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West Africa by Bike

Story and Photos by Joseph Lee

When TDA Global Cycling announced their first ever expedition tour of West Africa, I signed up immediately, eighteen months in advance. I had done a few TDA tours previously, and was excited to return to Africa with my bicycle. It had been thirty years since I had hitchhiked my way down the continent, so my return was long overdue. The trip was daunting: Casablanca, Morocco to Cape Coast, Ghana; over 6,000 kilometres in 57 riding days, through 7 countries, with most nights 'bush' camping.

I had planned on riding my 29er hardtail mountain bike, but three weeks before my departure, I panicked. The route was to be over 80% on tarmac, with most days over 130 kilometres, and a strong potential for headwinds. I felt that I needed a lighter bike with drop bars. Neither my road nor touring bikes could accommodate the wider tires recommended, so I had proper justification for that 'n + 1' new bike. I called Dave at Flying Monkey, and he had a Litespeed Gravel bike frame in my size in stock!

I drove out to discuss the build. Dave recommended a very sexy wheel set (Rolf Hyalites ES rims) which went against my conventional 'the more spokes the better' thinking, but the lighter wheels appealed. The bike was ready in a week. Weather, work, and last minute preparations conspired against me, and I only got out on one ride on my new bike before boxing it for the flight to Casablanca. Basic touring 101 clearly states that you don’t set out on a long tour on an unproven bike! 'Apprehensive' would be a gross understatement!

Fortunately, the bike and the fit were perfect, and it was ideally suited to the trip. I survived the climbs over the Atlas Mountains, the headwinds of Western Sahara and Mauritania, the long distance days of smooth pavement through Senegal, the epic dirt and hills of Guinea and Sierra Leone, and the most incredible beach ride from Côte d'Ivoire into Ghana. The bike tolerated the abuse and minimal weekly TLC, and was the favourite of the mechanics because it never required anything more than a bit of fine tuning.

The trip was incredible! Seeing the world from the seat of a bicycle is the best way to travel, and in Africa this was even more evident. The smiles, waves, cheers and shouts of encouragement from the locals will never be forgotten. To some of the remote villages, we were like the circus coming to town, with over forty cyclists and four vehicles passing through. From my perspective, getting a glimpse of village life, witnessing the resilience and spirit of the Africans, was simply magical. And each smile and wave seemed to give my legs the needed energy to keep pedalling.

The trip was also tough. Individually, there were a few really challenging long days, but it was the cumulative toll that really wore one down. Five and six day stretches between rest days, with most nights 'bush camping', with no showers or toilets. We were usually allotted a litre or two of water for washing (water is such a precious resource, especially in the Sahara) and a walk with a shovel took care of that other necessity. The food was great; our crew took great care of us.

We were really well supported on the tour, with a crew of thirteen! Two bike mechanics, two medics, three cooks, one documentary filmmaker, three 'do everything' crew, and two tour leaders (one for the day to day running of the trip, and one to solve the logistical and bureaucratic problems and challenges that continually arose). All we had to do was ride! Oh, and pitch our tents each day, maintain our bikes and our health, do our dishes after each meal, break down our camp at dawn, and keep ourselves well fed and hydrated.

I was amazed by the logistics, preparation and planning that went into the trip. In West Africa, finding enough food and clean water for our expedition of over fifty people (31 full tour riders, a dozen or so additional riders doing sections of the tour, and the crew) was a constant challenge. The pre-tour work paid huge dividends, with well chosen roads and no problems with the bureaucracy of border crossings, security, and police checkpoints. Surprisingly the tour ran pretty much as planned - no small feat considering it was the 'first edition'!

It was a long tour (over ten weeks) and all of a sudden it was over. The end was marked by a mix of emotions: happiness, pride and relief that the tour was done and completed safely, and sadness that it was over and that I had to say goodbye to our group of riders and crew. I’m left with stronger legs, great memories, and an awesome bike that begs another adventure!

LITESPEED GRAVEL

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TDA Global Cycling

TDA Global Cycling started with its first Tour d'Afrique, a cycling expedition from Cairo to Cape Town, in 2003. It still runs that tour every year, but has since expanded and now has over a dozen tours, including big expedition style tours across five continents. Each tour is divided into sections, so one can choose a ride from a couple of weeks to a full tour of four or five months! More information at: https://tdaglobalcycling.com/


The Author

Joseph Lee got the travel bug at age twenty, and has travelled to over 100 countries. He discovered cycle touring twenty years ago and has done over twenty five bike trips, ranging from solo self supported tours to organized trips. He has five bikes, but his new Litespeed Gravel bike is now his favourite.

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