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By Brian Vernor
Filmmaker Brian Vernor is best known in the bicycle industry for his documentary “Pure Sweet Hell,” which chronicled the cyclocross lifestyle on 8mm black-and-white film. His most recent project is filming and riding the Tour d’Afrique, a four-month bicycle adventure road race across the African continent. This year marks the sixth running of the race, which begins in Cairo, Egypt, and finishes in Cape Town, South Africa. Riders pass through 10 countries at an average distance of 75 miles a day. They are fed enough to survive, given basic directions and generally looked after by a slim crew of seasoned expedition leaders.
In any bike race I’ve done there is a point when the pace settles in and the action appears contained. The pace may not be entirely comfortable but the acute pain of the forthcoming scramble to the finish is still distant. During the long, straight and endless miles of the Zambia and Botswana sections of the Tour D’Afrique, I found myself in this state of lull. The finish in Cape Town was abstract enough in my mind that I couldn’t imagine it, and the scenery appeared so unchanging from day-to-day that I had difficulty seeing any progress in our effort to reach the Cape.
This whole period of long mileage days may have been frustrating, boring, and tiring if it weren’t for the overwhelming splendor of the immense Victoria Falls, and the sporadic spotting of wild African elephants. Both natural wonders have been mythologized for good reason. I doubt I could add to their mystique but should say that the site of either one was enough to make my sense of self a whole lot smaller than it had been previous to the experience.
Regardless of the awe I felt seeing Vic Falls and African elephants in Zambia and Botswana, I anxiously embraced the next stages of the Tour D’Afrique, which brought us to Namibia and South Africa. Just like any border crossing in Africa, our crossing into Namibia saw a marked cultural change, as well as a psychological shift among the riders of the TDA. Somehow the dry grass in Namibia was dryer than in Botswana, and the white faces were those of local residents instead of foreign tourists. Upon reaching Namibia, we riders felt the end of our dirge conceivably close. Appropriately enough, partying ensued which lasted most of the night and not just one rider found his way back to camp only in time to mount up for another hundred mile day on the bike. The preceding day had been the longest of the tour, a mere 130 miles.
Namibia was another shocking reintroduction to Western culture. In the capitol city, Windhoek, I sat in a café sipping coffee while dazed and confused by the line-up at the KFC across the street. With a couple days off from cycling I mostly ate, slept, and dreamed of home. Windhoek reminded me of any Mid Western city such as Columbus, OH, or Indianapolis, Indiana. Modern but uninspired architecture, chain stores in strip malls, and black folk on one side of town, white folk on the other. Mostly, I was just waiting to leave because I knew some of the last dirt riding of the tour was waiting only one day outside the city.
Namibia ended up having some of the funnest riding of the tour, with hilly dirt roads and spectacular views uninterrupted by any human development. A few days of this and we reached the Fish River Canyon, a rocky and nearly lifeless gash in the Earth often compared to the Grand Canyon. It doesn’t go as deep or as far as the Grand Canyon, but it was beautiful and mysterious. In this landscape it was easy to imagine a sci-fi film set on an Earth-like planet inhabited by apes with human slaves … or maybe I was just tired and needing to catch up on all the films I’d missed over the last four months. Though I usually lived in the moment I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing a lot back home. Not just movies.
I felt giddy crossing into South Africa. The end was near and the ocean was nearer. Regardless, four months of riding in new terrain and through an unfamiliar cultural landscape took its toll. By this time most riders were emotionally wrecked and just sleepwalking to the finish line. For the Zenga brothers and I this meant conducting substantive interviews for our film got very difficult. We kept our questions short and direct, and shifted our filming to cover the more candid moments when people found the energy to be happy about the nearing end. Just days outside of Cape Town, at Lambert’s Baai, we finally bumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone, despite previous weariness and exhaustion, celebrated the sea.
The final day of riding finally came and we cycled an easy 38 miles where we regrouped for a 12-mile convoy to the Cape Town Waterfront. Before entering the city the partying started. An assortment of the cheapest champagne ever emerged from backpacks and was drained quickly. A guitar came out and some songs were sung. A few thousand photos were taken on the beach with Robben Island (famous for the prison which housed Nelson Mandela for 27 years) in the background. The 12 miles into the city took over an hour. Police escorts stopped traffic and national television crews circled around us. The journey between the Cape and Cairo has an epic history in South Africa. Cecil Rhoads, founder of South Africa, failed to realize his dream to connect the Cape with Cairo via rail, and ever since expeditions through Africa have not been complete without traversing this incredible distance. The crowd of five hundred plus people that greeted our finish validated the accomplishment of finishing the longest bike race in the world. However, less than one third of the starters managed to maintain EFI status (those who rode Every F-ing Inch). Most got too sick to ride or were simply beaten psychologically by the effort and took days off.
Cape Town was a beautiful place to end this long trip. It was a perfect reflection of modern Africa. Like every place we visited along our route, Cape Town contains an enormous contrast of experiences. The Waterfront area where the finish line was posted was akin to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Full of affluence and tourists, the Waterfront was a comfortable if somewhat dull place to hang out. Not far away was the famed Site Five squatter camp. Rampant HIV and TB combine to create a very short life expectancy for residents. This harsh contrast was experienced throughout the expedition.
I saw so much in the last four months it would be impossible to summarize it in a brief journal entry. It will undoubtedly engulf my thoughts for months to come and I hope only to make enough sense of it to present a coherent film about it one year from now. In the mean time, the Zengas and I have cut a short film that represents the briefest glimpse into the trip. This short is called Goodbye Tomorrow, and will screen as part of the opening night program at the Bicycle Film Festival. If you’re in New York the last week of May, please come out and let us know what you think. Besides our film the BFF is hosting a collaboration between legendary filmmaker Jorgen Leth (Sunday In Hell, The Impossible Hour, The Five Obstructions) and musician Simone Pace (the band Blonde Redhead). Other BFF program highlights are the Nigel Dick film Millar’s Tale, about English cyclist David Millar, and the art exhibit Dear Velo.
Thanks for reading, Brian Vernor