Cycling to the Sahara: On Speed*

An artist’s impression of me on a bicycle.

After flying cross country – Jerba to Tozeur, three days, 15mph average – I was starting to think that I’d earned that kind of speed. My feet were spinning round like happy hamsters on the wheel, I was fit and strong and I was working hard. I earned that speed, dammit.

But the past two days of grinding, creaking roule has reminded me that for long-distance cyclists speed isn’t earned; it’s given. My muscles haven’t been working any less hard in those two days, I swear, but somehow I’ve only managed to average a paltry 11mph.

In this way, cycling less represents driving or even walking as a mode of transport: it is more like sailing. All I can do is put my ship out on the ocean and make sure the sail is up. Everything else, everything else that dictates the speed I travel at, is out of my hands.

For a cyclist this means the wind speed and direction, it means the quality of the road surface and it means the topography through which you’re cycling. All of these things have a greater impact on the speed of travel than how fast I pump my legs round.

A pleasant sight for sore legs: straight downhill.

For example, if I’m grinding along at 10mph into a headwind (as I have for the last two days), then sure I could pedal faster and sprint my speed up to 13mph, but as soon as I collapse back onto the saddle, I’ll be back at 10mph, exhausted. But if the wind would only drop for a second – all of a sudden I’ll be doing 15mph without even trying.

Same goes for hills. Uphill, sometimes I’m down as low as 6mph. Downhill on a good road can be well over 30mph. But if the road surface is bad, then there’s no point risking a fast descent if the pay-off is a broken front fork – or worse. And so downhill can be slow too. Even a slightly less than perfect road can kill you for 2mph.

So speed isn’t earned; it is given. And I’ll be grateful for whatever I get.


* Please note: I am not actually on speed. I am on levothyroxine. Quite enough.

Cycling to the Sahara: Freewheelin’ Jerba to Tozeur

This is going to be one of those fun round-up posts that you all love. Mainly because I’ve got horribly behind on posting. You all think I’m in Jerba still don’t you? Ha! Fools. You should be following me on twitter, then you’d know the dark truth.

I cycled through some of this. East of Matmata.

Another reason why I’m going to save you all the hassle of reading words is because I went back to Matmata and I don’t like to repeat myself. If you want, you can re-read my Matmata Motobylette Man post because I met him again. This time he even offered me a go on his motobylette! I declined gracefully. My legs were still vibrating from climbing the vertical cliff-face onto which Matmata apparently clings.

And some of this. On the road to Douz.

The very next day, I cycled from Matmata to Douz. The road was very straight, very long and rather dusty. I cycled straight past the main road turn-off for Ksar Ghilane – you know, the nice sealed road that I could have taken from Matmata instead of this one. Here I also met some soldiers, apparently confounded by my use of bicycle.

The main purpose of going to Douz, though, was to bring you this photo:

To arrive here! (again). The Sahara.

So there you have it: cycling to the Sahara.

What now?

Some more cycling? Okay then. This time heading north, up to Kebili and then across to Tozeur.

Scared because I’m fleeing the double-headed camel arch in the background. Not because I’m cycling and photographing at the same time.

But before I bring you the star of today’s show, let me share with you one of the road hazards of Tunisia: the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule. These are glass bubbles drilled into the road, just where a cyclist would want to cycle if they didn’t want to get run over. They look like this:

A Tunisian cyclist-death nodule.

But what is particularly cunning about the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule is their unpredictability. After three weeks of careful study, I can tell you that they appear and disappear with a disorder matched in complexity only by chaos theory. And of course, being glass, many of them are smashed, creating a nice cyclist-puncture-death hazard.

To give you a further glimpse of the fatal dangers I face in a desert, here’s a picture of a dead donkey. I don’t know what he died of, but there is an empty beer can resting right next to his rotting gullet. Was he desperately gasping for a last drink – any drink? Or was alcohol abuse the cause of death? We may never know.

Alcohol abuse kills.

But finally to today’s star show: the Chott el-Jerid, otherwise known as the place where “Luke Skywalker contemplated the two moons in the first Star Wars movie”. That’s what my guide book says anyway. I have no idea what that means. To me, it is otherwise known as “that bloody great sea of salt,” which I think is a much more apt description.

Seriously: as far as the eye can see: salt.

Salt. A lot of salty salt salt.

I know it is salt because I stuck my hand into the ground, grabbed myself a lump and tasted it. Salt. Here was more salt than you could imagine. Yes, even more than in a fish and chip shop.

Handful of salt. Grabbed out of the ground under my feet.

Of course, the Tunisian’s aren’t stupid. They don’t stick their hands in to mine this stuff, they have big salt grabbers to get it for them. And Tunisia is the world’s 34th biggest salt producer. An entirely underwhelming statistic given the magnitude of this lake.

Big salt grabbers.

In some parts, the lake does actually have water in it. I’m told that this is because we are still in winter. In the summer, not much water hangs around here.

A little lake of salt.

And so we arrive to the present moment. Consider yourself caught up with. For those of you following me on twitter, you will know what this lump of meat is:

Meat.

The rest of you know what to do.