By Everett Potter
When I hear the words “bike tour,’ I usually think of a week of cycling in Provence, Vermont or Napa Valley. I picture relatively easy riding, incredible scenery and great food and wine, neatly packaged into a six-night trip by an adventure travel company.
What the words “bike tour” don’t conjure in my imagination is a four month trek from Cairo to Capetown or a 2,700 mile ride from Paris to Istanbul. These are rides where your mind and body are tested and where strenuous riding is often the rule, as are deep cultural encounters you’re unlikely to have on a six-day pedal.
The company that offers such extraordinary adventure experiences is Tour d’Afrique and I learned about them from a guy named Shanny Hill, whom I met at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Lucerne, Switzerland last October.
Shanny is the Project manager for the Toronto-based company and we recently had a chance to speak about the groundbreaking trips that his company offers.
EP: How did Tour d’Afrique Ltd begin?
SH: Tour d’Afrique Ltd was conceived in the late 1980’s when Henry Gold, the company’s Founder and Director, was managing an international NGO that delivered humanitarian assistance to disadvantaged communities in Ethiopia and other African countries. His original concept was to produce inexpensive, rugged mountain bikes in Africa, for Africans, as a low cost solution to local transportation needs, and to market this new bicycle by organizing a cycling race across the continent – the Tour d’Afrique.
While the mountain bike project did not take off, the pioneering vision of the Tour d’Afrique proved irresistible. In early 2002 Henry and Michael de Jong began the preparations in earnest, undaunted by enormous skepticism and the mountain of logistical challenges to be overcome, and, on January 15, 2003, thirty-three cyclists saddled up at the Pyramids at Giza and started pedaling south. Four months later, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in sight, they celebrated the realization of their dream and the establishment of the Guinness World Record for the fastest human powered crossing of Africa.
Since then our unique little company has grown, in leaps and bounds, through many trials and tribulations. The Tour d’Afrique has been recognized as the world’s longest and most challenging stage race. Following in its spirit, several more continental and sub-continental cycling expeditions have been undertaken,
All told more than 800 intrepid souls have now completed one of our epic trans-continental rides. Through our Foundation, and the donations of many of our clients, more than 2000 bicycles have been distributed to health care and community development workers in Africa and India.
EP: Give us an example of some of your trips and their length.
SH: Here are three of our upcoming trips. The North America Epic is just as it sounds – an epic cycling ride across all of our great continent from Anchorage to Mexico City. The intrepid cyclists from all across the globe will cycle 7,000 miles through Canada and the USA, and then along stunning Baja Peninsula before returning to mainland Mexico to cycle the final leg into Mexico City. This epic journey under human power takes 4 months and gets underway in Anchorage on Independence Day.
The Orient Express Cycling Expedition follows in the spirit of the luxury train line that once crossed Europe from Paris to Istanbul. But this is no luxury tour of Europe. We will be pedaling our way through each day and each town – covering 60 miles each day and staying in campsites and 2 and 3 star hotels to rest our heads in some of Europe’s hotspots – like Ulm, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest. This 2,700 miles journey takes 6 weeks during July and August. We arrive in Istanbul on August 25 after a ferry ride down the Bosphorus Strait. We take advantage of Europe’s rich history, wonderful cycling routes, explore its great cities, and its fabulous countryside scenery, at a pace much slower than the Orient Express trains of the past.
Our inaugural Bamboo Road Cycling Expedition will become the mother tour of South East Asia. This truly trans-continental trip will take participants from the metropolis of Shanghai, thru southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and then ending in the city-state of Singapore. For several years now, SE Asia has been a popular destination for cycling tourists, and we want to offer a grand tour that can encompass a great deal of the region in one tour.
EP: Who’s going on these trips, how many riders, what are their ages, and how experienced are they as riders?
SH: The people who are participating in our tours are from all walks of life it seems. From nuclear physicists, to truck drivers, and teachers, they have many varied professions. Though we typically have 60 to 70 % males on our tours, we are increasingly seeing more and more women participating and more and more nationals from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada, and the USA. We have also had Brazilians, Egyptians, South Africans, Taiwanese, and many other nationals from emerging markets.
The skill level and experience of our participants is also quite varied. We have serious racers, and fit seniors, to first time cycle tourists who come on our tour and treat it as their own weigh loss program. Participants are as young as 18 and have been as old as 71. We do our best to accommodate all that wish to participate with staffing, cooks, and support vehicles working to create a framework built to give them the best chance at completing each day’s ride.
EP: How about accommodations and meals?
SH: Most of our tours are a mixture of camping and simple hotels. Our new tour of South East Asia, along with a few others, are all hotel or indoor accommodation. We choose simple and practical hotels when staying indoors. While camping in some of our more remote locations in Africa and Asia, we do some rough camping where our support trucks, and the water and supplies they carry are all that we have to sustain us for the night.
We do not compromise on is food. We have used trained chefs on many of our tours, because we know the importance of a tasty and nutritious meals at the end of a long day of cycling. You don’t ever want to have a hungry cyclists on a tour.
EP: Are there guides along for the entire ride or do I need to be proficient in map reading and another language or two?
SH: We have tour support staff that help create a framework of support. The style of our tours means that we also expect the participants to be involved in the process and involved in making the tour a success. This can mean that the participants will be using maps at times to double check the directions given by the tour leader, helping the chef chop vegetables to prepare for dinner, or helping others in the group with their bags perhaps. The idea is that on an expedition of this nature, its necessary that staff and clients work together as a team.
With that said, we do provide a great deal of staff support – with most of our longer expeditions having a full time medic, chef, bike mechanic, drivers, and tour leader.
EP: What sort of training regimen is required for these rides?
SH: We send out training tips to our registered riders. The most common thing that interrupts riding on tour is soreness. Sore knees, sore backs, sore butts…. The best way to combat this is to ride regularly in the run up to the tour. At a minimum we suggest you start some dedicated training 3 months before the tour starts.
Riding at least three times a week for a minimum of two hours each time. This could be in the form of cross training or bike rides at a steady pace. This will get you to the tour start with a base of fitness and well adjusted to your bike.
EP: You’ve got five levels of difficulty –easy, moderate, average, challenging and hard. How hard is “hard?”
SH: Good question. Hard can be very hard.
If I think back to my toughest days on one of our tours, it would be in Northern Kenya – part of the ‘Meltdown Madness‘ section that is rated as hard. Picture yourself riding in the rocky desolate landscape of the Dida Galgalu desert for 60 to 70 miles in 100 degree heat with no shade over a terribly rutted road. Now picture doing that for 5 days straight.
The truth is that this section described here has actually recently been paved and we may soon drop the rating down a notch to ‘difficult’
There are other examples I could come up with, but the truth about these ‘hard’ sections is they are often the most memorable, and people who at the start of a tour were struggling through the easiest of stages, find themselves stronger and more determined and ready to face these hard stages halfway through the journey.
We also have many sections with much lower difficulty rating, and so the ratings scale is definitely worth checking out.
EP: Tell me more about the North American Epic.
SH: The North American Epic was redesigned for 2013 to become a truly unique and truly trans-continental tour. In 2011 it was an west to east tour – from San Francisco to St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was a good route, but not quite exotic enough for our taste, and not truly a crossing of all of the North American continent.
Now with the new route from Anchorage to Mexico City, participants can see a line on a map stretching all the way across our continent. With many other tours being offered across the US or Canada from West to East, this tour give people a chance to cover the continent North to South.
Interestingly, those that have already signed up to participate are not North Americans, but people from all across the globe that want to come here and experience these places from the seat of their bicycle. They are from Norway, Britain, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to name a few.
All the tour dates, details, and prices can be found here: http://tourdafrique.com/tour-overview/?t=north-american-epic
EP: Can you do parts of the North American Epic, if you do don’t have time for the entire journey?
SH: Of course. All our expeditions are split into 2 and 3 week segments to allow people to be part of the experience while not committing to the long time require to complete the whole expeditions. The North American Epic is split into 8 tantalizing sections. With names like ‘Land of the Midnight Sun‘ and ‘Alaska Highway’ and ‘Canyonlands‘ interested cyclists are sure to find a section that suits their interests and timeframe.
We have had some people do a section at a time and eventually completing one of our trans-continental tours over the course of several years.
EP: Any new trips planned for Tour d’Afrique?
SH: Yes, we always have new projects in the works. The Bamboo Road Cycling Tour described earlier is one, and in 2014 we will start where that tour left off and launch the Trans-Oceania from Singapore to Sydney, Australia – crossing the outback and cycling through Adelaide, Melbourne on our way to the big finish at the Opera house in Sydney.
And, with the completion of this tour, we will have completed all the tours we needed to be able to offer the 7 Epics Challenge – a global cycling challenge for the truly crazy cyclists. A series of 7 supported cycling epics that touch every corner of the globe.
Visit Tour D’Afrique for more info