Because I know that a few of you reading this blog are committed to or are contemplating future rides across Africa, below please see my list of top ten tips. To provide further perspective, as one of this year’s riders stated: “This is a tour that I would recommend unreservedly to my best friend….and also my worst enemy.”
1. The Bike: Obviously your most important decision. You will love your bike; you will hate your bike; you will call it a “petulant child” on the backroads of Tanzania; you will consider putting it (instead of yourself) in your tent when it rains at night and there is only room for one. You basically have four options here: front suspension mountain bike, cyclocross, touring or hybrid. The Tour is 80% paved and there are some loooonnngg road days, but keep in mind that the majority of the offroad sections are advanced. You will face every conceivable terrain and condition on the TDA and no one bicycle can deal perfectly with changing elements. Your choice of bike should depend on your strengths, weaknesses and level of desired comfort as a rider. If your one and only goal is to ride EFI, you need a bike that will get you through the toughest off-road days. Mountain and touring bikes are clearly going to be heavier; hybrid bikes are frequently customized so more expensive. I rode a Specialized Tricross Sport cyclocross bike with replacement parts for the carbon seat post and fork. Other popular bikes were Surly and Kona varieties (hybrid/cyclocross), the Salsa Fargo (touring) and Specialized Stumpjumpers (mountain bike). Carbon is a bad idea, which two busted frames this year demonstrate. Get your bike fitted and mark all the fitting points before breaking it up to take on the plane.
2. The Tent: Do not skimp on what will be your one source of comfort, shelter and privacy for four months. I was amazed that some people brought bivouac tents for a long trip in variable weather with a lot of gear. I brought a two person (could have fit four) four season Eureka tent that could have gone to the top of Mt. Everest. It was probably a bit excessive, but it was really comfortable and dry. The trucks carry your gear, you just have a weight limit. Bring a tarp to fold up on the inside of your tent. Even of water seeps through, if you’re on top you’re dry. I’m digressing, but also bring a tarp to keep the rain and sand off your bike at night.
3. Spare Parts: TDA’s list is generally good. You will probably just hand it to a bike store owner like I did. Also bring spare jockey wheels, spare shifter and brake cables and 15-20 spare tubes. Some people had 10+ flats per day and patches only go so far. For tires, bring 25’s for the roads, 35’s for the nice dirt in Namibia, and then the biggest treaded offroad honkers that will fit on there for Sudan, Northern Kenya and Tanzania “dirt.” Cyclocross bikes will have less clearance for big tires- I had 42’s and could have used bigger. A triple chain ring with a “granny” gear is a lifesaver on the hills. Yes, there are hills. The entire way. Remember that there are no decent bike shops until Windhoek, so you are stuck with your spares, bartering with other riders or hoping an expensively shipped package arrives. A final tip on bikes, take a basic mechanics course before you depart. Yes, there will be a mechanic, but he has more bikes to work on than time. In addition to knowing how to change tires, it would be helpful to know how to clean and change brake and shifter cables, change and manage chains and cassettes, clean the bottom bracket , replace spokes, take pedals on and off and basic derailleur functionality.
4. Weather: Expect the unexpected and the key here is layers. The rainy season is supposed to start in Tanzania and end in Botswana. Our rain started in Northern Kenya, took a break and then deluged on us in Botswana. Have a breathable rain jacket for the bike and a more substantial rain jacket and pants for camp. In the desert, expect dry but stifling heat, mostly when sitting in camp after the day’s ride. In Malawi and Zambia, expect oppressive heat and humidity. In the highlands and in Namibia and South Africa, it is certifiably freezing. Bring arm warmers, leg warmers, cycling gloves and hats. A cycling vest is also a nice midweight layer. De Soto also makes arm and leg coolers which are nice to keep the sun from baking you in the heat. Sunscreen, baby wipes (your new best friends) and basic pharmaceutical needs are available enroute.
5. Preparation: Some riders start training a year in advance for this ride; for others, one hour into the first day represented the longest ride of their lives. You can’t truly prepare for the TDA if you are a normal person with a job. In my opinion, the TDA is harder mentally than physically. Make sure you are basically fit, that your bike works, that you sort of know what you have gotten yourself into, and I promise things start to feel a little better a few weeks in.
6. Health: Here you’re looking at a combination of luck, sanitation and luck. The truly nasty sicknesses start in Ethiopia. Make sure you bring a personal supply of antibiotics such as Cipro (tummy), Augmentin (generalist) and Z-pack (respiratory), but know that the staff also has a supply. On our trip riders tended to have persistent low grade maladies or one really nasty issue. I fell in the latter category with a week-long kidney and gall bladder infection. Two members of the TDA got malaria. For malaria medicine, Malarone is expensive but has the fewest side effects, Doxycycline is an antibiotic but increases sun exposure and Larium made a few riders dizzy this year. I took Doxy but recommend Malarone if you can afford it. You have to keep taking Doxy a month after leaving a malaria zone, which is weird when you’re back in New York City. Popular creams to prevent saddle sores were Assos and Sportique Century Cream. This isn’t exclusively a health issue, but I found the food on the TDA to be delicious- plenty of protein and accommodations for people with dietary restrictions. I couldn’t believe some of the meals that were prepared in remote Sudan, using just two burners and an assortment of pots. Rock on James.
7. The Race: The TDA is both an expedition and a race (the longest in the world), and you can sign up for either category. I “raced,” which for me meant that I took some days seriously and spent most of my time taking in the sights, sounds and Coke stops at a somewhat decent pace. Do not underestimate how difficult it is to truly race a four-month stage race across Africa. Almost every day was a race day, with lead pack pacelines on the roads and a survivor mentality on the dirt. Racing makes you more susceptible to illnesses and injuries, and you do miss a certain aspect of the Africa part of the experience. It is a race that is won by the most consistent riders, not necessarily the objectively fastest. You can also just race certain sections or time trials if you don’t want to commit to the whole thing.
8. Technology: On the Tour, riders ranged from having no connection to the outside world to several thousand dollar voice and data satellite connections. If you can afford it, a notebook laptop is nice to write blog entries, back up and sort pictures and connect to wireless via purchased sticks or in internet cafes along the way. A few laptops do break because of the sand, water and other harsh conditions. I personally brought a blackberry with unlimited data and unlocked SIM capability. I could write and upload block entries, BBM and write emails home from my tent at night, with a small, light and less expensive device. It received reception flawlessly in Egypt, half of Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa. Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana were rough. I found internet cafes plentiful, but sometimes challenging when 60 riders all wanted to use the computer on our one rest day per week.
9. Safety: In terms of staff and support, our team had two Tour Directors, two assistant Tour Directors, a cook, two nurses and a mechanic. Four outsourced staffers from a company called Indaba managed the trucks and helped with meals, and additional TDA staffers flew in from Canada to help with various sections. There were two large trucks for transporting gear and two smaller vehicles to provide additional support. Additionally, local “facilitators” accompany the group throughout various countries and segments. In terms of safety, I felt much safer than I anticipated. The group is large and looks out for each other. Local security is hired where necessary. Traffic accidents were a much more significant threat than random violence or crime. All this being said, while the TDA is a supported Tour, it is not a Tour that holds your hand. I felt a very large degree of independence and personal accountability, from my daily well being to keeping my bike functioning properly.
10. Attitude: Any issues with the above nine tips can be mitigated by mastering this one. Your attitude is the only element within your control on the TDA. Stay relentlessly positive and smile your way through every horrible fabulous inch.