Friday, February 4, 2011

Adventures In Gabon, Africa

A pack of a couple dozen mostly naked kids chases after our bus, smiling and waving wildly. Our bus driver, Lameine, honks the horn, grins back and gives a big thumbs up before throwing the bus into a near slide as he pushes on the gas in a tight corner. In a small, brackish stream along the roadside there are several mothers doing their laundry on a rock, a family bathing, a kid emerging with a large fish speared with a home-made harpoon, and another nude young boy happily peeing and waving to us for all he is worth. I notice a large dead rodent (perhaps a monkey?) hanging from a stick alongwith some chickens in a village center as they prepare lunch. Before I can get a better glimpse, Lameine locks up the wheels again in another corner as an old army truck carreens around a corner, 12 adolescents hanging onto the bed and headed straight for us. With life ending collision avoided by a handful of centimeters, Lameine steps back on the accelerator and turns of the stereo, playing the infectious beats of P-Square.

My Chipotle Development teammates and I are currently on our way to a stage start in a town 125km away from our hotel. A few days ago, all of these things would have made for a full story on their own, but now we just close our eyes and grip the seats a little tighter. My time in Gabon, Africa for the UCI 2.1 Tropicale Ammissa Bongo has shown me just how quickly we can change our idea of "normal". Now, the thought of hot water and clean sheets seems like something from an entirely different life.

It's safe to say that my trip to Africa was more about the experience of it all and basic survival than the actual racing. It started with the trip to get there. When all was said and done, I calculated that I spent 47 hours in transit to Gabon. Stepping off the plane was like walking into the shower room at the college locker room, and I was immediately dripping with humidity. We were flown to an airstrip in the northern part of the country for our first stage, since roads are scarce. The jungle was so thick that you couldnt see past the first row of trees, and it looked like it could be harboring all manor of terrifying creatures long hoped to be extinct. It felt sort of like walking into the aligator exhibit at a zoo, except you couldn't leave.

Arriving at our hotel, it became clear that our standard of living was about to receive a serious adjustment. The dark cement room smelled of decades of mold, and we soon discovered two large and very fast spiders in addition to a cockroach. The spiders proved impossible to apprehend, and eventually we made peace with them on the condiiton that they would eat malaria carrying mosquitoes. A similiar truce was reached with the small wall geckos. Electricity flickered on and off for a few hours and then shut off completely. The brownish red cold and cold running water turned into no water. The airconditioning turned itself off every 45 minutes, forcing us to take turns getting up through the night to restart it. The sheets in my bed, which were hosting a colony of ants, were stained and smelly. We asked for a washing machine, and were pointed to the river where the villagers were showering and washing their clothes. The bathroom had a quarter roll of toilet paper and no toilet seat. That was the most toilet paper i would see at one time for my entire stay. Hearing noises from the jungle at night, my first thought would be that someone must be making that noise, until I remembered that I was in Africa.

After having come to terms with our new home, it was time for some bike racing. Fresh out of two days of travel time, I hit the first stage with all the energy of a St. Bernard in a July heatwave. On the day's two KOM's I nearly got dropped and avoided breakaways like the plague. Teammate Freddy Cruz was the sole Garmin rider to make the 18 man breakaway. I was happy to finish in the field, and it didn't help that protour teams Quick Step, FDJ, and Europcar were in attendance.
Fortunately, things got better from there, and the next day Rob Bush collected the kom and sprinter's jerseys on an all day solo breakaway that was caught only 10kilomters from the finish. The next stage, Andrew Barker and I finished in an 11 man breakaway that included Sylvain Chavanel, Jerome Pineau, and Anthony Charteau. The following stage I managed to get into a six man move with Charteau, Andy Cappelle (quickstep), and a former Cervelo Test Team rider from Eritrea. That ended up moving me into 4th on gc and in the best young rider jersey.

On one of the transfer's between stages, we were loaded into a C130 military transport jet and lifted off from a jungle airstrip. Facing in and strapped to the walls, Max noticed a lever above us with the intsructions "in emergency, pull lever", and a pile of parachutes in a bin. Then we hit an airpocket in which we dropped probably 100 feet in half a second, and I barely had time to notice my race bag heading for the ceiling as I held on to my harness for dear life.
As I said, a week in Africa can do a lot to alter your sense of "normal". I'm probably never going to be able to listen to someone talk about a bad flight or hotel the same way again. That said however, once I started to get past the inconveniences, Africa definitely had some very redeeming qualities. Despite the poverty, the people were seemed to be some of the nicest and happiest I've met.

With the final stage in Libreville, we seemed to have come back into a bit of the modern world, as we were staying in hotel clearly meant for diplomats and expatriots. Having hot water again felt kind of strange, especially after spending a week in the jungle surrounded by hut villages. For the final stage, Gabon president Ali Bongo made an appearence in his presidential chopper. With the Tunisian government recently toppled, the Ivory Coast under a "Reign of Terror" and Egypt in revolt, the 30 year leader of the government probably had a lot on his mind.

Rob got in the day's break and finished third on the stage, holding onto his points jersey, and I kept my best young rider jersey and fourth overall. All in all it was a good result and good first race of the season; but the most impressive feat was not getting killed by our fearless bus driver during our transfers or any of the very sizeable insects inhabiting the room. Despite Gabon Air deciding to cancel it's one flight leaving the country, we were eventually able to make our long and arduous return to the first world. The fact that some of us had consumed some questionable meat (we thought we were eating chicken theighs until someone noticed a spine) made the travel a little less pleasant, however we all eventually found our way through the wintry storms and back to the good old USA.

Now, I'm in northern california staying with Nate Geoffrion, enjoying all the comforts of the the first world and eating food without fear of viscious parasites and diseases. I'll be sure and not lose my new sense of "normal", since I'll be returning to the third world in a few weeks for the Vuelta Dominican Republic. So long as we don't have a bus driver with formula one asperations or monkeys for dinner, I'll be ready.