Since leaving Arusha internet connection has been dreadful. First, somebody in Egypt apparently cut the optic fibre cable that feeds tyhe internet down the East African coast. Second, we have been off road in the bush in Tanzania where there isn’t even any cell phone coverage, let alone internet access. We were hopeful that we would be able to get online when we got to Mbeya. But it was not to be. In Malawi there was minimal service in Chitimba. I signed on, but after waiting 15 minutes for the first page to load – and getting nothing – I gave up. We finally arrived in Kasungu at at hotel with wifi. But the demand was so great when we arrived that it was all but impossible to get on. So I got up at 3:30 this morning – nobody else up – and was able to use the wifi.
We cycle to Lilongwe today. We are hoping for better access there.
Tanzania offered us some of the most difficult riding and some of the most spectacular scenery. Although I live in Tanzania I had never travelled through this middle belt. I think the part of the country I liked best was the highlands between Mbeya and the Malawi border. The tea and banana plantations were stunning. The people have been friendly and welcoming as they are all over Tanzania. Most riders on the Tour feel more relaxed and comfortable here than in other countries we have cycled through. The one anomaly is that we have suffered more thefts here than elsewhere. We have lost a toilet tent, bicycles, computers and phones, cycling shoes, bags full of underwear and clothes. Something seems to have gone missing from every camp in Tanzania. I suppose that the circus we are is too big, shiny and tempting.
The bike has taken a pounding but keeps on ticking. The total brake failure in the mud and rain was the low point. The pads of my Avid BB7 disk brakes simply disintegrated in the grit and wet. Admittedly they already had about 7000km on them. But I had checked them the morning they failed and they seemed fine. After arriving in Mbeya I had the bike services. The headset needed adjusting again; front and rear gears were slipping and needed fixing (I perhaps should have replaced cables and cable casing at this time but didn’t); the brakes were adjusted once again. But the frame continues to be comfortable, no minor aches or pains. The new seat is not as comfortable as the old one – but it hasn’t broken. I am on my third chain. But the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires continue to impress. Still no flats. Knock on wood.
The body is remarkably happy. The 6 kilos I have lost and the redistribution of muscle feel good. The challenge will be to maintain this level of fitness when I am not burning 6000 calories a day. The Ulnar nerve is still a bit of a problem. I do not yet have full strength in my right hand. I assume it will take a couple of months after the Tour finishes for this to happen. I have managed to stay illness-free. I have come off my bike on the off-road stages several times (I lack the technical skills) but sustained no more than minor scrapes and bruises (unlike others who have been less fortunate – a broken arm, a dislocated shoulder, a broken collar bone, a broken pelvis, three broken ribs, a broken tooth, stitches etc.). The five consecutive days off road in Tanzania have hurt my butt a bit, no broken skin or boils, but tenderness and some red from chafing. So far so good, but a long way to go.
Two things have given me a big boost in the last couple of weeks. I went home during our three-day rest in Arusha and saw Liz and the girls; and Bob arrived totally unexpectedly in Mbeya a week later. I am also still EFI after some very tough riding. So I am on a bit of a high. On the other hand, this morning at breakfast, for the very first time, I realized that the Tour was going to end. So I have now just started to add feelings of ‘ending’ into the strange psychological mix that this Tour is. I guess this means that I will start thinking about what comes next – which I have avoided so far. It will be interesting to see how this affects my mood from day to day while I am slogging away up the next 40km hill.
Day 75, stage 58, 92km
Start, Karonga, Summit Annex Guest House
Finish, Chitimba Beach, Hakuna Matata Camp
Today was supposed to be a short day – and flat – only 92km along the lake to a beach camp at Chatimba. It was a bit of a confused start. Malawi is 1 hr behind Tanzania. So we changed out watched and clocks. But then we were told that we would still follow the Tanzania schedule but using Malawi times. This meant we left an hour later than we usually did, so lots of milling around. Then I still needed to get a Malawi SIM card and to visit a bank to get some more money (worried about scammers I had only changed enough at the border for a couple of days). So after clocking in at the start I spent a half hour wandering around Karonga doing chores.
But finally we were on the road. Bob and I hooked up with Danish Claus and Kiwi Phil and set out in a peloton at a good clip – well over 30kmh. It was faster than I usually ride and went against my strategy of pacing but I felt good and Bob seemed to be going well. At about 35km Bob started to fall back a bit. I stayed with the peloton for a while but then noticed Bob was not making his way back to it. So I slowed down and at about 45km found a coke stop. I stopped, bought some cold cokes and waited for Bob. We took a rest and got some fluids in us.
Lunch was only another 15km so we set off again. It soon became clear that Bob suffering a bit. So I let him find a pace that suited and went off to lunch. At the lunch truck I got some ORS for him and waited for him to arrive. He was obviously tired when he got there. I asked the medic to have a look at him. I said I would head out and try to get to the next camp early – only another 35km to go – to try to get one of the available rooms at the camp. When you are exhausted, a room with a bed is so much better than a tent in the rain. So I blasted off and got to camp in good time – but not early enough. I got there just as the last room was given out.
But all was not lost. There was another camp next door called ‘Hakuna Matata’. I was the first person to go their. They only had two rooms so I quickly took one. Somebody else arrived and took the second room before I could go fetch my bags. We were good.
Bob finally arrived a couple of hours later. He had been dehydrated, lost his appetite and had trouble getting an ORS down. He had taken a nap in the medic’s truck at lunch and then set off and did the final 35km to camp. And it was not an easy 35 km as it turned out. About an hour after we left in the morning a strong head wind came up. It stayed with us for the rest of the day. The wind was strong enough to steal 8 or 9 kmh from you. So pedaling 92km actually used up as much energy as pedaling 130km without a headwind. A tough couple of days to start with.
Once in camp we made sure Bob took in more ORS and plenty of fluids. Nine of us had dinner in the beachfront bar at Hakuna Matata and were in bed by 8pm. Bob managed to eat some dinner. He had definitely earned a rest day.
Day 74, stage 57, 162km
Start, Mbeya, Mbeya Hotel
Finish, Karonga Malawi, Summit Annex Guest House
It was in at the deep end – a century (100 miles) with about 1500metres of climb – pretty tough for a first day, jet lagged and a longest previous ride of just over 100km. We also had a border to cross.
The day into Mbeya had been a tough climb over the mountains. But once over the mountains we had made a magnificent descent into the Rift Valley. Leaving Mbeya for Malawi meant climbing back out the other side of the Rift Valley. From the hotel we climbed for about 30km and then had a fast bobsled ride down the other side for about another 30km. I thought it would then be down hill all the way to Lake Milawi. But it wasn’t. We slogged up another 12 or 14 km through a secondary range of mountains before we started down again. We stopped for lunch at just over 80 km. Bob had gone out strong and arrived at the lunch stop about an hour before I did. I had simply maintained my normal pace and had not tried to keep up. Bob even beat the racers into lunch. He waited for me and we set of together after lunch.
The border was another 35km away. We cycled at a decent pace and arrived in good time. We decided to stop at a roadside bar for a cold coke a coupe of hundred metres before the border post. Some money changer sat down with us and tried to get us to change some money. We haggled for a bit but then decided not to do it. By this time Bridget has shown up and joined us. She got into negotiations with the money change and agreed a deal. After money had changed hands – Bridget had her Kwacha, the money changer had his $150 – the wheels started to come off. The guy said he now didn’t want to do the deal. He would lose money at the rate he had agreed. So in the end in frustration Bridget decided to call it off, gave the guy his money back and got hers back. At the border crossing we stopped at a more legitimate bureau de change. The rates were much lower but it seemed a saner place to do business. The guy looked at the $100 bill Bridget gave him and refused to change it. It was counterfeit. They guy in the bar down the road had done a switch – very smooth, very slick. Perfect psychology. Lesson learned. I tried to give Bridget $100 because I felt guilty for having introduced her to the guy in the bar. She wouldn’t take it. But in the end she took $50.
It was another 45km or more from the border crossing to Karonga and out camp for the night. My legs were accustomed to these distances and I felt strong. Understandably, Bob was beginning to tire a bit. So I went off and he followed on a more relaxed pace. I have found that pacing yourself and making sure you always have some energy in reserve is important. Bob had gone out fast I the morning and paid for it a bit after the border. But as a hockey player I could see that his performance ethos had nothing to do with geriatric pacing (as mine did) his was all about jump over the boards, sprint like a mad dog for two minute, go back to the bench with lungs heaving for air and then repeating the whole thing.
The camp turned out to have rooms so I got one. For about $20 we had a chalet with lounge, twin beds and bathroom (only cold shower – it’s not all caviar and blintzes) . Not bad. We were glad for it too because it rained heavily in the night and we didn’t have to pack up wet tens in the morning.
Day 73, rest day, Mbeya, Mbeya Hotel
Bob was staying at the more upscale Hilltop Hotel a coupe of hundred metres up the hill from the Mebeya Hotel. I said I would meet him around 7 for breakfast but was up around 5:30 so did my laundry and got sorted for the day. As usual, a ‘rest day’ is a rest day in name only – especially after 8 consecutive grueling days on the road. In addition to the bags full of laundry I had the bike to look after and more than a week of blogs posts to catch up on.
We had the full English breakfast up at the Hilltop with real bacon. A treat. Bob went off to be briefed by the TdA staff and try to get a locker in the bog truck while I went back to the bungalow and started to catch up on the blog. Bob was luckier than I was. Hubert’s locker in the big truck came free because he had had to fly home (broken pelvis and three broken ribs). Although I don’t know if you can sat it was lucky to take over a locker under those circumstances. I caught up on my blog but could not get internet access. The dongle that I had put 25,000 shillings of credit onto still did not work. The wifi at the hotel did not work. Apparently the fibre optic cable that brings the world wide web to East Africa was severed somewhere in Egypt and as a result Mbeya had had no internet for three days. Those riders who connected to the internet through 3G on their cell phones could get access. But I needed to upload text from word files, which couldn’t be done on a cell phone. Stuffed again. Around 3:30 I started on my bike. What a mess. Finally finished about 5:00 and could go off for a bear. Bob had spent the time meeting people, sorting his gear and his locker, and making sure his bike was set and ready to go. We were good to go.
I ordered a sausage pizza in the hotel restaurant and after waiting for about an hour got a pizza about the span of a hand with a few slices of hotdog on it. What a treat. So to address my calorie deficiency I ordered a big ice cream sundae. After replacing the order four times and waiting another hour I finally had a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I felt like David Copperfield going to bed hungry. With over 70 riders and a dozen staff the Tour often puts strain on local services. Hotel rooms don’t get cleaned. Water runs out. Wifi works at tortoise speed. And restaurants go into spasms of chaos.
We went to bed shortly after we finished dinner. Tomorrow would be long.
Day 72, Stage 56, 111km, Mando day
Start, Mangolosi football field
Finish, Mbeya, Mbeya Hotel
Today was a real tester. Mando day # 2 in a row. Nasty rocky roads. And 2100 metres of climb to the highest point on any trunk road in Tanzania at 2961 metres. A head down grinding day with lots of useless simultaneous calculation to keep the mind diverted.
The first 55km into lunch were tough but manageable. From lunch we had 38km of continuous climb to the summit at 2961 metres before descending into Mbeya and a much anticipated rest day. Oddly enough, I almost enjoyed the climb. We were in the hills overlooking the rift valley and the views were absolutely stunning. It was nothing short of spectacular. It was a little like watching a spectacle from a torture chamber but somehow the spectacle won. I reached the summit with half a dozen others. Pictures were taken. Tessa danced.
And then the descent. It was the worst road we had experienced yet. A descent of 19km on sharp rocks in deeply rutted clay. I was on my feet with brakes squeezed the whole time. It was harder than the ascent in some ways. I was very happy to reach the finish line sometime after 4pm. It had been my longest day on the bike on tour so far at something over 9 hours. I checked into the hotel and went for a beer and some food before I even got out of my dirty cycling clothes or had a shower. But I did make it to the shower and into clean clothes before dinner.
I had just sat down in the hotel dining room with half a dozen other people when somebody from across the room shouted ‘Alan!’ I looked towards the voice and did a double take. It was my brother Bob. What the hell was he doing here? To make a long story short, he had been planning to join me since last August but had kept it a complete secret. I hadn’t a clue. This was quite remarkable given that I have 9 and 11 year old daughters who were in on the secret. It was amazing. A great meeting worthy of Stanley and Livingston – and not too far from that famous meeting.
A brilliant end to a very challenging 8 days of riding. I was still EFI. And Bob would be riding with us until Windhoek.
Day 71, Stage 55, 120km, Mando day
Start, Bush Camp
Finish, Mangolosi football field
Day 7 of 8 consecutive days and riding and it keeps getting tougher. Today and tomorrow are ‘Mando’ days – that is, mandatory days for the racers (our final time is an adjusted time; we can drop our five slowest days; but we cannot drop our times for Mando days). Mando days are reserved for the toughest days. Great. The next two days could go either way. If it rained hard again they could quite possibly be unmanageable. If it didn’t rain I possibly had a chance.
The night before the clouds had been ominous but not definite. But we were lucky. It hadn’t rained. I set off early so that if it did rain I would have done as many kilometres as possible. The first 20km were on sand and took a lot out of my legs. We then hit a rocky and muddy track. About 55 km in with still 4 km to go to lunch I can to a 40 metre patch of mud covered with tree branches to give traction to trucks. I tried to power over the branches. Some were quite big and they were spaced 6” – 12” apart. Needless to say, the branches won. I lost. I came off. Cuts and bruises. Covered in thick clay mud. Nothing serious. But a clear lack of good judgment. I was tired. Italo came up just behind me and wisely got off his bike. He stayed a little cleaner. The wisdom of age. He is 63.
I hobbled into camp and went into the medical truck to get cleaned and patched up.
I headed back out on the road and kept the pedals moving. There were lots of hills today – we climbed over 1100 metres. There was lots more sand and lots of sharp rocks the size of cricket balls to bowling balls. I came off my bike four more times after lunch. I was clearly tired and not concentrating well. Three times I came off in the sand. On portions of the road there were compacted ruts in the sand that you could cycle on but 6” deep sand in the median and on the verges. I got me front wheel caught in the median once and the verge twice – soft landings in soft sand. Then towards the end of the ride we cam across some road construction. Fresh wet dirt (i.e. mud) full of rocks and about 8” deep had been dumped on about a kilometer and a half of road. A grader had started to push this muck around. If you followed the tire tracks of the grader you could get through it. About halfway through I could see a motorcycle coming along the same track I was using. It was a face off. He didn’t leave the track. I couldn’t leave the track. We slowed. Neither of us diverted. We stopped about a foot apart, wheel to wheel. I hadn’t unclipped, convinced to the end that he would divert and let me pass. He didn’t I fell over. It hurt. I believe I may have cursed.
The trucks were having a bad day on the mud again and weren’t at camp when I arrived. So I cycled a little further into the village of Mangolosi and found a place that served cold beer. I was a mess. I had come off my bike five times – none seriously – but all was forgiven with one taste of cold beer. It is amazing what will mollify a non-functioning mind.
Day 70, Stage 54, 129km
Start, Game Post 2
Finish, Bush Camp
Today was just long and tough. Still wet and muddy. The middle day of 5 off road days. It was just a head down day. A grinding day.
This was the kind of day when the mind works over time. It knows it is going to be a long day. It tries to divert itself in any way possible to stop dwelling on the sheer pain and discomfort. I have six or seven different calculations going on in my head at all times. Kilometre 13 means I have done 10% of the ride. Every 6.5 km is another 5%. It took me 33 minutes to do the first 10km. at that rate it will take me 429 minutes or 7 hours and 9 minutes to get to the finish – add a half hour for lunch and 20 minutes for two coke stops and I will take about 8 hours to get there. I left at 7:10am so I should be in by 3:09pm. Can I get in before 3pm? 33 minutes for 10km equals 18 kmph. Can I keep that up in this much or will it drop? What is my timing if I start to average 35 minutes per 10km – or 40 minutes? And on its goes. The mind will do anything to avoid acknowledging that the terrain is dreadful, the conditions are miserable, and I’m not having bundles of fun. The mind does this to keep me moving forward. If a crack appears I start another calculation. Keep the mind busy. Divert it. Keep pedaling.
The crack got wider when I started to near the 125km mark. Because at the rider briefing the day before we had been told that today’s ride was 125km. All bets are off when the advertised kilometrage is not right. You set you mind up for certain goals – goals that help maintain the balance between hope and despair. When the goal posts shift the balance shifts and the mind cracks open a bit further. That happened today. I kept looking for the finish flag and not seeing it. At 128 I finally saw it in the distance. The crack began to close. I raced down the hill. The flag was at the top of the next rise. But at the bottom of the hill was a 30 metre patch of deep sand. I saw it but didn’t properly gauge how deep it was. I tried to power through but got stuck 5 metres from the end and had to unclip and get off my bike. The crack widened. I cycled slowly to the top of the hill and the finish flag. I had finished another day and I was thoroughly grumpy.
But the sun had come out and I could at least dry my tent.
Day 69, Stage 53, 114km
Start, Game Post 1
Finish, Game Post 2
Purgatory became hell. The rain made the roads into a muddy slue. About 10km in we hit a patch that was under repair. It had had new dirt dumped and partially graded but it had not been rolled. For about 5 km we had to make our way through foot deep muck. Over that distance more than half a dozen big trucks and busses had lost it and slid into the ditches or onto their sides. One almost completely straddled the road. Not only did we need to get through this morass on our bikes but our trucks had to get through to the next camp 114km away. The smaller truck got through with some Herculean stable clearing. The big truck didn’t. It got stuck.
Trying to power a push bike through this muck was incredibly difficult. Even the strongest of us, on purpose built off road bikes, had to walk sections. The muck was also clay muck that sets like cement. It got stuck in forks, in brakes and drive chains and did damage. Four people pulled so hard in the ungiving clay that they broke their rear derailleurs. John Faulkner was one of the unlucky ones. At the beginning of the day he stood third overall in general classification and was still EFI. With a broken rear derailleur he risked losing both. Dan, another strong Kiwi rider passed John walking his crippled bike. He had already lost EFI due to an earlier illness so very kindly gave his bike to John and waited for the next truck. It was the end of Dan’s day but John went on to finish and retain his status. The same thing happened to Phil Howard, also EFI and second overall. He was able to borrow Chris Walker’s bike and finish as well.
I got through the much without breaking anything but the road continued to be tough and the rain unrelenting. Wet and grit were everywhere. About thirty kilometres in I started down a hill with a big truck coming up it at me. The road is only wide enough for one vehicle so we pull off to the side and let them pass. So I pulled my brake levers to pull off with the truck still about 80 metres away. No brakes. Nothing, Nada. Shit. The truck was getting closer and dog tracking. I had to bale. There was a ditch about three feet deep on my side of the road. I took the bike down into the ditch and rolled it up the far bank and came off into the bush. Dirty, but nothing broken. I still had over thirty kilometres to go to the lunch stop with no brakes. I snugged up the disk pads as much as I could, hoping an adjustment would help. It did a little but not much. And I could hear my rotors screeching. I slowed down and cautiously cycled into lunch.
My spare brake pads were in my locker in the bog truck. The big truck was stuck in the mud at kilometre 15. But Catalan, one of the mechanics, was at the lunch stop. I had lunch and got some fluids in me and then went to talk to the Tour Director and the mechanic about my options. I had three: I could abandon and get in the truck; I could try to get brake pads off somebody else’s bike and put them on mine – but none of the free bikes had the same brakes; I could borrow a bike from somebody not riding (Stig had come off his bike not too far from where my brakes failed and had broken his collar bone, so his bike was free – but Stig is about 4 inches taller than me, and did I really want to get on a bike that had just thrown its rider and broken bones (not that I’m superstitious); there was also a woman’s bike free, but it was very small.
Then, just as we were about to start repeating our discussion of the options for lack of anything better to do and as a way of forestalling what seemed the inevitable, the big truck came over the horizon. The cavalry had arrived. The truck stopped. I jumped in and found the spare pads in my locker. Catalin changed them within 15 minutes and I was back on the road. Back from hell into purgatory (if such a thing is possible).
By the time I got to camp I was an exhausted mess. But the rain had stopped. Cold coke. Bucket bath. Clean the bike. Cold coke. Set up a wet tent. Eat. Sleep. Three more off road days.
Day 68, Stage 52, 104km
Start, Puma camp
Finish, Game Post 1
Rain. It rained in the night. It rained during the day. It was wet. The first 60 km or so today were still on tarmac. After lunch we then moved onto the mud for the final 45. The tarmac section was a breeze. Easy riding – except for the weather. The off road was a mess. Mud. And Rain. It took quite bit longer to do the 45 than it had to do the 60.
The dirt track took us into a game reserve. It had stopped raining by the time we arrived but we and our bikes were a mess. We camped in the compound of the game wardens. The compound as right next to the gate and the single-track road so we heard up close every vehicle that passed during the night. At remote camps like this – no village anywhere near – there are usually a few people who know we are coming and are prepared. They sell us buckets of water to wash ourselves and our bikes. They sell us cokes and beers and peanuts. All at inflated process of course. But we are thankful.
I got a jerry can full of water for 2000 shillings. I used half to clean my bike, which was so covered in mud that it took an hour and a half to clean. I then took the rest of the water out behind the warden’s house, stripped everything off and had a bucket bath. I am sure I had an audience but I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted to get the mud and grime off. It was everywhere. Having a cold bucket of water dumped on my head never felt so good.
The rain started again as dinner was being prepared and lasted throughout. It was a wet affair. People competing for space under eves and awnings. It was then early to bed. We still had four more days of tough (tougher) off road ahead of us. We needed food (done). We needed sleep. We didn’t need more rain. It rained all night.