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Stage: 57
Day Total: 130.3km
Total Time: 8:03
Avg. Speed: 16.2km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: ???bpm
Total Climbing: 1058m

Song of the Day: Weezer – Island in the Sun

Day 1 of my non-racing, African holiday. Hell yeah! Not that it mattered, but the “race” group – some of them at least – had agreed to an unofficial non-race day. For my part, I started late, rode easy, and enjoyed every minute of it. Heavy mists graced the early kilometers with low clouds clinging to the hillsides to accentuate the greeness of the surrounding landscape.

A rather large climb greeted us early in the ride. I rode very easy, taking each opportunity to slow and chat with local Tanzanians on foot and bicycle. I took out my video camera to film passing riders, I stopped to take photos, I dismounted from my bike to simply take in the view. Unfettered by the obligations of racing, I had all the time in the world and so much to see. A coke stop at the top of the climb gave me a chance to catch up with the likes of Bastiaan and Liam. Liam’s keen eye spotted a small child with her toy – a dirty grey corn cob – and a beautiful smile.

We spent the balance of the day riding at an easy pace. Our objective on this ride was the Malawian border; we would cross and camp some 15km on the other side. We had been told that our camp for the evening would not be one of the best, so with no reason to hurry, we made a late lunch of chicken, chips, and cold beer 5km before the border. Delicious food, laughs and meaningful conversation were abundant. What a treat.

The border was relatively uneventful and quite efficient. No fees, no hassles, much like the promises of countless credit card companies in the United States. Into Malawi we rode, the pavement immediately noticably less well maintained and the people a bit more eager to ask for food or money. Of note were there smiles, each one seemingly brighter than the last. One final stop along the side of the road near a stream presented an opportunity to watch nearly one hundred weaver birds in the throes of earnest work building their nests.

Camp eventually arrived and delivered no more than promised. OK, there were quite a few children around the prerimeter rope, but for the most part we are accustomed to that at this point in the trip. The usual upstart businessman was present in camp selling lukewarm beer and sodas which served as a reminder that I had not changed any money. Hmmm, what to do.

WIth Bastiaan as an accomplice, we made for the side of the road with thumbs extended. Within minutes we were rewarded with a slowing vehicle and a ride back to the border. There was not an abundance of converstation as we drove towards Tanzania, but the driver gave us the ins and outs of taxi driving in Malawi… and immediately dashed any hopes I may have had for starting a driving service in that country. Oh well, there’s always IT.

Arriving back at the border, the driver darted down a side road which opened into a sizeable village that was completely hidden and unknown to any traveler simply crossing the border and carrying on their way. Our taxi driver seemed to know everyone. This was reassuring in one sense – in theory he could “call off the dogs” if trouble arose – but alarming in another because he was contstantly noding and motioning various business people in the village to approach us. The irony in this scenario is that we had returned to the border to make use of an ATM machine; until that objective was fulfilled we could not give them the money they hoped to earn. We arrived at the ATM and transacted our business without incident.

Our taxi driver was more than willing to return us to camp. How convenient. What this really meant was that he would charge us a fee while picking up as many passengers along the way as possible. In the end I was sandwiched into the back seat of this compact sized sedan with 3 other adults, one infant, and one small child. ‘Tis true; I was a participant in one of those classic “How many *insert_target_group* can you fit in a car?” jokes. The realities of circumstance meant that I was sitting sideways with my arm around a 20-something mother of two while she rested her head on my chest in an effort to make room for the 40-something farmer who was nearly elbowing her in the face due to lack of space. At least it wasn’t too warm – only about 82 degrees (F) with relative humidity in the low 90’s. While I may have become comfortable with a stronger than usual odor eminating from my own person on this trip I was not prepared to embrace the pheremonal warfare being waged in that backseat. If science is correct in its assertions that scent-based memories are more complete and longer lasting, then this may well be my strongest memory of this trip. How nice.

At last we arrived back at camp, and true to his word, our taxi driver pulled over the car without issue. Some substantial negotations then commenced with Bastiaan securing us a discounted rate that netted us approximately $0.42 USD savings. Well done! We exited the vehicle and parted a sea of kids as we walked towards the roped-off area designating our camp. In celebrity fashion I slapped hands, patted heads and backs, and paused to let the children take in our presence. Music was playing in the stereo of one of the suppot vehicles – an easy listening classic from Coolio – and this gave us an opportunity to lead approximatley 80 children in a club-inspired, raise-the-roof style arm pumping. Together we bounced. This was memorable.

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Stage: 56
Day Total: 111km
Total Time: 5:18
Avg. Speed: 20.8km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 137bpm
Total Climbing: 2064m

Song of the Day: The Chemical Brothers – In Dust We Trust

This day was worthy of Howard Cossell: the end of a racer’s competition; three racer’s in position to claim a section victory with a stage win today; a very challenging stage featuring a 25km climb of 1200 meters. There would be no shortage of action on which to comment.
We will keep this relatively brief. We rolled out of camp along the same smooth dirt road that featured in the previous days. At 3km however, the road turned upward, and as it did, the surface went from smooth red dirt to a rutted rocky surface. In typical fashion Jorg was at the front early in the stage and set a very hard pace on this climb. We climbed for approximately 2km and at the top the group was already fragmented with Dennis and Paul Spencer (who has been ill) falling off the back. Upon reaching the apex Jorg immediately let up, and as the road flattened, he slowed even more in an effort to force Paul Wolfe to the front. Fortunately, Paul obliged, however, as he took the front, he slowed the pace even further. This game would continue for several kilometers with the pace falling as low as 12km per hour allowing Paul Spencer to rejoin the group. Given the amount of work and cooperation amongst everyone over the past week, I did not appreciate these games. It did provide an opportunity to recover however.

Paul Wolfe continued to ride behind me, refusing to take the front. Eventually Jorg and local rider Mike rode ahead. Paul waited to see if I would respond, but my mind was made up: I would ride as slow as required for as long as necessary until he took the front. We slowed as low as 10km/h as Jorge and Mike rode off into the distance. I knew I was probably giving away the stage, but at this point I was content to have anyone win besides Paul Wolfe. I swerved all over the road, pedalled through puddles, dirt, and holes but still he refused to lead. I sprayed my water bottle behind me, much to his dislike. He yelled something to which I responded: “If you don’t like it, go around”. With 1km before lunch, he finally conceded and took the front. This game had lasted 7km and given the pace we rode, we had just conceded 10+ minutes by a conservative estimate.

As we approached lunch, he rolled off onto the small dirt access road to approach the truck and I followed. As he unclipped his right foot to stop, I accelerated and announced my number to the truck and simply kept pedaling. I did not need nourishment and had intentionally carried surplus water all morning in anticipation of a quick lunch. Suddenly those moves paid off.

He would catch me approximately 3km out of lunch as I knew he would. I would later be told that he had choice words as he passed another rider: “I will hunt him down like a dog”. For my part, after the games earlier, I had no option but to defeat him. He pedalled past me onto the flanks of the massive climb that was the feature of the stage. I followed him, intentionally keepng my distance to prove a point: I did not need to rest in your draft.

The road was climbing in earnest now. Active construction work had smoothed the surface of the road for the opening 3km of the climb. I moved alongside him, looked to my right and

silently thought, “Come on old man. Let’s dance.” I moved ahead, changed gears, opened up the suspension on the front fork, and I was off. I did not bother to look back to see if he was following. The road turned to complete crap, the graded smoothness giving way to chunked rock and eroded rivulets caused by excessive rainfall. In other words, this road was made for a mountain bike.

This climb was seemingly never ending as the road wound countless times up the slopes. We were told the previous evening that the peak of the climb was at approximately 2400 meters, but unfortunately, for every steep section there was a a corresponding small-scale descent such that the net effect was only a few meters towards that hight point. Argh.

After 20 minutes of serious climbing I chanced a look back and was pleased to see nobody following me. Another 400 meters at a bend in the road I looked again and was rewarded with an empty road; that meant a gap of nearly .75 km which on this road would be 3 minutes. Yes. I was feeling stronger with each passing kilometer and now had my sights on reeling in Jorge, Mike, and their 10+ minute lead.

I powered along, steeply up and sharply down, for the better part of 2.5 hours with my speed falling as low as 10km/h during the worst of the road. This climb was the worst we had faced on the tour and would certainly be breaking a few wills – if not a few bicycles – before day’s end. Eventually the road leveled off and a quick glance at the GPS confirmed that I had indeed reached the summit. Unfortunately, rather than a precipitous descent I was greeted by a series of rolling hills for the next 5km. The road surface had failed to improve and I quickkly learned that whatever pain it inflicted when going up would be increased by orders of magnitude when descending.

With teeth rattling and bike jarring, I finally hit the body of the descent into the city of Mbeya. There was no “good” line to follow as I flew down this hill, only teeth-rattling corrugation, 3-inch deep ruts, and an abundance of loose rock. My bike choice paid off and allowed me to descend – with confidence – while carrying considerable speed. Risks had to be taken simply because I knew the competitors would not do the same.

The gravel road gave way to smooth, winding pavement for the final 2km. A quick right turn revealed the finish flag and with one final surge I was there. In the end I would finish just one minute behind Jorge. A very good effort on my part, but at the same time disappointing: the games played earlier in the stage with Paul Wolfe had yielded such a large time gap that I could not close it. With the way the time bonuses are applied for mando stages – the 30 minute bonus is added to the stage time and not the overall time – my 17 minute lead would be insufficient and I would finish second in the section. That said, i could not be more pleased with my effort on the day.

So that’s it. I’m done racing and officially on holiday. Please excuse me, but there are beers to drink!

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Stage: 55
Day Total: 126.1 km
** Unofficial Race Day **

Song of the Day: Arab Strap – Not Quite a Yes

Tending to one’s pre-ride business in the darkness preceding sunrise is a solitary activity; each rider’s routine is unique. I was surprised to receive a visit from Paul Spencer as I was taking down my tent. Not much was said other than “Coke stop ride today. Paul Wolfe suggested it”. Interesting. Immediately I thought perhaps he was fatigued from the previous 2 days riding with local guy Mike and wanted a recovery day before tomorrow’s “Mando” day into Mbeya. With little patience remaining for the “business as usual” approach monotony the race wants to continually present, I did not hesitate to give my consent. I was tired too and could use an easy ride ahead of the Mando day that will serve as my final day as a full-time racer on this tour. Besides, coke stops are where some interesting events seem to transpire.

Off we went, the usual suspects riding merrily along at a comfortable pace: Jorge, Paul W, Paul S, and myself. 10km into the ride there was little difference in the feel of the ride so I offered up an alternative: “Let’s all agree to wait and clock-out when the last of us arrives at camp. That way we can take off and do whatever we want today and still get the same time. No offense, but I’m tired of riding with you guys.” Immediate agreement from Paul S and Jorge sealed the deal and as we neared two other riders stopped in the road, I hit the breaks to see what they might be investigating. I was wasting no time in enjoying my temporary (and soon to be permanent) emancipated status.

The two riders, Daniel from Canada and Ryan from S. Africa (living in Ireland), had stopped to investigate a train of ants that spanned the road. This was a colony of note, with three distinct units amongst their ranks and a visibly noticeable construction project to their credit. They had evacuated a large deposit of earth to form a small trench across the road and were now using it as a highway to transport what appeared to be food and construction materials to their shelter at the edge of the dirt road. Had this been a race day I would never have noticed this. I spent a few minutes explaining to them the day’s “gentleman’s agreement” and with their consent, carried on riding with them for the next 40km.

Experts at the more leisurely “expedition” style of riding, they called me off of the road for a tea break after an hour or so. Experience had refined their routine and they quickly had the location of the local “restaurant” in this village of about 100 people. Into a small mud house we went, and out came the tea and fresh chapati bread. Divine! This was the good life I was missing and immediately strengthened my resolve towards the decision I made on racing the previous day. Humor was plentiful as other riders trickled in, all with the same general response: “What the hell are you doing here, Scott?” Apparently the race had defined me. No matter, plenty of time remains to change that.

The balance of the day was relaxed, scenic, and memorable. Countless conversations with fellow riders, a number of stops alongside the road to take in the views and local culinary treats. Towards the end of the day I caught up with UK Paul and we swapped stories of our days which ended up being surprisingly similar.

Tomorrow’s 111km stage into Mbeya is significant for a number of reasons: if I win, I will have won the section; it is my final day as full-time racer; it ends an 8-day stretch of riding that included the most scenic days of the tour. I am looking forward to the challenge of the stage and view it – at least partially – as a race to the start of a new tour for me.

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Stage: 54
Day Total: 126.1 km
Total Time: 4:34

Song of the Day: Death Cab for Cutie – Sunshine

Another day much like the last: a smooth dirt road through dense green forests and tall grasses. It really is stunning, probably even more so when you are riding a bit more comfortably and stop to have a reasonable lunch. That’s not how racing works though…

UK Paul, Jorge, and myself left together, more out of necessity than desire. I expected that after yesterday’s performance, local rider Mike would be a highly sought after riding partner and in the interest of making time, I planned to hitch my wagon to his so to speak. Paul Wolfe had the same idea. My body had other plans, forcing an unexpected call to duty. And like that, the train left the station with me literally standing there with my shorts at my ankles. Advantage Paul Wolfe.

We rode steady, knowing that we would not likely be matching the pace that Mike would set for Paul Wolfe ahead of us. I had time to spare in my bid for the section win and chose not to get upset by this missed opportunity. Having rode with the two of them yesterday, I knew there would be a cost to a repeat performance and maybe that would work to my benefit in the coming days.

Lunch came and went, our usual quick affair, but shortly afterward, UK Paul was struggling a bit, seemingly from the same strange ailment that had plagued him during our rest period in Arusha several days back. I rode ahead, alone, and for the first time in several days was actually enjoying myself. A warthog sighting even sweetened the experience, and apart from the tse tse flies, this was as good as it gets. The flies deserve mentioning if for nothing other than the strength of their bite and their supernatural strength: they were able to fly alongside me at over 35km/h and still manage to bite me. Fortunately they only make an appearance under bright, sunny conditions and this was the rainy season in Tanzania.

With 20km remaining, Jorge rejoined me and like that it felt like the same riding experience I had not been enjoying over the past several days. It felt like work. With 3km remaining I managed to lose him on a downhill and finish about 1 minute ahead of him (though the official results somehow do not reflect this).

A nap in camp followed by fresh chips (french fries) served up by a blossoming young entrepreneur in the local village made for a nice afternoon and the ability to relax and clear some thoughts. Today provided some clarity for me and my stance on racing: I will race the remaining stages into our rest day in Mbeya – the end of this section –
and effectively stop racing. This trip was never meant to be “all about the race”. It has provided a unique facet to the trip, taught me much about myself, and provided for some fantastic memories. However, now it is time to simply relax and be on holiday. I am tired, my body hurts, and there is still so much to see and do. With nothing left to prove, I will not vacillate and am very pleased (and relieved) with this decision. As fellow rider Bastiaan said to me when I shared my decision: “Congratulations. Welcome to Africa”. I think I’m going to enjoy it quite a bit.

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Stage: 53
Day Total: 114.1 km
Total Time: 3:56
Avg. Speed: 29.0 km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 136 bpm
Total Climbing: 732m

Song of the Day: Public Enemy (ft. Anthrax) – Bring the Noise

Day 5 of 8 of the section presented another run down the dirt road from Game Post #1 to Game Post #2. It sounds very simple because it was: exit camp, turn, ride 114km – keeping your eyes open for possible game sightings – and camp. At least there would be no confusion.

After yesterday’s run on the dirt, it was assumed that it would be difficult to take time on anyone as the terrain presented no opportunities to attack or distance oneself from one’s competitors. This would prove to be partially true today…

Lacking any real plan, Jorge and I, ready ahead of schedule this morning, decided to leave camp together. For my part, I figured I could possibly take time on him later in the stage and leaving at the same time could make that easier. Jorg, keen to try and win a section, offered up a “bargain” for me: ride hard, help him take time on the others in an effort to win this 8-stage section, and he would give me the stage win. I was not interested in that as we were nearly even on the section and I have ambitions of my own. In any case, off we went, only to be joined by Paul Wolfe 2km into the ride. He sense an opportunity for a quick, cooperative ride which would force UK Paul to ride on his own to potentially work harder.

Not eager to assist Paul W in his efforts to take time on UK Paul, I eased the pace to something a bit more comfortable. Paul Wolfe moved ahead to increase our speed, pulled for about 1km and moved aside for me to take the lead. i did not. He offered up motivational words regarding a section win or overtaking Dennis in the overall standings, but again, these were not my priorities and would not benefit from riding harder. Disgruntled, he resumed his place at the front.

Not wanting to completely burn any bridges I did eventually move to the front to pull, knowing that making amends would likely earn me some assistance at the close of the stage if and when I made a move to take time on Jorge. Paul W nodded approval as he and I alternated pulling. Jorge declined each time, a behavior surely noted by Paul Wolfe.

As lunch neared, I took stock of my situation: I had 2 liters of fluids remaining (thanks to the Camelback) and ample food to eat for the final 47km of the stage. Looking at Jorg, he appeared to have no food and only half a bottle of fluids remaining. He would have no choice but to stop. This would be my opportunity.

As we approached lunch, Jorge quickly dismounted to fuel up. Paul Wolfe kept his bike by the road and conveniently received full bottles of fluids from his wife who was not riding this day. I needed nothing but took the opportunity to take an energy bar from my pack and unwrap it. I looked at Paul and nodded, and we were off and riding again, Jorge unable to leave as his bottles were still being filled and he had not eaten yet. Riding easy for 1km, we scarfed some food and started pedaling in earnest sooon afterwards.

Looking back, we noticed a rider closing but were unsure who it might be. After 2km the rider was close enough for us to deduce that it was the local rider Mike, riding like a man posessed once again. Aware of his strength, we eased our pace to allow him to catch us, certain that his talents would help the overall speed and take time as needed.

He caught, rode past, and like that, it was on. For the next 45km, I would ride at nearly 90% in an effort to simply stay with the two of them. At one point a gap opened and nearing my breaking point, I took to the front to close it down. It was costly, and the remaining 15km would hurt that much more but I was intent on sticking with these guys. This was a serious effort indeed.

With great relief, the finish flag appeared. Not concerned with the stage win, we did not chase Mike as he accelerated in the final 300 meters. Truth be told, I likely could not have caught him anyhow. Another day in the books, our efforts and lunch tactics had netted us a nearly 10 minute advantage over Jorge and enough time to put me in the lead for the section with only 3 days remaining. Things are starting to get interesting though the remarkably smooth surface of this dirt road and its accompanying high speeds continue to neutralize strengths normally afforded riders with offroad experience.

Camp at Game Post #2 offered little in the way of scenic attractions and less in terms of choice tent sites. The majority of the ground was furrowed earth previously used for corn crops whose undulations made camping difficult at best. Some negotiations with the locals helped me net a flat concrete spot on the “porch” of what appeared to be a small sleeping building. Covered on 3 sides, it was very nice indeed and provided an elevated view of our camp for the evening.

The staff were assisted on the day by one of the children who resided at the camp. Sofia quickly became the darling of the camp, using her cuteness factor to earn her multiple cokes and chocolates. I doubt that child slept very well that night.

So the race continues. Today was a good hard ride, but again, it felt as if we were relying more on deceit and “external” factors – in this case Mike the local rider – to gain an advantage. This is not how I prefer to race this race. I spent considerable time contemplating my future in the race and its importance to me. No hasty decisions, but I must acknowledge that it is not providing much fulfillment or enjoyment at the moment.

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Stage: 52
Day Total: 103 km
Total Time: 3:43
Avg. Speed: 27.7 km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 117bpm
Total Climbing: 255m

Song of the Day: Radiohead – 15 Step

The pre-dawn hours saw a continuance of the heavy rains that graced last night’s dinner. Forcefully it arrived and the noise generated by its presence as it lingered over our camp was enough to awaken me from one of the better night’s sleep I have enjoyed on tour. The disruption, or rather the humor it provided as campers frantically reacted, was worthwhile. I wish nobody any ill will – but the vision of lightly dressed individuals dancing in the rain in vain attempts to overcome forces of nature is more than slightly comical.

Today’s ride, as advertised during the rider meeting, would offer a mixed bag of terrain with the second half suggesting at least the potential for some more fun on the dirt. With high hopes, flagging motivation for the toil of the race, but at least on a very clean bicycle (thanks to the afternoon labor of washing the bike down by the river), we set off for lunch with a group of 8 for a 60km stroll to the lunch truck. No surprises: the road was flanked by endless rolling green hills to the right and left with large ominous clouds gathering overhead to discuss their plans for late day rains. Scenic as it was it could not fully overcome the monotony of another stage on pavement, riding with the same people, without conversation. Thus, I chose to lose myself in my thoughts, jumping between calculating the total number of bodies of water from which I’ve caught fish in my lifetime and determining the best sized living space for the next 4 years. Odd? Yes. Productive? Not really. Effective? Indeed. On the horizon was the lunch truck.

We lingered as a group, enjoying some fruit and sandwiches. The threat of the unknown had Paul Wolfe subtly leaving camp to cover as much ground at an easy pace as time would allow. The group had other ideas and Jorge, UK Paul, and myself quickly joined him. The road forked at the lunch truck with our right marked to the right, forging ahead onto a dirt road. The little intel we received at lunch suggested that what we saw was what we would get all the way to camp. Well, well, well, this could be promising. But alas, this road was smooth, with a hard sandy center strip that meant moisture drained well from it and did not hinder speed.

And on we sped. It may as well have been paved as we averaged 30km/h for the next 70 minutes of riding, the flatness of the road contributing to the accelerated pace. The rains continued to lie in waiting as we sped through small villages and collections of farms. I kept a keen eye out for wildlife and was rewarded with a mongoose sighting. The games of the peloton continued as we continued to increase our speed with no hope – and no help from the terrain – of losing anyone.

Things got slightly more interesting with 10km remaining as recent rainfall turned the top millimeters of red dirt into a sticky, splattering layer of mud. The popping, crackling, and splattering sounds generated as this grime hit bicycle and rider were reminiscent of painting houses with large rollers. We would look similarly painted at the finish of the stage. Eventually common sense prevailed and the pace slackened as we approached our camp at “Game Post #1”. Consisting of a collection of simple block buildings, it served as an outpost for the group of roughly 14 men assigned the impossible task of controlling unauthorized hunting activities across an area spanning many, many square miles.

The finish flag signaled the end of the stage and the beginning of post-ride chores: bike cleaning and body washing. The availability of running water was limited to those willing to pay $6 US for a small bucket. For the rest of us, myself included, washing would be done in a large, clear puddle on the side of the road formed by heavy rains overnight. Figuring 6 hours was not enough for any seriously threatening colonies of parasites to establish themselves, I waded in with my bicycle and set to work clearing mud from drive train and restoring near total functionality to my bicycle. The red dirt, having dried quickly in the 45 minutes it took me to get started on cleaning, was a formidable opponent and my vigorous scrubbing was a source of amusement for the local onlookers. Oh, just you wait Mr. Sit-Under-the-Tree-and-Laugh. In 2 hours there will be 40 more to amuse me, and mark my word, they will provide you forms of comedy previously unimaginable in your idle mind. Admittedly, the moment, particularly when viewed in isolation, was a scene I could not have envisioned even just weeks before: a nearly 2 meter tall white guy with hideous tan lines wearing only tight black shorts standing knee deep in a puddle scrubbing his bicycle and himself free of red mud.

Chores accomplished, I sat around taking in the beauty of our isolation. The denseness of the surrounding woodlands prevented visibility beyond 3 meters of either side of the road, but wandering back onto the dirt road allowed for a glimpse deeper into the heart of the reserve. Visions of unknown adventures for tomorrow played out in my head. And then it started raining and I jumped in my tent, practical actions taking priority over whimsical daydreaming of the race I hoped might unfold tomorrow. Dennis “the Beer Guzzling Furnace” delivered a cool (definitely not cold) Tusker beer to my tent door as he fled to his own dry shelter. Etiquette and informal tour rules dictated that I consume it promptly which I gladly did, holding steadfastly to my “calories at every opportunity” nutritional strategy. 4 minutes later the bottle was empty and I was more than properly prepared for my nap, very pleased for the unexpected assistance provided by this 1/2 liter of malty goodness.

My passion for the race is waning, mostly because it seems to be the same thing over and over again. In truth, I do not know how much more of this I am willing to endure at the cost of passing on opportunities to meet and greet the locals or simply take more photos. Alas, tomorrow at least will be 100% dirt and as I stared down the red dirt road, there is no certainty of what lies ahead. And that is good…

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Stage: 51
Day Total: 121 km
Total Time: 5:30
Avg. Speed: 24.0 km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 122bpm
Total Climbing: 780m

Song of the Day: Rush – Tom Sawyer

“Nobody ever measures the weather to make or break your day.”
These words rang true for many during yesterday’s incredible stage that marked the first of 7 off-road stages on the new route through Tanzania. For those riding at the middle of the pack and beyond, the weather transformed the stage into a challenge of note and when all of the trucks arrived they were laden with weary riders who were simply incapable or unwilling to finish the day. Only then did the impact of yesterday’s stage fully measure: nearly every rider needed to wash their bicycle (this meant the hotel ran out of water) and the queues for mechanic support would send some to bed with non-functioning machines. Still reeling from the effort and not willing to risk a replay of yesterday, many would jump on the truck in the morning.

We were told that the road would be better than yesterday and the final 20km would be paved. To the delight of some and the dismay of others it played out much differently. 5km into the stage the road was being prepped for future paving and presented a surface of densely packed, smooth dirt. A 10km section was further along in the process and provided a hard asphalt surface that was smooth and fast. So it goes –
expect one thing and get another. No matter, we are meant to to ride through a game reserve for the next 2 days and I am certain that road will be unpaved.

The vistas and views on this stage were amazing with overcast and dramatically cloudy skies contrasting the bright clusters of green and yellow sunflowers that seemed to be everywhere. The views, not the racing, were the notable feature of the day. Jorg, local rider Mike, and myself rode together for the morning, making a steady – but not blistering pace – to lunch. At one point Jorg flatted and while we waited we were caught by the two Pauls. We overtook them again before lunch and arrived alone.

Nobody seemed to be in a hurry today, but I was keen to simply keep riding and see what the day would bring. I have been growing increasingly tired and bored with riding with the same group of people –
there is no conversation, little cooperation, and we never stop to experience any of the uniqueness that makes this trip so memorable. With that in mind, riding alone seemed like a better option on the afternoon and with a mouthful of food I jumped on my bike and rode away. Fortunately, nobody followed.

The remainder of the ride was relatively plain: immaculately groomed dirt, recently paved roads not yet open for use, and finally, normal paved highways. It felt good to take it all in on my own, varying my pace to get a better look at odd stores, exchange greetings with local residents, and high five some kids. Freedom, now that’s refreshing…

I rolled into camp ahead of the others, managing to take enough time to ensure a stage victory. Given that the results are never announced in camp and the usual 5-day delay to posting them on the internet, and continuous inconsistencies between my GPS-based bike computer and the race clock, this really means little. Enough about that.

Camp was exciting this evening because of the drama created by inclement weather. Rain, very heavy rain, and a little more rain fell just as dinner was served. Careless selection of tent sites turned into frantic yells and frenetic activity as riders attempted to thwart the voluminous flows of water flooding their tents. Some dug trenches, some tried to move their whole tents, and a sad few simply grabbed sleeping bags and electronics before surrendering entirely. UK Paul and I had chosen a high spot of ground between two very obvious flows of water and watched with humor. Better luck next time folks. The current climate suggests you will get an opportunity to redeem yourself soon…

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Stage: 50
Day Total: 94.5km
Total Time: 4:19
Avg. Speed: 21.9km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 138bpm
Total Climbing: 1418m

Song of the Day: Citizen Cope – If There’s Love

This was it. The ride I had been envisioning for the duration of the trip. It arrived.

Cloudy skies greeted us as we once again rolled onto the pristine tarmac. It only lasted 27km and just like that we were on an improvised dirt road. Heavy traffic in the area meant the first kilometer was well groomed but as the road turned upward and the simple houses and mud huts thinned, the road became more of a wide dirt track whose red dirt surface had been very visibly carved by heavy, repeated rainfalls.

Jorg, Adam, Steve, and myself hit this section together but the first steep climb quickly separated us into two groups with Jorg and I riding ahead. Onward and upward the road bent as it cut through fields of grasses and sunflowers that expanded to the horizon. Oh, and there was a good bit of mud here and there too.

We rode with intensity, both of us caught up in the moment presented by the race and the accompanying scenery. Before long we sighted race leader Paul Wolfe and local sectional rider Mike up ahead and midway down a long, rough descent we overtook them. Mike responded by accelerating and soon the three of us had a sizable gap over Paul Wolfe. Content with the pace, the three of us pressed on only to quickly halt as we came upon a large, deep pool of mud spanning the entire road. Adding to the chaos of our rapid deceleration was the approaching passenger bus that dared not slow lest it get stuck. Jorg and Mike narrowly passed by it and found the bypass through the fields that allowed them to circumvent the mud. I saw it too, but the window of opportunity was closed and I was forced to a stop for the passing of the bus. Those are the breaks. In this case it meant that they had a 15 second gap on me.

I rocketed down the next descent, taking chances I knew the leaders would be unwilling to take – the benefits of a front suspension fork –
and closed in on them once again. At that moment however one of my water bottles ejected itself from its cage and hit the road. I quickly stopped – I needed the fluids for the remainder of the ride and water bottles are impossible to find. As I ran back uphill to the bottle, a local farmer picked it up and disappeared into the cornfields. Argh man! I jumped back onto the bike and powered away to close the gap to Jorg and Mike. With only 3km to lunch, I expected to be close to them.

I arrived at lunch just minutes after them and noticing their quick departure jumped back on the bike after refilling my single bottle. I pressed hard after them, closing quickly but ultimately stymied by another bus that forced me onto a very unfavorable line through the dirt. I got by the bus unscathed but lost momentum as they pulled away once again. This was the pattern for the day, and after three more incidents I decided I would simply ride out the day at a steady pace, preferring a consistent effort in lieu of repeated surges. After all, there are still 6 days of dirt ahead.

Paul Wolfe caught up to me on one of the longer climbs with 20km remaining. Happy for some company I rode behind him as we continued upward and downwards over the muddy track. To the west, rain was approaching and would ultimately unleash its fury on the middle of the pack. For now we only felt a whisper of the pending storm and with heads down powered through the remaining kilometers. We would not catch Jorg and Mike, but were not too far behind as we rolled into camp and the rains started falling.

I spent the balance of the day sitting under a small thatch-roofed shelter eating chicken, omelets, and chips. It was raining after all, so there was little else to do. Knowing my father would have no interest in setting his tent in a downpour, I booked a room for him. The room and bed too small – and thus far too warm and stuffy – I opted to sleep in the sitting room adjacent to the actual hotel rooms. A healthy slathering of deet should ensure the mozzies keep their distance and like that I am set for bed.

Today was an incredible ride, but if I’m honest, it was less enjoyable because so much of it was spent redlining my heart rate in pursuit. I suppose that a race of this distance presents competitors with lulls in motivation and drive so for now I will persevere and see where that takes me.

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Stage: 49
Day Total: 127km
Total Time: 4:28
Avg. Speed: 28.4km/h
Avg. Heart Rate: 129bpm
Total Climbing: 579m

Song of the Day: Band of Horses – Infinite Arms

It has been written in works of prose and sung in countless songs: All good things must end. To this point, I had ridden my bicycle 48 days and 5500km (3400 miles), much of it at a high level of intensity, and the end of our 3-day rest period came too soon. My body was screaming for this break after having raced 14 of the past 16 days and seemed keen to alert me that 3 days might not be enough. A number of good meals (guacomole bacon cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and chocolate cake at Africafe), a massage, immediate availability of a warm shower, and the ability to sleep “late” treated my body well but my motivation was lacking a bit. This mental struggle was certainly exacerbated by the steady rain falling at the end of rest day #3 and the knowledge that we would face 8 days of consecutive riding before our next rest day in Mbeya, Tanzania. The tour rolls on…

Raindrops thumped the rooftop lightly at daybreak to announce that on this day we would start riding with the absence of sunshine and a new companion. We had opted to spend one last night at the Karama Lodge and were shuttled back to the campground at 6am. This was a strategic move as rains were falling steadily this morning and there would be no need to labor with packing a tent set in soggy ground. Breakfast at the hotel meant that this morning’s pre-ride routine was abbreviated to bottle filling and snack gathering for the day’s journey leaving me ready ahead of schedule with nothing to do. The realities of a wet ride elicited an alarm response from many riders and camp was clear of riders quickly apart from the two Pauls and myself. With all excuses for delay exhausted and no end to the precipitation imminent we rolled out of camp and onto the roads that were now spotted with red mud after heavy rainfall during the night. Oh well, it was only a matter of time before this tour got dirty.

The rains fell intermittently for much of the morning and varied from light to moderately heavy but the lush greeness of the expansive fields flanking the road indicated that any reprieve from rainfall would likely be temporary. This was confirmed at the 40km mark when the road crossed a small river swollen to excess and now raging to the point of overflow. The scene was a stark contrast to our rides six weeks prior through seemingly infinite desert landscapes.

The ride proceeded much like many others over the past days: Paul Specner and myself riding at the front, Paul Wolfe sitting at the back. Monotony can spawn complacency but on this day I decided to make use of my time at the front to scan the horizons for wildlife. We were advised that many zebra would likely be seen; on this day many may as well have meant only one. Alas, there were not many or even one to be seen. We did spot a chameleon lazing on the shoulder of the road but that’s not exactly what I had in mind.

Time seemed to drag on during this ride until we were joined by a group of local cyclists out for a Saturday morning training ride. The testosterone effect generated by a collection of male bike racers can be confirmed as univeral. In one calendar year I have witnessed it on 3 continents. In this case it was a welcome surge to the tempo and while my body voiced its opposition I was happy for the spurts of intensity in hopes that it would shock my legs back into compliance.

We caught a group of other riders at lunch and rode in a relatively happy group for the balance of the day. The rains ceased, the pavement dried, and the sun spoke to us briefly through the clouds. A brief bout of excitement rocked the group like a gunshot at the 120km mark when my rear tire quite literally blew off the rim. This was identical to the episode on the previous race day into Arusha and the report from the explosion echoed through the surrounding trees in identical fashion. Fortunately the tire stayed on the rim and I maintained enough control to stop the bike without incident. Finding no source of the issue within the tire or the rim, we replaced the tube and continued riding. Believing the cause to be a comgination of a failing tube and rough, chip-seal pavement I was relieved when the road ended and was diverted to dirt, leaving the cyclists and pedestrians to make use of the newly asphalted, immaculate road. While cars and trucks suffered in a quagmire of sand and water we cyclists surged ahead on the most beautiful tarmac surface I had ever cycled.

Taking advantage of the smooth surface the bikes accelerated to a steady pace of 38km/h. With this pace we were closing in on our camp quite quickly when I felt a slight uneveness to my progress. Looking down at the road I was confused as to what could be causing the uneven sensation vibrating through my wheel. An answer was delivered five seconds later when I noticed a bulge in the rear tire and fellow rider Horst yelled to alert me that the tire was coming off of the rim… again. Another report echoed through the fileds as the tube exploded violently. I cautiously slowed the bike from 42km/h to a stop and was rewarded by more patinece from the group. Another quick change and we were riding again but I was busily trying to conclude what in the hell was happening to cause these eruptive blowouts.

Camp was made in the middle of small town near (or actually on top of for a select few) a football field. Given it was Saturday it was only a matter of time before a pair of uniformed squads took to the field for their regulary scheduled match. Adaptable and calm, they simply played the game as planned, working around the three tents that were inconveniently positioned in the corner of the pitch. A corner kick was executed mere meters from one rider’s tent but that was the extent of the impact on the competition.

Tomorrow is meant to mark the start of 7 days off mostly off-road riding. From a race perspective, it should shake some things up and provide some needed variety to the monotony that seems to be setting in on the race as a whole. Today’s ride was rather droll and I hope that my predictions are fulfilled.

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The Tour d’Afrique is an entity unto itself, moving forward almost independently of its participants. Rider illness, weather and terrain challenges, equipment failures are confronted but it does not stop. Each day one must wake, pack up their belongings and make a decision to ride the bicycle or board the truck. Quite simply, the tour rolls on.

A myriad of experiences have transpired for every individual thus far and one could argue that the magnitude of the adaptations is greater in the opening half of this adventure. One must cope with camp life, vast amounts of physical exertion, and perhaps the most difficult, the realization of just how grand the scale of this tour really is. Some embrace it, some attempt to defy it, and fortunate others seem to prosper within it.

What can I offer in the way of realizations and lessons learned? The simple answer is “so very much”. Some of the more meaningful:

  • There is a beautiful simplicity to life on the tour. Wake, eat, pack gear, ride bike. This very basic routine has brought me much more happiness than I expected. Freedom of responsibility is a rarity for many past the age of 30 and I feel very fortunate for this opportunity.
  • Riding a bicycle this much, particularly at such a high intensity, requires the consumption of a lot of food. Sometimes this means consuming entire packages of biscuits, cookies, and potato chips in one sitting… without assistance. And I definitely picked the wrong year to stop drinking sodas.
  • A very close-knit, trusting community has formed amongst the 62 full-tour riders. I did not anticipate the level of comraderie that would develop and am amazed at how generous everyone has presented themselves. Forgotten spare parts, failed equipment, and so many other needs have been repeatedly satisfied by members of the group.
  • Consistency can be elusive. Simply put, sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t.
  • Being on the bicycle is rewarding and fulfilling. So too is life in camp. Whether it be the endless humor shared with fellow riders, an evening mug of tea (something I never have at home), or simply crawling into the cozy confines of my tent, the joy of the day does not end when the ride is over.
  • Sometimes I don’t feel like riding my bicycle but I do it anyway. EFI status can at times be a burden.

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