How a biking safari in Tanzania last summer got this NYC cyclist to finally look up from her Garmin.
"Seriously, Cristina, stop staring at your computer! You're gonna crash," any one of my six cycling sisters in NYC would shout whenever we'd go on long training rides across the George Washington Bridge to the open, smooth-paved roads of New Jersey. They were right. I was being unsafe, but I couldn't take my eyes off the ever-changing stats (speed, cadence, RPMs, grade, time) on my Garmin, mounted on the handlebars of my Specialized Amira road bike. Between 2011 and 2015, I was all about improving my pace, eating hills for breakfast, and, when I was feeling gutsy enough, pushing myself to let go on harrowing descents. Or rather, hold tight.
"Oh my god, I almost hit 40 miles per hour on that downhill," I'd proclaim with my heart pounding, only to get a smug response from the master, Angie, that she'd hit 52. (Did I mention I'm also a tad competitive?)
Considering that I went from learning to properly bike at age 25 (What? I'm a New Yorker!) straight into nearly a dozen triathlons (I love a good fitness challenge) then into a 545-mile ride from San Francisco to LA (watch me do it in 2 minutes), it's no wonder that I never associated the sport with being a leisure activity. Pedaling always served a purpose: Go faster, go harder, prove something to yourself. Every single time. (Related: 15 GIFs Every Fitness Tracker Addict Can Relate To)
And that's how I ended up on a Specialized Pitch Sport 650b mountain bike in the middle of a safari park on Intrepid Travel's new 13-day Cycle Tanzania trip last July. While it had been two years since I had kept up a regular training regimen on the bike—I had hung up my wheels, literally, on my Brooklyn apartment wall in favor of wings to travel more for work—I figured it couldn't be that hard to get back in the saddle. I mean, "it's like riding a bike," right?
Problem is, I didn't realize that road cycling and mountain biking are not completely transferable skills. Sure, there are some similarities, but being great at one doesn't automatically make you good at the other. Adding to the difficulty level was that, along with 11 other brave souls—hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, the U.K., and U.S.—I had, essentially, signed up to bike through barely chartered plains filled with wildlife where tourists rarely go. AKA a zoo with no cages.
From the first mile in Arusha National Park, where we trailed an armed ranger in a 4x4 for safety, I knew I was in trouble. Looking down at my Garmin (of course I brought it), I was shocked to be going only 5 to 6 miles per hour (a stark contrast from my 15 to 16 mph pace back home) on the dirt and corrugated gravel that gave our rears an "African massage," as the locals called the bumpy rides.
My eyes were fixated on the temperature (86 degrees) and the elevation, which was quickly rising. My lungs filled with dust (not an issue on paved roads) and my body braced, gripping for dear life every time a loose rock shot out from my wheel, which was often. (Note: With mountain biking, it's key to stay loose and flexible, moving with the bike rather than staying tight and aerodynamic on a road bike.) At some point, I started intermittently holding my breath, which made matters worse, increasing my tunnel vision on the computer.
Which is why I didn't see the incoming red buck.
Apparently, it had been charging toward us, but I didn't notice. Neither did Leigh, the New Zealander, biking behind me. It narrowly missed her by a few feet while darting across the road, I'm later told. Leigh and everyone who witnessed the almost-crash had a hoot, but I was still too focused to fully grasp the situation. Our local-born, Intrepid Travel tour leader, Justaz, instructed us to look up and keep an eye out, and to enjoy the insane views, including the buffalo on the sprawling African grasslands to the right. All I could afford was a glance.
By the time we came upon a group of giraffes, dining on a tall tree off the side of the road with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background (it doesn't get more picturesque than that!), I was already off my bike and in the support vehicle, catching my breath from the 1,000-foot climb in 3 miles. I watched the group pull over for photos as our bus drove by. I didn't even attempt to take out my camera. I was mad at myself and sulking. Though I wasn't the only one on the bus (about four others had joined me), I was angry that I had signed up for something that my body couldn't do—or at least, not to my standards. The numbers on my Garmin had gotten in my head more than the surreal landscape (and wildlife).
The next day continued with me beating myself up for struggling to stay with the fit group on the rugged terrain. Decked out in the latest gear from Specialized, I looked the part and swore that I knew what I was doing, too, but nothing about my performance said so. My fear of falling on the jagged rocks, as some already had, suffering bloody wounds, eclipsed any worries of getting mauled by a wild beast. I just couldn't relax and give myself permission to ride at whatever pace I could comfortably manage and enjoy this trip of a lifetime. (Related: How Finally Learning to Ride a Bicycle Helped Me Overcome My Fears)
On day three, my luck had turned around. After sitting out the first portion of the day's ride on a treacherous dirt path, I hopped on my bike the minute we arrived at our first tarmac road. A few of us got a head start, while most hung back to refuel on fresh fruits. Finally, I was in my element and flying. My Garmin read all the numbers that I was familiar with and even surpassed my expectations. I couldn't stop smiling, going 17 to 20 mph. Before I knew it, I had broken away from my small group. No one caught up with me for the next 15 to 20 miles to Longido on the sleek highway that connects Tanzania to Kenya.
That means I had no witnesses when a beautiful, well-plumed ostrich ran across the road, leaping like a ballerina, right in front of me. I screamed and couldn't believe my eyes. And that's when it hit me: I'm biking in freaking Africa!! I am one of the first few people on the planet to ever bike through a national safari park (though this highway was certainly not in the park). I needed to stop focusing on my Garmin and look up, dammit.
And so, I opted to go pole pole (Swahili for "slowly slowly"), decreasing my pace to 10 to 12 miles per hour and absorbing my surroundings while waiting for someone to catch me. Shortly after, when Leigh rolled up, she gave me the best news. She had seen the ostrich crossing, too. I was so happy to hear that I could share this unforgettable moment with someone. The rest of the group eventually joined us and we all pedaled into town, swapping cookies, Clif Shots, and stories about our roadside adventures (they had gotten selfies with Maasai warriors!).
For the rest of the trip, I did my best to keep my inner critic quiet and my chin up. I didn't even notice when my Garmin stopped recording at some point, not sure when. And I never downloaded my miles when I got home to look at what I had accomplished. I didn't need to. This two-week trip down unbeaten paths was never about crushing miles or making good time. It was about having a good time with good people in a special place via one of the best modes of transportation for exploration. Taking in some of Africa's very best wildlife and welcoming communities mostly from the back seat of a bike will forever be one of my favorite memories on two wheels.