man ran towards me, probably impressed at the way I had handled the dog attack. He did not speak a word of English but he grabbed me by the arm and insisted I came inside his hut. I followed him. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the place, it had one string bed and a table on which was disposed the family entire belongings, mostly some cooking utensils and some clothing. His wife was sitting in the corner, she was clearly very pregnant and was also holding a small baby in her arms. She was so shy, she did not dare to look at me. It was a strange situation. The man started shouting something at her, which I understood to be an instruction for preparing some tea for me as she got up and started cleaning one cup. I quickly expressed my intention to leave not really wanting to drink that unsafe water, it could have disastrous consequence on my cycling. But as I tried to make my way out of the thatch hut, I realised that the entire village had now gathered outside the place... He he, it was a surreal feeling... Now I knew how heads of states felt.... It is a very empowering feeling. As I walked through the crowd, my host made a point of showing that he was my big connection and escorted me across the masses. With his stick he shouted something real bad and loud in Arabic and the kids started running away like birds flocks taking off in front of a cat.

Day 2 on the dirt was the day we were to cross the Dinder national park. The information we got about that day were a bit vague, but everything about that day seemed hard. First there would be a 50 km ride to the gate of the park? Then, at the gate we would be convoyed through the park with armed guards in small groups of 10 to 15 riders. The problem was that there was over 60 km of convoyed riding. Convoyed riding is the most frustrating riding you can have, simply because the chances for mechanical problems or puncture is 10 fold in a group and as soon as one rider has a problem, then the entire convoy has to stop. I though about that in my tent that evening, and I decided I would ride the first 50 km to the gate as hard as I could in order to be in the first convoy. The advantage of being in the first convoy were multiple; firstly there would only be strong riders there and therefore it would be a faster convoy, secondly it would be riding through the park earlier and therefore less heat. (we had well above 40 degrees celcius over the past days in the afternoon) and lastly if something went wrong, being in the first convoy would give that group some buffer for time.

That strategy probably saved my EFI that day. Nobody had a clue how bad things were to get. I now could use my mountain bike skills to their potential as the road started to deteriorate even further the closer we got to the gate. I worked out that I had to be in the first 10 at the gate and there was 50 km to go. So I did not waste time and started pushing, it was hard, the dirt road had every challenge I had faced over many years of mountain biking, the surface kept on changing from hard broken corrugated to soft lose sand, to thick gravel, to huge holes, and so on... I was suffering, but so was everybody. I was not sure where I was standing, but when Marcel and Frans, the two race leaders passed me at about km 40, I realised I had a good chance to make it for that first convoy, so I pushed even harder. That was a wise decision, I made it by no more than 2 or 3 minutes, but I was in that convoy. As we entered the park, I understood that my worries about the rehabilitation were well founded... If we thought the roads were bad outside the park, then we should have seen them inside the park first. It turned into a nightmare.... On top of the physical challenge, was now added the frustration of convoying as every third kilometer one of the riders would have a puncture or some technical problem on his bike.Thorns were everywhere. It was now so hot that every puncture was like being grilled and turned into a roasted chicken. The soil here is black and completely cracked, so the heat is coming from all over. Our convoy finally made it to the lunch place which was the headquarters of the park. A little oasis in this very dry place. The local authorities had made a point of marketing the event and there was all sorts of speeches, handing over of some tags and Dindir park maps to each one of us. Then there were some TV interviews of each one us and so on... As this was going on and on, I was looking at my watch worried. Time was already over 13h00 and we had not even crossed a third of the park, we still had another 50km of convoy and another 40 km after that on the dirt road to make it to camp... By then the TDA staff had already understood that the day was turning into a waterloo and we got information at the lunch that the camp would be brought forward by 20 km making the day a bit shorter. A relief, but not a grace as we were to discover. When all speeches and TV interviews had been done, our group was finally allowed to carry on. We had lost one and a half crucial hour to this commercial initiative... By then the second convoy only came in! They were 1,5 hour behind us, and this was only the second convoy. Simple maths already confirmed that anybody that was not in the first or the second convoy would lose its EFI tonight. I actually realised that even the second convoy guys would struggle.

The after lunch section was mental; insane, ridiculous, sick.... We all run out of adjectives as the heat, the road, the falls, the punctures took whatever juice each rider had left. Dindir would be remember for long. I even started talking to my GPS which is also my odometer.... I told him "OK, buddy we work on this together, I do the pedaling and you get the fu##ng kilometers to roll".... But even my GPS would not collaborate and getting another 100 meters added on the clock seemed like climbing a mountain... Unbelievable! As we finally got near the end of the park, they let us go and each one just went his own pace to camp. I was the 8th rider in at camp that night which was my best position ever. My strategy of making it to the first convoy had been rewarded. Behind, the casualties were hard to describe. The race had turned into a rescue operation, trying to get exhausted, heat stroked riders back to camp in whatever vehicle they could find. Unfortunately, the roads were so bad that very few vehicles could handle them. As night had fell, less than 15 riders had made it. That was what was left in the EFI club. It still took many more hours for the last riders stranded somewhere in the park to be brought to camp. Silence would probably be way to describe the atmosphere at camp that evening. The pain could be read on every face, the bruises on every body's knees and arms were just a confirmation about what we had just been through...

                                 We stopped for a cold drink in this village and like in every village,
                                 it is chaos within a few minutes... Kids are so exited when they see
                                 us, they want to touch our bikes, touch us and all scream
                                 " What's you name?" and "Where you go?"
                        This is the kind of road we have been riding on for 3 days now, it has been hell...

They say bad news never comes alone.... he he... Well that's exactly what day 3 on the dirt confirmed. Now remember, day 2 camp had been brought forward by about 20 km which meant that day 3 was now 20 km longer...

The way many riders were limping at breakfast already confirmed that further casualties were to come..... I felt surprisingly good. I had no pain in any crucial cycling part of my body such as the knees or achilles. I had slept very well and was ready for a third tough day. For me, day 3 felt easier than the previous day, but the road was still awful and many riders dropped out at lunch as the exhaustion of the last 3 days finally took its toll. It was a long day, but after 108 km we were back on tarred! At that point I was cycling with Paddy, the Irish cyclist, he got off his bike and kissed the tar... I felt the same, but being a mountain biker, I have my own pride... Paddy and I cycled the last 30 km to camp in a hour... We were flying again. In the distance a beautiful mountain range had appear and now that we did not need to focus so much on the path we could enjoy the scene.... Ethiopia was lying in front of us... Wao.... What a strange view. It was like a moment of magic, after the desert and the flat plains of Southern Sudan, an enormous mountain range was in front of us. The road had just gone smooth, but now it would start climbing.

So, 3 days off road had managed to destroy two third of the EFI's and had brought a very different dynamism to this race. Camp that night was at the border post on the Sudanese side, but in order to speed up border procedure we were asked to do our exit stamp for Sudan, leaving just the Ethiopian side for the morning. Many riders had now given up on the next two days of riding and were catching a bus directly to Gondar situated 210 km inland. It would be our next rest day, but we still had 2 riding days to get there and that included plenty of climbing. I made my first big mistake that night and it almost cost me my EFI. I decided I would update the blog and despite being exhausted, I stayed up until 24h00 (we are usually already sleeping at 20h00). I tried to update the blog but none of my attempt worked until I realised that they have data scrambling here near the border. We are in a part of the world where wars and conflicts can raise pretty quickly and they most likely have security issues with communication.. A huge amount of combat vehicle parked a few kilometers before the border confirms that. I had to give up on attempting to keep the blog updated, but by then the time was so late that it left me with 5 hours of sleep. I usually wake up at 5h30, which is the time most other riders also wake up and start packing their bags, their tents and so on. When I woke up, I realised what a mistake I had made not to go to sleep earlier. I was so tired, I had not recoverd. This was the first time I felt like that since we left Cairo, my body was now talking back at me...

The border between Sudan and Ethiopia is nothing more than a piece of dirty string hanging accross the road. It serves no other purpose than showing where the two countries meet as verybody ignores that string and crosses the boder on the sides of the road without much attention beeing given by the border guards who sat under a tree in a corner. Cows donkeys and money changers added to the general chaos that floated in the air. It took a while for the TDA staff to organise all our passports to be stamped but I was once again impressed at their abulity to get such a big group of people sorted especially when you see the mess and when you know a bit about African burocracie..

I was filled with a sense of exitment as we were now entering our third country of the tour. Within a few hundred meters, you realise that things are different here. First it is the "YOU" "YOU" "YOU" of the kids. It is the only word of english they know. Every foreigner is associated with that "YOU" "YOU". It starts immediately at the border, as you pass children, they start screaming a loud and quite brutal "YOU" at each one of us. Immediately any other kid around knows that there is a foreinger near by and they all rush towards the road screaming "YOU" "YOU " "YOU".... Some also scream "GIVE ME MONEY".

It does not take long to understand Ethiopia's biggest problem. it's children. I think Ethiopia is the first country in the world where the strets are ruled by the children (not the cities but rural definitely). There are so many children everywhere that it is hard to describe. I remember reading that Ethiopia's 70 million populmation is made of 50 million underage. Well, I can confirm that. As we made our way through our first day in Ethiopia we quickly come to understand how mentaly draining the next 3 weeks are going to be. Every village we cross is the same scenarion, the "YOU" "YOU" "YOU" screams starting well before we ariive in the village, kids running straight at us from every possible corner, trying to grab our bikes, some trying to open our camel bags or saddle bags as we cannot go fast on these steep hills and stones beeing trown at us occasionaly. I had two kids trowwing a wooden stick at me. It hit me on the forearm and made me so upset, but you are simply outnumbered. Adults watch this with some distance and do not seem to really care much. Ethiopia seems to have given up on its kids. While I was riding, I could not stop thinking about the future of this country. Young kids attacking adults so openly without any form of punishment, and so many of them. What will happen when they will all be adults?

Anyway it is not all bad, I was also cheered by some nice enconters. At one point on a very steep up hill, I had a little boy running towards me with a cup filled with water and as he run next to me, I realised the water was for me. That made up for the stick incident. Ethiopia is also a lot more colourful, shops and houses have their front walls painted in bright colours. The adults are so different from the children, they are so nice to us. If they can speak some english, they immediately say "Welcome to Etiopia". Another good news is that there are now coke stops everywhere and the fridges are definitely cleaner and colder than in Sudan. Here they even swipe the bottle clean before selling it to you.

That first morning in Ethiopia was nice, it was an exiting change from the desert and the dirt roads of Sudan. You were either going up or down.The surrounding hills were beautiful, the vegetation now felt really African with big fig trees topping the hills and colourful acacia barks adding to the beauty. By the time I reached the lunch that day, I started feeling weak. There was still 50 km to go and suddenly I had nothing left in my legs. It hit me like a wall. I could not believe what was going on. I got off my bike and I felt so bad. Now I was paying for that short night. The problem was, we had 50 more kilometers to go including one big cliimb.My legs started to shake and my head to spin. I jumped into the trcuk and lied down on one of the benches the TDA staff uses to sleep on. I fell asleep instantly. Some time later one of the staff woke me up. I had to chose now. The lunch truck was about to leave, which meant that I had 2 choices; get a lift to camp with it and lose my EFI or try to get back on the road and finish that stage. At that moment, Jim, my American friend said to me " Come on Frenchy, I'll give you a pull". The sleep and Jim's offer were enough to get me going. I got back on that saddle and made it to camp that night completely destroyed. I grabbed my bag and my tent from the truck and went to sleep immediately without even removing my cycling sorts soaked with salt and sweat. At least I would be ready in the morning. I had no more clean pairs of cycling shorts anyway. I have 5 set and we have had no access to any kind of water for cleaning ourselves in 7 days, so it means we have tu use our filthy, sand filled sweaty clothing over again. So I might as well keep the one that is on me. I woke up the next morning having scored a good 11 hours of sleep. I felt like a new person and my worries of not beeing able to reach the city of Gondar today disappeared. Today was one of the so called "mango days". There are 7 mango days in the tour and these days are considered to be extra hard and have therefore extra bonus time for the day winners. Well, be assured I have no intention to even try to win today, but I'll be happy to reach Gondar. The stage was 100 km long, but had 2500 meter of climbing, most of the road was now paved but some sections were still under construction. Since I did not want to go through the same experience as the previous day, I decided to go at a very slow and steady pace. It worked, and it was almost the opposite experience from the previous day, I felt stronger at lunch and started cycling faster in the afternoon. Just before the lunch truck, I passed the dinner truck on the road. It had broken down and it looked serious. The truck was stuck half way up a hill with big stones holding its rear wheels. Later on at arrival, I found out that the Dinder national park roads had not only destroyed half of the cyclists, it had also managed to hit one of the truck engines so bad that the engine case had just cracked open the next day. Even a relatively safe day on tar took another two riders out of the EFI group, one was so exhausted that he got on the lunch truck and another had an accident with a pedestrian and broke his collar bone.


                                         The first thing about Ethiopia: Kids.... Millions of kids...
                              This man came towards me while I had stopped to have drink at the
                              top of a climb. He was proud when I offered to take his picture.

                                       The border between Sudan and Ethiopia....
                                       A mere piece of dirty line.
Me on arrival in Gondar yesterday afternoon. I have never been so exhausted in my life. Haven't washed in 7 days. The hotel electricity is off; no hot water, but I don' care, I am going to sleep in a bed tonight. I haven't seen myself in a mirror since the last hotel two weeks ago, and I got a bit of a fright last night. I need to eat.
Today is rest day in Gondar, and we just heard that the damage on the dinner trcuk is so bad, it will take long to fix it, so they are going to use other smaller vehicles to transport all our luggage and equipments between here and Addis. Then apparentlly another truck will be sent to meet us as soon as possible. The TDA staff informed us that we are now going to spend two days here. Great new for our broken down bodies! Talking of broken down bodies, mine also gave up last night. I woke up with severe bladder pain and I have been pissing blood this morning. I am now under antibiotics and hope to be able to be better in two days.But it is no fun as anybody who has had a strong bladder infection will know. Remaining EFI is really a challenge well beyond cycling.... I have now 48 hours to prove that.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

now we understand what mean : difficulty 5, exotic factor 5, confort 1...
what an amazing challenge !
have a good rest in gondar.
sylvain

Rainer and Claudia said...

Hi Gerald,
reading your words lets us feel the torture you went through nearly physically. It is so extraordniary what you and the other racers are doing.
We wish you all the best, keep strong, but also take care.
Best wishes from cold Munich (-6° C) Rainer & Claudia - please say greetings to Gisi

Anonymous said...

Again well done Gerald! Be careful and keep on staying EFI. I'm sure you can! BR, PE

yaluna said...

Amazing storries! But what a stress! Indeed, once in a lifetime experience! Singing women - wow! Kid with water - wow! Thanks for sharing all this. Hope you feel better. Go Gerald! You can do it!

Anonymous said...

Hi dad. Just wanted to let you know that you are amazing! Well done. Keep going strong. Lots of love. Amanda