Minutes before the final race in the West African Cycling Tour in Aboisso, Cote d’Ivoire, Sunday, coaches began to share bananas to their athletes.
The technical staff had to decide on how many bananas each cyclist would get: two seemed too few but won’t three be too much? One Nigerian coach sized up his team and decided that his ace sprinter, Kalazibe Caleb, should have three of the bananas because he would need all the energy he could get.
I asked Bashir Mohammed, a technical director for the tournament, why bananas were considered so important. ”It is a difficult race,” he said, ”and it takes hours to complete, so the cyclists will naturally be hungry. The bananas give them energy.”
Nelson B. Okon, a Nigerian cyclist, however refused to collect the bananas handed to him. The coach began a lecture on the merits of the fruit but Okon would not budge. ”It doesn’t work for me like that sir,” he said. ”If I eat bananas, it makes me weaker and weaker.” When his coach asked how he intended to get through nearly four hours of tough racing on empty stomach, Okon showed him two biscuits tucked into his side pocket. So no monkey business for him.
Henry T. Djangmah, who wears No 51 jersey for Ghana doesnt seem to care for the Bananas either. After the third stage of the race ended in Ghana, the young man dragged out quashed bananas from his back pocket and showed it to a gleeful audience. ”Charlie,” said a member of the crowd, ”why they give you banana? You be monkey? Ah Ghana!”
The Ghanaian cyclist was obviously sad that his team did not do very well in the race. He showed anyone who wanted to listen his meagre meal, and his rage was palpable because the Burkinabe team trashed his team.
But Shaaban Mohammed, the Technical Director of the Ghanaian circling federation, said bananas were hardly to blame. ”Cycling is a very technical game and the Burkina Faso team are the most experienced in West Africa right now. They get to train a lot, especially during their Tour de Faso in which cyclists from over seven European countries participate. And only last year, their president gave their federation 120,000 dollars to buy new bycycles.”
Mohammed actually thinks Ghanaians who expected their team to win were not facing reality. ”I don’t think we did bad really. Right now, winning in a competition where there is Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire is unrealistic.”
Francis Njaoguani, the director of sports in the Ecowas commission did not take his cue from any coach. ” I saw that during a break in the race at Lagos, many cyclists dashed off to buy themselves bananas. They loved the stuff, so I bought some for them.”
Mohammed, the Ghanaian technical adviser noted that the Burkinabe team regularly get trounced by the Europeans during the annual Faso Tour but the players get invaluable experience from there and from training in South Africa, France and other European cities. ”Training and competition is the key,” he said, ”there is no other trick.”
The director of the West African cycling tour, Georges Kobenan Adou relates the story of how once the Burkina Faso team noticed that they were going to be trounced in their own home by some highly skilled Europeans. Not wanting to disapppoint Thomas Sankara, who was their President at the time, the coaches decided to play a fast one by loading the cyclists into a bus and dropping them near the finish line.
Other cyclists protested and when Sankara discovered the mischief, he ordered the officials locked until a new election was held for the cycling federation.
Since then, the Burkinabe team learnt a great lesson: you can’t cut corners in cycling. Or rather, no monkey business!
So it was no surprise that the gruelling second Ecowas International cycling tour came to an end Sunday in such predictable fashion, with Burkina Faso taking a haul of prizes.
At the end of the 450km race from Lagos to Abidjan, the Burkinabe team outclassed their opponents, winning all the major prices from fastest sprinter, to best time posted and best team.
Ouedraogo Rasmane, the team’s best cyclist, posted a cummulative point of 104 to become the overall winner. A masterly display by any standards, Rasmane was followed by his countrymen Seydou Bamogo and Oumarou Minoungou who came 2nd and 3rd respectively.
The tournament was organised to emphasise the merits of free movement across West African borders. Did it? It must have. The crossing of the international borders of five West African countries by the cycling tour caravan was virtually seamless. The point was made. No monkey business!