The Accidental Racer
Jan 9, 2011, Ouagadougou: As you shiver in your booties or spin mindlessly in your basement back in Bloomington you might not want to hear that it is 85 degrees today in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. But December is winter, and the Burkinabé people consider anything below 90 to be cold, so the wooly hats and winter coats out are out in full force. I’ve been here for almost 4 weeks now, so even I decided that I needed a thin undershirt beneath my Tortuga jersey and bib at 6:15 a.m. when I left the house and the temperature was “only” 63 degrees. I’m headed back to Germany on Thursday, so this is one of my last chances to ride with bare arms and knees for the next three months.
Although it’s just a quarter of an hour since sunrise, the streets are already filling with the thousands of bicycles that make up almost half the traffic of this city of about 1.5 million people. Smoke-spewing mopeds and motorbikes make up most of the rest, although there are enough battered green taxis, trucks, and private SUVs on the road weaving in and out of the bikes and motos to make the first impression one of absolute chaos. A bit of time on the roads however soon reveals the patterns and rhythms that make it all flow.
The Burkinabé are proud of their position as West Africa’s most stable country and, they are also proud of the 24-year old Tour de Faso, a fixture on the UCI calendar each fall. But for most people, a bicycle is a primary means of transport, and it’s amazing what can be carried on the backs of bicycles that would be considered landfill material in the U.S., including other bikes that are headed to the repair stands that are on almost every city block. But for my money, the most impressive transport is by the guys from the village of Bassemyam who cover the 15 km into the city loaded up with 8-10 huge pots, strapped to the backs of their bikes in a pyramid that is about 3 meters wide and equally tall
The goal this Sunday morning was to ride some circuits on a tarmac’ed rectangle of road in an undeveloped corner of the city that is regularly used for training by the local racers. Lynn and I been introduced to this training location back in mid-December by a Dane who lives here with the auspicious name of Michael Rasmussen, a strong cyclist despite not being the Rasmussen you are probably thinking of. That time we had done some fast laps with some of the masters-age riders who used to ride the Tour de Faso back when it was an amateur race. The younger guys weren’t there that Saturday in December because they were preparing for a race the next day. Lynn and I were both on our Bike Fridays, which had attracted a lot of curiosity and the usual bit of skepticism. But at the end of an hour of hard riding that day we had managed to dispel the skepticism and make some new friends. When I had by chance encountered them again on new year’s day they had emphatically told us to come at 6:30 a.m. the following Sunday. We’d heard from Michael that they don’t always show up.
At 6:30 this morning, then, there’s no sign of any other cyclists. We stop for a bit of bike maintenance and tire pumping and set off for an easy loop. Two other riders show up and we start a 2nd loop with a bit more pace when *POW!* my rear tire blows out with what turns out to be an inch-long gash in the sidewall. I make a tire boot with a 5 euro note wrapped around a business card, but it’s not safe to use in a pack so I leave Lynn to keep doing laps with the other riders who were beginning to show up, while I charge home to install a new tire.
Thirty minutes later, I’m back and instead of finding 20 or so guys doing laps, there’s more like 40 cyclists milling around in the road, along with a growing crowd of spectators. Hand printed numbers on plain paper are being fixed with packing tape to the backs of jerseys. I’m encouraged to “inscrivez” and so I sign my name on the sheet and am handed #10 which is duly taped to my back. Lynn has to go find some of our other friends at 8 to go for a recreational ride so she doesn’t sign up.
Turns out there are two races this morning, one for the over 30s and one for the youngsters. The under 30 race is a quality field that includes a number of riders who took part in the most recent Tour de Faso a couple of months back, and there are some high-end bikes in evidence too. The over 30s are on a mix of current and vintage equipment, but all in pretty good shape (bikes and riders, that is). We all mill around near the start/finish line and the crowd is building — kids and adults from the nearby residential areas, as well as some older (and heavier!) cycling club members who are just out for the spectacle. Eventually they start calling out names for the under-30s, photos of the stars are taken on the front line, and then they’re off. Next the old-guys names are called. There are about 15 of us and I find myself on the front line. A minute later we’re off. How many laps are we doing? I have no idea! So I ask one of the other riders and am told 10.
The course is more or less a rectangle. Dead flat (it’s Burkina Faso), with two long sides and a small chicane followed a dirt speed bump that’s smooth enough to take at speed on the back side. It’s also the beginning of the Harmattan wind season, when the wind and dust blow off the Sahara, and there’s quite a stiff head wind on the back stretch. I decide to put my head down on the first lap and see what happens. As we get around turn 3 at the top of the course I look behind and note that the entire pack is single file behind, and as I turn onto the home stretch the guy in second comes past me at a good pace and I sit on his wheel all the way down to the first corner.
A bunch of the local kids are on corner number 1, and as I go round in 2nd place they yell “Nassara! Nassara!” which is perhaps roughly translatable as “The Honky! The Honky!” although it’s thought to be a reference to the first missionaries (who apparently kept talking about “Nazareth”). These kids are yelling it in an excited, friendly way and I make a point of waving at them on each of the next few laps. The adult spectators yell perhaps a bit more politely “Le blanc! Le blanc!”
Second time up the back straight I decide to push it again into the wind and 500 meters later we have a small group of six riders off the front. Repeat again on lap 4, and we are down to four. This is fun! By now our lead from the others is safe and it’s ok to be a bit more strategic on the next couple of laps. As we turn onto the finishing straight for the fifth time the officials are waving a white flag — actually what looks to me to be a shirt tied to stick. I have no idea what it means. I’m thinking it may be a sprint on the next lap, when all of a sudden the others jump for the line. Ok, 4th place on that sprint, but at least I know the signals now.
Onto the back stretch and I decide to press my advantage into the head wind again. I manage to put a small gap on the others, but the guy who won the first sprint (and looks like the best sprinter as his thighs are definitely twice the size of mine) powers back up to my wheel. We still have a small gap on the other two. So they are tiring; good! I ease up a bit because I’m pretty sure that my sprinter friend is not going to work with me against the other two, and I’m not going to drop him with the tailwind section coming up. By the time we get onto the home straight we are all together. But damn! — the flag is being waved again, and I’m in the lead with 400m to go and the best sprinter on my wheel! So I decide to kick well out from the finishing line — perhaps 300m, a long haul. I manage to surprise everyone, including myself, and get the sprint to the accompaniment of similarly surprised shouts of “nassara” and “le blanc” from those who had seen me finish 4th on the previous sprint.
Four laps to go — time to conserve a bit, so I let a couple of the others through and settle into 3rd place for the head wind section, but then we pick up a rider who has been dropped from the other pack. He accelerates, probably I think out of embarrassment about being caught by the old guys, and my sprinting rival jumps after him so I have to jump too. Immediately the others are yelling at him that the other rider is not in our race, so we ease off a bit and let the other guy go again. Puts me in 2nd going in to the home stretch again where once more they are waving the flag! Is this a points race, I’m beginning to wonder? Ok, but this time surprise is not going to work. So I’ll have to be a bit more patient… 200 meters … he’s looking twitchy … jump now! Somehow I get two bike lengths lead and managed to hold it out to the line. Yeah!
I’ve been communicating in French with the other riders, but this time around the back stretch I hear the guys talking Moré, the language of the local Mossi people, and there’s that word “nassara” again. So they are plotting something. And sure enough, it’s lap 8 and there’s another flag as we round turn 4. This time I’m in 3rd place, on the wheel of the sprinter, but we encounter another lapped rider just after the corner, and I split to the right while the two in front of me split to the left. So, I’ve lost my draft and I’m just going to have to go early again. Meanwhile my rival is getting a bit more of a lead out. By the time he’s left his buddy’s slipstream and come along side me with 50m to go, he’s going quite a bit faster than I am. So I save my effort and get second place by a couple of bike lengths.
Two laps to go, if I’ve been counting correctly! I ask one of the the riders and he confirms the count. Into the head wind again where I decided I would keep pressing my advantage in an effort to tire the others and discourage them from making it three against one over the last two laps. But about half way down the stretch a motorcycle comes up from behind us, and tells us there’s a change of plans: this is the last lap! Ach! So they’re going to make me sprint from the front, I’ve lost the element of surprise, and I am fairly sure I don’t have the muscles to beat this guy in straight up sprint. Nothing to do but to go long again and hope that he fades. So, with about 350m to go I wind it up, take the lead but he’s on my wheel. 200m he starts to come round 100m he’s coming by, and at 30m he’s got a bike length when I start coming back, but too little too late. Second by half a bike length! Big smiles all around. Racers and spectators alike, are super friendly and everyone wants to shake hands.
Lynn & friends had arrived just in time to see the finish, and after watching the sprint finish of the slightly-longer under 30s race, we are about to leave when I’m told by one of the other racers to go and see about the “argent”. Turns out that I won 3,500 CFA (Central African Francs) for the two primes and second place. It probably sounds like a lot of money, and is is the equivalent of 2 days of laborer’s wages in Ouaga. However, it is actually worth about $7. I tell the organizer to please keep the money to boost the prize list for the next set of races. He looks pleased and announces it to the crowd, generating some nice applause from everyone within earshot.
More than money that goes to those who already race, it seems the big need here is equipment. The elite, national team riders are well looked after, but the kids who watching today were often (literally) dirt poor. They can only dream of one day going up against their local heroes, and les blancs who show up from time to time. Most of us in Bloomington have old but still useful parts and frames lying around our basements and garages, but getting them into the hands of those who could use them is not a simple matter. If only it was as easy as gathering it all together, strapping it onto the back of another bike, and pedaling on over.