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!
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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 (opens in new tab)