Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Riding round the mountain

How difficult could it be?  Anyone can ride a bike, right? So to assemble a handful of keen riders and train them up for a three day tour around Kilimanjaro... it would be as easy as, well, falling off a bike.

Three of my riders take to the dirt tracks around Shanty Town
I became embroiled in this enterprise almost a year ago when I first learnt of the Kilimanjaro mountain bike marathon; you can read about my eager ambitions, acceptance of reality, and eventual resolution in a last January's blog post.

This is the second chapter. It may also be the last chapter; we shall see...

I had never run a cycling club before, much less started one from scratch. But I like to indulge in the odd innovation now and again.  It keeps my mind alive and I like to believe that the mental exercise will discourage the circling vultures of dementia as I slide inelegantly into the quicksands of middle age.

And so, with blithe disregard for the logistical obstacles, I set the wheels in motion:

STEP 1 – Evaluate resources
Inventory: half a dozen second-hand bikes in various stages of disrepair; a surplus of unfit, lethargic teenagers; a score or so of youngsters with a vague inclination towards vigorous exercise; no tools; no spare parts; one inexplicably hopeful teacher (that would be me); and one exceptionally large mountain to circumnavigate.

STEP 2 – Announce the inception of the school Cycling Club
At which point a motley crew stepped forward. They all knew that a bike has two wheels; most had had a go on one; some even owned one. It was looking good. I outlined my plans… we would start with short, gentle rides and gradually build up to longer, more strenuous ventures. Ultimately, those who showed the required commitment, endurance and appetite for challenge would be invited to join in a three or four day ride that would take us all the way around the base of Kilimanjaro. But first we had to have a technical crash course.

STEP 3 – Teach the students to fix stuff
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: I have no intention of playing baby-sitter to a bunch of mechanical incompetents on a 250 km ride around Kilimanjaro. Forget white horses and pink pyjamas; the 53rd, rarely sung, verse of “She’ll be coming round the mountain” reveals that she'll be fixing her own punctures when she comes.

For those unfamiliar with the full song, this verse comes after the six white horses have bolted and "she" has, therefore, elected to ride a second-hand mountain bike when she comes.

STEP 4 – Build up stamina
Now this is where I, or rather some of my cycling protégés, hit a wall. They had quickly grasped basic maintenance skills. By now they could all repair punctures, tighten brakes and remedy jumping gears; some could correctly adjust their headset (the steering column on the bike, that is, not the thing that plugs into their ipod); one had even learnt to straighten wheels and re-link a broken chain. But for most, their base level fitness was never going to allow them to graduate beyond a short, slow crawl.

I had expected my youthful charges to build fitness quickly; a capacity that I had always taken for granted throughout my own teenage years. But when, after six weeks, we were still struggling to cover more than five kilometres in an hour, I began to silently but seriously doubt the attainability of our ultimate goal.

So, I quietly abandoned plans of riding around the mountain. I didn't tell the club; I don't make a habit of stating the obvious.

And then, out of the blue, one of my riders asked the question. "So, when will we be cycling around Kilimanjaro?"

Apparently, their blatant deficiencies in the cycling arena were not as obvious to them as they were to me. But the question came from one of the few genuinely promising cyclists.  Maybe he was actually up to the challenge but, held back by the leaden legged majority, had not yet been able to spread his wings and ride. Really ride, with the wind pressing your shirt-front flat whilst the back fabric flaps wildly in your wake, hair tugged back from the forehead, knobbly tires bouncing across the dirt.

It is likely that that they had also been inspired by the visit of Stuart Block, a former banker turned economics teacher from the UK who had recently cycled through Moshi on his way from Johannesburg to London.  His Beyond the Bike cycling challenge aims to raise £100,000 for three charities: Beyond Ourselves, Right to Sight, and Alive and Kicking.

Of course, I had also sought to inspire them myself with tales of cycletours around the UK and mainland Europe.  Some had heard my BBC despatch, later published on this blog as the Pied Biker of Kilimanjaro, and had asked about my weekend rides through Moshi's hinterland.

But in my well-meaning quest to be inclusive, I had indulged weakness and neglected to nurture the talent of my most able riders; I had allowed the chaff to degrade the wheat.  (On roadsides around Moshi, you may still see peasants engaged in the ancient practice of winnowing; tossing grain in the air so that the light, inedible husks blow away.)

Kilimanjaro's steep, dirt roads have already sifted out my strongest cyclists; it's time to leave the weaker ones to drift away on the breeze.
Winnowing (photo: Wikimedia; reproduced under licence)
So, when school opens in January, I will preside over a second generation cycling club. The promising riders will face ever tougher challenges. If they (and their bikes) can cope with 20 km, 40 km, 80 km rides; if they can handle the lactic burn on never-ending climbs; if they are willing to come back for more after their legs have been reduced to jelly; then perhaps we can do this thing!

To be continued… maybe.

Did you enjoy reading this post? Why not leave a comment?
Follow this blog to keep up to date with new posts, or share it with friends using one of the buttons below, so they can enjoy it too


Unless otherwise stated

No comments:

Post a Comment