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.
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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)