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Cycling in Benin

The boys of Team Benin appreciate your support.

Christmas comes for Team Benin

By:
Christoph Herby
Published:
December 23, 2010, 0:15 GMT,
Updated:
December 23, 2010, 0:22 GMT

Donations arrive just in time

After months of logistic wrestling, the generous donations from Cyclingnews readers finally arrived in Benin. You sent us bicycles, wheels, tires, clothing, and helmets from all corners of the world. It's pretty amazing.

We couldn't have cut things any closer on this end. In the final weeks of my Peace Corps service in Benin, I knew the container of donations should be arriving any day in Ghana. We'd coordinated with the Village Bicycle Project (www.villagebicycleproject.org) to piggy-pack on their delivery of used bicycles to Ghana, and we eagerly awaited the news that the container had come off the boat. Well, weeks went by, and the boat still wasn't there. Apparently the Accra port was pretty congested for the holidays. I started getting pretty nervous during my last week in country.

Finally, four days before my flight out of Benin, we got the call. I piled into a taxi with Coach Gandaho and the secretary of the Cycling Federation, Roger Zounon. We traversed Benin and Togo, finally arriving in Ghana late at night. The next morning, we woke early to meet the good folks at the Village Bicycle Project. We arrived to a bee's nest of activity: piles of bicycles surrounding the shipping container, and people running in every direction with bicycles and wheels and parts. Amidst all this chaos stood George, the coordinator of VBP in Ghana. Somehow he orchestrated the unloading of the container and the allotment of bikes to various individuals who sell and distribute them throughout Ghana.

Tucked neatly to the side, we found that special pile of bikes with Benin tags on them. We were so excited to explore our treasure pile! Ventilated helmets... sturdy wheels.... fresh tires, even a few complete bikes! All this stuff will be put to great use.

Thanks to friends on the Ghanaian National team, we got in touch with a driver who would help us get the parts back to Benin. We loaded everything into a minivan, took the parts back to a friend's house for the evening.

Despite our letter from the Beninese Ministry of Sports, we knew it would be quite a feat getting these parts across two borders the following day. And so it was. At dozens of police checkpoints and customs stations, officers sorted through our equipment. The Ghanaians seemed cool with our explanation, but the Togolese officers weren't quite so understanding. Why should they let the Beninese cycling team get a free pass through Togo? It took quite a bit tactical discussion and cash under table to finally reach Benin. But reach it we did, and now the equipment is securely stored at the Beninese “Olympic Center”. Gandaho and the leaders of the federation will inventory everything create a responsible plan for distributing the equipment.

I am confident the equipment will find good homes with the riders on the team. I've encouraged Coach Gandaho to focus on the new young riders. While some of the older riders have conceded to playing second fiddle, the younger guys are dreaming big. They might not be the best today, but I know they have the potential to win big in a few years. Gandaho is excited about that plan, and he wants to use the new donated equipment to reward for the riders who commit themselves to training.

The success of this equipment donation was bittersweet for me, because it also marks the end of my time in Benin. I finished my Peace Corps service the day after we returned from Ghana, and now I'm already back with my family in Switzerland for the holidays. The boys of Team Benin have left a mark on me, and they're determination will always inspire me. It's been a pleasure sharing their stories with the CyclingNews community!

Although I've said goodbye to my Peace Corps Service, I haven't left Africa for good. I'll be returning next month to embark on a new endeavor: the Pulaku Documentary Project. Through my time in Benin, I became close friends with a young Fulani man. The Fulani are fascinating tribe of nomadic herders who life throughout West Africa. Their lifestyle is threatened by climate change and loss of pasture lands. Beginning in January, we'll be traversing West Africa by motorcycle, visiting Fulani camps to share their stories via photo, video and ambient sound. Check out our website and order a photograph to support the project.

Thanks for reading, thanks for supporting Team Benin, and godspeed!

Christoph

Kakpo is ready giddy-up at the start of stage 5.

Racing Squirrels GaGa after Tour du Faso

By:
Christoph Herby
Published:
November 04, 2010, 19:08 GMT,
Updated:
November 04, 2010, 19:16 GMT

The long road home from an eye-opening experience for Benin's team

While I’ve been writing dynamic reports about the action at the front of the peloton, there’s a whole other struggle at the back of the field. Since the challenges of the first three stages, things haven’t changed much for the Racing Squirrels.

Each day has been a struggle for survival, as the boys try to hang with the peloton as long as possible. It’s a long, hot road off the back. There have been a few highlights: three of our boys finished in the peloton on stage four, and Augustin has twice contested the field sprints, finishing somewhere in the mid twenties.

As the race progressed, Alphonse and Arnauld found themselves in hot contention for the lantern rouge, awarded to the last rider on each stage. Alphonse claimed the award on stage five, nonetheless determined to finish the whole Tour du Faso. Unfortunately he found himself off the back again on stage six, suffering from saddle sores and aching knees caused by his poorly-fitting bike. Although he was eager to complete the remaining four stages despite the pain, the official race doctor insisted that he withdraw.

Arnauld took over the lantern rouge, overcoming numerous flat tires and a snapped brake caliper to finish the 2010 Tour du Faso in last place. Meanwhile Augustin, Soglo, and Kakpa did pretty well for themselves. Hidden in the draft of the stronger teams, they finished in the peloton most days and showed grit that impressed the Europeans. I heard numerous coaches and riders comment about the determination of the teams from Benin and Togo. It’s rare to see such solidarity and encouragement within the peloton.

Despite the challenges, the team is in good spirits, and I think they’ve learned a lot here. In particular, this has been an eye opener for the younger guys, and I’ve been wrangling a plan with Coach Gandaho to nurture these youngsters over the next few years. I expect to see more red/yellow/green at the front by 2013.

The team has really appreciated the support from Cyclingnews readers. Each evening I’ve been passing on your messages. Also, Team Oregon stepped up to organize new jerseys for the team. The current kits look sharp, but they’re barely holding together with safety pins and patches. We’re hoping for at least 12 jerseys so each rider can have one spare in next year’s Tour, and we’re counting on donations to make this possible. Please contact me through my website if you’d like to help: www.QuietGriot.com

Tomorrow we’ll load back into the Miracle de Dieu and hit the long road home to Benin. I recently introduced the boys to Lady Gaga’s tunes, and now they can’t get enough. Hopefully that will keep the driver awake. Rah, rah, oh-la-la…

Augustin is focused at the start of Stage 1.

Things fall apart

By:
Christoph Herby
Published:
October 26, 2010, 17:27 BST,
Updated:
October 26, 2010, 18:49 BST

Benin's team perseveres through adversity at the Tour du Faso

Hello CyclingNewsers. I'm writing you from Dori, deep in the Sahel of northeastern Burkina Faso. The Tour is staying in a tent village tonight, set up especially for the race. It's an impressive operation, with a mess hall and tents full of mattresses for every team. Everything's been trucked in 260km from Ouagadougou so we can sleep in the same comfort as in the capital. There are heavily armed military men around the perimeter of the camp, so, I suppose the only thing we have to worry about are heavily armed military men.

Things have started off tough for the Beninese boys. There's a classic book by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. That would also be a pretty good title for the adventures of the Beninese cycling team at the Tour du Faso. While things fall apart metaphorically in Achebe's book, things are literally falling apart here in the Squirrel camp. Things like shifters, bottom brackets, wheels, and quite excitingly, steerer tubes. All this makes it quite difficult to compete against a peloton equipped with modern bikes and fancy carbon wheels.

In stage 1, our boys held strong for about 50k, milling around near the back of the field. Then Alphonse hit a pothole (which they call "hens nests" here) and his steerer tube cracked off from his fork, inside the head tube. The fork stayed on, and the handlebars stayed on, but they were no longer connected. He hit the pavement pretty hard and tore up his hands because he doesn't have gloves. Somehow, he rode out the rest of the stage with sketchy steering and avoided all the rest of the potholes.

As things heated up in the second half of the stage, our boys got dropped. With our riders spread all up and down the road, Gandaho chose to follow Augustin in the team car. Unfortunately, Kakpo flatted both tires further behind, and newbie Arnauld gave him both his wheels. That left Arnauld waiting on the side of the road, and he had to jump in the broom wagon, abandoning the race. On the bright side, this meant Alphonse could use Arnauld's bike for stage 2.

Alphonse wanted to start the next stage with a sock over his torn hand, but Coach Gandaho says that would be unprofessional. Are we really so pro without socks on our hands? For the second stage, I got the opportunity to ride in a press vehicle, so I told the boys they'd have to get in front of the pack to get their photo taken. No more glamour shots off the back.

Anyway, the second stage started off well with Soglo representing Benin in an early break. Things got tricky when he discovered his bottom bracket bearings were falling out. He nonetheless completed the stage with a floppy crank. Alphonse had trouble because the only wheel available for his 7-speed drivetrain had an 8-speed cassette. That meant his chain skipped all over his cassette. Although he was quickly dropped, he finished in a group of stragglers. The other boys also finished in various states of fatigue and disrepair.

Stage 3 was brutal: scorching heat as the longest day took us up into the dry Sahel of northeastern Burkina, and the Squirrel's misfortune continued: Augustin got tangled in a crash on a gravel section, breaking his STI shifter. He's the only rider on the team with modern shifters, but now he's riding single-speed. Again, somehow, everybody finished.

Through all of this, we somehow aren't in last place. We're ranked just ahead of the Togo team. Well, I guess there's a good explanation for that: our riders have logged quite a few kilometers hanging onto the window of the team car at 60kph. Ya know, I don't like it, but I don't blame ‘em. They just want to stay in the race. That's the only way they'll gain the experience to succeed in the future.

While this all feels like a strange tragicomedy, I'm still amazed by the team. I haven't heard anybody complain about their disadvantages, and they still look proud each morning when they pull on their tattered jerseys.

Just 7 stages and 892 kilometers to go...

Benin’s Augustin Amoussouvi introduces himself during the team announcement.

The underdogs of Tour du Faso

By:
Cycling News
Published:
October 22, 2010, 18:18 BST,
Updated:
October 22, 2010, 19:23 BST

Benin's team arrives in the Miracle of God for the big show

It was a long, bumpy road to Ouagadougou, Africa's best-named capital and ground zero for the Tour de Faso. We loaded into the rickety minivan that's transported the Benin team to races for over a decade. Owned by a former cyclist, the "Miracle de Dieu" has transported the Benin team to races for over a decade and has become a fixture on the West African racing scene.

The aptly-named "Miracle of God" somehow managed over 1000km of road that ranged from mediocre to terrifying. We travelled for 28 hours straight, only stopping for an hour to sleep on the tables of an outdoor roadside market. While the racers slept in the back, I stayed anxiously attentive, ready to grab the wheel as the driver dozed in and out of alertness. Yup, real scary.

We finally arrived in Ouagadougou late Wednesday night. Settling into the fancy race hotel, I got a little nostalgic seeing the teams milling about and rows of sleek bikes ready for competition. This year's competition features teams from France, Belgium, Holland, Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and of course the mighty Squirrels of Benin.

While I had previously thought Benin's cycling team was typical of West Africa, I've discovered that we are indeed the underdogs of the continent. While most of the other African teams also ride scavenged bikes, they've at least found somewhat modern equipment and nice uniforms. Our boys' old jerseys are held together with safety pins in place of zippers, and several of them display creative custom patches where crash tears have been repaired. You're definitely the underdog when the Togolese racers snickers at your outfit.

Unfortunately, the donations from CyclingNews readers have yet to arrive. The shipment should arrive in December. At least next year there will be fresh equipment for the team. While thanking everyone for their donations, Coach Gandaho made one additional request: new jerseys. Anybody interested in helping out? Perhaps your club could adopt the Beninese team? You could have your way with design and even put your team's sponsors on the jersey. Let me know.

After selecting fresh rubber from the team's collection of used tires, the boys set off to loosen up their legs while I went to the manager's meeting with Gandaho. The Tour de Faso is incredibly well organized, and they even provide a car for each team, so we'll leave the Miracle of God in Ouagadougou.

Like Benin, Burkina Faso celebrated its 50th independence anniversary this year, and the Tour plays an important role in showcasing Burkina's development. I was excited to see a strong contingent of media coverage at the opening ceremony for the big men's speeches and the team presentation. As I watched the Benin team walk on to the stage, I couldn't help but get a little sappy: it's such an incredible opportunity for these boys to travel to a foreign country and compete against top athletes. Alphonse hadn't ridden on paved roads until six months ago, and now he's about to start a UCI 2.2 stage race. Pretty cool.

Well, keep on reading. We've got ten stages and 1318km of adventure ahead of us.
 

Although he doesn’t speak the same language as his Southern teammates, Alphonse integrated well with the team and made the cut for the Tour du Faso.

Preparations for the big show: Tour du Faso

By:
Christoph Herby
Published:
October 21, 2010, 15:53 BST,
Updated:
October 21, 2010, 17:04 BST

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: www.quietgriot.com.

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.

The Benin team car fuels up on roadside gas smuggled across the border from Nigeria

Benin’s independence marked with stage race

By:
Christoph Herby
Published:
August 16, 2010, 11:31 BST,
Updated:
August 16, 2010, 13:03 BST

Herby joins the action in aid of his friends

August 1st, marked the 50th anniversary of Benin’s independence from France. In celebration, the Ministry of Sports organized a little bike race: a two-stage omnium finishing in historic Porto Novo. This presented my buddy Alphonse with his first opportunity to race on pavement and see what a peloton is all about. For me, it presented the opportunity to play in a paceline for the first time since an injury kept me off the road for several years.

Although I didn’t race stage one because I was busy with Peace Corps work, the officials let me jump into the action for stage two as long as I didn’t interfere or contend in the final finish – that didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. Over the last few years I’ve spent more time in Carrhardts than spandex, and it showed today. I churned up lactic acid that I hadn’t tasted in quite awhile.

Having swept the podium in the first stage, the riders from Burkina Faso approached stage two with confidence. Their cycling program is quite impressive. They have a team of full-time cyclists who receive military salaries. Essentially, they’re soldiers of cycling. They ride slick Colnago frames with 10-speed Shimano components, while most athletes from Benin and Togo ride old chromoly frames with friction shifters. Burkina Faso sets the bar pretty high for an African cycling team. It’s great to see them raise the level of competition in the region, but it sure makes life tough for the little guys.

So, we had our work cut out for us. Wearing the yellow, green, and red of the Benin national team, I was excited to help our sprinter Augustin Amoussouvi put on a good showing for independence day. We departed the village of Pobe for 75 kilometers of rolling terrain to Porto Novo. The national police escorted us to wave bush taxis, trucks, and wandering goats out of our path.

The race started at a comfortable pace with a couple Beninese riders setting tempo at the front of the 30-rider peloton. Those two domestiques popped after 30km when we accelerated over a few small hills. Alphonse held strong, hiding in the pack and exploring the curious beast that is a cycling peloton. I messed around near the front, helping Augustin contest the intermediate sprint at the half-way mark. I even played a few games and launched some attacks with several of my teammates.

Then we came to the biggest hill of the race, which, to be honest, wasn’t much of a hill at all. But it was enough to cause me trouble when the Burkina boys set a hot tempo. Cresting the climb, they formed a strong echelon into a steady false-flat headwind. Alphonse exploded. Then I exploded. Benin’s coach Gandaho gave me several firm pushes from the window of the team car, and a banana, but I was toast. Turns out the old engine ain’t what it used to be.

With the top ten riders pulling away with the police escort, the rest of us were left to wrangle the wild streets of Porto Novo to reach the finish line. Dodging dogs, motorcycles, and a few army tanks preparing for the independence parade, Alphonse and I trickled in for 12th and 13th place.

Augustin finished in 7th place, the top Beninese rider behind a Burkina sweep of the top 6 spots. This race was a great opportunity for the riders to taste the competition they’ll see in bigger races. Alphonse was excited to have competed, and I can see he’s got fiery determination to become a real racer.

I’d like to finish with a special thank you to all folks who are donating equipment to the Benin team. The Village Bicycle Project (www.villagebicycleproject.org) has been tremendously helpful in arranging shipment of bikes and components from the USA to Africa. If you’d like to send something or contribute to VBP, it’s not too late. Contact me through my website: www.QuietGriot.com

Thanks ya’ll, and cheers from Benin!
 

Author
Cycling in Benin

Christoph Herby is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. Prior to trading his cleats for sandals, he raced stateside for Snow Valley and Rite Aid. Nowadays he pushes anaerobic threshold riding singletrack to the nearest bank and playing soccer with local troublemakers. You can follow his adventures at www.QuietGriot.com