Today was our first day on dirt roads. Tires changed last afternoon, we were all—mostly—feeling strong and ready to roll.
Our directions were the most complicated we’d received so far. No more just going straight, but heaps of turns and way points: follow the power lines, follow the railway, or—best of all—soil changes from grey to orange! I needed three big post-its to write it all down (versus one or none for each of the riding days so far).
The morning was fun. With comfortable temperatures and strong muscles, riding through acres, villages and open fields was a welcome alternative to tar and traffic.
Even though we had to ride a lot slower than we’re used to, especially over corrugation as well as sandy stretches here and there, most of us were able to easily maintain an average speed above 20km/h. “What’s the big deal about it?” we all wondered.—”Seems we’ll be there quite early today,” I got ahead of myself.
In the morning, I was definitely not amongst our fastest riders, just middle field, as skill and experience kicked in. Mine off-road being almost equal to none, I had one clear priority: get through the day without falling. Due to our navigational challenges, it was also advisable to cycle in groups. “Three brains work better than one,” Tallis had highly recommended during our riders’ meeting. And that would turn out to be true multiple times throughout the day.
I spent most of the morning cycling near Anmei and Bridgette—both very experienced touring and mountain bikers—as well as Kyle, Rob and Bernd. It was an enjoyable morning, and—I think it’s fair to say—we all had fun.
Then Kyle had a puncture and—as usual—Anmei helped with repairs. Meanwhile, Ed caught up with us. “I thought you were far ahead. Didn’t you leave before us?” I was surprised.—”Yes, I did. But I went the wrong way and had to turn back. So annoying.” From then onwards, I kept cycling with Ed.
We spotted the lunch truck a few kilometers earlier than anticipated, already at 48km after leaving camp. “What an easy day!” I thought to myself. Luckily, Leo (our bike mechanic) was around and could help me fix my handlebar that had misaligned during a short but steep climb. Unfortunately, however, he couldn’t do much for my front suspension that didn’t seem to help at all to absorb shocks.
Wynand gave us some new riding instructions. In essence, there were a few muddy/watery patches blocking the anticipated road, thus we had to do some loops around. “Just follow the flagging tapes,” no big deal.
Re-strengthened at lunch, we were ready to roll again. 5km into the ride, it got hotter. 10km into the ride, everything felt a lot harder. The heat picked up, the wind at times went against us, the road felt tougher, my energy levels drained. I’m not sure why—perhaps just the heat—but what seemed fun in the morning had become hard work. “Only 30km to go till camp,” I thought at one time. “Still 20km to go and not making much progress,” I thought almost an hour later. My speed had reduced to less than 15km/h at times.
A bunch of school kids provided a welcome opportunity for a break. “Photo?”I smiled at them, and—as usual—they quickly gathered in front of me, all of them eager to make it onto the photo shot.
And off we went again, but I struggled to keep up with Ed and Bernd. Husband and wife team Peter and Deb (from the US), whom I usually overtake an hour into my ride, also went ahead of me. They excel in keeping a consistent good pace, while I had worn myself out in the heat.
Under the blistering sun, without any shade, I had to keep reminding myself over and over again that this was all part of the experience, that there was no reason to get stressed out or frustrated, that I should keep a smile on my face, or at least at heart. However—believe me—enjoying the moment doesn’t always come easy!
Then I spotted Tallis’ cruiser and a bunch of riders—refilling station! I quickly downed my full water bottle, and got two full refills. This was the first time I had a refill after lunch. Prior to that, I had always been able to reach camp on 1.3 liters. Foolishly, Mark and I didn’t wave down Tallis when we were both running low yesterday, prioritizing our race time over our basic human needs. Today, however, my goals had changed: I only wanted to reach camp safely and minimize my struggles. Time was no longer of the essence.
It felt nice to have that short break during the refill. Refreshed, I kept cycling. Only 1km later, I was suffering again. It was an endless game of finding the best riding path, trying to avoid the corrugated stretches as much as possible to reduce palm and butt sores, as well as the sandy patches that dare us to slip and fall. At times, however, there was no alternative. If the choice was between corrugation and deep sand, we only had one choice (or so it seemed to me): Harden the f..k up!
Then came Dinder village, around 70km into our ride. It provided a welcome distraction—a coke stop for some, an opportunity to take photos and videos for me. Once again, the kids were just all to eager to have their photos taken, and elder men cheered and gave me their thumbs up.
I had an energy bar and felt strong again. “Only 18km to go—easy,” I thought. Well, just 1km later I was back in suffer mode. The road got sandier and the corrugation more pronounced, or perhaps it was just the heat that made it all seem a lot worse. 43° Celsius it was! Though I would only learn that in the evening from other riders.
I got worried that losing energy might increase the risk of falls. Multiple times, I had to get off my bike because I got stuck in sandy patches. Over and over again, I convinced myself that my cleats were not clipped in (luckily I got dual-sided pedals). During that last 10km, I needed a bite off my third energy bar to keep going.
“83km,” my Garmin read. At 82.7km, we were supposed to turn left before the canal. Had I missed a turn? I looked back and saw a canal. “OK, almost there, just need to cycle back a bit,” I thought and turned my bike. Bernd, who had stopped a bit longer at Dinder village, was about to catch up with me. “Turn around,” I shouted, “we missed the turn.” Back at the canal, however, there was no way to turn. “Better call Tallis,” I pulled out my phone for the first time to confirm directions.
“Just look for the flagging tape,” Tallis advised.—”Are you positive it was at 82.7km?”—”Yes. Have a look around, but call me again if you can’t find it.”
Meanwhile, Niklas had also caught up with us. “It’s because we had to do that extra loop after lunch,” he suggested, “that’s why it’s probably a bit further ahead.” Smart guy! I usually pride myself on my intellect, but that seems to fail at degrees above 40° C!
Niklas and Bernd pushed ahead, and I struggled to follow them, drained of energy. Finally we reached the canal, but Niklas and Bernd kept cycling. “Hey guys, come back!” I shouted, “we need to turn left BEFORE the canal,” and there was flagging tape clearly indicating the turn. Seems the heat not only messes with my brain. Tallis’ advise to cycle in groups has been spot on today, no matter how smart we all think we are. 🙂
“Only 5km to go, that should be manageable,” I thought and finished my third energy bar. However, it didn’t help any longer to re-boost my energy. It was not a lack of blood sugar but the relentless sun that had caused my physical low. And that physical low triggered a mental low. Bernd and Niklas were soon out of sight, and my patience and mental stamina were tested to the extreme. Every pedal stroke had become an effort beyond exhaustion, every wave of corrugation yet another burn on my sore palms and butt, every additional minute under the burning sun making my painfully swollen toes harder to endure.
“88km—where’s that bloody camp?!” I reminded myself not to lose my temper. Kids were running up to me. “Hello! Hello!” they shouted and wanted to give me high five. Usually, kids make me smile. Not after 88km of corrugation, not in 43° C, not when my toes felt ready to explode. “Just leave me alone!” I felt like screaming at them, until I saw our flag—the finish line. As soon as I reached that flag, I jumped off my bike. Instantly, all negative emotions fell off me again. I had done it, I had reached that bloody camp, without falling off my bike!
“Hello! How are you!” I happily greeted back the kids that kept running next to me, and pushed my bike for the last 200 meters up the road. Cycling to our truck where shade and water were waiting as usual would have been faster, but spinning even just one more stroke may have tilted my fine balance between relief and torture.
Stage 21: Sennar – Canal Camp (Sudan), 88km
Road & traffic condition:
Dirt roads, lots of corrugation and sand. Tough riding. Only slow-driving traffic though—mostly donkey carts.
“Just out of curiosity,” I had asked Tallis at our riders’ meeting, “are we going on dirt roads because there simply are no tar roads to the border, or because you want to give us the experience?”—”There’s the highway, if you want to get run over,” Tallis clarified, “but we want to keep you alive, and yes,” he added with a mischievous smile, “we also want to make you suffer at bit.”
Comfortable early morning, hot after lunch (i.e. 10am onwards).
Well-done steak (bit chewy at times, but good protein nevertheless), potatoes, cauliflower and salad.
You would never guess who won today’s stage—Muzz who celebrated is 60th birthday just a few weeks ago! Our mountain biking champion not only won the stage, but by a margin of over an hour ahead of the young boys. Well done Muzz! Two weeks without beer seems to have done him well 😉
Several people went for donkey bucket showers which seems to have been pretty cool—literally and proverbially.
On the flip side, however, those donkeys make a lot of noise. All night, their highly exaggerated hee-haws and brays reminded more of a slaughter house than a quiet village. Intermingled with the incessantly barking and baying dogs, those averse to ear plugs were up for a nightmarish concert throughout a sleep-deprived night.