The man who cycled across Africa

Or the art of cycling across Africa (and why you should “just do it”).

In today’s interview I am very pleased to introduce you to Henry Gold, founder and director of TDA Global Cycling.

Henry, it’s an honour to get to know you.

For starters, tell us a little about your background. Where are you originally from, and how did you start your professional career?

I was born in Czechoslovakia in the part that is now Eastern Slovakia. I grew up in a large village, essentially on a small farm with a few animals; chickens, geese, dog, cat and even a cow, large garden and an orchard.

As all kids who grow up in rural areas, it was a carefree existence, roaming around on a bike in every direction, though having responsibilities such as taking the cow to pasture on my summer holidays and so on.

I moved to Canada when I was 15 and graduated from McGill University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. My first three “career” jobs I worked as an engineer, but I worked many jobs from the time I was 13.

If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be and why?

What comes to mind is Frank Sinatra’s song ‘I did it my way’. But that is 5 words so maybe ‘maverick’.

It seems we are both “Africa Freaks” at heart. What do you find so special about the African continent? Also, what was your first contact with the region? I believe you initially travelled to Africa in 1984, correct? I don’t want to sound disrespectful, quite the contrary, but I was just one year old at the time! I guess I may have to call you a “ * Mzee” from now on… 😉 (* Mzee = Swahili title of respect to anyone older than oneself)

Yes, I am an Africa Freak. Actually many riders that cycle Africa with us call themselves Freaks.

I think my fascination with Africa started with the famous Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila who won the 1960 Rome Olympics, the 1st African winning an Olympic medal, breaking the record in the process and on top running barefoot. He was a sensation that came from nowhere.

I was a kid obsessed with sports, and a year later – I was nine years old at the time – Bikila came to run the oldest marathon in Europe that happens every year in Eastern Slovakia. My older brother got us tickets to the stadium when Bikila won the Kosice Peace Marathon by over three minutes. It was an awesome performance that I remember to this day. But it was not until 1984 that I came to work in Africa.

For me Africa has a feeling of coming home, after all this is where humanity evolved. So perhaps it is my own power of suggestion but each time I land in Africa, it feels very welcoming. I love Africans: their spontaneity, generosity, their joie de vivre. The majority of Africans have a very difficult life but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying what comes their way. Maybe, the quote by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger is right on; “the harder the life, the finer the type”.

Joking aside, it is also in the early 1980s that your vision of the now famous “Tour d’Afrique” (Africa Tour) began to take root. Share with us your initial idea to produce cheap mountain bikes in Africa, and how it gave place to the original cycling concept. Has cycling always been a part of your life?

Ever since I can remember I was pedaling but simply for fun and later as means to get around. My motivation for creating what has become the iconic Cairo to Cape Town Tour d’Afrique has origin in the desire to help Africa with transportation challenges.

When I was working in Ethiopia I often would see prematurely old women carrying heavy loads on their backs. The whole rural economy for probably 95% of the people was limited to what they could put on their backs or a mule. It was also the time when Mountain Bikes became popular. And knowing the role of bikes in India and China, I kept saying that someone should start manufacturing rugged, cheap bikes in Africa for the African market.

local African bike

Eventually I managed to get someone interested in doing a feasibility study and raised some funds and it looked like the concept was feasible. We created a business plan and even found a Kenyan investor. At that point we started thinking about marketing and having a limited budget, thought we needed to do something crazy that would have everyone talking about us. So the idea came to me to have a cycling race from Cairo to Cape Town using our bikes.

Moving forward, 2003 was a big turning point. It must’ve been such a thrill to take part in the world’s longest and most challenging cycling race across Africa? Four months from Giza (Egypt) to Cape Town (South Africa), what an achievement! Not to mention you established the Guinness World Record for the fastest human powered crossing of Africa.

For sure a hell of a thrill, I mean we had no idea if this was doable. As far as we could tell no one has ever cycled every inch of the way. There was a huge part of the route that we did not even scout and we were crossing areas where only convoys with military vehicles in front and back were allowed. Yet we managed to obtain permissions with one vehicle in the front and participants cycling at their own speed spread for kilometres.

We had no idea how individuals would survive the physical and the mental stress; we were worried about food, water, infections and so on. The roads were rough, about 40% was unpaved, in places such as Sudan hundreds of kilometres of sandy roads, in Tanzania due to rains hundreds kilometres more of muddy roads. So each day when I arrived at camp – usually among the last ones coming in – was a celebration.

Take us on a typical “Tour d’Afrique”. What’s on offer? How long does it last? What’s the itinerary (and distance covered), and generally speaking, what is there to expect? Can anyone take part in such an expedition, or is it only for the “epic” adventurer?

Tour d’Afrique is a 4 month, 12,000 km cycling journey that covers 10 African nations. The typical participant is someone interested in a big life challenge – to be taken out of their comfort zone and immersed in foreign cultures. The participants come from over 15 countries throughout the English speaking world including US, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ,  South Africa but also from other parts of the world such as Germany, Scandinavia and other. They range in age from 18 to 75, males and females.

It is open to all able bodied adults. We encourage anyone to take up the challenge. They are often surprised what they are capable of. They should expect every type of road surface from rutted tracks to smooth tarmac. They should be prepared to cycle in the rain and cold, and in the searing desert heat.

Henry’s interview continues in Part Two!

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