Words by Tom Owen | Photography by Anna Jackson
We are two and a half days into an epic four-day cycle from Bo, Sierra Leone to Robertsport on the coast of Liberia. We are waiting at the border to go into Liberia and the driver of our support car has just accidentally driven straight through a cordon across the road, pulling down the border post (a wooden hut) that the cordon was attached to.
You don’t get to use the word ‘hullabaloo’ very often, but that’s exactly what this incident causes.
It causes a hullabaloo.
You could also say, all manner of hell breaks loose.
Where there was once a wooden hut with border officials inside, there is now a lot of broken wood lying on the ground and some very angry border officials, very recently deprived of a hut to stand in. The driver eventually regains control of the car and puts on the handbrake.
“The driver is thrown into a cell that has an actual iron grille for a door. It goes clang as they throw it closed behind him”
He gets out and is immediately swamped by the aforementioned border officials who are, it’s fair to say, quite angry. The driver is thrown into a cell set in the wall of the immigration building. It has an actual iron grille for a door. Like a LEGO prison cell. It goes clang as they throw it closed behind him.
You could also say, the driver is in deep shit.
Turning to me in complete deadpan, Sam, who works for Street Child, the organisers of the West Africa Cycle Challenge, says: “Borders are fun in Africa.”
Lots of things are fun in Africa. Cycling is definitely fun in Africa. The abysmal road surfaces make it very tough on cars – I lost track of how many minor breakdowns the two support cars had across the full four days – but by thunder, they are amazing to ride a mountain bike on.
It is rainy season when we are here, which means a daily downpour at around 2 or 3pm – just the right time to cool you off after the brutally high temperatures around midday. After the rain it gets very hot again. Naturally.
The tracks we travel on are mainly second-string, back roads connecting less-visited towns and villages, although we spent some time riding tarmac too.
Where the riding got interesting, though, was on the single-lane roads connecting the smallest villages to the slightly better-maintained main roads. Here you get a real chance to open up and rip some tricky downhill lines.
The roads themselves never get narrow enough to be called singletrack, but the amount of surface available to you that isn’t submerged in standing water or littered with yawning potholes, does make line selection that little bit more challenging.
And while, from a technical standpoint, it’s not going to test the more experienced mountain biker, the combination of environmental factors certainly makes life tougher.
Sky-high humidity compounds the already sky-high temperatures, while the constant need to take on water means there are plenty of times where you have to lay the bike down at the side of the road and scamper into the bush for a bit of bladder relief.
It’s like doing four days of enduro racing, complete with some testing climbs and tricky descents, but on a hardtail hybrid shopping bike with only half the gears available. The cycling has a real air of give-it-a-go amateurism about it, the kind of attitude the first MTB riders at Repack would probably have a lot of time for.
The West Africa Cycle Challenge is first and foremost a fundraising event. Participants pay to go on the ride, but they also fundraise for Street Child. And then, during the cycle, there are project visits to see how that money is getting spent.
These moments are the real eye-openers; more than the scenery, which is at times jaw-dropping; more than the ridiculously warm welcome you receive everywhere you go.
Throughout the ride we visit towns with Street Child-funded schools, families supported by Street Child and even visit Liberia’s worst slum – where the charity works to keep kids in the single public school, which serves a population of 74,000 people.
The scale of the task is dizzying. These two countries have both been ravaged by war, resource-plundering and, of course, the Ebola outbreak. It will take lifetimes to repair the damage – and in that context riding a bike through the countryside starts to feel very small and insignificant.
The official Challenge jerseys, kindly supplied by Hackney GT, feature the Street Child logo – and you find that it’s instantly recognised by people throughout both Sierra Leone and Liberia. When they aren’t shouting: “poomuin” at you, literally “white man”, they are shouting “Street Child!”
It sometimes feels quite fraudulent to be sat at the roadside eating chicken and noodles out of a tinfoil tray and have a stranger come up and say: ‘”Thank you.” Like you’re getting the credit for something you had no involvement in.
“It’s only when you stop riding and look around that you realise what a spectacular thing it is to be doing”
Each day on WACC starts early. It has to, to make the most of the morning when it’s definitely still hot, but not brain-meltingly so. For breakfast we eat bread and egg. If not a ‘speciality’ of West African cuisine, bread and egg is definitely one of the trip’s greatest hits.
The coffee comes in a sachet pre-mixed with sugar and milk. You pour it into hot water and seconds later you have a cup of something brown and liquidy. It’s not to everybody’s taste, but for someone with a sweet tooth and deeply-entrenched anti-morning sentiments it’s like nectar.
We get on our bikes. We talk about how much our bums hurt. We cycle for a bit. Africa is beautiful. We forget about our bums hurting.
Soon we have to stop and drink water. We drink water out of sealed plastic pouches unappealingly nicknamed ‘bagwater’. There is an art to tearing off a corner of the bag with your teeth, without splurting water all down your front. Doing this while riding is even more difficult.
We eat cereal bars while riding, but by 10am we begin to think about lunch. The midday meal is a freestyle affair. One day we eat by the side of a very busy construction road, huge trucks rumbling past every few minutes.
The next we eat in a village, sitting on the sprawling roots of a large tree. The box with all the cutlery in it has gone missing, so a bunch of spoons are sourced from different houses in the village. During every meal we are watched intently by a group of local kids.
The meditative quality of cycling, just turning one foot over another, has the strange ability to make you forget where you are. Your brain goes blank. It is one of the things I love most about the sport.
I can remember ‘waking up’ at my desk in the morning, unsure how I got to the office, with no memory whatsoever of riding the ten miles through London streets. That is disorienting enough.
Now imagine the same thing, but ‘coming to’ in West Africa.
This is the most striking thing of all about WACC. The task at hand is to cycle, but it’s only when you stop riding and look around that you realise what a spectacular thing it is to be doing. Rich red earth and deep green jungles. Inland lagoons and pristine tarmac mining roads. Tiny villages filled with smiling faces.
This is what you’ll remember.
If you’re wondering what happened to the driver of that car, Street Child paid to get him out of jail. Kind of like Monopoly. It cost $15 US.