This is the first time I have ever been to the Sudan. It seems a buttoned down kind of place, friendly but not overly expressive. Law abiding but gun toting with a history of conflict. It is a strict Muslim country. It has a dormant oil-based economy with typical African sings of international commerce – big shiny office buildings, good hotels, pockets of western affluence and shops. Our experience here was good. But foreign workers can’t travel outside of Khartoum without a permit. It feels like a country in purgatory – paying penance, keeping its head down, trying to do better than natural inclination would normally allow, in order to get somewhere else.
The bike has performed better than I have. It has been sturdy and reliable. I have kept the drive chain clean and lubricated and had the gears, brakes and wheels checked frequently. The Schwalbe Marathon tires have been great. After almost 3000km I have not had a flat. In Khartoum the crank seemed a bit loose and I thought the bearings in the bottom bracket might be gone. The mechanic tightened everything up and it seemed ok (five days later the same symptom appeared, the bottom bracket was gone and had to be replaced). The one disappointment is the seat post bag. The seat post cantilever attachment broke the first day off-road. So I had to remove it and borrow a small backpack to carry my essential spares and other stuff. It was an expensive Topeak post bag but not worth the money. Live and learn.
Guts are good. I am a bit run down but recovering adequately. I am learning to hydrate better and feeling better for it. I have started taking Larium. No problem. I have cuts and scratches from the fall in the sharp gravel but nothing serious. Many people have fallen. Many have more serious cuts, scrapes and bruises. OK so far.
Still there. Still excited – but tempered by the reality of it. Lots of time to think while you ride. I have been reading a lot to relax and divert the mind. I usually read murder mysteries on my kindle for an hour or two before I go to sleep. Have gotten through quite a few. Probably focusing too much on the ride and not enough on the countries and cultures we are riding through.
Day 39, stage 30, 110km
Start, river camp
Finish, Addis Ababa, Morag and Malcolm’s
It was bloody cold this morning. It went down to zero over night. Alex swore there was frost on his tent. Enthusiasm was hard to come by. We were all beat up after four tough days and had one more to come. The only bright spot was that Addis and a rest day were at the end of the rainbow today. But try telling that to fifty freezing riders trying to warm frozen fingers on porridge bowls.
We knew Addis was at a lower elevation than our camp so expected, unrealistically as it turned out, a less hilly day. By lunch we had climbed over 1000 metres. And these were not rolling hills. We were chasing up and down steep hills into tight valleys one after another. And the head wind was still with us. It took me close to 3 ½ hours to ride the 66km to lunch. Even on the rare flat sections, with the wind, I found it a struggle to maintain 18 or 19 kmh. After lunch was more of the same with the promise of a steep 3km climb to a hill overlooking Addis where we would gather for our convoy into the city.
The only unpleasant part of the day was being donkey whipped. Every day you have rocks and sticks thrown at you. Some hit. Some don’t. Some hurt. But today was a bit different. There are lots of donkey carts here. The drivers carry whips to keep the donkey going and use them freely. At one point as I was cycling along I saw a 9 or 10 year old girl at the side of the road slowly flicking a donkey whip back and forth. I didn’t think much of it. Just another kid. But as I was passing she reached back and whipped me right across the chest. Unbelievable. Where does it come from?
When we got to the top f the hill there was a celebratory mood. We were there. We had made it. It was all downhill into Addis. Everybody had arrived at the top by about 3pm and we were off, accompanied by several riders from a couple of Ethiopian cycling clubs. We raced down the hill until we hit the ring road, joined it for about 10km until we reached our destination, the golf course. You could see on people’s faces that this was one rest day that was needed.
I sorted out my bike and kit and got a taxi to the British Embassy, where Malcolm picked me up. He and his wife Morag had kindly offered to put me up while I was in Addis. Their reception was fantastic: a cold beer, a hot shower, a big load of laundry, stuffed squid with rice and lots of fresh vegetables, a big bed with crisp sheets and a warm duvet. I was in heaven, or vahalla or something. At any rate it all felt good.
Day 38, stage 29, 85km
Start, forest camp
Finish, river camp
Today was a shorter day. So, quite logically I think, we all thought that it would be a bit easier. None of it. It was still full on. Because today we had to cycle to the highest point of the whole tour, over 3150 metres. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. We knew when we had reached the highest point, not because there was a marker or a cairn, but because there was a big, blue, Chinese-built factory. The route from now into Addis had many more recently built Chinese factories.
There was a nice descent into camp today, which was by a river. We were also close to a town. So we walked in and found a couple of hotels on the Gorge with great views and cold beer. Some of the racers were there too. They had arrived before noon and had gone into town and had a big feed of spaghetti. While we were having a beer around 3:30 they arrived again and ordered more spaghetti. Back at camp at 5:30 we had a huge pasta dinner. Gotta get those calories in.
One f the thtings I am pleased about is that my lungs seem to be operating well at altitude. I do feel it. But I have not had any adverse affects and seem to be able to manage the effort without too much problem.
Day 37, Stage 28, 89km
Start, forest camp
Finish, forest camp
The Blue Nile Gorge. A 20km individual time trial with a climb of almost 1500 metres over the 20km. At the end of the ride. After you have already cycled 69km with over 1000 metres of climb. Must have been designed by the criminally insane.
Before you can climb out f the Gorge you have to descend into it. At the top before you descend the views are absolutely spectacular. You sit there before you start and wonder why you would ever want to spoil such a great spectacle with the anticipation of so much pain. I started off at about the same time as Gus, a fearless, overweight Danish rider. Gus is shorter than I am and weighs over 125kg. But he is an amazingly string rider. He also has a lot of ballast, which is helpful when you are going downhill. On the 162km day a couple of days ago he passed me like a rocket on a downhill, rocky off-road section. I was white knuckles, smoking brakes, trying not to die a premature death. On the descent into the Gorge he once again passed me like a shot. He made it to the bottom in 22 minutes. That is 19km in 22 minutes. It took me 45 minutes and I thought I was being reckless. But her, we still had to get back up.
1500 metres of climb over 20km means an average gradient of about 7.5. That is steep. I start having suicidal thoughts with anything over 5. So I went to the start line waited for my cue and was off. We started at one minute intervals. Freek, a young and very strong Dutch rider and a real hill climber, started after me and was past me within the first kilometer. He ended up third on the day. By the end of the fifth kilometre I was struggling. I got off my bike and walked. There is not a whole lot of difference between cycling a 6.3kmh and walking at 4.5. I needed a rest. I soon got back on. But after another kilometre I was walking again. This pattern continued from km 5 to km 8.5, the steepest sections by me account. At km 8.5 I got back on again and cycled to a coke stop at km 10.5. After a couple of warm cokes and a bottle of water I felt much better. Back on my bike I was able to cycle to the finish. The winner finished in 1 hour and 22 minutes. With stops I took almost 3 ½ hours. But I made it and was still alive.
We camped in the woods right at the top of the Gorge. It was still spectacular and the anticipation of pain had receded into the background. It was worth it. We walked over to and sat on a rock outcropping and watched the sun set over the Gorge. It was pure magic.
Day 36, stage 27, 117km
Start, forest camp
Finish, forest camp
Today is a mandatory – or mando – day for the racers. There are a dozen or so of these days during the full tour. They are meant to be the most difficult days and so must be ridden and counted in total time (the racers get to drop a number of their worse days when arriving at their total time). A mando day also attracts a time bonus. So competition is stiff.
Today was only 117km but had over 2000 metres of climb. Although shorter than yesterday it was tougher for me because of all the climbing. Tomorrow is the Blue Nile Gorge. I did not want to blow my legs on a mando day and then crack at the Gorge. So I paced myself and it was a long day. People passed me and I resisted the temptation to keep pace with them or chase them down (wasn’t difficult to resist, I was struggling). I was very conscious of trying to keep something in reserve. When you are cycling hard it is easy to reach the red line. And you can feel it. It is that point at which there is simply nothing left in the tank. You can’t add any more effort. And if you try, your legs will simply tell you to fuck off and they will stop. (Although, I remember reading Tyler Hamilton’s book. He is the classic racer with a very high pain threshold. He says that you have to reach that final pain threshold and cycle through it. You then find whole new reserves of energy. I personally think this was due to drugs and not an option available to mere mortals.) Whenever I felt the red line approaching I backed off. I was not going to win anything but I was going to finish. And I did.
Day 35, stage 26, 162km
Start, Deb Anbessa Hotel, Bahir-Dar
Finish, Forest camp
When we left Bahir-Dar we knew we had five very tough days ahead of us. This was the section when we would have to descend into and climb out of the Blue Nile Gorge, when we would reach the highest point on the tour at over 3150 metres, and when over the five days we would climb a total of more than 10,000 metres. This was going to be a real test for me. I am not a climber. I am not built for climbing. I am not lean and fat free. I am built for comfort and stamina. Most of the other riders are very lean. They like mountains, or so they say. A few are more solidly built like me. A couple are overweight and would have real trouble.
The first day of this series of five days was 162km – a century in miles – just to get us started. In addition, it was a century that included over 1600 metres of climbing. It was tough. While I had felt good for the two day (or 1 ½ day) ride from Gondar to Bahir-Dar and had placed fairly well, I knew I would have to pace myself if I was going to get through the next five days. Several more would lose EFI over this stretch.
The landscape was absolutely stunning. I was determined to take it at a pace that would allow me to enjoy it. I was also going to take every coke stop available. I was now taking in 8 – 10 litres of fluid a day. The medics on tour say that you should ‘drink to thirst’. I have no idea what this means but assume it means don’t wait until you are dying of thirst to drink. Keep forcing the fluids in so that you don’t dehydrate. A coke stop is the perfect way to follow this advice. The real racers of course never take a coke stop. But they’re insane and regularly finish the day’s ride in half or two thirds of the time it takes me. Check the numbers.
Now that we are in the mountains it is also very cold and getting started in the morning is difficult. We like to have as much daylight as possible to ride in, just in case we need it. It is also nice to get a few kilometres in before the sun is too hot. So we get up at or before 6am when it is still dark and start cycling shortly after the sun comes up.
All I can say is that the day was tough and seemed endless. In addition to the hills and the distance there was a relentless headwind that had been with us since the last couple of days in the Sudan and would stay with us throughout this five day section. In addition to the headwind there were several sections of bad, non-tarmac road. We mostly still had our road tires on. This made the rocky, off-road sections treacherous and slow. And then there are the kids and their stones and sticks. I was hit several times, never seriously. Others were hit worse.
But I made it. There was little time to relax however. Tomorrow would be even tougher.
Day 34, rest day, Deb Anbessa Hotel, Bahir-Dar
The Deb Anbessa had wifi so I was looking forward to updating the blog and generally catching up. My Mac book was still not working but I had borrowed small laptop from Alex, and while he went off to take a boat tour of the lake I set myself up to spend the day on the computer. Alex set it up for me before he left. It was already to go. But I had something else I needed to do before I started writing so I closed the laptop and finished what I was doing. An hour later I opened the laptop again and turned it on. I was asked to enter a password! No. Not possible. Alex was on a boat for the next 6 hours. I hadn’t thought to get his password and now had a laptop I couldn’t use. Dumb as a doornail. So I tried to use my phone on wifi as much as I could. I managed to clear a few emails but it was painful and laborious.
Midday I gave up and went for a walk. Vince wanted to see if he could find some running shoes. We fund several shops selling a combination of new and used brand name shoes but they were all odd sizes and none suited. So we went in search of lunch. Every restaurant in Bahir-Dar seemed to have the same menu. A good salesman must have come through town with a job lot and sold them as is to anyone with ambitions to open a restaurant. But as we were to find out, having a menu and being able to serve you what is on it are two different things. The first restaurant we went into gave us menus and then told us they had no food, the second showed us the same menu but only had two tines, neither of which interested us (Vince wanted French Fries – or as it said on the menu, France Frice), the third yielded a similar result. By this time we were on the same street as the pizza restaurant that we went to yesterday so we went back. Vince got his cheeseburger and frice.
At dinner time we went with a small group to the Lakeside resort, a lovely place right on the lake. Once again we were presented with what looked suspiciously like the same menu. After we had all made up our minds the waiter came back to take our orders. Sorry, we don’t have. Sorry, we don’t have. As it turned out it was a Wednesday so they were not serving meat. They only served meat on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Wednesday you could have fish or chicken. But not any fish r chicken on the menu. In fact there were only three choices: roasted chicken, grilled fish or fish baked in tinfoil. We made our choices. We ate well. Tomorrow the hills would start in earnest.
Day 33, Stage 25, 61km
Start, Farm camp
Finish, Deb Anbessa Hotel, Bahir-Dar
Today we only cycled 61km. It was like a sprint. The distance and hills between Gondar and Addis call for a break somewhere in between. Bahir-Dar is the only reasonably sized town with good amenities between the two cities. So in spite of it only being a day and a half’s ride from Gondar, we stop there. It is also a beautiful city, sitting on the lake that is the source of the Blue Nile.
I headed out around 7:30 and was at the Deb Anbessa before 10am. Vince and I shared a room again – not a posh place, but it had a bed and a shower, sort of. I turned on the hot water heater for the shower as soon as we got there. After putzing around with the bikes and kit for a while Vince and I wandered into town looking for a bike shop. He needed some new inner tubes. We met a guy in a café who told us where we could find a bike shop so we went to look for it. Follow the main road and the fork to the left until you see a fish shop. At the fish shop turn left, you will see it. We did. It was a small hole in the wall, maybe eight feet by ten, dirt floor, shelves full of tubes and parts. Three guys were sitting on chairs taking up all the inside space having their lunch. Of course they immediately offered to share. Vince, with his dodgy guts, declined. They didn’t have the right size tubes. All they had was 26” tubes. Vince needed 700cc. So we asked if they had patch kits. No. But they did have tins of glue. So after protracted negotiations a tin of glue was purchased. On the side of the road outside the shop a couple of teenagers were sitting amidst a stack of boxes with Chinese writing all over them. They were assembling Chinese Phoenix mountain bikes. A new shipment had just come in. they seemed t be the only bike available, certainly the only ones we saw in town. But there were a lot of them.
After getting the glue we found a pizza restaurant and had some lunch. The restaurant was on a second floor balcony overlooking a main street. We watched the street life, very orderly and quiet, and enjoyed a good pizza.
Back at the hotel I took the first shower. I turned on all the taps and let the run hoping for at least a little hot water. None came. Shit. I had a cold shower. I told Vince the water was cold even though the hot water heater was on. He went in, turned on the taps and got instant hot water. Of course I was very pleased to be able to make way for a nice hot water shower for Vince.
The antibiotics were working well and my infection was clearing up nicely.
Day 32, Stage 24, 117km
Start, Goha Hotel, Gondar
Finish, Farm camp
Today was an almost gentle hint at what was to come. We climbed just over 1000 metres. In the days to come we would climb much more. I felt fairly good today, after a 2 day rest. I left with Bridget and kept up with her until lunch. She left lunch early and powered on. I stayed a bit longer and cycled the rest of the way with Alex. Bridget is the leading woman’s rider and very strong. I think the only reason I kept up with her before lunch was because she had been injured the day we rode into Gondar. A kid pulled her arm as she was cycling by and pulled her off her bike. She ended up with a swollen and sprained ankle. She could barely get her foot into her shoe this morning. But she said the pedaling motion did not hurt that much. The same day she was pulled off her bike, a stone was thrown at her back wheel and cut the hydraulic cable to her rear brake. She had made it into Gondar with only one brake and a sprained ankle. Tough.
It felt good to be back on the bike though. Oddly enough, a two day break seemed a bit long. So the mood in camp was more upbeat than it had been the day before. But that may also have been because tomorrow is a half-day of cycling and the day before another rest day.
Vince was amazing today. Even though he had been sick as a dog the day before, he got on his bike and road the whole day. Not his best day, but he made it. Tremendous powers of recovery.
Day 31, rest day, Goha Hotel, Gondar
I didn’t leave the hotel today. I ate a lot. I cleaned and tuned the bike. I was able to borrow John Chevis’ and Skype Liz and the girls. It is Laura’s birthday tomorrow. She is now 9! Her party was yesterday. So we caught up and shared a bit of her birthday excitement.
Many people are sick and nursing minor injuries. Around noon Vince came back from downtown and started throwing up violently. I got him a bucket, put it next to the bed and got him lots of fluids and some drugs. He slept for most of the next 7 hours and then woke up feeling a little more human. He is a big tough guy and was completely knocked for six. For some reason people start to get sick in droves in Ethiopia. We have been on the road for a month, the body is a bit run down and defenses are low, people succumb. One of the riders suffered a knee injury a short while ago. By Gondar it had become septic. He was taken to hospital in Gondar and put n an antibiotic drip for a week. The plan is that he will rejoin us in Addis. One of the cuts I had received on my right leg when I fell on the sharp gravel on the off-road section had also started to turn septic. This morning I squeezed what seemed like an ounce of puss out of it. There was a nasty red inflammation the size of a 50 pence piece. When I first fell the wound had been cleaned and dressed by the medic. Since then I had been careful to clean it with alcohol swabs and put antibacterial cream on it in the mornings. It still became infected. It is hard to keep things clean when you cycle for 7 or 8 hours in blowing dust with sweat dripping off you. So I started a course of antibiotics and hoped it would clear up.
The group was fairly subdued this evening. Everybody knew we had lots of hills ahead. Keeping healthy was a priority. We all ate as much as we could and went to bed early.