WEST AFRICA CYCLE CHALLENGE
Riding 300 kilometres over four days may not sound like much to a seasoned cyclist, but when you replace your local training roads with the dirt tracks of two of Africa’s poorest countries the task begins to look a whole lot harder.
Now ratchet up the temperature to somewhere in excess of 35°C, throw in a few minor support car disasters, and replace your trusty favourite MTB steed with a hybrid shopping bike with a stretched chain and a mind of its own.
What you’re picturing is probably something like the West Africa Cycle Challenge (WACC), a vibrant, chaotic, incredibly difficult and massively rewarding supported cycle ride from Bo in Sierra Leone, to Robertsport in Liberia. WACC is organised by Street Child, a UK-based charity that specialises in getting some of the world’s poorest children off the streets and back into education.
After landing in Freetown, we drive to Bo. The roads are tarmacked. This seems promising. We arrive at around 2pm, and by 3pm one of the heaviest tropical rain storms I have ever seen is thundering down around us. We shelter in a bar where a never-ending procession of Sierra Leonean men take turns to play pool. We eat cassava leaf stew.
Over the course of a week, we eat quite a lot of cassava leaf stew. It’s fair to say cassava leaf stew is not my favourite thing.
We meet our bikes. They are, to mild surprise, in quite good nick. Street Child has teamed up with local bike mechanic, Karim Kamara, who is also the country manager for another charity called Village Bicycle Project. They ship bikes here from the US in cargo containers, sometimes as many as 600. Karim is charged with distributing them around Sierra Leone.
After dinner we have a harrowing – I suspect intentionally-so – safety briefing from the expedition medic. We all promise to lather ourselves in hand sanitiser at every opportunity.
And then in the morning we actually have to do the cycling. Setting off from Bo in the (relative) cool of the early morning, we are escorted by an enthusiastic and horn-happy police motorbike rider.
Before long we are into the countryside. The tarmac runs out as we turn towards the town of Potoru, replaced by the famous, bright red mud of Africa. In every village kids run out of the houses yelling “poomuin”, which means ‘white person’. It is at first amusing, then a bit irritating, and then it gets funny again. We are, after all, something of a novelty.
We cycle onward, arriving in Potoru to an incredible welcome. The kids run from the houses and chase us into the centre of town. There must be hundreds of school children assembled here. They sing and dance traditional dances. It is emotional, almost overwhelming.
We are beginning to see what a big deal this is. It’s not just another bike ride. Potoru benefits from the work of Street Child, and they are delighted to have us here. Potoru sets a tone for the whole trip. Everywhere we go people call out ‘Street Child’. The name is instantly recognised because of the broad, far-reaching work they do.
The second day is the longest, nearly 11 hours ‘on the road’ to go 95 kilometres. A lot of this is stoppages related to the support cars. Cars in Africa have a tough life. And sometimes, like their human counterparts, they have a breakdown.
The heat is oppressive in the middle of the day, so when it starts to rain at 3pm it is a blessed relief. We are very pleased to arrive in the village of Sulima at around 7pm and tuck into a hearty feast of rice and groundnut stew (an entirely different kettle of fish to cassava leaf stew). We play frisbee in the dark with some of the village kids. This is exactly as dangerous as it sounds.
The third day is occupied mainly with crossing the border and a bit of riding either side. It’s a bewildering and bureaucratic process, with a good deal of sitting around, being stared at by a humongous crowd of kids and adults. Twelve tired-looking poomuins sitting on some steps is the hottest ticket in town, it would seem.
Once we are into Liberia, the rest of the day is tarmac. A welcome relief from the cratered, red moonscapes we have been riding for the last two days. Sinje, where we stop for the night, is the most cosmopolitan town we have seen so far. They have a bar, playing a replay of the Champions League semi-final. In the adjoining room a DJ plays extremely loud, truly terrible music.
The fourth and final day is a long slog down a road that, while flat, was one of the least enjoyable of the whole journey. Ridged in the middle like washboard, with stones and ruts littering the gullies at the either side of the road. It’s tough, without a second of respite. Handlebars judder and jump beneath tired hands. We were promised beach. Where is this beach?
Instead of beach we get hills. Three of them. Then some more of the horrible flat-bumpy road. And then finally we are in Robertsport. A beach town that used to be grand, but shows the ravages of the civil war here. Its streets are lined with abandoned mansions.
We turn left, following a motorbike sent to guide us home, and before us is a giant concrete mountain. The road suddenly tilts up to 10%. This is not what I needed. I have to cut side to side to take some of the sting from the gradient. Even with a triple, its a massive struggle. In reality, it’s probably not a very big hill, but at the time it felt like the Zoncolan.
And then we are at the top. It’s a brief descent to the beach, to colourful painted wooden cottages and thunderous crashing waves. The Pioneer edition of the West Africa Cycle Challenge is at an end.
The next West Africa Cycle Challenge will take place in January. For more information, visit the WACC website, or attend a launch event on 29 June at Rapha, Spitalfields, London.