Paris-Dakar Bike Race: Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream
By Emily Morse
After biking through China, Tibet, Laos, Cambodia, Jordan, and Tunis, and competing in the Tour d’Africa in 2004, Wilbert Bonné and Rob van der Geest wanted to find a new, challenging biking expedition. They both shared a dream of cycling through the great expanse of the Sahara desert.
However, after a great deal of research, they could not find a single company that offered the trip they hoped to take. So they created their own company, Bike-Dreams, and planned the company’s first expedition, “Paris-Dakar by Bike.”
As many as thirty participants will join Bike-Dreams on this first trip, beginning at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on September 10th, 2006 and ending in Dakar, Senegal on November 18th, 2006. So far cyclists are coming from Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Estonia.
The ages range from the young twenty-five to the active fifty-five. More registrations are being processed included men and women from seven more countries. The sole female participant officially registered for the trip so far will also bike all the way from her home country (Holland) to Paris before joining on the expedition.
Six Countries and an Ocean
“The route of this trip is so interesting. Starting in Paris and passing many interesting spots in France, Andorra, and Spain. After Europe you will see how different Africa is. First the rough mountains in northern Morocco. Then crossing the emptiness of the beautiful Sahara. The world will get green and have many villages and people again after driving into Senegal,” says Co-creator van der Geest.The path they will follow was made famous by the notorious Paris-Dakar motor rally, and offers an opportunity to follow paved roads through gorgeous countryside and varying terrain. It passes through six countries, two continents and crosses an ocean via the Straights of Gibraltar.
During the ten-week expedition, participants will bike 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles). They will spend 29 days in Europe and 43 in Africa for a total of 70 days on the road. They will spend time in France, Andorra, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal.
|A lone cyclist in the Sahara desert.|
And despite the tremendous distance, Bike-Dreams claims, “What’s done by car, you can better do by bike.” Instead of powering through the country roads, mountainous paths and coastal desert streets with vehicles, cyclists will not damage the terrain they’ll ride on or cause a ruckus along the way.
An Intimate View
“The benefits of biking such a long distance are manifold for the dedicated and interested traveler. The physical challenge is a huge component, but is hardly the only advantage of biking rather than riding.
Cycling the path allows participants to gain a more intimate knowledge of the landscape. Unlike trips where half of the time is spent on board a bus, looking at the world from windows, cyclists will be able to fully experience the land they will travel across.”
Finnish participant Mika Holker finds it “fascinating to see how everything (nature, culture, weather, etc.) changes gradually from here to there.” Holker will have the added benefit of seeing how everything will change from Finland to Paris as he plans on biking this first part of the trip before joining up with the Paris-Dakar expedition. This will add at least another thousand miles onto his journey and quite possibly as many as three thousand more miles.
|A cycling camp|
During the journey, cyclists will be followed by a support van complete with a nurse, a cook and a mechanic. Food, water, luggage, camping gear and tired bikers will be stored on board the bus while traveling. Nights are spent in tents at campsites.
Three meals will be provided every cycling day based on local cuisine and the chef’s particular specialties. However, cyclists will have the ability to break off for some truly authentic food at any of the locations after the biking for the day is over.
Most days average about 120 kilometers (~75 miles) of cycling. Paris-Dakar is broken into 58 cycling stages and twelve rest days. On cycling days participants can race through the day’s path and have their time marked.
At the end of the trip the times will be added up to determine a winner. There are no prizes, simply the honor of being the fastest biker on this first expedition. However Bike-Dreams points out that “the achievements of the first persons will not be more or less than the people who come last.”
Indeed, after biking 7,000 kilometers through the French countryside, the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain, and the altering desert terrain of Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, everyone will have accomplished more than the casual biker could ever dream.
Jorgen Nielsen, despite being a member of his local biking club and having had the experience of biking through the Italian Dolomites and the Pyrenees, is participating in “Paris-Dakar by Bike” more for “the pleasure to ride together with nice and friendly people from all over the world, who, like me, want to enjoy the ride, the nature and the people.” And while he knows the expedition is also a race he says, “I don’t mind, although I probably won’t stand a chance. But nevertheless I’m excited like a child before Christmas.”
On rest days cyclists have the opportunity to check out tourist sites. Local food can be consumed, hotels can be booked and shopping can be done. The first stop is Le Puy, France where an ancient cathedral marks the beginning of a path for religious pilgrimages. It has been visited by emperors and kings and is filled with legends about pagan and Christian shrines. The final stop in France is in the fortified city of Carcassonne, whose fortress is a World Heritage Site.
|A stage of the Tour d’Africa|
There is one stop in Andorra, providing bikers a rest from the arduous climbs of the Pyrenees Mountains. In Spain, rest days are spent in Cuenca and Granada. Cuenca is famous because its casas colgadas (hanging houses) were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Granada, the tired bicyclists can observe the stunning architecture left by the Jewish, Moorish and Catholic inhabitants of Granada throughout the centuries. At night, they can enjoy infamous nightlife of the popular city. Finally, in Gibraltar, cyclists can rest on the ferry while they cross the Straights into Africa.
Morocco has the greatest number of rest days. The first stop is the imperial city Fès, once the oldest city in the world. Here bikers can visit ancient tombs, Roman ruins, mosques, and museums.
In Marrakech, bikers can shop in the largest traditional market in Morocco or “people watch” in the busiest square in Africa. Further stops in Morocco include Tafraoute, Laâyoune and Nouâdhibou where participants can further indulge themselves in Moroccan culture and cuisine.
Along with providing participants a chance to experience Morocco, these stops will be necessary after biking through mountains and then the desert with temperatures ranging from the mid-60s to low 80s.
|A bike race in the desert|
There is one rest stop each in Mauritania and Senegal. Nouakchott in Mauritania, is one of the Sahara’s largest cities, with markets, beaches, museums and a large nomadic population. In Senegal, Saint Louis offers a small French colonial city in the midst of Africa.
After this last stop, participants will bike to Dakar, the westernmost city in Africa where they can enjoy some of the most beautiful ocean views from clifftop walks. If they have time to stay a few days before flying back to their home countries, cyclists will be able to check out the IFAN museum of West African culture, the Dakar Grand mosque, or the Senegal Zoo, or take a boat ride to Gorée Island, once a holding place for slaves about to be shipped to America.
Of course, for these intrepid bicyclists, the “Paris-Dakar by Bike” expedition is about more than sightseeing or racing; it encompasses all of this and lifelong passions. For van der Geest, “To be a participant in a trip like this is already a big adventure. To arrange it is even more exciting. The bike is the best way to travel. On a bike you can see, hear, smell, and feel all of the environment. It is freedom, whenever you see something interesting you are always free to stop, sit down, take a picture or just have a look.”
|The expedition’s logo|
For many, like van der Geest and Bonné, this expedition will be the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Holker had always wanted to bike from Finland to south Europe and Paris-Dakar “seems to fit the bill.”
Never having been on a biking trip quite like this, Neilson told his family about Paris-Dakar after discovering Bike-Dreams on the web. They shouted “Do It!” and he immediately registered saying, “What can a poor boy do?”
And while crossing 7,000 km by bike (approximately the distance of a round-trip trek across the continental United States) might sound like torture to some, for these avid bikers it is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.
The credo of Bike-Dreams is “Life is not the dreams you have, but the dreams you realize.”
The thirty participants of this first “Paris-Dakar by Bike” will actualize long held dreams, and hopefully Bike-Dreams will make the expedition an annual event. Eventually the company hopes to add additional routes for many new, successful biking trips.
Emily Morse is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and a graduate of UMass Amherst. She is looking forward to teaching in Japan next year. Read her blog about travel articles and trends in travel.
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