The sun beats down in the centre of Ndondjé as La Tropicale Amissa Bongo’s irresistible Afrobeat race song blasts on a loop from the PA. The village dancers move in unison to the groove as Yauheni Hutarovich applauds their efforts next to the podium.
On the road nearby, it’s chaos. The fourth stage is running late after a 500-personnel transfer across the region in planes, trains and automobiles the previous day. The South Africa team manager screams at his Cameroon peer: “Turn around, you’re holding everyone up!” The race starts an hour late; nobody bats an eyelid. It’s just another day at La Tropicale, a 968-kilometre stage race through Gabon.
Europcar and Bretagne Séché-Environnement take on the best of Africa
The presence of Hutarovich, a past stage winner at the Tour of Spain, underlines La Tropicale’s pitting of Tour de France-bound professional squads like Europcar and the Belarusian sprinter's Bretagne Séché-Environnement against the best African national team riders.
They range from the precocious talents of Rwanda and Eritrea, developing their own support systems, to unpaid, amateur riders from the likes of Burkina Faso, Gabon and the Ivory Coast.
Ivorian Bolodigui Ouattara competes on a battered, seven-year-old bike, formerly owned by the now-defunct Vacansoleil team, and works as a car salesman. “It’s not easy. After training, you’ve got to go to work. There’s no rest,” he says.
Ouattara hangs on through the race, strong, but handicapped by the entrenched, historical difficulties facing many African riders. “The biggest barrier till now was the equipment and the coaches, finding ones to help them improve,” says race patron Bernard Hinault. “Now there’s the infrastructure, the kit and the technique is coming. It’s going to change.”
La Tropicale Amissa Bongo is at the vanguard of the evolution. Rated in the sport’s third tier as a 2.1 race by the UCI, it has been Africa’s highest-ranked event since its inception in 2006.
Africa's biggest race
Putting on the race is no small logistical feat; having a stage begin an hour late is the tip of the iceberg. “The big problem in Africa, especially Gabon, is finding the best possible roads for the participants. After that, finding satisfactory accommodation for La Tropicale’s 500 people,” race director general Jean-Claude Hérault says. This year’s race saw eight planes transferring the race’s 220 riders, management and media from eastern outpost Koulamoutou to Lambaréné.
The Gabonese government provides the means and over 60 per cent of the race’s £1.7m budget. “They came to us in 2004, wanting to create something new and completely different to other African races, putting African riders in the best national selections against professionals, some of whom had done the Tour de France,” Hérault explains. “The race doesn’t make money: it acts as tourism development too, showing Gabon’s image to other countries.”
Given that the race’s 90 competitors spend the first five days surrounded by miles and miles of sprawling greenery, Gabon – often dubbed “Africa’s Eden” – is an easy sell. “It’s like riding through the jungle,” said Maarten de Jonge of Bike Aid, Dan Craven’s former team. Occasionally, they bump into its inhabitants too. “One year, I had to stop my car because a huge gorilla was calmly crossing the road in front of us,” Hérault says.
In the heat of the day
The biggest challenge for riders flying in from a European winter is the tropical humidity, upped a notch by the race’s shift from its regular mid-January date due to a clash with the African Cup of Nations.
On the race’s first day between Bongoville and Moanda, temperatures touching 40C and the nagging hills of the Haut-Ogooué around Franceville wreaked havoc in the peloton. “I was suffering big time up those repetitive climbs,” says British rider Dan McLay. “You don’t lose your body heat. You pour a bottle of water over your head and in two minutes, you’re hot again.”
A first-year professional with the French Bretagne Séché-Environnement team, McLay acclimatised well, sprinting to his maiden victory at Koulamoutou on stage three. “I’ve never done anything like La Tropicale before. It’s been a good experience,” he said.
French professional teams have dominated La Tropicale since its inception. Past champions include the 2010 Tour de France king of the mountains Anthony Charteau, and Frédéric Guesdon, Paris-Roubaix winner in ’97.
However, as race organisers kept the balance between inviting top professional teams and African talent, the lines between the two are blurring. Rwanda and Eritrea, in particular, have talented young riders who can challenge the established order.
Rwandan youngster Bonaventure Uwizeyimana won a stage in 2014 and is well-placed overall this year. He only started racing in 2012, but his strength was built by his job as a taxi bicycle rider, ferrying loads of up to 150kg. “Cycling changed my life in a big way,” he says. He dreams of turning professional and riding the Tour, as they all do.
Indeed, La Tropicale can act as a shop window for talent; the Eritrean Natnael Berhane was the race’s first African winner in 2014 while racing for Europcar, who had noticed his stage win three years earlier and snapped him up.
“Berhane’s victory is my most powerful memory from the last ten years,” says Hérault. “That day, the Gabonnais carried him aloft on their shoulders – sure, he wasn’t from Gabon, but he was an African.”
The continent’s rise continues in this year’s tenth edition, where Tunisian rider Rafaâ Chtioui is the star. On the stifling open day, he drops his two breakaway companions and rides alone into Moanda.
With his Skydive Dubai team in control and the tougher terrain behind him, the 29-year-old looks set to keep his lead till the race’s final stage in Libreville on Sunday.
Gabon: lush vegetation, tropical humidity and the occasional gorilla...
La Tropicale Amissa Bongo is fast becoming an Eden for the continent’s cyclists. The path to success is still long and tortuous, but African riders could soon become as irresistible in cycling’s biggest races as La Tropicale’s own earworm song.
Realistically, how long before the first African Tour de France winner? “There’s already an African team, MTN-Qhubeka, going there this year, with riders who have practically all participated in La Tropicale,” Hérault says. “Our race is the logical stepping stone for the development of African cycling. Maybe one day, there will be an African cycling champion.”
This year’s Tour de France is the next step on that road, and La Tropicale laid the foundations.