At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories. This year, we are running an At the Back every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from February 5, 2007, John Wilcockson covers his first race of the season: a humanitarian event in the African country of Mali.
As we step off a small, rickety bus, the sounds, sights and smells of a rural African town challenge our senses. High-pitched whistling from a roughly hewn flute merges with an incessant, frenetic beat of two drummers. Awaiting in the partial shade of a baobab tree are the town’s mayor in military garb and village chiefs in full-length, white robes and embroidered fez hats, along with their colorfully costumed wives who wear blue, gold, and burnt-sienna turbans.
A small, bare-footed boy holds a tray of bunched carrots on a pallet on his head, looking for customers, in competition with slender teenage girls selling red apples, balanced similarly. Smoke from burning garbage is mixed with pungent diesel fumes from the grinding engines of ancient pickups and overloaded trucks that share the narrow road with donkey carts, buzzing mopeds, and lumbering bicyclists.
Into this sun-scorched street scene stride seven members of the Saunier Duval ProTour team. The riders, in T-shirts, are accompanied by their Swiss manager Mauro Gianetti, Spanish directeur sportif Matxin Fernandez, team doctor Maria Sagasti, and five journalists. We’ve all come to the town of Mopti in West Africa’s Republic of Mali to help launch a humanitarian project, sponsored by Saunier Duval in its centennial year, to plant a million trees needed to tackle this sub-Saharan country’s chronic deforestation and desertification. And to kick things off, there’s a bike race: Saunier Duval versus the best racers in Mali.
We know this won’t be Milan-San Remo, but those involved in cycling at the elite level sometimes need reminding of how the sport works at a grassroots level. This is such an occasion.
First, you need a course. Surrounded by locals chattering in their tribal tongue, three men, in animated French, discuss the finer points of the route. Baba, the genial Mali cycling federation head, wearing a black UCI windbreaker over his beige safari suit, wields a Bic pen on the squared page of a notebook. He adds swirls to the roughly sketched course, showing how the final in-town loop could be changed. The shaved-headed Gianetti says he wants a straight finish, not one on a curve. And the police chief nods his approval.
Next, you need competitors. While the skinny ProTour guys are changing into their all-new Castelli uniforms, helpers assemble their featherweight carbon-fiber Scott bicycles and hand pump their tires. The locals are ready, lined up on steel-framed bikes from the 1980s, ’70s, and even ’60s. I spot the scratched white enamel of a Peugeot, a Biopace chainwheel, a rusted five-speed freewheel, even one bike with extension brake levers. Two riders don’t have cycling shoes. They have clear-plastic sandals strapped into their toe-clipped pedals. One is wearing royal-blue satin soccer shorts with a Manchester United logo, another has bright green tube socks, while some pull on their souvenir yellow Saunier Duval T-shirts over assorted hand-me-down European club uniforms before pinning on their race numbers. The six best Malians, who ride for the national team, are kitted in the same Saunier Duval bib shorts and jerseys as the ProTour team’s riders from Spain, Italy, and France.
No one’s sure how long the race is. “Somewhere between 60 and 100 kilometers,” says Gianetti as he guns a white Nissan 4×4 carrying a French video cameraman and journalists from La Gazzetta dello Sport, Corriere del Ticino and VeloNews. By the time we catch the race, after honking past a line of traffic, we see there’s already a breakaway — the first of the year — 30 seconds up the road. We pass the small peloton controlled by the Saunier men and see that Ruben “Lobo” Lobato is riding tempo on the front of the break with riders No. 17 (scraped red frame) and No. 1, who pedals with a bow-legged gait. Before the start I’d asked him why he was given the favored number: Because he’d competed in last year’s 11-day Tour de Faso, he said.
Besides a course and racers, you need spectators. There are plenty of these. Women politely clap after climbing a bank from their work in the rice fields. A dozen men stand atop a halted truck that has freshly slaughtered chickens hanging down the sides. Then, in the town of Sévaré, the police chief’s siren-wailing pickup clears a path down a street where people haggle at market stalls, repair windowless cars on red-dirt shoulders, wheel handcarts of produce, and chat in groups outside shantytown shops.
“It was hot out there,” Tour de France rider Christophe “Tito” Rinero says later. “And it was windy, so we showed the Africans how to find shelter.”
Second-year pro Arkaitz “Duran Duran” Duran puts a firm hand on the back of No. 16 to guide him from the side to the center of the pack. But the pros can’t stop the wind from billowing out those yellow T-shirts and slowing down their owners.
After the first of two U-turns on the T-shaped course, two riders are sitting on the burning, bumpy tarmac — the first crash of the year. Touched wheels no doubt. One has hit his helmetless head. He’s helped to the red emergency response vehicle following the race as his battered bike is carried away. The other rider, bright red blood streaming down his leg, will be treated later by Dr. Sagasti — the first woman team doctor in the European peloton.
Gianetti gives a tow to some of the riders who have been gapped because of the crash. Others are pushed back into the pack by Saunier riders. Before the second U-turn, near Fatoma, the village where we’ll be planting saplings in the first “million trees” plantation tomorrow morning, a herd of 50 goats panics, skidding across the road between the wheels of the peloton. The time gap to the break is up to 1:40.
The pace increases. The ProTour men stretch the line. The gap is under half a minute as we speed back through Sévaré. With 10km to go, all of the “parachute” riders in T-shirts have been dropped. Just five of the Tour de Faso Malians remain.
Back through the start-finish before the loop through Mopti, Duran has broken clear with No. 2, Adama Toula. (“His training is working in the fields,” says Baba. “He’s a peasant.”) The two men avoid hitting wandering donkeys in the crowded town, as they follow the sirens and honking of the lead vehicles. Gianetti’s angry that the police pickup doesn’t follow the agreed course, but it doesn’t matter. There’s no sprint finish.
“We agreed it was better to share things,” says Rinero, after his teammate, Duran and the strapping Togola hold hands in solidarity as they cross the line before a chanting crowd of young men mobs the two winners.
It wasn’t San Remo, but the enthusiasm was just the same.