The Longest Stretch

I was planning to post a sequel to the A Day on the Ride post to give you an idea of how the riders have settled into the routine of the tour. But as events unfolded over the past week, it quickly became clear that there was no longer any routine. Each day brought new challenges and, taken together, the past eight days have been the most physically, mentally, and emotionally draining of the trip so far.

I didn’t want to title this post The Longest Week for fear of tempting fate: I’m pretty sure there will be several contenders for that title during the next three months. Instead, I thought I’d focus on one unique aspect of the last week: it was the longest continuous stretch – eight days – of cycling without a rest day of any on the trip. Generally we get a day off every four to six days, and the longer eight-day stretch was noticeable. In addition to the length, the section featured some of the more grueling days of the tour, including the day with the greatest amount of climbing and several days of difficult unpaved terrain. Here are a few of the challenges we have faced.


imageMost of the cyclists would cite the heat as the primary evil over the past week. A Khartoum local told me that temperatures were “unseasonably warm,” which is not something you want to hear from a resident of one of the hottest cities on the planet. None of us had precise instruments, but measurements of the afternoon temperatures ranged from 45 to 54 Celsius (113 to 130 Fahrenheit). I found it mostly bearable, as at least it was a dry heat, but it meant that hydration was a real concern. I was drinking seven or more liters a day, which is crazy since I have no idea what happened to all that liquid after it was ingested – although a whiff of one of my cycling jerseys might give a clue.

Other cyclists fared less well. Heat exhaustion was a major enemy, with most people suffering at some point. I probably succumbed myself yesterday, during the killer hill day (see below), although it’s hard to separate problems caused by the heat from problems caused by gastrointestinal bugs. It turns out that a lot of heat exhaustion symptoms look just like food poisoning, both of which have led to some real carnage at dinner time.


Dinner hasn’t been the only time for carnage. Some mornings and afternoons our camp has resembled an ICU ward or a Red Cross area: people passed out on tarps, often with a shovel nearby for emergency bathroom expeditions. I’ve watched at least two perfectly healthy-looking riders suddenly keel over. Besides the heat, many of the problems stem from a number of GI bugs that seem to be circulating. This is probably inevitable as our bodies encounter new foods in new regions, especially because we’re putting them under a great deal of strain. I was one of the last riders to stay strong, but yesterday I succumbed to the nausea/diarrhea symptoms a number of riders have been experiencing. Luckily, I have two days of rest before we hit the road again, so I hope to be mostly recovered.

More serious problems (as in, those brought by mosquitoes) still lie ahead, but we’re in enough of a risk area already that everyone has started malaria prophylaxis – which may be a contributing factor to people’s conditions, as many of these drugs have unwanted side effects. I opted for Malarone, which cost me my firstborn but has the benefit of supposedly few adverse reactions. Other options include doxycycline, which increases the risk of sunburn (PROBLEMATIC) or Larium, which makes some people go crazy (EVEN MORE PROBLEMATIC). After a few weeks, I’ll have to compare notes with the riders who are on these other medications.


We basically have no privacy anymore. In the last few campsites in Sudan, and especially since entering Ethiopia, there are children everywhere. Very inquisitive children. This can be a problem if you are one of the cyclists suffering from GI problems. One of the riders in a spot of desperation finally gave up and let two little girls hold his hands while he popped a squat.

I have nothing against these kids, nor do I find their behavior surprising. Thirty Spandex-clad cyclists are definitely the best show in town. Why would you not pull up a chair? Look at that Dutch guy wandering around in his underwear! Still, it’s a bit of an added stress to have several pairs of eyes on you at every moment.

The inquisitive children are far more pleasant than the stone-throwing children. We were warned about this before we entered Ethiopia, but nothing really prepares you emotionally for being pelted with rocks by eight-year-olds.

Here’s what happens. As soon as the first cyclist is spotted, children come running across the fields. It’s uncommon to go more than a few hundred meters without seeing a group of them. They begin a piercing “You-you-you-you-you” cry, which then changes to “Where are you go?” or “money-money-money”. I’ve learned that saying you have no money IS NOT A GOOD OPTION, as that’s when you tend to get a rock or a cane to your back. Continuously smiling and waving seems to disarm some of them, but it doesn’t always work. To make matters worse, the kids will run up the hill beside you, yelling all the way. Sometimes they will help push you up the hill, which is nice, but more likely they will grab your jersey or your bike to see if there’s anything in your pockets. Pacifying them with candy or spare change is a bad idea, as it just makes things worse for the next cyclists.

As you can imagine, this is emotionally exhausting. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to scream “Fuck off” to a group of little kids, but the temptation definitely presents itself fairly frequently here. What’s important to remember is that the vast majority of children are delightful – frustratingly curious at times, but perfectly lovely. In my first few days in Ethiopia, I have seen thousands of children and only had problems with a few dozen. Unfortunately, the suspicion that the kids might be troublemakers is hard to avoid, which adds an interesting layer of stress to some already difficult conditions.


While still in Sudan, we cycled about 270 km over three days on some very rough roads. This was my greatest challenge, partly because Simon was not really a fan of what was happening. He protested by getting a flat every few hours. The other part of the problem was rider error. It was a steep learning curve as I figured out how to maneuver Simon in the sand and dirt. I crashed six times the first day; once the second; but by the third I was fine. With one exception that involved more blood than I would have preferred, these crashes were comical rather than disastrous. One happened in front of everyone at lunch. During another, both feet stayed locked in the cleats and I spent five minutes trying to get free, making me feel like a turtle that had landed on its back. Luckily, even the serious crash did more injury to my dignity than anything else.

imageWhen the road wasn’t covered in sand, it usually meant something worse: CORRUGATION. Imagine riding on a corrugated tin roof and you’ll come close to what I was experiencing. Sometimes I walked Simon for a few minutes just to give my kidneys a rest. I also found that, due to the lack of front suspension, my hands and forearms took a serious hit. My handwriting has gone from atrocious to illegible.

Getting lost was another problem on these dirt roads. The tour organizer marked the route with flagging tape, but the tape would often disappear by the time I got there. Or worse, kids would move it to the other side of the road. At one point, this caused me to take a detour of several kilometers into a village where I made excellent use of the important Arabic phrase: Shuft khawagat bil ‘agala? (Have you seen foreigners on bicycles?) Turns out we’re pretty hard to miss, so it didn’t take long to get back on track.

It was slow going (one day took me eleven hours), but Simon and I struggled through. I found the best way to keep my spirits up was with music; which, since listening to an iPod can be dangerous given the need to hear coming traffic, meant a lot of singing aloud. I’m pretty sure this was southern Sudan’s first taste of the musical Hairspray.

I also had good company, including a ride with my friend Ben one afternoon, whose bike is named The Duchess. Simon and The Duchess get along famously, not least because they’ve both received some doubting looks concerning their competence in the dirt. (Someone told Ben that The Duchess looked like the type of bike your parents gave you for Christmas when you were 16). Clearly these people are not aware that Simon and The Duchess are FIRE-BREATHING STEEDS ready to bolt from their stables at any moment. At any rate, all four of us made it to the end of the road, which was only true of half the cyclists (everyone else had to be picked up in the van at some point). As Ben put it so eloquently, “You can’t buy perseverance in carbon fiber.”

Here are some lyrics I composed to commemorate our off-road riding. Warning: these contain minor swears of the sort that you would expect from someone who has ridden on corrugation all day.

“Flagging Tape” – to the tune of Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face”

My ass is sore, my arms are numb, my legs feel just like jelly
And after seven hours getting lost there’s no food in my belly
When I try to sit I feel the jolting without pause
But when I try to stand that’s when my saddle hits my balls

Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
C’mon where’s the flagging tape?
Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
Where’s the fucking flagging tape?

Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape
Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape

I’m lying on my back I’ve still got one foot in the cleat
I think I’d stay all day if I weren’t worried ’bout the heat
The drivers here are crazy and there’s unrelenting sun
But baby when it’s dirt if it’s not rough it isn’t fun

Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
C’mon where’s the flagging tape?
Can’t read my, can’t read my, no I can’t read my directions straight
Where’s the fucking flagging tape?

Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape
Fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-fl-flagging tape


imageJust as the rough roads were ending and we entered Ethiopia, we faced another challenge: climbing. So far, only yesterday has been an intense day of mountains, but what an epic day it was. We climbed over 2600 meters (over 8000 feet) to arrive on top of Ethiopia’s central plateau in Gonder. It was a challenging day for me, not only because it was more than I’d ever climbed before, but because I was also suffering from whatever GI illness I picked up. Things were a bit touch-and-go at lunch, but Simon and I summoned strength from somewhere. We were one of only about twelve riders to make it to the top; if you’re keeping track, The Duchess also emerged victorious. The mountains will continue to be a major challenge for the next two weeks, as no part of our route in Ethiopia is flat.


Lest I leave you with a vision that the last week was a complete hellscape, I should point out that the past eight days have included some of the most beautiful moments of the trip. Besides some major bonding time with Simon and with the other cyclists, I was frequently overwhelmed with gratitude for the glimpses of life that I got to see. Very few foreigners ever traverse southern Sudan, and many of the villages we passed are not on any map. Whether it was the vast unpopulated sorghum fields of Sudan or the densely populated but breathtaking highlands of Ethiopia, the scenery more than rewarded the effort it took to view it. Most importantly, I have a sense that I’ve overcome the first major physical and psychological hurdles of the trip. While there are sure to be new challenges ahead, I think Simon and I are ready to face the next three months with a smile. And maybe some body armor.

Posted in Travel Blog.


  1. Leap and the net shall appear. Glad to hear you are pushing past the toughest parts and enjoying what beauty surrounds you. That is essential when living a balanced life. Love you, Nate! Mom

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