Monthly Archives: June 2012

Sign of things to come

It has been a week of mechanical failure.  The front derailleur on my TREK hyrbrid seized – too much water and mud – and my chain had stretched to an unhealthy degree. Both needed replacing. I decided at the same time to change the derailleur cable and discovered some all but broken plastic bits in the hand mechanism. Then I popped some spokes on the back wheel of the same bike. No spares. Need to order some. The wobble is too much to ride on – bike out of commission. So I rode my old road bike. Somehow the left peddle fell off and stripped the threads on the left crank arm (or stripped the threads and fell off). Shit. I hope I get all of this kind of stuff out of my system now.

Bums or Clocks

Do you chase bums or clocks? I am not a racer. But I do check my performance today against my performance yesterday and the day before.  It helps to motivate and it gives a sense of achievement. If I know it took me 13 minutes to get up a certain hill the last time I rode it and only 12 minutes today, I am happy – even if somebody’s grandfather left me standing half way up. So I look at the clock, but not only the clock. I also enjoy riding with a group because I often find that somehow I ride better with a group. So what drives better performance? Riding against the clock and pacing yourself to challenge your personal best? Or chasing the bum in front, that is, riding with a group and working to support and push a pace?

In a fascinating article in the July/August issue of Walrus (“Racing Against Time” www. ) Alex Hutchinson looks at recent research into what drives best performance. In the past, performance was evaluated in relation to physical capacity and limits. Training was designed to increase capacity and limits and improvement was measured against the clock. Race strategy was based on performing at the edge of your limits so you could achieve the best time possible based on your capacity.  The limits to capacity were understood by measuring when and to what extent muscle, heart and lung performance began to drop off. This drop off was understood to be a purely physical phenomenon.

As Hutchinson points out however, new research, much of it lead by a physiologist named Tim Noakes who runs the University of Cape Town’s Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research Unit and who Hutchinson characterizes as ‘a controversial exercise physiologist whom some peg as the greatest of his generation,’ suggests the mind is an equally important player. In the article we follow the Canadian marathon runner Reid Coolsaet as he attempts to meet the qualifying time for the London 2012 Olympics. The Olympic qualifying time is 2:11:29. This is new territory for Coolsaet. He has trained hard to achieve a pace of 3:05 per km over the 42.2 km race. His race strategy is to set and maintain that pace.

The race is the 2011 Toronto marathon. The field includes several Kenyans and Ethiopians capable of running 2:05 to 2:08. The night before the race Coolsaet goes to his coach and says he wants to throw the plan away and run with the leaders. He does and comes third, well under the Olympic qualifying time; and this included a stop at 22km to take a dump.

What Noakes’ research has discovered is that performance limits are not purely physical. When you chase the clock, the mind closes down effort before the muscles are damaged. But with the added motivation of living competition the mind will alter the thresholds and enable more effort.

So my hope is that riding with the rest of the Tour d’Afrique riders will provide the extra motivation to pass the EFI threshold. One can always hope.

Wooden Bikes


I think I may have found the most technologically appropriate bike for the Tour d’Afrique. It’s made of wood and weighs about forty pounds. But you don’t have to worry about punctures or broken spokes.

I saw a couple of these on display when I went to the National Museum in Dar a couple of days ago, fantastic pieces of sculpture – and they work (this guy is actually in Rwanda and not one of the ones I saw, but you get the idea). The two bikes at the museum that I did see had seen good use. One was made of sawn lumber, was painted canary blue, had the pedals off an old Chinese Phoenix and a real chain. The other was made of four-inch diameter branches chosen because they had approximately the right shapes for frame and handlebars, a wooden crank and pedals, and a chain made of rope – amazing piece of bush engineering. These things are used in the bush and ridden on mud and sand as well as tarmac. They are solid and heavy and often used instead of a wheelbarrow or pull cart to carry heavy loads.

I can’t imagine riding one for more than a couple of miles though. The saddle was just a lump of wood, no padding at all. And it was small. It would tear you apart.  I don’t even want to think about the possibility of splinters. The only brake was a piece of wood that you could press against the back wheel, also wood, with the heel of your right foot.  I imagine that at 60kmh going down hill there is a very real chance of ignition. I have broken a few wheels but I have never had one burst into flames underneath me.

I googled wooden bikes and got 24,600,000 hits. So somebody must be doing it.  Unless it’s code for some fetish I’m not aware of.

Looking for hills

I have now lived in Dar Es Salaam for nine months. Dar is lovely but it is flat. It is also at sea level. When you ride here regularly you have no hills in your legs.  In the UK I live in East Surrey on the North Downs. You can’t cycle for a mile without going up or down a hill. You get lots of hills in your legs. When I was in the UK for a few days in May I cycled over to Box Hill, which is on the route for the Olympic Road race next month. I did a few circuits up zig zag road and discovered much to my chagrin that, while I had no trouble getting up the hills, my speed had disappeared. So when I got back to Dar we started to look for rides with some hills. First, a group of eight of us we went up to Bagamoyo and back. My legs certainly felt the hills like they wouldn’t have a year earlier. And on a detour on the way back we found some dirt and sand so got in some off road Tanzanian riding as well. Yesterday we went in the opposite direction. We went into town and then headed outside and around the estuary that feeds the port. Then we headed back down to South Beach and followed the coast back into town. There were a few sharpish hills, nothing long, but I could feel my legs responding better. I road with Mark and Georgina, the two friends here who have done sections of the tour in the past. They did nothing but gossip about all the people on the tour (they did sections the same year and know lots of people in common). Good fun. Now all we have to do is find some altitude.

A Long Way to Go

I am sitting at my desk trying to do some work. I was going to say ‘real’ work but I am not sure what that means any more – at any rate, work that I get paid for. But I am having trouble concentrating. It’s all too easy to flip over to google and look for another Tour d’Afrique blog from years past. I have read through quite a few of these in the last week or so – and there are some very good ones. I know it is only June and the ride doesn’t start until next January. I know there is a long way to go between now and then. I know I need to focus on ‘work’ work. So perhaps it is a good thing that the water pump broke this morning and we have no water in the house. It brings you back to now. Organise the fundi to come and make the necessary repairs. Make sure it happens. Feed the dog. Back to my desk. I will focus.


A guy by the name of David Houghton rode the Tour d’Afrique in 2005 and then wrote a book about it, The EFI Club.

Here is what he says:

“The Tour d’Afrique has been described as as ‘the longest and most difficult bike race in the world’. And within those who have undertaken this excruciating journey, there is an elite group known as The EFI Club. These are the select few who have survived Every Fucking Inch between Cairo and Cape Town, despite illness, injury, mechanical breakdowns, small children with big rocks and all the misfortunes that Africa can muster.”

It’s all about mind, body and bike – can you keep them from breaking beyond repair, not for ten days or 20 days, but for 120 days.

Joining the EFI club is part of wanting to go. I can’t deny it. Perhaps a vain hope, but I am not bipolar (as far as I know), not prone to manic gushes of enthusiasm, energy and confidence that fall off the cliff of despair at the first 22km hill from hell. Nor am I a hardened triathlete who can pound all day, party all night and be first to start the next morning. I am a more or less ordinary guy who likes to cycle and likes Africa.  At the same time I know there will be some cliffs.

There is a famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Do one thing every day that scares you” (read: day after day on the Tour d’Afrique).  The next bit of the quote is more to the point and often forgotten: if you do one thing every day that scares you “you will be able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror’ “ – presumably this will make you feel good.


EFI = every day on the Tour d’Afrique

every day on the Tour d’Afrique = a scare a day

a scare a day = living through horror


EFI = living through horror

I am sure this syllogism will come back to haunt me.

Getting Started

A couple of months ago I decided that I needed a challenge for my 60th birthday, which happens early in 2013. I am not sure whether it was by luck or folly that I came across the Tour d’Afrique. And I can’t recall exactly how I first came across it – must be a sign of age. I currently live in Africa so I was probably googling cycling tours in Africa. But also, Mark, a friend who I cycle with, wore a Tour d’Afrique jersey when we went out for a ride one morning. He had done a section in 2010 and loved it. A few days later my wife mentioned that Georgina, a triathlete and colleague of hers, had also done a section in 2010. We invited her over to dinner and got the worst – and the best – of it. It seemed fated. And then when I discovered that the whole thing was run by a small company in Toronto – my home town, even though I haven’t lived there for many years – it became increasingly inevitable. I don’t believe for a minute in fate. But I do have a grudging respect for coincidence. The morning after dinner with Georgina I registered for the full ride.

So the planning has begun. I have been to the dentist. I have a full medical next Tuesday. I have purchased travel and emergency medical insurance. I have begun to assemble lists.

What I haven’t settled on yet is the bike. I currently have a number of bikes: three road bikes, a nice Condor that is only a couple of years old, a cheap BTwin from Decathlon that I bought in France and leave at our holiday house, and a very comfortable 25 year old steel Peugeot that I recently rebuilt with new wheels, crank, group set etc. – good for winter riding; a couple of touring bikes, a 10 year old Dawes Galaxy with lots of miles on it – but fairly heavy, and an almost thirty year old Japanese Miyata that still rides very well; an old mountain bike built before they invented shocks; and a newish Trek hybrid that I cycle around the rough roads of Dar Es Salaam where I live.

It was clear to me that none of these was right for 12000 km of Africa. I am inclined to get a cyclo cross rather than a hybrid or touring bike. Steel would be good but aluminum o.k. Nothing fancy. Good mechanical disk brakes seem like a good idea. But…. still not sure. Will work on it.