The Biking Lifeby: Naomi Bloom 2/1/2008
Adventure of a Lifetime: Paris to Dakar
Last August Jeff Orum flew to France to do two bicycle tours. He started with two weeks in the French Alps on SuperTour before spending 10 weeks riding from Paris to Dakar, Senegal.
Paris-Dakar was organized by Rob van der Geest and Wilbert Bonne, two Dutchmen who run Bike Dreams. "This was a very well organized trip," Jeff reported. "A sag vehicle carried gear from one camp to the next and cooks provided breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also a doctor and bike mechanic along."
A total of 21 riders age 18 to 67 signed up to do the entire distance. Most were European (Dutch, French, Belgian, Swiss, Spanish, British), one from New Zealand and four from the U.S.
Early Sunday morning, September 9, they departed from the Eiffel Tower. "I thought as we pedaled away from the tower that we have an awfully long way to go," Jeff reflected. The trip was divided into "stages," and they did five to ten of them between rest days, mostly in campgrounds. The first rest day was in Le Puy-en-Velay, where the Fetes renaissance du Roi de l'Oiseau (The Bird King Renaissance Festival) was happening. Stage 7 took them through the Gorges du Tarn (about a week before we were there ).
On Stage 8 they passed under the Viaduc du Millau, (as did we) and by Roquefort -- lots of good cheese for lunch dinner. After a night and day (and two big cols) of rain, the sun came out for their arrival in Carcassonne, the medieval walled city we visited in 2006.
The last full day in France, they headed into the Pyrenees, and over the Col de Chioala (>1400 meters). Next they entered Andorra on the only road through the country to Spain. "This isn't my favorite place to cycle," Jeff admits. There is a lot of traffic and the towns remind me of ugly ski resorts." The result was a mad dash to get to Spain, followed by a stiff climb up the Port de Canto and down to a rest day in tiny Ager.
Stage 13 started with a 28km time trial. "This was all in good fun and it was interesting to see how well everyone did. I managed not to let anyone pass me and finished in fourth place." The weather turned cold and windy for the next four stages. Most of the camps were at elevation in beautiful terrain -- vineyards, orchards, cliff-top villages, red rock outcroppings, canyons and rivers.
On Stage 14 Jeff crossed the Prime Meridian. "I saw my GPS go from E.0.000.000 to W 0.000.000 and noted it was about 30 meters before the marker that had been placed on the side of the road."
The last half of Stage 15 climbed three cols back to back and ended with hot showers, a full bar and fireplace (instead of the backyard camp expected). Two days later they camped near Cuenca, where another layover day allowed them to escape the rain and tour the village.
October 1 (Stage 19) was Jeff's 49th birthday and the trip's first century (100 miles). "It is good to know even an old guy like myself can still do a century ride in decent time (I came in fifth). I had lots of Happy Birthday wishes and the lunch crew sang as I arrived. I can't think of a better way to spend one's birthday than cycling, especially on a day with such nice weather. It was a nice celebration at dinner as well with birthday cake and sparkling wine for all."
The next day ended in Cazorla which boasts many Moorish ruins, preparing them for the last rest day in Spain, at Granada. A lack of advanced reservations meant Jeff had to view the Alhambra from outside, but he was quite impressed with the local cathedral.
The last full day in Spain took the riders through mountain terrain. They caught their first glimpse of Gibraltar as they descended to Algeciras on the Mediterranean, where they stayed in a four-star hotel. "It was a treat to sleep in a bed for the first time in six weeks."
The ferry from Spain landed at Cueta, right next to Morocco, but "it still felt like Europe. Just past the border it was clear we were in a different land. The landscape became very dry, the roads rougher, and the villages poorer. It kind of smacks you in the face after being in Europe for so long. We had transitioned to a new world in Africa."
Over the next several stages camps were basic with no running water. The most interesting stop was at the well-preserved Roman ruins of Volubilis , before arriving in Fez.
"The Medina in Fez had many narrow alleys and streets (no cars allowed) and it was enjoyable just getting lost among them."
Stage 29 was the longest of the trip (179 km ) on a cloudy, windy day. After lunch they crested a pass and could see storm clouds and snow on the High Atlas peaks.
Half way there
The next day (stage 30) there was much more snow on the High Atlas. "Things were looking good for about 40Km when we turned a corner to start the climb . . . into a big headwind." Finally they arrived at the Gorges du Ziz, the halfway point of the trip. They stayed at a Kasbah ("most of us put our tents up on the roof"), and after a delicious couscous dinner, enjoyed music from the local village.
Stage 31 continued through the gorge for another eight kilometers, followed by a climb and descent past a beautiful blue lake in the middle of the desert. They wandered around an ancient city full of narrow, dark passageways. "On our way out we were approached by someone that offered us tea at his place. We were a bit skeptical [but] it turned out to be genuine and was one of the best non-cycling experiences of the trip. We met his wife and three-month old son. They served us tea, bread and Berber pizza. He then gave us some date wine (very strong) and walked us back to our camp, stopping to get fresh dates from the local orchard."
In order to reach the Atlantic, the group had to cross the Atlas Mountains two more times, then ride through the Anti-Atlas Range. The first Atlas crossing took a couple of days to reach Marrakech. On the way they rode through Ouarzazate, where many Hollywood "desert classic" films were produced in local studios.
They still had to cross the Col du Tichka (>2000 meters), to descend into Marrakech. Jeff admits he missed most of the city due to coming down with the "family flu." Leaving Marrakech meant the last Atlas climb over Tizi-n-Test. The descent led to their first bush (i.e., side of the road) camp, the typical overnight in the Sahara. From there it was on to the Anti-Atlas, which reminded Jeff of the Alabama Hills in the southern Sierra Nevada.
The last long descent of the trip took the riders to Tiznit and on to the Atlantic Ocean. "Our first view of the Atlantic was stunning," Jeff recalls, especially the camp at Sidi Ifni right on the beach, last rest stop before crossing the Western Sahara."
The next day they headed inland to Guelmim , where they visited the camel market. It was nearly the end of October as they passed the Tan Tan city gate with its stone camels marking the start of the Western Sahara. The next several days were long, flat rides through the Hamada (stony desert), camping with no amenities. Soon they passed the first road sign that mentioned Dakar, over a thousand miles away.
. It took six days of riding across the Sahara before reaching the next rest day in Dakhla, then six more to finish the crossing. Jeff's most major equipment failure came at the end of Stage 46 when a spoke cracked through his rear rim. "Yikes, I thought it might be the end of riding for me. Luckily, John (the Kiwi) had brought a spare rear wheel that was compatible with my setup. . . .Thanks, John, for saving the trip for me!"
The last full day in Morocco was Stage 49, what Jeff calls "perhaps the loneliest day. . .nothing, save for a small village at 127 kilometers (Cokes available!)." On Stage 50 they reached the Mauritania border. The road in Mauritania was better than Morocco since it's only two years old, but first there was a five-kilometer unpaved stretch that was so rough, most walked it.
On Stage 53, as they rode into the capital city of Nouakchott, "we had a sandstorm for the last 30 miles. Visibility was like riding in fog with the added discomfort of sand blowing on your face (and everywhere else). We were lucky that this was the only sandstorm we had on the trip."
Leaving Nouakchott the terrain turned to savannah, with dried grass, lots of trees and animals (goats, camels, burros and cattle). A rough road surface brought them to the border town of Rosso, which has a reputation as one of the most corrupt crossings in Africa. So the group detoured via a long dirt road along the top of a dike to another, supposedly friendlier, border crossing. "Hordes of children, shouting 'Cadeaux!' (Presents!), surrounded us. . . . I managed to get through them without any problem, but some folks had their jackets stolen off their bikes."
Nearly 60 more dirt kilometers on Stage 56 brought them to their final border crossing, into Senegal. They rode into St.-Louis, first over a bridge designed by Eiffel and onto the center island, then over another bridge to the spit, and their rest-day camp. "St Louis is supposed to be a good example of a colonial city, and there were many French style buildings on the center island, but most of them were in quite a neglected state."
Two more days of good riding through the Senegal countryside brought them to the nicest beach on the trip. It was the only place Jeff went swimming in the Atlantic.
Saturday, November 17, was the final day of riding to about 25 kilometers north of Dakar at Lake Rose, the same finish as the Paris-Dakar road race. At the farewell party that night, the top three overall time finishers got awards. "Aside from the two time trials, I didn't really participate in the racing," Jeff admits, "but I ended up just out of the podium, in fourth (the top American). "According to my figures, I rode over 4,500 miles on this trip with over 200,000 feet of climbing. About a dozen folks managed to ride the entire trip (EFI or every f**ing inch).
"I am also very impressed with the caliber of rider on this trip. It is rare that someone takes the sag vehicle unless they are ill or their bicycle is having a problem. We all may not arrive at the same time, but everyone gets to camp under their own power and in good spirits. It is a great group to cycle with and the crew is excellent as well."
By the following Tuesday, November 20, Jeff had landed in San Francisco, in time for Thanksgiving in Sunnyvale.
For an overview of the Paris-Dakar route, along with photos and much more detail from Jeff and other participants, click through to the Bike Dreams website.
Naomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org