It’s Friday morning and unlike someone waking up in the T.G.I.F mood, I was on a different tune. In my mind a string of thoughts. In my heart, mixed emotions. It was finally Friday, the day of the long suffering that we, Tony and I, chose to call a cycling adventure. For a moment, I curse myself for the choices I had made so far that brought me to this day.
I met Tony during one of the Baiskeli Adventures, Cycle to Lake Magadi and again during Tigoni Tour. In both cases, I did not cycle since I was the tour leader. Tony declared during Tigoni Tour that it would be a pleasure to go for one last ride before he travels out of the country, and, as always, I said yes. I never turn down a bicycle ride, as long as all my limbs are in great shape and/or I am not cycling another route.
“So, off road or road cycling?” I had asked Tony, to which he said any is fine by him. I had only seen him with an amazing lightweight mountain bike and I should have figured, he must have a similar state-of-the-art machine for paved roads. You know the kind of bikes whose actual prices you cannot disclose to your non-cycling significant other for fear of “till bikes do us apart”? Well, a “pcyclepath” is easy to identify from their bikes, cycling accessories and how much they talk about cycling. And I figured Tony was one.
I could have chosen to take us on one of the many routes and trails I had cycled before but I decided against it. The beauty of cycling is in finding new trails every other time and letting the strange curves, climbs and descents surprise you. So I went online and plotted us a map on ridewithgps.com. I have a thing for cycling on steep roads, preferably along villages, coffee and tea farms and I had heard about the Ndakaini climbs. Being ever so eager to explore them, I plotted a 90km route that would see us cycling from Thika via Ndakaini and through the Aberdare Forest (Gatamaiyu side) to Fly Over on Nairobi – Nakuru Highway. Elevation gain, over 1700m.
To someone who has cycled a long tour, 90km was not supposed to cause me nightmares. Neither was the elevation supposed to scare the climber in me. For some unclear reasons though, I could not shake off the lingering whiff of fear that lead to my nightmare. Maybe it was because I had not gone on as many cycling tours earlier as I had planned to. Maybe it was just laziness trying to hold me back as it had successfully managed to keep my butt off the saddle the entire week. But this was something I was looking forward to, not in the T.G.I.F-raise-a-glass-and-shake-a-leg weekend kind of way. It was more of an “Arise and Shine” moment, even though my cycling glow and glory had considerably dimmed.
It was a relief to learn that I wasn’t the only one shaking in his cycling shoes at the thought of what awaited. Tony brought along a friend, Mark, and both guys, even with their lightweight road bikes versus my decades old thin steel-framed Schwinn Probe, shared my anxiety. We drove off from Thika Road Mall at 9.30 am with two other guys, Tony’s brother and my nephew. We would need all the support we can get for fear of bonking mid-ride with no back up.
We were at our chosen start point, a hotel by the roadside, at about 10.00am and we got our bikes out of the car readying for the task ahead. Of course we attracted attention from the locals. I don’t know if it is just the bikes or the spandex that always catches people’s eye. By the time we were departing for what we expected to be a torturous ascent, a small crowd had gathered around us. Talk of being given a VIP kick-off!
Two kilometers into the ride and I started regretting my decision. “Why am I doing this?” “Was there harm in being a couch potato for just one more day…JUST ONE??” Before I could even come up with the right thoughts to shut my mind up, Tony attacked! Then Mark followed him!!
So there I was at the tail of the peloton, the man whose apparent cycling prowess had been made popular for having cycled from Nairobi to Mombasa (600km) alone. But I had made it clear to these two pedal-happy crank-heads that I’m not a pro, just an ordinary cyclist. And that, given I had a 26er versus their skinny road tyres, they were to slow down the pace. We had agreed on the drive to Thika, or at least I thought so. Whatever happened to the bro code!
Almost out of breath, I caught up with Mark just before the first steep climb. By this time I was slowly regaining control of my disoriented body and reprogramming it to its default cycling settings. So I slowly passed Mark and edged closer to Tony. With his 6kg, 30-speed beast, this guy seemed to be gliding up the hills. At least that was the first impression, until Mark and I dropped him. Take that Mr. Carbon Fiber!
Now Mark was hanging on my rear wheel, chasing me up the hills like I owed him something. Every time I turned back hoping to have inched further from this ninja, I caught sight of his head, bobbing side to side as he cranked his pedals to keep up. I wanted to shake him off so badly just so I can brag about the fact that my steel frame bike was more superior than his. So I pedaled on. Faster. Harder. As though being chased by the wind itself.
One corner. Two corners. Then I turned to look back down the road. No people!! Nooo! And at that moment, me happy, I put my chest forward and kept on chebarbaring up the hill. Auto pedal mode engaged, I was able to eat up those hills almost effortlessly till our first stop.
As I later learnt, Tony who had been drafting behind our support car, found himself face first on the rear windshield when the driver engaged an emergency brake. It’s safe to say now that he did not break his face and somehow that slight accident awakened him. He never drafted again for the rest of the ride and immediately after the crash, I was told he started flying up the hills looking for us.
Eighty to Zero
Lunch time over, we took a left turn (which we assumed was the right option) onto a fast descending section. All three of us sped down, screaming into the wheezing wind (I did!), forgetting the one critical fact in cycling – everything that goes down, must come up!
Less than 2 minutes into our Need-for-Speed stint, we met an equally long but menacing uphill task. The climb started out so steeply it blew out all the momentum we so proudly had in less than ten meters! Just like the boastful flames of a candle blown out by a wave of the hand! Yaani, from 80kph to almost zero!
Tony’s gears started acting up. So we all stopped, in the spirit of Ubuntu, to help him out before continuing. Bad idea! A hill start is not a joke. You almost wish you could go back down, regain the long lost momentum and try your luck up the hill again. Nonetheless, we all shifted down to the granny gear and started spinning up one more time. The gap widened inch by inch. Every man for himself (and the power of his legs), the uphill task for us all!
Just when we summited, almost breathing a sigh of relief, we saw the road curving further uphill. All around a green carpet of tea farms lay. Scenic, beautiful, refreshing, cool and simply stunning. I wasn’t sure whether to marvel at the beauty around or yell out in pain, so I chose to keep my head low like a sheep stupidly moving about unaware of the surrounding.
Mau Mau Road
“Focus only on the front wheel when cycling uphill”, an ardent climber once advised. But with my very short concentration span, it only took me a few minutes before I lifted my head up. And it was just in time for another downhill, steep and sharp to the left. I lowered my shoulders and lifted my bottom up, just like I see those Tour de France cyclists do, and assumed what I considered an aerodynamic posture for the descent.
Not too far down, I saw a group of people huddled together next to two cars in the middle of the road! Sensing danger, I let out all my sirens – shouting at the folks to clear the way. Mayday! Mayday! At the same time I gently held onto my brakes as I saw a sharp right turn ahead. This, the locals told us, is called Mau Mau road and it has sharp and deadly bends like the edges of the Mau Mau Fighters’ spears.
Meanwhile, Mark was coming down on full gas, probably relieved that there was finally a decent downhill. By then, the people who had been on the road (which we later learnt was a scene of an accident between the two cars) had cleared off hence Mark saw no need to slow down. He did not see the sharp right turn in time either. I remember glancing back only to see him zigzagging at high speed headed straight for the huge trees by the roadside. And when I finally heard him crash, I definitely thought the worst!
I immediately hopped of my bike, almost crashing too, threw it aside and ran back to his rescue. Luckily he had missed the trees by a few meters and instead landed on a sandy patch that thoroughly grazed his elbow but nothing more. His rear derailleur hanger was broken leaving him with only two choices: to quit the ride or change to a single speed. Ninja Mark chose the latter!
By this time, Tony had caught up with us, half happy that we had that impromptu stop. In about ten minutes, Mark’s bike which was at one point a 27-speed, got a sudden down grade to 1-speed with another 1000m elevation to go! I still don’t know how he hacked it. While Tony bonked and backed out 10km to the end, Mark and his single-speed heroically made it up the toughest sections to Fly Over just a few minutes behind me. Yes, I triumphantly carried the day with my real steel!
Painful as the ride was, we got back home certain that we would do it again for the sheer pleasure of suffering up those hills. What is it with cyclists and pain?!