Preparations for the big show: Tour du Faso

The hard work is done, now it's time to race!

Well, we’re just a couple days out from the biggest race in Africa: the Tour du Faso. I just visited the Beninese Team’s preparation camp in the village of Comé, situated in the rolling hills of Southwestern Benin. Ten athletes were invited for a week of training and racing drills with Coach Gandaho.

A small concrete building with a tin roof served as the team’s base camp for the week. Squeezed into a small room full of bikes, thread-bare tires, drying jerseys, and tired athletes, the mood felt much like any training camp I experienced with my teams in the US.

Weary from long days on the bike, the athletes joked and laughed as they prepared dinner over a charcoal stove. Doing their best with meager means, the team seems determined and excited to be training together.

I rode along on their last day, and I was impressed with the cohesiveness and fitness of the team. They’ve come a long way since they got smoked by the Burkina team at the Independence Day race in August. It’s obvious they’re taking the Tour de Faso very seriously, and they’ve prepared to face off against top riders from across Africa and Europe.

Nonetheless, we’ve got to set realistic expectations, and Coach Gandaho encouraged the team to focus on finishing as many riders as possible, rather than chasing individual glory.

At the end of the week, Gandaho announced the final roster with a mix of established talents and eager youngsters. I was excited that my buddy Alphonse was chosen. He’s been training with a vengeance since the Independence Race, literally wearing the teeth off his chainrings. Fortunately the team lent him one of their aluminum Giant racing bikes with downtube shifters, and he’s rearing to go to Faso.

Alphonse is the first cyclist from northern Benin ever to be selected for the national team. In a country dominated by the wealthier and better-educated southerners, it’s quite an accomplishment for this kid who hadn’t ridden on pavement until 6 months ago.

In addition to Alphonse, the coach selected:
Augustin - Benin’s best sprinter
Soglo - national road race champion
Cackpo – a tough, cocky all-rounder
Arnauld #1 – a quiet rouleur
Arnauld #2 – a young newbie, just discovered at the training camp in Comé

The second Arnauld was quite a discovery. When the team arrived in Comé, locals told the coach about a supposedly unbeatable cyclist from the village. Gandaho invited this local phenom to come train with the team. Arnauld showed up to the first ride on a modified touring bike with cyclocross tires and a fixed-gear 52x14 drivetrain.

Despite having never ridden in a paceline before, he held with the team all week, and the coach lent him his own bike to join the team at the Tour du Faso.

Much like any team, there was great disappointment amongst the riders who didn’t make the cut, but the chosen athletes decided they’re going to contribute a portion of any winnings to those who must stay home.

We’re planning on leaving from the capital on Tuesday morning in a minivan. It should take two days to get up to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The race is scheduled to start on Thursday. I’m excited to follow along with the boys, and share these stories with Cyclingnews whenever I find an internet connection.

If you want to send words of encouragement to the team, you can leave comments on my website:

I also want to take another opportunity to thank everyone who sent equipment donations to the team. The Village Bicycle Project loaded everything into a shipping container in Seattle two weeks ago, and the equipment should arrive in Africa sometime in December.
cheers from Benin!

p.s. Congratulations to my hometown friend Ben King on his US National Championship! Now I forgive you for whipping me at the Wintergreen Hill Climb. The Beninese Team wants to know if you’ll come ride with them here.

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