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...
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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)