Dreaming of the Champs Elysées

Riders cobble together bikes while dreaming of more

I used to be one of them... you know the type. Heck, you might be the type: I read Cyclingnews each morning with my deep mug of premium organic coffee before setting off on my sexy titanium racing machine. I dreamed in watts, kilocalories, and beats per minute. I paid $15 extra for the Italian bottle cages that were 10g lighter. I took the stickers off my carbon rims. I did it all, folks… and just look at me now:

I read Kerouac on my porch after mixing powdered coffee into evaporated milk (the label proclaims "Fat-Full!"). I hit the road at 6:30am to take advantage of the quiet moments on the pavement before overloaded cotton trucks and bush taxis converge on our kamikaze highway.

I ride a Batavus chromoly frame, made in Holland circa 1970. My rig features 7-speed downtube shifters, Sachs components, and simple aluminum handlebars with ragged white tape (traditional bend, like Lance Armstrong). It gets the job done; I'm starting to get pretty quick again. Just one complaint: the 170mm crankarms are a little short for my gangly legs. My svelte rig, lent to me by the old-timers of the Beninese Cycling Federation, is the envy of my training partners.

I ride with a wiry bunch of boys who've somehow discovered bicycle racing at a time when football-crazy Africa prepares to host the World Cup. We're quite a sight rolling down the highway in a paceline of scavenged parts and clothing.

Alphonse, Ousseni, and the rest of the boys display a knack for piecing together road bikes from miscellaneous components. Alphonse rides an aluminum Giant touring bike with rapidfire MTB shifters mounted in the bend of his handlebar. I'm surprised how convenient it is to shift those suckers from the drops. Alphonse can really throw down on his fat touring tires – I fear the day we get that boy on skinny racing slicks. He's awfully intimidating in his stretched black one-piece.

Most road bikes in the country come from the bicycle market in Cotonou, the national capital. There you'll find hundreds of used bicycles and piles of tires and components. Virtually everything has been donated or otherwise scavenged from Europe. Somehow this stuff finds its way onto cargo ships that deliver containers of used merchandise at the port.

From there, traders sort through the stuff and select whatever fits their niche. The bicycle vendors deal by the railroad tracks in the Zongo neighborhood. Rows of bikes line the tracks as Abou the mechanic swaps components to piece together as many working velos as possible.

Road bikes are hot items because of their scarcity and popularity with city folks. Most of the bicycles sell for around 20,000 CFA ( $40) but skinny tires and curved handlebars double the cost of a rig. I explored the market looking for fresh rubber for my Batavus. I found a pile of tires and tubes that looked promising, but shopping at the Zongo market is far more complex than visiting your local pro shop: every item has a catch.

Most of what ends up here was donated or scavenged, so each piece has some kind of flaw. Perhaps the tires are already worn down to the threads, or there's a hidden gash in the sidewall. I eventually found two Schwalbe tires with just a few small nicks and cuts that could be patched from the inside. I also bought two used skinny tubes for 1,000 CFA each ( $2). The catch: each tube already has a half dozen holes. Road parts are so scarce that they can sell raggedy tubes for twice the price of a new normal tube.

After my last couple articles, several generous folks contacted me about donating equipment to the Beninese team. Thank you! I write these articles to highlight the determination of the athletes, not to solicit pity or charity. However, these guys do need reliable equipment. If you would like to donate something, it will be put to good use. Whether it's a whole bike, those tacky neon shorts you're embarrassed to wear on the group ride, or used handlebar tape, your stuff will find a whole new life.

Unfortunately, like the Zongo market, there's a catch here: the team lacks financing to ship equipment from abroad. So, if you decide to donate something your generosity will also need to cover the cost of shipping. The President of the Cycling Federation has made arrangements with the Ministry of Sports so that donations can arrive without taxes or bribes. Contact me through my website if you'd like to send something over. www.QuietGriot.com

Alphonse hadn't ridden on pavement until he moved to Parakou for school. He's crazy about cycling. He's heard talk of a big race in France every July, and he's pretty sure he can win that race if he keeps training. Perhaps he will. You read it here first: Alphonse N'Tcha M'Po is dreaming of the Champs Elysée.

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