The above picture is of my new toy, which I’ll tell you more about later, after I tell you how this whole cycling thing got into my head.
You may or may not already know that I have a not so mild fascination with two-wheeled pedal powered machines (aka bicycles), specifically mountain bikes. Like many other bike-heads, this passion started in early childhood when I got my first “real” bike after the obligatory training period on a tricycle with solid rubber tires and blue bar end ribbons (I hated those ribbons). I do not have any pictures of my first “real” bicycle, but let me try to paint a mental portrait: It was a blue steel frame, heavy as a tank, with silver and red decals. It had short, wide and slotted (for aerodynamic purposes, I believe ) chrome fenders, fat tires, blue flared BMX-style grips that were made out of a hellish material that made the skin on your palms and inner thumbs bleed after a few minutes of gripping those babies (imagine mixing low-grade rubber and crumpled sandpaper with copious amounts of caustic glue (if there is such a thing), putting the mix in a mould to harden, and spray painting the result and calling it a “handlebar grip”). Several articles of discarded material adorned various parts of the frame (old inner tube around the chainstay, bright yellow electrician’s tape on the handlebars, etc). It was also a single speed but the gear choice was so wrong that I spent nearly all my riding time on the streets of Cairo out of the saddle. Seated pedaling was near impossible on anything but a downward sloping street. This worked in my favor though, as I developed the legs requisite for the type of riding I now love to do. In short, that bike was a piece of #$@%, but by I loved it! I had tons of fun riding it and would spend hours on end roaming the streets of Nasr City, jumping off curbs, sessioning ramps I built out of discarded construction wood, and crashing. A lot
Back then (in nineteen nintey something) , and probably because the Cairo neighborhood in which my family lived was still relatively uncrowded, there was a lot of kids on bikes during the summer months. And I mean a lot. Most of the kids on my street were older than I am and usually went on “long rides” to other neighborhoods. The bigger kids, naturally, scoffed at the younger ones trying to join the fun on grounds of peer superiority, or something. One time there was this guy on an geared road bike who asked me if I wanted to swap rides (“tebadel 3agal?”). Compared to my bike, his was almost featherlight and I had severe distrust in the skinny wheels and tires it rolled on. It was a few frame sizes too large for me, of course, but I just lowered the saddle, climbed over it (not on it) and started cranking the way I am used to on my bike, and the thing flew! A few blocks down the guy who had my bike called out, red-faced and panting like a squirrel who’s been made to run on a wheel for hours. He dismounted a few meters down, left my bike on the curb, walked towards me while glancing back at it in horror. “Enta beterkabha ezay de??!” (how do you ride this thing?!). A puff of adolescent pride filled my chest. Other older kids tried to show him what a wimp he was, but walked away to their bikes as my horrible gearing crushed their egos. From this day on I think all the older kids secretly called me the dude who rides the devil’s bike.
Fast forward to my high school and college days. I played competitive handball for close to 12 years, rowed on my university’s crew team for a couple years with a short stint on the basketball team and even tried archery (loved it, still trying to get back to it…in my backyard). I started looking for something that doesn’t require a team and/or special facilities or sports courts (I was graduating, could no longer compete, and “Nostalgic basketball Thursdays” as we came to call them were getting less and less regular as many of the participants got sucked away by the blackhole of life known as “marriage”. I needed something solo and with a bit (or a lot) more excitement than morning jogging around the neighbourhood and gym sessions. How about a bike?
Bought one a few years back and next thing I knew I was back to jumping curbs and (secretly) sessioning makeshift ramps I (secretly) built out of discarded wood. I was also crashing a lot (not so secretly, though). Ahh, long-lost joys of childhood, it is so good to see you!
Road/urban riding in a place like Cairo isn’t that great. I started taking the bike off-road in Wadi Degla. The more I rode there, the more I fell in love with the place. A vast trail network that makes for super fun desert riding.
On the solo weekend rides, I noticed that 99.9% of the people on mountain bikes were gringos. How come more Egyptians don’t do that?! Well, a dearth of suitable equipment is one thing, but not that much of a hindering factor, I suppose. I whipped together a website with whatever information I had/found on mountain biking in Egypt. Egyptian riders started trickling in. Two years ago I either went riding solo or had one other friend along. Last Friday a total of ten riders showed up for the morning ride! To put this number in perspective, try telling a random Egyptian “let’s wake up really early on a weekend morning to go ride bikes in the desert!”. You’d get a blank stare, if they were polite. In all seriousness, this is proof that it is mostly a matter of information availability and community-building than access to equipment and locations. Egyptian youth (or many Egyptians in general, regardless of age group) WANT to do things like that, but either don’t know where, how or with who. But I digress.
With the help of an amazing team of volunteers, I organized two amateur mountain bike races in 2009, the first of their kind in Egypt. We even have our own custom jerseys, like a real mtb team and everything
The sport is still obscure (not so with the road cycling, where there is a national squad and even a junior league). Accessible trails are limited but we’ve got this great, massive trail network right outside Cairo. Time allowing, we would venture out to the Sinai for some epic riding.
As infinitely fun as it is, you can hurt yourself mountain biking a lot more than you can hurt yourself playing, say, basketball (although I seem to hurt myself doing anything, including a basketball game a couple months ago where someone busted open my right eyebrow. Hell, I even spilled my own blood opening my car’s trunk!). This is not a general rule, but remember that I told you that I had fun jumping curbs and makeshift ramps? Well, I have even more fun dropping off rocky ledges and hauling ass through off-camber trails strewn with sharp rocks. In 2009 alone I bruised, cut, sprained and scraped myslef more than any other time in my life by just riding my bike off-road. I have pictures for some of the injuries but want to keep this blog R-rated . I am not extreme or anything, I just like to do stupid things with confidence, and crash in style
Coming through customs in Cairo airport two years ago with a large cardboard box, the customs official had this big smirk on his face that silently said “You are going to pay through the nose now for bringing this big ass TV over from abroad!”. As he opened the box, his facial expression changed to thoroughly confused and looked up to me for explanation. “It is a bicycle“, I said. He waved me through with a look that said “What a moron. If he’s gonna haul a box THAT big from abroad he might as well have bought a big-screen TV!”
What he didn’t know is that bicycle probably costs more than many big-screen TVs. If he knew that he would have thought that I am an even bigger moron for buying it.
As a side note, I don’t own a TV. The reason why will be told in another blog post. I am sure you’ll be hanging on the edge of your seat until then.
Where was I? Ah, I was telling you about bikes and biking. To me, it is a combination of childhood-esque pure, clean fun (not so clean if you ride in the mud like we did a few weeks ago), the feeling of accomplishment you get from endurance sports, the great outdoors and macho big-boy fascination with big-boy toys like high-end bikes and components (or cars or motorcycles or game consoles…it’s just what you choose to spend your money on. I choose to spend it on something that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases and gets the blood pumping . Ok, enough of the environmentally sensitive and health conscious B.S., I can almost hear you say it!).