The third instalment of the Urge Fabien Barel invitational series, on location at Cape Verde, 500km off the coast of Senegal in West Africa...
FROM DIRT ISSUE 110 - April 2011
Words by Rowan Sorrell. Photos by Sven Martin.
This was the third instalment of the Urge Fabien Barel invitational series, the previous events took competitors to Kenya and Nepal. This year the location was Cape Verde, an archipelago made up of 10 islands situated in the Atlantic Ocean some 500km of the coast of Senegal in West Africa. So just what exactly is a FB invitational Urge event? Well they are multi faceted and not easy to define simply, but if I had to sum them up with one word I would say they are all about adventure.
The organisers set out to find unique locations that have never been ridden before in this way, to create an adventure where the riders and the public discover and learn about other cultures and for the event to leave a lasting impression with a positive impact on the area from the event’s fundraising actions. This is of course in exchange for the stunning landscapes, remote tracks and trails, and the rich experience that everyone enjoyed. The format for this year was four runs over four different courses, on two different islands, with no inspection of the courses (all runs were blind), it meant that no–one (except Fred Glo – main event organiser – who had visited Cape Verde eight years ago on one of his Tribe trips) knew what to expect. Riding the trails relied on reading the terrain and your anticipation to get you down quickly and safely.
On board for the trip were fifteen riders including four downhill world champions: Fabien Barel, Jerome Clementz, Tracy Moseley, Hans Rey, Anka Martin, Greg Doucende, Mark Weir, Nico Vouilloz, Rene Wildhaber, Marco Nicoletti, Sam Peridy, Sabrina Jonnier, Sam Normand, Doro Lindtke and me! Fred Glo and Manou Gauzy made this trip happen and took care of all the complicated logistics before and during the event and the media crew essential to capture the stills and video of the event as it happened. >>
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Drive to Bristol airport, fly Bristol to Paris. Meet all the riders and event crew at the hotel in the evening.
Day Two, Monday
Fly Paris to Praia airport on the island of Santiago in Cabpe Verde. We were a bike down with Hans Rey’s bike still in the States; with only one flight a week from Paris to Cape Verde the team were already working hard behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.
After dinner, with a local group providing traditional music and dancing, Fred and Fabien gave a talk with the full run down of what was going to happen on the trip and gave us the low down on the medical situation should anyone have an accident – it wasn’t good. We were racing on two different islands, neither of these had a hospital and while they had requested helicopter assistance to evacuate a casualty in the event of an emergency it had been rejected on the grounds that there is not a helicopter in the whole country! Though it later became apparent this was probably not necessary anyway as many sections of the tracks would punish mistakes quite severely, I guess it could have been handy for the recovery of a body though! The riders’ briefing gave clear instructions that hurting ourselves was not an option on this trip and for everyone to ride at 70%. I was later to find that my interpretation of 70% and some of the other guys was quite different!
Day Three, Tuesday
After breakfast we headed for a walk through the roads and backstreets of Praia as it was just coming to life. We walked to the school where two of the charities are based that the fundraising from the event will be supporting. We were made very welcome by the teachers and the school children, and it was a nice experience to meet the people first hand that our bike auctions will benefit (all of the riders donated a frame or bike to be auctioned to raise money for these charities). Everyone left with a good feeling about some of the reasons we were at the event aside from the bike riding and we were ready and excited to head onto our next stop on the island of Fogo where we were going to be racing down the volcano.
A three hour ferry trip took us across to Fogo on a brand new catamaran. In reality it was over four hours and one of the roughest boat journeys I've been on, with plenty of people throwing up. With our sea legs tested we staggered off the boat as our bikes and bags were hurled over the side into the chaotic crowd below. All the bikes and bags were then (as had by now become customary!) loaded into a teetering tower on an old pick up truck; it was a wonder that that much luggage could possibly be squeezed into one little truck. We all wondered what state the bikes would be in by the time we got there.
Fully loaded we travelled the hour’s drive up to Cha das Caldeiras, a small village in caldera of the volcano and in the shadow of the new active cone some 3000 metres above sea level that last erupted in 1995. It was a long and steep road up, we arrived at the hotel under cover of night all wondering just what this place would look like in the light of day.
We woke to our first glimpse of the volcano, and the large caldera (a 9km diameter circular cauldron like feature caused by a large volcanic eruption) that we were staying within. There was a lot of mist and cloud looming in the early morning and it made the place feel even more remote and desolate yet strangely eerie and beautiful. We built our bikes as the cloud and mist burnt off and we were left with a scorcher of a day to get to grips with the loose gravelly terrain, it was cool to ride on, a lot like powder with the bike constantly drifting around on the surface.
A highlight of the day was spending time in and around the remote village with all the people who live in the lunar like landscape there, it is baron and isolated yet peaceful. They live a mellow, relaxed life with few material possessions but were so happy to see what we were doing and were walking up the hills to watch, chat and have a go on our bikes. It was a really nice day, but over too quick.
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We woke early to begin our steady ride and hike up the volcano for the first race run. About halfway up we started the sketchy hike–a–bike up a steep rock ridge, to the race start point. We pushed on up to the summit, it didn’t look much further but in reality it was a long old hike at altitude with no shade from the hot sun. It was well worth it though for the incredible view and the good feeling at the summit of 3000 metres with all the team up there. Looking down into the crater you could see and smell the sulphur fumes rising from the vents. Then very soon, it was time to start the first race.
We had drawn cards the night before for our starting positions and Anka Martin had drawn the unenviable position of first rider down. This was always going to be tough with no tyre tracks to follow on the wide blank black canvas and no–one knew just what the grip and braking would be like on the ash. She rode it well and the rest of us could see what it was like to ride, so when Mark Weir lined up he set the tone by pedalling out of the start straight up to speed. Nico Vouilloz speed–tucked the volcano and was lightning fast down the slope. Rene’s bike computer registered 88kph which is shifting some, on gravel and rock.
After the steep ash was a section of loose gravelly and rocky singletrack, with no real defined line it was easy to lose your way. The villagers had all come out onto the course to watch and cheer everyone on. What followed the ride through the village was a 7km flat pedal along the cobbled road, still at altitude, that eventually led into a steep and technical final descent to the finish.
We were driven along a wild coastal road and back up to the volcano at night where the night sky lit it up. There is no mains electricity in the homes up there and with no ambient light, the sky was incredible, probably the most vivid night sky I've ever seen.
Day Six, Friday
We were up at daybreak to descent back down from the volcano by minibus and to the ferry. The drive down was really enjoyable as we had a good chance to see more of the island and its people. Our time on Fogo was over and it had been a pleasure.
Our boat journey however, was not! We had to catch the ferry back to the island of Santiago, but however rough we thought it was on the way over, on the way back it was rougher, there was about an 80% sick rate and it was a war of attrition as we each settled into our own zone to fight the chunder – solidarity brother.
Once off the boat it was a quick bus trip to the airport and another two planes from island to island – Praia to Sal, Sal to Sao Vicente. We spent the night on Sao Vicente, probably the most developed of the islands.
Day Seven, Saturday
Another early start as we went down to the port to catch another ferry, this time from San Vicente to the island of Santo Antao where we would do the remainder of the race runs. This was a much more relaxed ride on a traditional car ferry sitting out in the open air. With a large capoeira group (a Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, sports, and music…thanks Wikipedia!) on board we had an awesome free performance as they danced, drummed and sang all the way across.
It is a testament to Fred and Manou's hard work that the riding on Santo Antao happened at all, with such a spread out area that we were covering for this event (and random flights and boats that link the islands) transporting 18 bikes and 25 peoples’ bags was no mean feat. In order to make everything run smoothly they had chartered a small plane to move our bikes from the island of Santiago to the race site on Santo Antao. All sorted…or so they thought. At the last minute the flight was cancelled, our bikes were unloaded and we were stranded. Fabien, Fred and Manou were working tirelessly behind the scenes to keep everything on track and to prevent the trip and race grinding to a halt. After many phone calls and an emergency meeting they managed to get the bikes flown to the next island and then hired a small fishing boat to bring them across to Santo Antao.
And I’m very grateful that they did, as Saturday turned into quite a day, probably one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences I’ve had with my bike. The island of Santo Antao is completely stunning with big mountains looming dead ahead as we left the port, we drove up a long winding mountain road and were looking at how stunning the slopes were, they just looked perfect for building trails, high, long and not too steep, but of course in true Urge fashion we drove straight past those enticing slopes and up into the low hanging cloud, mist and strong wind! Over the top of the pass we dropped into a little enclosed hidden valley, at high altitude it was very lush in comparison to everything we had seen before and the black desert of Fogo. There were some small communities living up there working the fertile soils and cool, moist air and a few passed us carrying produce and water by donkeys, they looked more than a bit surprised to see us all building bikes and kitting up.
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We rode and hiked up the short distance to the start point, it was then it became clear what we were about to ride down. Well I say ride, we were supposed to be racing down this but a quick scout of the first few hundred metres revealed some of the diciest terrain possible. The track followed an old trading route that was paved with cobbled stones that were nicely greased up by the heavy mist and slight rain. The stones led into hundreds of switchbacks that on the upper slopes had potentially deadly consequences for the slightest mistakes. So what with the mist, wind, rain, cliffs and the added issue that no–one had seen or ridden the trails it was quite intimidating on the top of the hill.
We rode an amazing trail from the villages on the lower slopes of the mountains down to the pick–up point, with loads of rock steps and tight switchbacks to play on as we went. It was a really fun ride and rounded off what was an amazing day of great scenery, a crazy trail and loads of fun with the people in the villages.
Day Eight, Sunday
This was the final days riding with race runs three and four taking place. We woke early again and loaded the mini buses to head up to run three, the drive to the top was breathtaking, a long winding cobbled road that cut into the valley side and perched on top of the ridges of the mountains, the intricate detail of the landscape was such that the bus was silent as everyone soaked up the view.
A short 10 minute cross country ride took us to the start of run three; we had a few minutes to spare so we walked down the course a little to see what we might be in store for us. I’m still not sure if that was a good idea or not! The start was deceptive, it looked a lot mellower than the day before but in fact after 30 seconds or so it soon entered into the more familiar terrain of run two with a few switchbacks with huge cliffs on the outside of the bends. One corner in particular had everyone’s attention as you headed quite quickly downhill into it and the drop on the outside of the switchback was a sheer several hundred feet!
The race run was eventful for me; I hit my chain device early on dropping my chain at the bottom of the first main climb. With the chain back on I set about trying to find a good rhythm on the next descent and was going well until I encountered a donkey on the trail, having narrowly avoided a cockerel the day before I approached cautiously. After dismounting to take my bike past the donkey and its rope, it bolted the other way and tensioned the rope which wrapped around my cranks and pedal. I had to chase the donkey as it ran the other way and was bricking it as I tried to untangle the bike that it would kick me in the face, I got my bike free and carried on the run…this is what the Urge event is all about, you never know what is coming! I had a GoPro camera on to capture the run footage, so Fred and Fab decided to deduct the time from this, so the 'donkey bonus' moved me from 7th to 5th – only in Cape Verde! Rene put together a really strong run to take the win on this the most all–around stage of the event.
Run four started in a different spot, dropping into another valley, again we had time to walk the first 30–40 seconds of the track and this was definitely more downhill style, not super steep, but quite fast and technical with less cliffs.