Hell on Wheels

How things can change in just a day. The next day on the Tour d’Afrique was my toughest of the whole tour and the only day that actually broke me. I learnt more about myself over the next two days, than actually I wanted to know and they destroyed some of the myths I held of things that I believed I was capable of.

It was the road to Marsabit. The lava road to Marsabit. Only 86km but we had been warned that it was hard. Hearing something is hard, is one thing, facing it is another and this day forced me to face up to a lot of things. It started off fine,  hard but nothing too heinous until around lunch time. Then we came off the sand and on to the rocks. Usually, coming off the sand would be a cause for celebration as you can roll more easily and quickly, but not in this case. The road ahead was composed entirely of broken, black rocks made of lava. It stretched out in a straight line with not a tree in sight. The only reason we knew it was the road as opposed to the endless expanse on either side, that looked just the same, was that it had tyre tracks along it. It was one of the few routes across this part of the country so trucks did roll up and down.

How do you describe riding on rocks? It was even worse than the ruts in the Sudan.  Hell on wheels. Once again, each pedal stroke slammed me against the saddle. There was no consistency, every single one felt different and you had to push every one. No forward motion, no rhythm, no momentum.  My frame was made of steel so had a little bit of flex in it and I had mountain bike forks, so I turned on the front suspension. This, coupled with my double tyres, made the bike unendurably slow and heavy but at least cushioned me a little. I could only imagine what my friends on their cyclo cross bikes were suffering.

The road stretched on, with some slopes up but mainly flat. It was a hot day, in the 40s, and the sun reflected back up off the black rock. That part of Kenya was enduring one of the worst droughts for a dozen years and as I cycled on, I came across a man at the side of the road, begging. Begging for water.  What was worse was that I couldn’t give him any. I only had my camelback and it was low already. I passed him by and felt, as I should, like a monster. Water, after air, the thing we really need to exist, and this poor man was sitting at the side of a track, hoping for someone to stop for him.

The lunch truck came rattling past me, full to the brim with those who had given up the fight against the rocks and got in. Their cheering lifted me for a bit, but the road soon got lonely again. To add to my troubles, the constant slamming against the saddle had brought on a bit of cystitis, so I felt like I had to pee all the time and everything was burning.

The only landmark of the day came up, a skeleton of a cow. It looked happier than I did. Every so often, I got off the bike to walk, not because it was hilly or due to any obstacles but just for a change of pain.  It was getting towards three o’clock and the very last rider passed me. Sam Guo.  He wasn’t too far ahead and I kept him in my sights but after about 45 minutes I hit my low point, in fact my lowest of the whole tour. I had been on the bike for over nine hours with hardly any rest, my back was aching from the banging, I had cystitis, it was boiling hot, Sam was about twenty minutes ahead and I could still see him. That meant that at the very least, I had another twenty minutes to go and I could not bear it. What’s more, I had done this to myself. This was my choice. That poor man sitting by the side of the road, endured much worse suffering all the time, just because of where he had been born. I started to cry, I hated my own weakness, but I gave in. I kept pedalling, but those traitor tears rolled down my cheeks. They made no difference. I still had to get there.

I did. The red flag appeared, the camp just to the side of it beside two stagnant water pools and there was my TdA family all waiting.

If you enjoyed ‘Hell on Wheels’, the book is now on sale… Dodging Elephants on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon


Thanks to Kristian Pletten for the photograph

And you can listen to further adventures on my podcast.

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