Sometimes you only have to cover a bike race once for it to remain in your heart forever. And West Africa’s Tour du Faso was just one of those races. Every year I always try to do at least one race far away from the European WorldTour calendar. And no race I ever covered was more original than the Tour du Faso back in 2004. At the time A.S.O. was a partner and would invite a sprinkling of journalists each year, and what I found on the ground was a rugged race, seemingly lost in time, and filled with passion.
Of all of the African countries I have visited — 13 at last count — Burkina quickly grabbed my heart. At a glance, the stark, arid landscape is nondescript. There is little vegetation and the many mud-hut villages that fill the landscape are comparatively monotone compared to the abundance of colors found in some African countries. But the people are warm, and the Tour of Faso was nothing short of passionate.
Skill levels within the peloton were as disparate as the quality of the bicycles. Several European contingencies were invited and boasted top-of-the-line racing machines, and some of the African national teams were well-equipped, too. But others raced on make-shift bikes, likely bought second-, third-, or fourth-hand at an outdoor market. And at the first acceleration of each day, the peloton would quickly explode, and riders could be found literally all over the road. And while riders would often be dropped early, I never saw one simply give up. Many would chase relentlessly day in and day out.
Spread out over 10 days, the 2004 race saw veteran Burkinabé rider Abdul Wahab Sawadogo, dominate the field. And throughout the race, he was treated as a national hero as he passed in front of the many schools and villages.
As a historian of the sport, I feel that the Tour of Faso was a race that harkened back to another age. Winning breakaways could go at any moment, not just in the mountains, as is so often the case at the highest level of sport today. Time could be won and lost at the most unexpected moments it seemed. And the riders, well, they were the giants of the road.
Villages can, at times, appear to come out of nowhere in Africa. But they were always packed with a most diverse selection of fans.
The national team from Senegal relaxes before the start. Considered one of the stronger African teams on hand that year, they proved to be no match for the mighty Burkina Faso team.
The peloton passes under a distinctive Baobab tree, one of the distinctive geographical features in this corner of West Africa.
A Senegalese rider chases back through the race caravan, one that included a pick-up truck transformed into a media vehicle.
Water remained key throughout the 10-day race as riders were constantly struggling to remain hydrated in the tropical climate.
The team from the Ivory Coast was clearly one of the less-funded teams. The skin-tight aero jerseys so commonly found today in bike races, did not even exist yet.
The peloton passed by a local farmer and his donkey — a common site along the roads here.
Nothing was as exciting as the occasional gravel sections that quickly splintered the pack in the apparent dust storm created by the pack.
It is fair to say that one never quite knew what they might observe as they drove ahead of the race.
Abdul Wahab Sawadogo was by far the strongest rider throughout the race and was awarded the distinctive yellow jersey, like the one offered by the Tour de France.
Gas stations come in all shapes and sizes in Burkina Faso.
Even the European teams struggled with equipment issues over the rugged roads found here.
The pack strings out in front of a long line of school children that could be often found along the roadside.
But drama and tension were unmatched on the gravel sections which forced errors and mechanicals.
Many of the European riders took a brutal beating throughout the weeklong race as they were so unaccustomed to the road, and racing.