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.
Day 67, Stage 51, 119km
Start, Finish, Katesh, Summit Hotel
Finish, Puma camp
Today was out last day on tarmac before the off road section began. Since it was not a long day it was the last ‘easy’ day before we descended into hell – or at least purgatory, we did expect to return to the surface at some point. There was no rain today so it was really a very pleasant ride – spectacular scenery, fantastic. I had not been to the middle belt of Tanzania before. It is really beautiful country, fertile, not too hot, rolling hills.
Today we camped in the bush – not near a village or a hotel. But somehow dozens of kids materialized to stand and watch just outside the magic red rope. Where do they come from?
One of our riders was not so fortunate today. Mid afternoon I saw him sitting in a Land Cruiser with a number of people around it. He had had a fall, been picked up, and the medical team were now responding. A kilometer and a half from camp a bee or a wasp had flown into his unzipped shirt. He apparently tried to swat it and lost control of his bike. He was unable to unclip his peddles as he fell and came down hard. The medical team put him on a traction board and cleared the back of the Land Cruiser to use as an ambulance. Fortunately there was a mission hospital only 6 km back with two German Doctors on staff. Unfortunately he had a broken pelvis and three broken ribs. It could have been worse. There was no harm to his back. But his Tour was over and he would eventually be evacuated home. This was quite sobering for everybody. Another rider had fallen and broken an arm coming out of Namanga just a short while before. Another rider with us had come back to finish sections he had missed last year because he had fallen and broken a hip in Kenya. It is so easy to lose concentration or become a little complacent when you are tired. But anything can happen – a wasp, a rock, a goat, a pothole.
It rained again tonight. It was a wet world with rampaging green.
Day 66, Stage 50, 95km, Individual Time Trial
Start, Magugu Football Field
Finish, Katesh, Summit Hotel
Today was a race against the clock. I am no good against the clock. I prefer to chase bums. We left Magugu and cycled for about 25km to the start of the 25km time trial. It was a tough route mostly uphill. We started at 1 minute intervals. I started 10th and set off at a comfortable pace. 65 year old Alex soon passed me. He just wants to impress his grandkids. He’s doing well. Unfortunately I didn’t really rise to the challenge. I have often ridden with Alex and usually finish a little ahead. Today he beat me by a good 5 minutes. It took me an hour and five minutes to finish the 25km. That placed me 28th out of 45 or so men. Crap, but probably about right. Couldn’t even beat a grandfather. Needed a bum to chase.
The second day into an eight-day stretch saw most people a little quiet. They were feeling the effort after some time off and were thinking and preparing their heads for another six tough days. The good think about today is that we camped next to a hotel so I was able to get a room, have a good hot shower and sleep in a comfortable bed – not that the tent is uncomfortable. There weren’t that many rooms available so only a few of us got them. As a result my room saw a steady stream of ‘tenters’ taking advantage of the shower. Didn’t have to buy my own beer today.
The rain had been following us as well. Things were either wet or damp. Putting on damp cycling shorts is a little bit like putting on a cold, wet bathing suit. The only difference is that a bathing suit is then meant to get wetter – and you with it – so the dry- wet thing kind of balances out in your favour. Cycling shorts are not mean to get wetter. So starting out damp tends to unbalance things a bit and lead to chafing. Not a lot of fun really.
Day 65, Stage 49, 145 km.
Start, Arusha, Masai Camp
Finish, Magugu Football Field
Today was the start of a stretch of 8 consecutive riding days. In the next eight days we would cross Tanzania from Arusha to Mbeya and cover almost a thousand Kilometres. The first three days would be on tarmac. The final five days would be on rough off road. It has rained a little in Arusha and we were beginning to have to pack our tents way wet. But there was no rain in the morning. It was a great day. The roads were good, except for about a 15km stretch that was under construction, and we made good time into Magugu.
Rural Tanzania has seen a population explosion. There were kids everywhere. And of course we are like a travelling circus that is more fun to watch than Starsky and Hutch. The red cord is strung around camp to demarcate our area – often an acre or more – and the kids line up, sometimes 2 and 3 deep and just stare. In the evenings their parents and distant relatives join them. I wish I knew more Swahili so I could follow what they are saying. ‘Hey, see that one in the yellow jersey? I think he is just bout to visit the toilet tent. Didn’t he visit the tent just an hour ago.’ ‘What is that guy doing to his bike? He has just changed his tire three times. Why doesn’t he just go to the Fundi (a Swahili Mr. fixit)? He obviously hasn’t a cue what he is doing.’
There was a nice little duka (shop) and bar across the road and many of us ended up there with a cold beer or two. It was good to be back on the road again. We had had too many off days lately – days lost to the Kenyan election and then the scheduled 3 day rest at the half way point. The legs felt a bit reluctant but still willing. We had a long stretch ahead of us so pacing would be important. Some of the younger people like to push hard and then suffer towards the end of a stretch. I try to keep an even pace and not kill myself. This means that in the end I am sort of the tortoise of the race. I will never win a stage – or even come close – but I finish and keep going. Boring middle of the pack of perhaps. But I am happy to let the racers race.
And of course, that night they stole the toilet tent.