At 50 years of age, Toronto businessman Henry Gold found himself in something of a quandary. He'd spent a few decades working in the non-profit sector in Canada, Africa and Israel, but the work was drying up and so was his passion for the NGO world. He had an electrical engineering degree from McGill University, but hadn't kept up on developments in the field.
"I was beginning to feel essentially unemployable," Mr. Gold recalled in a recent interview. "And to make matters worse, my savings accounts were shrinking. I was living on RSPs."
If ever there a time to roll the entrepreneurial dice, he concluded, this was it.
One day, during a stint in Africa as executive director of Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, Mr. Gold had noticed a group of Russian Olympic cyclists training on the mountains of Ethiopia. Wouldn't it be interesting, he thought, to see if someone could bike the entire length of the continent, from Cairo to Cape Town, a distance of more than 12,000 kilometres through 10 separate countries? Part of it could be a race, for competitive athletes, with daily time trials. Others could bicycle at their own, more leisurely pace.
If he started in January - at the Pyramids, of course - Mr. Gold estimated that he'd need four months to reach Cape Town's Table Mountain by May, an average of 125 kilometres a day. Every fifth day would be a rest day for seeing the sights of Africa - a safari in the game parks near Arusha in Tanzania, bungee jumping or rafting at Victoria Falls (between Zambia and Zimbabwe). He'd hire a truck to carry food and riders who got sick or hurt. There would be a chef and a nurse. And everyone would sleep in campgrounds along the way or occasionally in a three-star hotel.
Absurd, his friends told him, when he suggested setting up a tour company to organize the venture. Such a trip would take months - who has that kind of time for a holiday? It's too dangerous, people said; parts of Africa are politically unstable. It lacks suitable roads and other aspects of infrastructure taken for granted in the West. Who knew what kind of risks to which he'd be exposing riders? Have you even surveyed the route, the skeptics asked.
In fact, he hadn't - just the leg from Cairo to Nairobi, which he'd driven once by truck. After that, he'd be relying on untested roads in terrae incognitae. Still, he was convinced it could work and determined to give it a try.
With 33 riders, the first Tour d'Afrique left Cairo in January, 2003, and reached Cape Town in May - as far as is known, the longest uninterrupted bike trip ever completed.
Today, Mr. Gold, 58, is savouring the fruits of his impossible dream. He's president and chief executive officer of Tour d'Afrique, a Toronto-based company with annual revenue in excess of $1-million. He has subsidiary companies operating in South Africa and Brazil.
His it-couldn't-be-done African biking odyssey has now run for eight consecutive years, never attracting less than 30 full-trip riders This winter, including so-called sectional riders (they join the tour for stretches of 1 to 4 weeks), he'll lead a group of 80 - the largest contingent ever.
Since that first expedition, Mr. Gold has added other equally exhilarating (or punishing, depending on your point of view) odysseys: following Marco Polo's historic Silk Road from Istanbul to Beijing (10,000 kilometres, eight countries); a European trek from Paris to Istanbul; and, last year, the first Vuelta SudaAmericana run, from Rio de Janeiro to Quito, Ecuador (12,500 kilometres). That epic, five-month journey required riders to cross the Andes Mountains four separate times. The average price for Tour d'Afrique trips is about $100 a day. The cost of a 12-day sectional for Africa is about $1,200 and the cost of the entire four-month trip, about $12,500.
This year, tapping into the social networking power of the Internet, Mr. Gold invited clients and their adventurous biking friends to create their own Dream Tours; if enough people signed up for a suggestion, he'd organize the trip.
This past, summer, dozens of riders biked from St. Petersburg to Venice. Next January, another three dozen will leave the Taj Mahal in Agra and bike the length of India, reaching the southern tip of the sub-continent seven weeks later, on March 19th, 2011.
The fears of the project's early naysayers have been belied by experience. In eight years, there's been just one death - a 60-year-old heart-attack victim, suffered while riding in the company truck. And there have been a few broken bones resulting from spills. But in Africa and elsewhere, cars pose by far the biggest risk to cyclists. "We've had many close calls with traffic," Mr. Gold allows, "but that's true on every continent. The other near-misses have resulted from people riding too fast."
Mr. Gold says Tour d'Afrique has been rewarding on several levels, validating ideas about sport, development, transportation and the environment that he has long championed.
"It's a social enterprise that has done a bit of good and allowed me to make a living as well," he says. "It provides economic stimulation to regions of the world that need it. It promotes sustainable transportation, ecology and lifestyles. It makes our participants, many of them in their 50s and 60s, fitter than they've ever been in their lives.
"For many, it's truly a transformative life experience. As de facto ambassadors, we've given Canada some good PR. We've created jobs for foreign locals, the best way to help people in developing countries. We're helping to shift perspectives about bicycles - I mean, if people can manage to cycle the continent of Africa, they can certainly handle a 20-minute bike to work wherever they live. And we've set up a foundation under which we've given away 1,300 new or refurbished bikes."
All in all, says Mr. Gold, "for a guy who was broke and out of work at 50, this has been an incredible gift."