- LA MAISON
- LA VIE
Jérôme Cousin: From the Peloton to the Desert
Less than a year ago, Jérôme Cousin was still a professional bike racer. He’s ridden in some of the world’s greatest races, including the Tour de France. Now, pedalling in the desert, riding a bike loaded with luggage, Jérôme’s only onlookers are the occasional farmer and his camels. Without time checks, without the team car, without the race director shouting instructions through a megaphone, this is the antithesis of his old life. And he seems to enjoy it.
To get to the United Arab Emirates everyone flies to Dubai, the city of all the luxury superlatives, the city whose buildings touch the sky, the city that would make Vegas look like a trailer park. But 150 kilometres away, towards the Gulf of Oman, Shawqa is a place known to intrepid hikers and mountain bikers, who venture into the sands for a few hours during the winter season, when the temperature does not exceed 30 degrees.
Shawqa will be the launch pad for a two-day ride in the desert for Jérôme, with a minimum of luggage, lots of water, and the only constraint being finding a place to sleep for the evening. The goal on day one is to reach Al Dhaid, just over 100km from here. And reach it before dark. A little more than a thousand meters of elevation are on the menu too, according to the internet. What the itinerary found online did not reveal, however, was the huge stretch of road that cut through the desert and completely changed the topology.
Yes Jérôme, you will have to adapt, you will have to carry, you will even have to ride on the side of this highway. The day is long. Navigation in the desert, even with electronic assistance, has its share of surprises.
Sometimes there are half-built roads, elsewhere farms have settled in the middle of what until now constituted a bike path. Yet on some sections the paths are rolling, very fast in places, the perfect gravel riding terrain, you might say. The landscapes are breath-taking too.
Thirsty, hot and hungry, the fruit stalls are a godsend, the spicy chicken and vegetable rice dish would be well worth two Michelin stars, he thinks. Maybe he’s more generous on an empty stomach. Arriving in the evening at the entrance of Al Dhaid, the atmosphere is lunar, Jérôme floats in the serene evening air. The sunset colours the sand orange, the desert keeps all its promises.
The only hotel in the village will refuse the dusty bike traveller. “Complete” repeats the young employee in a well-worn suit, ogling the bicycle and its rider. Things get complicated… The Indians who run the restaurant offer Jérôme a bed in their two rooms, there are already seven of them living there but there is a place for him if he wishes. Generous people – travel confronts us with the reality of different lives, and some which appear much more difficult than elsewhere.
Leaving Al Dhaid in the early morning, after a few kilometres, some camels appear. It's race day on the Al Dhaid track and hundreds of camels are preparing to start what is one of the greatest Bedouin traditions. Here, rich owners are ready to spend fortunes to acquire perfect animals, capable of running fast and winning these prestigious races.
The camels are ridden by astonishing little robots that can be operated remotely to make them voice command or whip their charges. They’ve replaced the children who until the 2000s took enormous risks to ride the camels to victory. The show is fascinating.
The ground has now become too soft, impossible to ride seated on the bike, Jérôme must get off and push for several kilometres. Time to stop in a local store for water, sweets and a photo with the grocer curious to see this traveller crossing the desert alone, on a bicycle.
The last kilometres after crossing the Oman border are gruelling. The rolling track has turned into a stony path like that along the bed of a river or up the side of a mountain. Off the pedals again and again to push the bike. The heat has become oppressive, the water cans are emptying dangerously. The last refuelling seems a long time ago.
But suddenly the journey has ended where it began, and the bottle of water he left in the car is boiling, impossible to quench this incredible thirst. Jérôme finds a gas station, and water, cold quenching water. A reward that you might take for granted under different circumstances. A loop of almost 200km which in two days literally transports you to a different time, and maybe a different planet.
It’s off-road and on-road. It’s riding and not riding. It’s racing and not racing. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Can it be pinned down?
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