6,600 miles in Africa on the Tour d'Afrique

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The inaugural Tour d’Afrique, a 6,600 mile cycling tour through Africa finished back in May and with next year’s race starting in January, Tour organiser Michael de Jong has been in England drumming up support for the event.

Right before the start

Prior to becoming a full-time race organiser, Canadian De Jong, 38, made his living as an inventor: Cyclists will probably know him for best for his Air Sound rechargeable bike horn. The idea of a bike tour of Africa first occurred to him and fellow organiser Henry Gold over ten years ago:

“We first thought of a race from Kenya to Tanzania but we thought that wouldn’t really ring a bell with anyone – it’s been done, nothing exciting – but how about a race from Cairo to Cape Town! It seemed like the craziest idea (and I like crazy ideas) so I decided, let’s do it. That was in ’93 and it took us about 10 years of thinking about it before we actually committed last year to start organising the first Tour.”

On the road

In that first Tour, 33 riders covered the Cairo to Cape Town route, riding a daily average of 115km for the 100 riding days (20 additional rest days were included at intervals) and camping along the way. The participants ranged from 21-year-olds to a 63-year-old man and his ever-so-slightly younger wife:

“When we announced the tour a lot of people said ‘I could never do that’ but we had everything from elite racers to recreational cyclists. We even had a woman of 52 who had never cycled until she heard about the Tour: She thought that this would be the best way to see Africa.”

The Tour bills itself as not just a bike race but also as a “soul-enriching experience”. The idea is the Tour should have a strong ecological message, raising awareness and providing funds for sustainable transportation on the African continent. De Jong believes that incidences of famine in Africa have been exacerbated by the lack of a bicycle culture there:

“In China … the historical background is that everything was bicycle based, hence you see very few famines. You see poor people, but because of the bike they have an excellent transportation system – similarly in India. In Africa they never really had a bike culture so it pretty well went from walking straight to cars. And cars are not very numerous, so they [Africans] are far behind in terms of transportation and use of bikes… It’s mostly to do with politics. For instance in South Africa the townships were prohibited from using bikes and they deliberately didn’t build any bike lanes so the people in the townships couldn’t access white cities. In parts of Africa where they didn’t have apartheid it was not a policy but it was an unwritten rule that it is better to have cars and leave the people that are poor, poor.”

In 2004 the Tour will pass through 10 countries on its journey from Cairo to Cape Town. One of de Jong’s dreams is to have riders from each of those countries take part in the race. This year riders from each country were able to join the tour only within their own borders:

Ethiopian-Kenyan border at Moyale

“In each country we arranged with the national cycling federation for local riders to join us. In Egypt we had the Egyptian team. In Sudan there really isn’t a team but we did have some people join us. In Kenya we had a blind rider on a tandem join us. One of our dreams for the Tour d’Afrique is to have at least representation of each country we pass through to do the whole tour, which would mean 10 riders additionally. Unfortunately income levels are low so we’re always looking at sponsorship to help people facilitate this dream because I think many people want to but they just can’t afford it.”

Ethiopian-Kenyan border at Moyale

Speaking of money, the Tour costs a whopping $8,000 (US) for each competitor. For that price you get food, water and someone to carry your bags from campsite to campsite. You also get some technical backup, which is useful:

“We had one frame crack. This particular fellow had a steel frame so it was repaired in the local welders shop. We had a few broken wheels but we supply parts to riders at cost prices and we have a mechanic so things can be rebuilt.”

We’re not sure if the technical backup goes as far as replacing false teeth, a problem faced by one Belgian rider who lost his teeth while rattling along ‘Mountains of the moon’, a particularly gruelling section of lava rock road in Kenya.

If all this sounds like your thing, but you don’t have 120 days going spare, you can also complete individual sections of the Tour taking between 9 and 21 days. There’s already 28 riders signed up for next year and de Jong expects at least double that number lining up on the start on January 17th. To find out more about the Tour and how to get involved check out their website.

And if your appetite requires further whetting see below for more photos from this year’s Tour.

February 27th, Blue Nile Gorge

Blue Nile Gorge again

Arriving at the Cape

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