- By Vin Cox
“It’s almost impossible”… “So difficult, sometimes no-one finishes”… 300 miles of gravel* in a distant land is the kind of challenge I can’t leave alone.
Due to my background (ultra-endurance adventure riding and cyclo-cross racing), I heard of the mother of all ultra-endurance gravel races some years ago. A few social media friends said this was a big deal, so I rather too casually thought I’d join in. I’ve picked out some lessons for the aspirational ultra-distance or gravel cyclist.
TransIowa is a quirky/cult event: No-one knows the route or how much over 300 miles it is until the evening before. The guy in charge is known as “Guitar Ted”, but his name is Mark. Entry is via postcard to Guitar Ted, which must arrive on a precise date and include a code word. The event website is a crazy stream of consciousness which riders must learn to live by. Riders are allowed no support at all – just sustaining themselves from occasional convenience stores and whatever they carry on route. And… the start is at 4am and the finish closes 34 hours later.
Somehow I got the entry organised and had my first go at TransIowa in it’s 9th edition (#TIV9 for short)… and I failed. After 220 miles, in the middle of the night I found myself getting dangerously cold in a freezing night. I raided the bins in a town and insulated myself with newspapers inside my clothes, but I couldn’t ride hard enough to warm up, and there was nowhere to shelter, so I called for help and quit. It was a real pity because #TIV9 was “an easy year”…
1) Traveling too light can catch you out.
2) Anticipate how slow you’ll be going after 24 hours of effort.
3) Don’t underestimate. Believe organisers warnings and descriptions.
For #TIV10 I was better prepared. I was fitter and lighter. I had a new bike and I knew what I was in for; or I thought I did. I at least understood that literally the WHOLE 330 MILE RACE would be on hilly gravel roads. I knew about the gravel being loose, dangerous and energy sapping. I had learned that rural Iowa has a lot of rolling hills and that 10mph was HARD to sustain. The weather was different this time though; we slogged into a gale for the first 160 miles, maxing out on effort just to reach the cut-off point in time to receive instructions to the finish. Then lightening and rain moved in. In a town close to our route a tornado killed someone. I slowed on the soggy roads, struggled to navigate, and eventually realised I couldn’t reach the finish before the time limit. So I quit again. Just a handful finished the race.
4) Both helmet and handlebar lights are needed for night riding and navigation.
5) Aerodynamics matter even going slowly on gravel.
6) Respect that mother nature is in control.
#TIV11 was an epic which I thankfully skipped. No one finished. Only one man made it to the first checkpoint (at 50 miles) in time to be allowed to go on, and then he couldn’t make the next check point, so he quit. The weather is the event’s most notorious participant.
7) Mother nature is REALLY in control.
I couldn’t resist returning for #TIV12. The community had claimed me, and the challenge was taunting me… I had to make TIV12 the one I finished. I flew out with days in hand to recover from the journey. A 150 mile shakedown ride to race HQ at Grinnell on race-type roads was good for me.
The weather was dry, but the wind was strong and some roads were still damp from past rains. We got very lucky that the first 60 miles headed into the wind – lucky because at 4am when the race started the wind was relatively gentle. The next 100 mile leg was a solo effort for me, carefully controlling my effort to leave energy for the 180 mile long slog to the finish through the night and into the morning. A group caught me up at the 200 mile point and we celebrated sunset together.
Iowa’s “B roads” would be called bridleways or white lanes in my home country. They’re unmaintained rights of way. The route always has a few interesting B roads to add excitement to the gravel normality. In the middle of the night my group traversed a beauty of a B road which had us walking and dropped our crucial average speed.
I found the B road strangely motivating, but then at 3am when we finally found a convenience store for the first time in 7 hours I was really shaken up by the experience. It destroyed my rhythm, got me too cold, and I struggled to keep down the food I’d force fed myself. This was my bad patch, everyone goes through something bad in a TI, so I did the important thing; I carried on slowly, and eventually I got over it as the sun started to come up.
Alone again, I was a real “gravel grinder” churning along in a slightly detached mental state. Tiny points of beauty and interest captivated me; a gnarly old fence, a puzzled looking cow, the star spangled banner fluttering perfectly from a flagpole beside a barn. Fresh gravel, big lose difficult rocks of it, absorbed all my complaints. One thing I always focused on was the route card telling me where to go – it’s a self navigated event and one of the easiest ways to fail is to go off course.
With 10 miles to go and nearly 4 hours to do it I dared to begin believing I was going to finish. It still wasn’t guaranteed, and people have broken their bikes that close to the finish in the past, but I hoped that I could walk it in that time if needed. I was a physical wreck by that time, and I stopped to stretch out as my back started spasming.
At 5 miles to go I was lying down in the road to relax my back enough to finish when another rider caught me. I can tell you that after 30+ hours of shared torture and adventure, fellow riders are not rivals, they are comrades. My comrades helped and encouraged me along that road to the finish, where Guitar Ted and the huge TransIowa community were waiting for every finisher. I came 17th.
8) Catching up on sleep before an ultra is important.
9) Holding back something for the tough times is vital.
10) Friends will motivate each other.
11) If at first you don’t succeed…!
The 13th TransIowa #TIV13 is a day or two from now and the weather forecast is worrying my buddies over there (check it at https://www.wunderground.com/q/zmw:50112.1.99999). It’s going to be a tough one. Follow them on the race radio station http://ridinggravel.com/transiowaradio/ and the race website http://transiowa.blogspot.co.uk/
Ultra-endurance events are an exciting new frontier in British cycling too. There was a gravel ride last weekend; the Dirty Riever https://www.dirtyreiver.co.uk/ . I’ve entered a massive 3330 mile race around the country next year; Baa Baa Bikepack http://www.bikepack.cc/ . And this weekend in Plymouth at 9pm I’ll be cheering riders starting the Trans-Kernow challenge around Cornwall https://www.facebook.com/events/1799113573703765. I hope my experiences help other people succeed!
* The word “gravel” has a polarising effect on my cyclo-cross friends: Firstly, it’s a label which is now used to sell bikes – it’s a trend – which naturally creates cynicism. Secondly, most of my friends will never comprehend the scale and character of the gravel roads which sired the gravel scene in the USA, so some see it as nonsense. A third more positive note is that plenty of my friends only care that this word means a go-anywhere adventure bike or event, which many of us like.
Massive thanks to Guitar Ted and the community which has developed around TransIowa. Particular thanks to Steve Fuller for being my host, adviser, organiser, and inspirer. Other key inspirers include Sarah Cooper, Greg Gleason, Jim Philips, Bill Graves and Trenton J Raygor.
Thanks too to Genesis Bikes for this tough and adaptable 853 steel adventure and cyclo-cross racing beast. Also to Alpkit for the frame bag which held all my supplies and spares. My local bike shop Pave Velo in St Austell were also very supportive.
- By Vin Cox
14th April. 59.5 miles cycled.
[1 mile already taken off for getting lost and back-tracking as per Guinness World Records rules]
Hotel too posh… Expensive and very small portions [in restaurant]. Gave them some stick at dinner for tiny fish and chips.
Roads busier, dirtier, but smoother than Sumatra… Main roads anyway. I tried some back roads and got very wet in some deep muddy puddles filling the many potholes. Have to stay on the main roads.
Traffic has attitude here; there’s some ‘drive by horn’ pulling out, but mainly right of way is a matter of faith – whoever believes the strongest goes through!
Java more expensive than Sumatra, or maybe it’s just this bit.
‘Donkin Dohnuts’ for lunch and free wifi, but email won’t send.
59.5mi @ 14.3mph
Sumatra and Java are two islands of the same country – Indonesia. It’s a big country with four times as many people as the UK, but no-where near as wealthy (average person makes about a tenth of a UK worker).
I’d arrived in Jakarta, capitol of Java and all Indonesia. By the time I’d got the bike ready to ride it was already early afternoon, so I just wanted lunch and then to get some miles done and settle in to the new road conditions. The city is a beast, and I had to cross it because I’d arrived into the airport on the west and needed to get out the east. Cities like this have signs which would lead cyclists onto motorways, and hundreds of intersections which therefore all require good luck, judgement, and occasionally checking the maps. They also have crazy traffic and jams. Even by the end of the day, I only cleared Jakarta in name, I’d yet to see any break in the built environment for nature.
A guy on a moped said hello at a traffic light in the evening. He had a guitar and made friendly conversation. When I told him I was looking for a hotel he was pleased and proud to guide me to the nearest nice one he knew of. That’s reliably how I find myself at expensive rather than adequate hotels, but I do enjoy letting people help me.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
23rd Mar. 136 miles cycled. 1st hotel didn’t like bikes, so I rode on; 139.2 miles cycled.
I did 100 miles before noon! Once sun was up and back looser I played with the truckers – most liked it, and it beats having them hooting to get me out of the way when I’m going slower… I’m also protected from people pulling out on me [from side roads] and from traffic coming at me head on (happens quite often even on duel carriageways!)
Generally it was faster and safer, but also hotter and harder – so I can’t do it all the time.
139.2mi @ 17.4mph
Early in the morning I had a reminder to not follow too close when I noticed how bald and thread-bare one truck’s tyres were. I watched from behind for a mile or so wondering how they judged when to replace such a thing. Then the hum of tyre on tarmac suddenly changed and I noticed a new pattern in the blur of spinning rubber… I eased off and was dropping back as the tyre exploded, very forcefully.
It wasn’t really the trucks which made this a fast day: My tummy problems had subsided (making me much stronger), I’d acclimatised to the heat, the roads were smooth and flat, I was used to getting up at 4am, I’d had a good meal and early night, and there was a steady tail wind. It was all perfect for a long day, even if my back was still a bit stiff. My cruise speed in such conditions was about 17mph, and then a truck would naturally sweep me into it’s slipstream going past 3 or 4 mph faster. Looking at it from the Developed World, it’s hard to believe trucks genuinely settle at 20 to 30 mph on India’s highways – but I assure you it’s true. Just as it is totally true that the rear light clusters are normally not lights, they get broken and then painted-on instead.
Ethically and morally, I was sure drafting trucks was not the way to get in the record books. Guinness World Records’ rules didn’t specifically outlaw it, but they did say I had to obey all local traffic laws. I didn’t want to undermine the effort and sacrifice I’d already made by letting anything else do my work for me. As there were no back-road alternatives, I had to find a safe compromise to exist on the highway where some degree of slipstreaming was inevitable. I just tried to find the safest way to cruise on east.
As I reached Allahabad a road sign told me I was now 800km (500miles) from Kolkata, which might be just 4 days cycling. Two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside while I looked for a hotel. They were from the Hindustan Times and they wanted to interview me. First they helped find a luxury hotel, they then guided me across the city to a more welcoming hotel after the old problem with a “no cyclists” rule. I was taken for dinner by a journalist and his girlfriend at McDonalds, which I knew had strict “no cyclists” rules, so this was my first visit in India. It seemed amazing to me, but obvious at the same time, that there were no beef burgers available (sacred cow). Being interviewed did take up some time, but it was also helpful and motivating. Having a posh hotel and the journalist to communicate for me, I trusted most of my clothes to the overnight laundry service – and looked forward to properly clean clothes for 5am the next day!That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
12th Mar. 34.8 miles cycled.
Slept right through to 9am! Disaster, but must have needed it.
Scenery nice when finally riding. Left Maharashtra state and entered Gujarat.
Another rear flat despite having swapped front and rear tyres to evenise wear.
Stopped really early to get into early routine. Used time for eating, fixing punctured tubes, gluing shoes, and talking to the press. The hotel manager called a press conference when he heard my story. “Times of India” was the big one.
34.8mi @ 11.9mph
I’m embarrassed of the stat’s for this day. The Indian press making a big deal of me, and the hotel owner taking me so seriously just made me feel like more of a fraud. Of course I smiled and did my best to get something out of the day (other than distance covered). At least I truly would be ready for the next day!
Checking into this hotel was a bit of an experience: At first I couldn’t even take my bike through the car park due to an attendant insisting I park it! Then I couldn’t take the bike into reception until I absolutely insisted. Finally the manager was called when I made to take the bike to my room. The manager saw it differently to all his staff, thankfully.
- By Vin Cox
11th Mar. 65.5 miles cycled.
Arrived tired after uncomfortable flight during which the stewardess asked my row to swap with another – can’t understand why. Hand no problems with customs except getting signature – they have policies about revealing identity. Got an airline official to sign eventually.
I unpacked the bike before leaving arrivals so that I’d be ready to roll – pleased with that trick!
Nice but muggy morning. Poor people sleeping on the highway’s hard shoulder!
Breakfast once I’d left Mumbai and should have stopped there- so tired! Carried on another 30mi in heat and stopped at cheap and slightly iffy lodgings. ‘Hotel’ doesn’t mean lodgings here – just a word for restaurant.
Have to fix puncture to rear tyre and get an early start in the cool of the night.
65.5mi @ 13.9mph
The smell was the first thing to hit me about India: Not the people, but their waste and sewerage. It’s not dealt with as it would be in the developed world, and the country is a very warm place, so it does have a distinctive aroma, noticeable particularly on arrival. The fetid air was also still and smoky at sunrise. Little columns of fumes rose from smouldering piles of leaves, paper and plastic in front of every house and business – swept there at dawn when it’s cool enough to do such work.
Many people’s bodily rhythm required them to defecate first thing in the morning. I wish I could have said the usual ‘go to the toilet’ rather than ‘defecate’, but in India it’s common not have access to a toilet. They headed instead for land such as the banks of the highway I cycled along, to curl one off in shocking visibility, sometimes even in social groups passing a bottle of water between them to wash (rather than wipe) clean.
India was significantly hotter than Arabia, in fact it was suffering with a much hotter than usual March, and locals were worried about how long they’d suffer increasing temperatures before the monsoon. I felt terrible. My body seemed to have shut down during the day off. I was tender in my joints, muscles, and particularly the skin on my bum. The overnight flight had also ruined my body-clock’s fatigued and tenuous grip on reality. I began to feel detached, like I was watching myself in this place rather than actually being me, and I was giddy. Coffee, food, and caffeinated soft drinks hardly affected it no matter how much I forced down, and it was a force because I felt quite sick too in the heat and stink.
I put off the finding of a hotel, despite my desperate need, until after lunch due to pride, stubborn determination, and thanks to noticing that there were hotels literally every few hundred metres. I couldn’t believe my luck! I’d be able to take my pick and be sure of a competitive price as soon as I had to give in. When the time came to get that room, I learned that ‘hotel’ in this area is used a bit like ‘inn’ is in the UK; both once meant a place to stay overnight, but now it’s no surprise if they only offer refreshments. ‘Lodgings’ thankfully weren’t that much further on, and I benefited both from the cultural experience and the extra distance this drew out of me.
- By Vin Cox
10th Mar. 0 miles cycled.
TRANSFER DAY! Bum can recover.
Ate massive breakfast buffet over several visits for 2 hour sitting. Packed bag, tried (but failed) to post some kit home, checked in at 12:20 – 8hrs early for flight. $64JD excess baggage charge.
Tried, with only slight success, to send videos home [via email and FTP] and free up space on memory cards. Web too slow here!
Very surprised to accidentally see breast of a lady in full burkah! She was about to feed baby and was turned away from everyone else, then just pulled out a boob for the baby. I wouldn’t find that strange in any other situation but one where the woman is even hiding here face behind a veil.
The kit I wanted to post home most was a Jetboil camping stove my wife had bought me for Christmas just before I left. It was a great device; light, quick, efficient, and neat. It has served me well across the Arab world. I was quoted something near twice the original purchase price of the stove to send it home, so I decided not to. I regret that now because it offended my wife, it means I don’t have such a stove (more offence if I bought another!), and because of the pain I felt throwing it in the garbage when I couldn’t even give it away.
I spent some of the time in the airport studying my diary and witness log. Taking photos of each page seemed like a good way to back it all up, so I did. Next I wanted to estimate how far I’d gone and how my pace measured up against the existing records. Guinness World Records rules for circumnavigation of the world said the clock stopped between ports, so first I had to work out how long I’d been going in record terms. It turns out, once the time on ferries was taken off, I’d taken 28 days 23 hours and 51 minutes to get to Amman, Jordan, and I would restart in Mumbai, India with that on the clock (even thought that would be on day 33 of the ride!).
The record rules were open to a bit of interpretation, so I had decided to be harsh on myself and to behave absolutely by-the-book to avoid any debate or doubt about my achievement. For example; it would have been within the rules, but in my view not in good spirit, to have ridden all the way to Marseille port the night before I left France – that would have stopped the record clock rather than have it running overnight. Likewise I was tough on myself with stopping the clock in Egypt; I queued for an hour and a half at the ticket office next to the port before going over to departures, and it didn’t qualify in the strictest interpretation of the rules. On the other hand, getting to the airport with a day in hand was necessary to pack the bike for flight, and allow a margin of error for last minute delays.
In distance terms, the rules required that backtracking didn’t count, so although I’d actually cycled further, I currently had a tally of 3306.3 miles towards my 18,000 mile target. My pace then worked out as 114 miles a day, or in other words; I was on schedule to finish in just under 158 days. Mark Beaumont held the record at 195 days, and there was a claim being assessed for 165 days, but I was well ahead of both!
- By Vin Cox
9th Mar. 137 miles cycled.
Recorded mileage does not include ride 3mi down to ancient Petra [Guinness World Records rules about backtracking].
Dawn at Petra was great. Rip-off place, but being there before the crowds made it fine. Totally amazing what nature made and the ancient Nepatians turned it into 2000 years ago.
Met some friends I made on the boat to Aqaba as I cycled out of Petra – so I stopped for breakfast. Also got talking to a german girl studying tourist satisfaction at Petra – there’s a lot could be improved here, so she can do a good study.
Huge great climb out of Petra! As soon as I [finally] started to descend I had a puncture, and then met a couple from South Korea cycling the other way. They have been cycling for 9 months from home.
Finally cracked on and a tail wind brought average speed up from 8 to 16mph! Made it to the airport at 19:34 and got lady at info’ desk to sign [as witness for Guinness World Records], though she did make a bit of a mess of it.
Then went to ‘Cycling Jordan’ and got bike fixed and boxed for flight. Finally checked into airport hotel for sleep!
137mi @ 15.7mph
Riding down to Petra before dawn was wonderful. Soon after I arrived back home I wrote the following in an article for ‘The Ride Journal’:
Beauty and simplicity are often synonyms. Simplicity was my routine; wake with the alarm, put on clothes left drying overnight, check the bike, and roll out into the dark. Beauty was the sun-rise a few miles down the road.
A favorite old song lyric rattled around my head each dawn; ‘The sun does rise in the eastern skies’. It reassured my morning navigation as I headed into the rising sun.
The best sunrise of my passage through the Arab world was in the beautiful mountains near Petra in Jordan. The orange, arid, sandy hills turned from the dark blue shades of moonlight to a vivid red rough sea around me as I rode high on the mountain roads and descended eventually to visit the World Heritage Site built into the rocks thousands of years ago. It was my last day in Arabia before my first flight of the circumnavigation; to Mumbai, India.
I’m proud to hold the World Record, but even when eventually that’s gone, I’ll remember the adventure and those sunrises.
Cycling Jordan was a friendly local bike shop which my sister had already primed to help me. Most importantly, they replaced my worn out bottom bracket bearing which sandstorms had destroyed. Then they packed my bike for flight in a cardboard box re-used from a new bike previously delivered to their store.
I was completely exhausted and it was very late when I finally tried to get a room at the airport hotel, but I pulled myself together and switched my brain on… Unlike an American businessman who was trying to check in at the same time as me; he whined for a discounted rate pathetically. This airport hotel had travellers by the balls because there was nowhere else to go, so the only way to play it was to just be nice. While he argued with one person, another hotel employee checked me into the last ‘regular’ room, leaving only ‘luxury’ suites. I felt a bit guilty, but his business were paying and he wouldn’t end up roughing it.
A lie-in was earned and was also possible the next day because I would be waiting for my flight to India, but I set the alarm for the start of hotel breakfast buffet time. I figured; “calories first priority, then sleep”. By arriving at the start of the buffet, I could either go back to bed, or get seconds, thirds, etc.
- By Vin Cox
8th Mar. 73.2miles cycled.
Achmed, my new friend is a teacher near Petra, and a cyclist who gave me tea.
Incredible climb out of Aqaba – which then only slackens and keeps going before kicking again after 50mi!
Nice stop at a shed [shed/shop] for supplies. The owner had a tiny veg’ patch protected by rubbish. He was also responsible for most of the rubbish.
Had a meal as it got dark then did half the ride in the cool of the night.
Police at checkpoint happily signed my witness log book [for Guinness World Records].
Hotel recommended by Achmed was great place but ridiculously expensive $165USD and I only stayed 7 hours!
73.2mi @ 10.4mph
Cycling clothing and bike spares were supposed to be waiting for me the previous evening when I arrived at the hotel in Aqaba, mailed there by my sister. They hadn’t turned up, so I gave myself a few hours in the morning to wait for them while I ate, shopped, and organised myself. Half the day drifted by and nothing arrived for me, so I gave up waiting and left Aqaba, heading north-east.
The route out of Aqaba is very significant in history. It’s a narrow mountain pass which sharply climbs 2000ft, then eventually opens out on the a high plateaux. Military control of the valley gives control of the town and port, and that is what a chap we know as Lawrence of Arabia achieved with just a handful of men during the First World War – he captured a major strategic port almost singlehandedly. I’d been in Lawrence’s footsteps for the past few days, because once he’d captured Aqaba he’d then rode his camel across the Sinai (which was enemy territory!) to go and tell British High Command in Cairo that the port was theirs.
Having started at sea-level, reaching 5,500ft represents a long hot climb in the Arabian Desert. I descended slightly to finish the day with only a short ride needed to get me to Ancient Petra the next morning.
I met Achmed simply by saying hello to a man on a bike in the dark. I slowed to ask about local hotels, and he invited me to his home for tea. The timing suited me, as did the opportunity to understand this person and the way people lived in his village in the mountains.
Achmed was a teacher and was cycling to improve his health and fitness. He lived in a large but not at all opulent home, and in it the Quran was revered. Beautiful and ornate Quranic scripts hung on the wall, and he wanted to show me the book itself, but as a non-believer I was not allowed to touch any page. Somehow, international politics and Islamic terrorism came into the conversation too and this gentle, enthusiastic and polite man turned out to be furious with “fucking BinLadin!”. I’d had a few hints of this from other Muslims in poor countries, who saw how geopolitics was moving against them because of extremists.
- By Vin Cox
7th Mar. 96miles cycled.
Woke at 3:20, on road for 3:45 after Anton gave me some grubby dates (would eat later anyway!) and the caretaker asked for cash as some of the teachers said he might – gave £10:50 Egypt (£1 UK) and he wasn’t impressed, but no trouble.
Rode OK in dark, no traffic. Stopped at checkpoint at dawn – told 2km to St Katherine’s and 10km to Nuweiba. Actually was 20km and 100km!
Passed deserted St Katherine’s during Morning Prayer – everywhere closed, but I needed food and water. Rode on. 50km later got tea and some food at roadside and pushed on for Nuweiba. Very very hilly and getting hot. Descents were great.
Arrived at 12:00, had ticket and in departures @13:00. Terminal almost as bad as billed – dirty, hostile, loud, confusing. Tagged on back of group of westerners (CAN & AUS) to make sense of it all. The locals queue madly and the guards even draw their guns to bring order for a few moments.
INTERNATIONAL TRANSFER. 13:30 TO 20:14
Back at that tea stop, I asked for Coke; reply “Sorry, I only have big cock, you want can.” [LOL!]
Cycled to hotel in Aquaba via McDonalds. Nearly 10pm when arrived. No post for me. Everything very international here, like an airport, big brands everywhere, expensive, in-personal. Has it’s advantages, but quite a culture shock.
88.8mi @ 12.5mph [Egypt]
+ 7.2mi in evening [Jordan].
Coming after the previous day’s moving and momentous experiences, I felt this day took it to the next level. Together, they made the Sinai my most enjoyable area of the world tour.
The gift of sweet fruit before I departed was very meaningful. Anton was desperate to help me, but had next to nothing to give. That was true kindness and charity, at 3:30 in the morning.
Moved by that generosity, I then experienced the most sublime ride on silky smooth flat tarmac roads between rugged mountains which framed a spectacular sky. This must be one of the least light polluted areas on earth, and above me the Milky Way seemed to be a sparkly sash intricately decorated with an infinity of tiny diamonds. With no traffic around, I moved to the middle of the road to maximise the time I could spend looking up.
I was raised on home grown fruit, so I’m not squeamish about the occasional grub. Commercial pesticides on every fruit do more harm to our bodies than natural pests. But what Anton gave me were the rejects, the fruit which we too small, dry, scabby, dirty, and grubbed to be sold to the outside world. It was all he had, and I was grateful because I understood, and I was hungry, but really few westerners would be able to stomach those dates. 90% had been infested with the larvae of some sort of fly, which had then died, and thankfully tasted like date.
This area of desert moved me all the more as the sun rose. The scale was immense, occasionally I’d see the black stripe of road taper to a fine thread and wind around distant hills.
When I eventually got that tea, it was from some grumpy fellows making their money of camel rides in the desert. Coincidentally, just before getting there I’d overtaken a man on a camel riding down the road and I caught up with him again after I’d stopped for the tea, so I know he was travelling a long way between towns. He was the only true camel-for-transport rider I saw, but it’s great to think some traditions like that live on.
It was great to meet other English speakers on the ferry. After 3 weeks alone in Arab North Africa, clear and simple discussion in my native language was a pleasure. An Australian couple were particularly friendly, and eventually posted this photo on their blog:
- By Vin Cox
6th Mar. 140.8miles cycled.
Alarm at 1am, rolling @ 01:40.
Did 30mi but was falling asleep. Stopped for more sleep sheltered by a resort entrance until 5ish. Breakfast a few miles further on, then through mountains to Abu Zinema for second breakfast @70mi.
Massive car accident with screaming trapped people just after dawn. Harrowing.
Stopped for water at a school house and ended up being fed and staying the night. Nice people. All are ‘locked up’ on site for 3 weeks at a time, so really welcomed me. One man wants me to find him and English wife! All follow football. Honoured and lucky to have these new friends.
Anton was the nice English teacher. I don’t know the name of the one who wants and English wife.
140.8mi @ 13.2mph
This was, in the end, one of the nicest days of the whole world tour. The early start, effort, hassle, horror of the crash were contrasted with incredible landscape, history, and humbling generosity from dirt-poor locals. The good experiences were all the more valuable because of the bad.
I can still flash back to that crash scene now. One car had literally been ripped in half and at two others were mangled awfully. There were fatalities. My basic first aid training mental checklist relied on being able to communicate, for the emergency services and the injured. I couldn’t help in that regard, and there were already locals being more help than a foreigner could, so I slowly rolled around the metal, glass and blood, powerless. In my head, the moans and screams have been with me ever since. My own exhausted and vulnerable state probably heightened the emotion, but this would have shocked anyone.
There were many more checkpoints in the desert, more military in nature, and long delays in the desert sun while I waited for each sergeant to be awoken and convinced to let me go on. After one extended pause I was quickly caught up by a police van, which slowed to my speed and followed close behind me. It was missing some glass, had dents in every panel, and it’s noisy diesel engine was ready to expire. I didn’t like it cruising a bike length behind me, so I waved it to pass me. It didn’t pass. So I stopped. The van stopped too. If I’d been smart enough to be worried I’d have wondered if they were real police and if I were safe. Thankfully they were some underemplyed police who’d been sent to make sure I was safe. We made friends, I refused a lift, and I asked them to give me a bit more space. They then followed two bike lengths behind, but I forgave them the imposition because they were cheerful and encouraging. When I stopped for a pee they thought I was giving in and accepting a lift, they got out and approached me as I was just revealing the true purpose of the stop… then they apologetically retreated.
Mountains dominated the horizon, and the road wove a path along the sand filled valleys known as wadis. I ascended steadily in the hot desert sun reflecting of the pale mountain rock and sand. The traffic was light, the roads were mainly super smooth, and the scenery was inspiring and unique.
Ideally, I wanted to end the day by sheltering at St Catherine’s monastery; a World Heritage Site and the joint oldest monastery in the world. I guessed monks wouldn’t like too later night visitor, so my backup if I was too slow was an oasis 20 miles earlier, where the following Police were also insisting I should get a hotel room. It was still light on reaching the oasis, which was utterly enchanting and crammed into a steep sided valley. My police escorts simply hooted and waved goodbye, but I thought it best to get a room, rest and setoff very early again.
I rode right through ‘town’ on the only road and realised there was no hotel. There was hardly any town either to be fair, just a date farm and some goats hanging around a hamlet of mud-brick houses. As I realised this was not the end of my day, I planned to camp close to the monastery and decided all I really desperately needed here was some water. The last couple of buildings I passed had some people nearby, so I asked for water… And that was how I got directed to the medina (Islamic school) and met the wonderful teachers who looked after me.