It's been an absolutely exhausting week and I apologise for not writing with my usual frequency. We've now left Botswana and entered Namibia - the second last country on our epic voyage across Africa. The riding has been tough, it's been long (we've covered approximately 827km (517 miles)) in five days. The longest day of the tour was this week - a 207km day which took us across the border.
NYC bike messenger Dave and I have been coordinating the first few events of the TDA decathlon. The first day this week was damp 160km day out of Maun, I rode slowly, riding the morning with Dave and the afternoon with Jacob. It was at our last bush camp that evening that we held our first event, in the midst of a perpetual thunderstorm that seemed to follow us all the way out of Botswana. Worried that decathlon spirits may be dampened (no pun intended) by the heavy rain, we pressed on regardless. The first event was to be the hole digging contest - a key skill for any aspiring bush camper.
I'll leave the full description of the event to the post I wrote for the TDA blog. In any case, our twelve teams put on a good show and a lot of clothes became fairly muddy. The ground behind the trucks which was just about walkable became a muddy mess full of puddles that would instantly soak you up to mid-shin. After dinner, I sheltered in my (thankfully) dry tent and treated myself to a cup full of custard. Not wanting to wash the cup in the pouring rain, I put it upright in my dish kit ziploc bag. Predictably, I forgot it was there and held my bag upside down, resulting in a yellow mess in the corners of the my once fairly clean ziploc bag.
The next morning, we were treated to a hot breakfast by the kitchen and not just warm oatmeal either. Scrambled eggs and baked beans went down a treat but the change in the consistency of breakfast interrupted my usual morning routine. I decided to go use the shovel whilst people were getting ready to leave - as I returned the fastest (and as a result, latest leaving) group of racers was leaving - I was pretty much last. I rode hard for the morning, caught up with Dave and we planned the afternoon's obstacle course.
On the way into camp, my attention drifted off the road and I managed to fall off my bike on a flat, slow road - hitting a cat eye in the road while holding my handlebars too softly. I managed to graze a fairly large area of my knee and it was swollen for a bit. At time of writing, it still hurts to bend it (although not an issue when cycling).
A lot depended on what the campsite had to offer but we managed to make a fairly reasonable course. I'll list the course below:
- Start at lunch truck
- Run through eight parallel tyres placed on the grond (penalty for missing a tyre)
- Take a picture of the whiteboard
- Roll tyre down the road to your bike
- Pick up your bike and follow the flagging tape to the bar
- Ride over the bridge and then walk your bike through the bar
- Turn left out of the bar compound and follow the flagging tape
- Pass through the Coke bottle slalom course
- Turn right and follow the road onto a dirt track
- Pick up any loose objects in the grass for extra points (including water bottles, track pumps and a camping stool).
- Follow the road through another slalom course.
- Sprint up to the ramp and jump your bike.
- Finish at the lunch truck.
The riders enjoyed it - we worried initially the lap might take too long (near ten minutes) but the quickest competitors were around it in just under three minutes. Mountain biker Simon won this event - the offroad, jumping on and off a bike and general bike handling skills necessary suited him perfectly.
The next morning we woke up to another thunderstorm. Aside from a handful of other occasions, the rain has usually stopped before the majority of camp wakes up. This didn't though and it was a case of packing up our tents while getting wet. This was also the longest day of the Tour - a 207km day that took us across the border to Namibia. If you're think you're having a bad day on the Tour, fate nearly always seems to do something to make it worse. As I went to load my bottles onto my bike, I noticed the rear tyre was flat. Changing the tube, I ended up leaving with Jethro, Marcel, Stuart and Gisi (the latter two are both race leaders).
At this point it was still pouring with rain and the road was saturated. I tried riding with Jethro and Marcel but Jethro's tyres kicked up a fair amount of grit into my eyes - seeing ahead (difficult in the rain as it was) became painful and I had to drop out. Sometime later Stuart and Gisi came by and I rode with them. Gisi, assuming Jen was ahead of her and not wanting to secede a mando-day, asked us to skip lunch. Pumping up my tyre in a rush (they stopped for a minute to grab a banana), we rode on until the refresh stop at 150km where I left them, feeling exhausted and unable to maintain that speed.
At this point the day had dried up and our clothes were pretty much dry. I rode on alone from the rest stop, taking it easy and enjoying the last of the Botswanian scenery. As mentioned before, fate dislikes us having too easy a ride and about ten kilometres from the border, I cycled into a thunderstorm parked on the highway. From a distance you could see it - the misty grey stretching from several kilometres above right down to the road. The road looked like it was turning away from the cloud but soon leaned back towards it. Anticipating some light rain, I wasn't surprised when it started drizzling lightly. As the drizzle got heavier, I pedalled on, eager to be free from the demoralising shower.
It was when the lightning struck that I was reminded of the wrath of Africa's weather. The thunder exploded at a decibel level which I'm sure caused me temporary tinnitus. It was absolutely splendiferous and as the rain plummeted down onto my bike, the wind stepped in and pushed me from side to side. I kept my head down, amazed that my MP3 player was still working in its not-entirely-waterproof fake Ziploc bag. The rain was coming down off my bike and creating miniature waterfalls and pseudo-streamers, coming off at an acute angle from my handlebars as it was bullied by the brute force of the wind.
Within a few kilometres, it was over. Rod, Juliana, Jen and Lynne caught up with me as I reached the border post, absolutely soaked and as incredulous as I was. We crossed the border and got our tents up in the mud long enough for them to dry slightly before the storm caught up with us again and undid the sun's efforts.
I started the next day with a low tyre, a probably slow puncture. Trying to pump it up using the worst of the two track pumps the Tour has, pressure was going in but when I removed the head of the pump, the valve came with it - ripped clean from the tube. By the time I had changed my tube and pumped up my tyre, the sweep rider had already left into the morning fog. This start was partially remediated by the two milkshakes I was able to consume at Wimpy, a South African fast food chain. This was probably one milkshake too many and the last fifty kilometres were painfully slow. In any case,we made it into camp at about 2pm and once Dave was in, we planned the next two events - the Coke chugging competition (postponed the previous day because of the long distance) and the PVM bar eating competition. These are both fairly explanatory - it was interesting to see the variety of methods riders had for consuming a PVM bar (which is essentially edible plastic) at speed. The photos I've uploaded tell more of the story.
There was no rain that night and the next day was dry but windy as we rolled towards Windhoek. We began with a team trial - the teams arbitrarily chosen by Race Director Kelsey. Our team was strong, including Jason (a non-racer but still EFI) and Jethro. Some of the slower riders on our team decided against participating and although we started as a team of six, we became a team of just three. The time trial went well but I could feel the previous four days in my legs. Jethro would pull us along at 35-36kmph, Jason would managed 34kmph and when I was in front we'd drop down to 32kmph. We were close to winning - about a minute off.
After lunch, the headwind picked up and it was a sluggish 80km as we climbed approximately 800 metres up into the city. As the rolling hills began, Ruben, who I was riding with, began swearing. He soon left me behind and I ploughed on alone, the headwind preventing me from breaching the 20kmph speed barrier. At some point a huge convoy came past, at least four motorcycles, a pickup truck filled with gun-toting military men, four police cars and three armoured Mercedes. I'm curious to find out who was in that convoy.
Stuart and Gisi caught up and I tagged on just as the downhills begans. Suddenly my speed doubled with the draft and the effects of gravity - a welcome relief. We stopped at a large bicycle shop, probably one of the biggest and best shops I've seen to date (including those at home!) and I stocked on accessories, buying yet another bottle cage (the sixth so far) and a pair of tubes. Riding into camp along Robert Mugabe Avenue (an unnecessary tribute to a terrible man), it almost took as long to reach the campsite from the reception building of the Arrebusch Travel Lodge where we are staying.
At the end of a week like this, when you are pretty much completely physically exhausted, it's hard to get your act together and set up your tent. I began the rest day by looking for my spare tyre bundle (containing my two sets of spare tyres, my spare rim and pannier rack). These are all kept together on the roof of the dinner truck and dropped down every rest day for riders to access. I couldn't find my bundle and none of the Indaba drivers had any idea about where it might be. I can only surmise that it was either forgotten at one of many rest days we've had since Iringa (when I last used it) or that someone walked off with it at some point on one of the rest days. Immensely frustrating - both for the financial cost and for the inconvenience of having to borrow tyres from another rider. Luckily Eric Dufour lent me a set of pretty neat looking Maxxis Cyclocross tyres which I hope will work well on the dirt.
Setting my tent, the week didn't seem like it could get any worse. It could though and my zip stopped working. Earlier I had fixed it with a pair of pliers - squeezing each side to help the zipper grip the zip better - a common camping trick. I tried the same today - the effect of doing this several times was that this time the zipper simply snapped in two.
Feeling broken (saddle sores being the worst they've been on the entire trip and leg aching), exhausted (I've not felt this tired since I stayed up for 40 hours straight to finish my dissertation draft) and cheated (£150 worth of cycling equipment, gone!), I was apprehensive about dinner at Joe's Beerhouse, a popular tourist destination in Windhoek. Most of the tour went along that night as a leaving party for sectional (but almost full tour) riders Jerry and Viv - fellow Britons. The gastropub is a fantastic assortment of German (I assume) memorabilia and general tat - the food was excellent and the atmosphere is lively. I struggled to finish my main course (unusual on this trip) but the cannelloni I did manage to eat was great.
Just two weeks left and the end is in clear sight. A lot of riders lost EFI at this stage last year but they've amended the route so that it is actually possible. Let's see what happens tomorrow.