Saturday, April 11, 2009

I’m on the headwinds to hell

Leaving Khartoum was quite the trip. Traffic was everywhere, sometimes three deep on the road headed straight for us. We were run off a few times. There were also many potholes. Today was the first time where I found there was a bit of conflict with the pelotons. I think that a bunch of inexperienced folk joining in on them could have been a large contributing factor. For those of you who don't know, pelotons are when you ride in a straight line, or two by two when there's space. You get really close to the tire of the person in front of you, and it keeps the headwinds off of you. The lead rider keeps a steady pace, tries to keep the whole train intact, and notes any deviations in the road by pointing and shouting out, which then gets passed on down the line. We've been sticking to a 5km lead ride (then you jump of the train and rejoin at the back of the line), though when I ride with the racers they tend to go for longer. Because you're riding so close together, forgetting to mention a hole or a sand patch has the potential of massive damage. Unsteady speeds can shake the people on the tail of your train, and can be exhausting as you just can't get into a groove.

The pelotons had been very useful in Sudan since they allowed you to zip through part of the day - while it's incredibly cool to be in the Sahara, it's still just a desert, and there's not much to look at other than dead camels, donkeys and the occasional vulture. Where I would normally be riding at about 30km/h, in a peloton I can get well into the 40's (though when I ride with the ladies we tend to stick to 25-30) Slower riding is nice because it means not just looking at the ass of the person in front of you, and a higher chance of stopping for tea. Since I've discovered tea with cardamom in it, these tea stops have become very important.

Well on this day Evelyn and I were doing a two-person train to cut the headwind. It was a pretty strong one, the strongest we'd encountered. I looked back at one point and realized that a whole train had latched on to us. Then I caught up with another train and latched on to them. We stuck together for the first 40 kilometers, and then I saw the ladies and decided that I was hooped if I had to keep going at the speeds we had been going at, especially since the cross-winds were prevalent and the peloton wasn't really taking the edge off of the ride. Unfortunately, while I had occasionally had some great drafting experiences with the ladies, there were some new folk in the group who were changing up the pace, and communication was at a low, which lead to three of us hitting a pothole the size of a child's snow angel when someone forgot to call it out.

When we reached the lunch truck, Evelyn and I took off together. Cathy joined in, as she often does after lunch, but she's such a strong rider that she was gone in no time. We got to our camp. It was to be our last day on the Nile until we picked up the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. We set up camp in a Eucalyptus forest with a view overlooking a beautiful sand beach on the Nile. I set up my tent, had my soup (rehydration soup with tons of salt in it - we get it daily, and it's all I can think about most days after leaving lunch), and then saw that one of the other riders was doing very poorly, so I set up their tent for them. By this point I thought I would explode if I didn't get down into that water, so I gathered my washing stuff and ran for the sand. It was like bathwater. At least, bathwater at the point where you start thinking about getting out. And if there is anything more important than water at the end of the ride, it's cool refreshing water. I stayed in it until I was pruney. I washed my clothes, cleaned up, and felt amazing. Sonya was in there as well, and we left just as Simon was jumping in. As I turned I saw Simon drop his skivvies, and between that and the two women leaving, our audience of local townboys scattered like ants to fresh bug bomb. The night was wonderful except for one small pika-like rodent that kept us all awake. The funny thing was that it sounded like a heart-monitor, so we all assumed that the rider who had been unwell had left it on for the night. And then it would be irregular for a bit, and then sometimes it would stop for a couple of minutes. That was when I figured out that it wasn't the sound of our friend kicking it, but some local annoying animal. We generally get woken up by fighting dogs, Mosques, or donkeys. There is no twitter of little birds here in Sudan.

The following day was a nightmare. This whole section was set up with distances of 142,146,137, 152 due to a history of tailwinds. We did not get any tailwinds during this time. These few days left a lot of us thoroughly beaten up and disheartened.

I left the camp and rode through the peace of the morning, expecting not too hard of a day until suddenly our route took a sudden left turn and I found myself in a sandstorm through which I could barely see the road. When I finally got past the big kick up I rode into a little tea shop where a few of the other riders were having some peace before heading off again. Sometimes you just need a few moments rest to realize that you can actually go on. Sometimes all I can do is think that if I can't make it in today, there will be a truck that will come and get me. After a few hours of headwinds, I got in to lunch. I was in quite a bit of pain by this time. My anti-Malaria meds make me sensitive to the sun, so I've got pretty bad burns on my arms and knees and my knuckles - you can't imagine how awful a knuckle burn is. In Asia I tried Lariam - it made me hallucinate, here I'm on Doxycycline - I get thoroughly burnt (great side-effect for a drug that only gets used in regions with excessive amounts of sunlight). I guess if ever I go down to South America I'll go for Malarone and bite the bullet of $5 a day for a pill.

I rode off from lunch but couldn't continue - I was sunstroked. I covered myself with my sarong, but that only worked as a sail to slow me down. Judy passed by and fortunately (for me) got a flat. We started changing it when a bunch of white-robed, white turbaned men who were fixing their own flat came over. Introductions and handshaking passed, and then another car stopped to see what was going on. More white-robed, white turbaned men came out and more introductions and handshaking, this time with the other men as well as us. We had only managed to get the tire off in this time, and then I saw the truck in the distance. I pushed my way through the crowd of men and flagged it down. I got on with the knowledge that there was nothing that could get me to push that pedal one more time. We got into Alfonse's camp. It is named for a past TDA rider who took the day off riding that day. He jumped on the truck in the morning, got in to lunch, tucked away some grub, got back on the bus, had a nap and never woke up. He died peacefully of a heart attack. We had a moment of silence to remember this man who was known for his unending caring and generosity, as well as a disproportionately large smile.

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