Thursday


King of the road


Time travelling: Whitaker says he biked 70km on his first day which took him approximately six and a half hours Photo - Angelika and Andy Whitaker

As long as he went just a few kilometres more, he would complete his journey, and in so doing, become the first person to cycle across the Wahiba Sands. Andy's journey had begun three days before, when he, his wife Angelika, and their friends Adam and Aimee, drove from Dubai to Bidiyah, at the edge of the Wahiba Sands.

An avid mountain biker since he was a teenager in England, Andy had decided he wanted to try biking across the Wahiba Sands, so when a three-day weekend came up, him jumped at the opportunity to attempt it. For the past 15 years he had been mountain biking in and around Dubai, where he owns a graphic design company, but he wanted to try something a little different and more challenging.
"There are not many 'firsts' in the world left to do, so it seemed like it would be a crazy idea to do it and be the first person to cross the Wahiba Sands on a bike," Andy said, reflecting on his adventure.

That night they camped at the edge of the desert. Though he had almost 190km of desert waiting for him, Andy was too nervous to sleep. He tossed and turned until dawn, and woke up feeling anxious instead of rested. After breakfast, he unloaded his specialised mountain bike which he had ordered from Colorado. The bike had tyres that were almost 12cm across, much wider than the average 5cm mountain bike tyres. It had been designed for biking through snow, but Andy figured it would work just as well on the sand.

"Once you deflate the tyres a little bit, you've got a patch that doesn't sink into the sand like a normal bike would. A normal bike is impossible to ride in the sand. I once tried it with my normal mountain bike with the tyres deflated a lot and I could just do it in places, but not everywhere, and you couldn't turn a corner, you could only go straight," he explained.

Finally, with his helmet on, water bottles filled, and support crew ready behind him, Andy mounted his bike and set off on the gravel road leading into the sand. It was slow going, with an average speed of 11 or 12km an hour, because his bike was loaded up with his camping gear, four litres of water, and food, which mainly consisted of protein cereal bars, jelly beans and other high energy items that were easy to carry. His objective was to be as self-sufficient as possible on the crossing, but he needed his wife and friends to follow with extra water and to be there in case there was an emergency.

"The idea was to do it in as pure a way as I thought I could. At first I thought I could carry enough food, but water was the problem. I did succumb, over the three days, and I had half a tin of soup and a tin of beans and two cups of tea from my friends. I succumbed to some warm comfort food," he recalled with a self-deprecating laugh.

On the first day he biked 70km. It took him six and half hours. At first the sand wasn't too deep, as he was biking through a natural valley between two sets of big dunes, but midway through the day he came to the end of valley and met steep dunes. Even with his strength, wide, deflated tyres, and ambition, he couldn't quite manage to bike up the dunes, so he finally got off and pushed the bike up to the top.

"It was the first time I'd been to Wahiba Sands, so the route was planned on Google Earth. But having done it now, I saw a track off to the left that I probably could've ridden," he said. In the afternoon, with the desert sun shining fiercely, Andy found a tree to rest under for a while. After cooling off, he got back on the bike and pushed off again, more comfortable now that he'd found a rhythm and overcome his initial trepidation.

"I was incredibly nervous beforehand. It was quite an intimidating feeling. After all the nervousness, I was just desperate to get on the bike. Once I was on it, I was much happier. When I hit the soft sand it was incredibly hard work, but I hit a rhythm. I had to pace myself and tell myself to go slowly because I had all day and I told myself to enjoy it," Andy explained.

As the sun began to set, he finally stopped to camp for the first night. His body was aching and he was exhausted, but he had managed to finish the first leg of his journey. He slept a bit more that night than he had the night before, but not as much as he'd have liked because he his body was so uncomfortable. Despite his exhaustion and physical pain, he packed up his bike and started peddling again, biking almost 60km the second day.

"By the end of the second day I was feeling better because I knew I was two-thirds through. The third day was the toughest because there was the softest sand, and it was a hot day," Andy noted.

As he pushed on through the sand, he just kept telling himself he could do it. Each rotation of the tyres meant he was a little bit closer to his goal, and to making history. A stubborn man, who knew if he started something he had to finish it, Andy persevered through the agonisingly sore muscles, heat and challenging, resistant sand. As he neared the 55km mark on the third day, he could see a village in the distance at the edge of the desert, somewhere near the town of Sinaw. Though he could see that the end was in sight, suddenly it became harder and harder to move forward, and even though he continued pedalling, the village didn't seem to get any closer. His legs were beginning to cramp, and he was on the verge of giving up.

"That last little bit can be the part that finishes you off. But I knew if I'd come that far, I couldn't give up. I was fighting the temptation to stop. I don't know where it came from, but I found the energy to do it," he said.

He pedalled to the edge of the sand, where Angelika, Aimee and Adam were waiting for him, cheering as he rolled onto the blacktop. Getting off the bike for the last time that weekend, he was flooded with emotions.

"It was the biggest relief of my life. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. I was in quite a lot of pain. There was a shear wave of relief combined with sadness. It was quite an emotional point. It was great that it was finished, but it was also an anti-climax in a way," Andy said contemplating his moment of glory.

Andy packed up his bike and he and his crew made the long drive back to Dubai. It took him a few days to recover from the adventure. It was two days before he could walk normally, and a few more before he could really get some perspective on his bike through the Wahiba Sands. He was thrilled that he had succeeded in crossing the desert, accomplishing such a huge feat. After all, no one else had ever biked across the desert. But it left him wanting something.

"After that, I thought, hmm...what next?" he said.

So while for now Andy is back in Dubai, biking a couple of times of a week with his mountain biking club, it probably won't be long before his adventurous spirit takes him and his bike on another crazy journey. The Empty Quarter, perhaps?

sarah@timesofoman.com

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