Gallery: Looking back on Africa’s great bike races — Tour du Faso

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.

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.