This article first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
In April, when the novelty and magic of winter has worn off, the days are neither warm nor long enough, and we’re mostly over skiing, we turn our minds to the fantasies of basking in the sun while spinning the cranks in short sleeves on our bikes. We dream of the wonder of summer and the rays of sun hitting your face, telling you it’s going to be a great day. For the fortunate, they load up their bikes and elope to warmer climates to get some preseason adventuring in hotspots like Arizona, Florida, Spain, and Tenerife. One of the last places I imagine would be on these fantasy lists is probably Africa, and definitely not Nigeria, but that is what I did! In the first week of April, during a rogue snowstorm, I boarded a plane for Nigeria, with the forecast temperature for the 14 days I was going to be there at or above 95°F.
Nigeria seems to be a confluence of topography, climate, cultures, and philosophies. It straddles the equator, with its northern region housing a fair amount of the Sahara Desert and its southern region dipping ever so slightly into the Atlantic, giving the country a healthy dose of varied topography, oppressive sunbeams, persistent dust, and the ever-present humidity. Commonly referred to as the giant of Africa, Nigeria is the melting pot and center of social, economic, and cultural trendsetting for the continent. It is a place where any road rider based in the north gets strong from pedaling the persistent flats with the intermittent rises loved by every rouleur, and in the south one can check off multiple accents in a 40km ride. With the sun and high temperatures a reliable constant, every cyclist is assured the crispest of tan lines, which is an added bonus.
Given the fact that I was travelling with my daughters, aged nine and five, as well as all the complications resulting from COVID regulations and airline staff shortages, I opted to not take my bike and instead rent one when I arrived in Abuja, my final destination. The Federal Capital Territory, the Abuja I was seeing on the car ride from the airport was immensely different from my days of growing up here. My parents in 1983 were some of the earliest to earn a college degree and move to this shiny new capital to become government workers (civil servants, as they were referred to). This was shortly before Abuja replaced Lagos in 1991 as the capital. It’s located centrally in a country with a population of about 216 million people and over 365 different languages and tribes, with the three major tribes being Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. The city is mostly flat with outcropping igneous monoliths all around it, the most famous of them being Zuma Rock. With the temperature in the 80s at 11:00 pm when we landed at Nnamdi Azikiwe airport, I was not exactly excited about throwing a leg over a bicycle and pedaling either solo or with a group of sun-hardened, humidity-basking road warriors, but I knew it was going to happen sooner or later on this trip.
It was interesting to watch my young daughters take it all in. The first thing to hit you when you step off the plane is the humidity, and then the smells. I watched them take in the sounds and colors. Contrary to the overwhelming portrayal of the poverty narrative in Western media, the African people are a proud, colorful people, and you could see that in the rainbow of fabrics and attires worn in the airport. I watched my daughters try to follow conversations laced with different accents, languages, and pidgin English. Compared to where we call home in Appalachia, for the first time my girls would not be a minority — they were experiencing life incognito.
The first adventure of this trip was locating a bicycle to rent. After multiple pings on Strava, I connected with Ibrahim, a local cyclist and bike shop owner in the city. We drove the dusty dirt road leading to his outfit among the corner shops and side markets that pepper the city. As with everything in the country, there are signs of the constant assault by the sun and the dust — the byproduct of the Harmattan season. Between the months of November and March, strong dust-laden winds blow in from the Sahara, through West Africa, and into the Gulf of Guinea, leaving in its wake clouds of dust. One of the apprentices looked up from changing a tire and was instructed to fetch the bike I had reserved. The first thing that struck me was the rear wheel: not only did it not match the front, it also was missing brake tracks on a rim-braked wheel. Upon further inspection, I noticed it was a disc brake wheel, with the rotor removed. My protest was met with “Oga, e go dey ok” (sir, it will be fine). With no alternatives, I made a mental note to brake early and with the front and paid for two weeks.
Lagos is a strong hub of Nigerian cycling, concentrated mainly on Lagos Island. On many mornings, a mini peloton, complete with escort cars, can be seen streaking down the palm tree–lined boulevards, vying for Strava KOMs. Well-attended charity rides, races, and gran fondos are common on the weekends. As one of the top 10 oil-producing countries in the world, Nigeria has always been a hotspot for expats and a welcoming place for the wave of national repatriates who studied and worked abroad and, after the 2008 financial crisis, decided to move back home. These people were some of the kindling for the cycling culture in Lagos. Alas, it is still staggering how the sport is growing despite the lack of cycling infrastructure. Save for two actual bike shops, most people have to wait to travel abroad to get most of the basic cycling necessities. How does this love for cycling happen? Is it something learned, or something that is innate in us? Do the love neurons spontaneously ignite when sitting in a paceline as you effortlessly pedal at 25 MPH, or is it a slow burn that occurs as you grind up a 7 percent climb, with your brain operating at a limited bandwidth and you have no room to think of your problems and can only concentrate on staying up and moving forward? These were some of my thoughts as I pedaled to meet the Tuesday morning group ride at 5:30 AM.
There is something sweet to the stillness at this time of the day, a cool breeze lightening the weight of the humidity you feel building. The harmonious Islamic call to prayer rises and falls as you pass the many mosques that pepper the city. I saw three riders ahead and slotted right in on the wheel of the last rider. I was never quite able to see the sun rise, maybe because all I could stay focused on were Ibrahim’s wheels and yam-sized calf muscles as he steadily ticked away mile after mile sitting in the front of the group. Ibrahim was riding a time trial bike, akin to bringing a gun to a knife fight, after renting me his single-brake, mismatch-wheeled Specialized Tarmac. Having just been skiing a few weeks ago, I did not exactly have my race legs on.
In addition to having to dodge taxis and pedestrians, Abuja is also home to the nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who drive their cattle through the city finding places to graze. It was a little bit of a shock when I peeked around the rider in front of me to see about 50 cows on the same roads we were riding. It felt like five minutes ago the city was sleeping, and the next minute it was a party. That is the Nigerian way: no middle ground; it’s either zero or 110.
In my college days, I was always amused when I told someone I was from Nigeria. I would get the same two comments: “Wow, your English is so good!” Well, yes, Nigeria was colonized by the British in 1884 (officially) and has English as the official language, which I have spoken since I could speak. And “What is it like there? Do you guys have roads, or live in huts?” It’s amazing how viscerally stimulating the country is, from the culture, languages, sounds, and smells, things seem so fast and slow at the same time. You could very clearly see rapid progress and development — buildings springing up, technology being integrated into everything — but you also saw things that seem to come from the dark ages, like heaps of charcoal being sold by the roadside as sources of heating for people, and young men who walk around and give roadside pedicures as their job. The norms that apply to us in the West are in some ways foreign and in other ways inapplicable. Road riders are steeped in traditions about what side a paceline should rotate off, how long your socks should be, or where to position your tube valve in relation to the printing on the tire. In this place, survival and community seem to be on top of the scale of preference.
We started on Sheu Yar’Adua Way with the Jabi Reservoir on the right, a lone fisherman getting his net ready as we zipped by. The good thing about being a Clydesdale like I am, I can put out some power on the flats, as well as sit on a wheel, so I felt good hanging with the group. We turned off onto Constitution Avenue and onto Umaru Musa Yar’Adua Expy, a.k.a., the highway. For someone who lives in the West, it is quite a different feeling riding on an interstate, with the undulating roads built by the Germans in the ’80s and now being expanded by the Chinese. You could see the granite monoliths in the distance like centurions guarding the city. The famous Zuma Rock stood in the distance beckoning to us as we passed the city gate, as if calling for more speed. Every time I hit the brakes, the rubbing of the brake pads on the wheel disc reminded me of my tenuous situation. It was emotional riding these roads. Many times I felt myself taken back to my childhood, to conversations I had with people on these very roads decades ago, to feelings of fear, freedom, and the carefree state of a child.
On the way back, I said my goodbyes and broke off toward Zone 4, now an older part of the city that at one time primarily consisted of Wuse and Gariki area districts. After Nigeria gained its independence from the British in 1960 and started to reestablish itself, by national decree the city was designated the future federal capital thanks to the availability of land for expansion and its more central location. Wuse was broken up into Zones 1–8 while Gariki had Areas 1–11. Most of my life was lived in Zone 2, a stone’s throw from Zone 4, once the red light district and a prowling ground for all sorts of night workers. It was not uncommon to see 150 prostitutes in a two-block area when I was growing up here. This part is also the hub for money changing. Money changers (mostly Hausa men, the major northern tribe in Nigeria) act as a black market for changing foreign currency to the domestic legal tender, the Naira. This was where you bought and sold foreign currency, mainly dollars, pounds, and euros; they offer a higher rate than banks, as is expected of the black market. The roads up to this point were mostly empty and quiet but were now buzzing with activities — car horns are the soundtrack of the city. Pretty much every head I passed was on a swivel doing a double take; it was obvious that a cyclist clad in spandex was not a common sight on these streets.
I rode by the site of my childhood home, now totally gone. Even in Nigeria, gentrification has become the preferred approach. Whoever purchased our home really wanted the location, and so the structure was demolished and replaced with a grander one. As I pedaled by, under the gaze of people who I knew would recognize me without a helmet and cycling garb, I contemplated the role that providence has played in my life. I never imagined I would leave Nigeria; I had been happy here, and as I looked at the state of things, I felt fortunate and guilty. Fortunate to be able to raise my girls in the greatest country on earth, and guilty that I had been granted that privilege, unlike these people I pedaled past.
There are no shoulders on these roads, and the motorists were not really doing me any favors. I turned onto Amigos Drive, a section of town with most of the shopping options for expats. I connected my way to the central district, passing the magnificent national mosque with its gold-plated dome and minarets, and rolled past the House of Assembly, and that is where all hell broke loose.
On this stretch, you can see Zuma Rock in the background and the impressive National Assembly complex juxtaposed against it. Like any other tourist, I pulled out my phone and started composing the perfect Instagram post when I heard multiple voices yelling at me and getting louder. I looked away from my camera to see two security agents pointing fully automatic rifles at me. “Here we go,” I thought, “I’m going to die wearing spandex in a country that used to be home.” After much harassment (typical of Nigerian police), I was informed that I was in a high-security area and photography was not allowed, and I was suspected of being a foreign agent. In most cases involving the police, a modest bribe can bring a quick resolution; however, I felt this was a case where that should not be an option. After collecting my information, address, phone number, and a phony verification, I was released to complete my ride.
The Nigerian people, in many cases, uphold the stereotypes the world has of us (hence the Nigerian prince internet scams) but are more than capable of outperforming many other people in most endeavors. According to the U.S. census bureau, 17 percent of all Nigerians in the U.S. have a master’s degree, 4 percent a doctorate, and 37 percent a bachelor’s. I think the country and dare I say the continent is like the Appalachian region in the U.S. — full of potential but low on resources and opportunity. Both have been stigmatized by the poverty narrative. Their talents for creativity, innovation, and survival haven’t been capitalized on; instead, their suffering is romanticized, and fish is continually handed out instead of teaching them to fish, all so we can pat ourselves on the back.
Arriving at my family compound, the ever-present sun was now risen in all its glory and fury. As I watched my 18-month-old nephew walk around giving his morning hellos, I thought about the value of the time we spend in the saddle. How the bike not only propels us through space but also through time, how it heals, challenges, and, if we let it, draws us into a space of self-discovery. For all that, and my tan line, I am grateful.
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Thank you! We are Americans riding through Mexico and South America. We are loving it. The people, the cultures...all so amazing. But we are uncomfortable with our relative wealth. Your article has suggested ways to think about these things and I am grateful.