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Henry Gold in Africa.

Henry Gold and the Life of Adventure

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On a TDA Global Cycling tour, you are likely to pedal 60 miles a day, sleep under an open sky, and connect with your primal nature. You will also experience the adventure of a lifetime as you ride from Cairo to Cape Town or from Athens to Amsterdam.

Learn how Henry Gold founded TDA Global Cycling when he was 50 as you listen to the podcast or follow along with the transcript below.

The Tour of Africa

Armando: One of the great things about cycling, whether you’re riding a conventional bicycle or a modern electric bike, is that it can be an adventure. You feel the wind in your face and the sun on your skin. My name is Armando Roggio and in this episode of The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO, we’re going to be speaking with Henry Gold who has a unique adventure company for cyclists who want a real challenge.

Mr. Gold, will you get us started by telling us a little bit about your company?

Henry: Certainly. So, I run this company called TDA Global Cycling. TDA stands for our first project Tour d’Afrique which is still the flagship of our company. The company was created in 2002 and we not only do projects around the world, but we are also very different than essentially any other cycling touring company. That’s because we focus on very challenging long tours that cross continents, for example, Tour d’Afrique, essentially runs from Cairo to Cape Town and there was nothing like it at that point, not in cycling and not in motorcycling or anything else.

Since then we have expanded on such iconic trips as the Silk Route from Beijing to Istanbul. We have a trip from top to bottom of North America, from Tuktoyaktuk to Panama City. We have difficult American epic which begins in Cartagena in Colombia and goes all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina. So those are our specialty trips, and we also have shorter trips and of course, people can also join us for sections but that’s how we are different than anybody out there. We are pioneers there. There are some of the smaller companies who are doing long trips, but still nothing to the scope of what we do.

As far as how it came about, well it came about mainly because I was working in Africa running developmental projects in Africa for years, and I would see Africans carrying everything on their back, and I sort of felt that there good idea to introduce a basic bicycle with a cheaper price for the bicycles that were available at that time from India or China. So I got interested in seeing whether a factory could be set up in Kenya and compete with the market, and I started investigating.

One of the ideas that came about once it looked like it actually could happen with everyone and we could market for this product, and — at the start, we were limited to a third of the resources, financial resources for the marketing — so one day this idea that if we ever get going what we will do is run a bicycle race across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, which would use those bicycles we were going to manufacture. And I thought that would be so crazy that we would get a lot of free publicity.

And that’s how the idea actually started. The factory never happened because as we all know in business, a lot of things have to come together, I had a business partner who got cold feet. And it was with a lot of other things that I put aside. But in 2002, I met someone who was very interested in not reviving the idea [of manufacturing bicycles] but doing a Cairo to Cape Town bicycle expedition race. And that’s how it came about.

A Decade Passed Before the Business Became a Reality

Armando: So how much time was there between when you conceived of the Tour of Africa sort of as a marketing campaign, and when you actually did the tour?

Henry: About 10, 11 years from the original concept that crossed my mind and the actual time that we decided to do it. I had a very varied background, so I was doing other things and it just kind of happened in 2002. I had a project that fell apart because of two eleven, sorry 9/11. And all of a sudden I said, “Okay what’s next?” And this was one idea, and I sort of said, “I’m 50 if I’m going to do anything this crazy, it’s time to do it now.”

Henry Gold on his bike in Afirca

Armando: So you were 50 when you started Tour d’Afrique?

Henry: Exactly. I keep saying it was my birthday, I’m not sure it was my birthday anymore. But it was around 50 for sure. It was around the time of my birthday that reassessing what’s next, what am I going to do now. And I called up this fellow who showed an interest previously in this and I said, “Listen, it’s now or never. If I’m going to do it it’s now.” And I think he asked for 24 hours to think it through and then joined forces. He actually dropped out of the project after a year and a half or two. The partnership wasn’t working too well. But he was very helpful in the startup because, you know, a startup takes a lot of energy, you need a lot of help.

The First Trip

Armando: Tell me about that first trip. For example, how did you find clients for it?

Henry: Well what happened was very simple actually. I have a friend, a journalist, who over the years we actually collaborated on some projects. But I called him up once I decided to do it, just sort of for a cup of coffee and I said, “Michael, how am I going to market this? What am I going to do? How are we going to do this” And he said, “Ah, Henry it is a wonderful story. I’m going to do a piece on you once you’re ready to roll.” And I sort of thought he was humoring me and I kept saying, “Oh Michael, give me some hints on how to market this.” And he kept saying, “Don’t worry once you’re ready, call me.”

So he did, so I did once the website was ready to go live and we were ready to roll. And I called him up and fortunately for me, he worked for the Global and Mail, the New York Times of Canada I call it. And he called me up, sorry, I called him up and we sat down and he brought a photographer, and they did a big piece. It was kind of because it was so daring in a way. And the Globe ran the piece and within 24 hours we had emails from as far away as Tokyo and Australia. And the word just spread out because it was so daring, I suppose. And I think most people who had never been to Africa, and in fact that the response of the media were such skepticism and cynicism. People responded in emails and even letters to editors that I’m obviously a charlatan and I don’t know what I’m doing and I obviously haven’t spent a day in Africa because why if you spend a day in Africa you would it’s impossible. There was an email that said I’m trying to abscond with money once I collect money from everybody.

So there was a lot of skepticism, cynicism, and just people who obviously make negative comments. But as I said, that created enough activity or give us credibility for such a big paper to carry it that I did some radio shows. And literally, people started really saying at the levels the Internet allows. People from around the world I guess took an act, in this case, it was a positive connection. And we also then, my partner was born in Holland so we went to Holland and again it would be nice to get some publicity there and some publicity in England.

And totally identity but there was enough people, 31 people registered for the whole tour and paid for the whole tour and that’s all we needed essentially. We had a critical mass and that’s how we started.

Armando: So for the first tour, 31 folks from around the world sign up. How long of a journey was it?

Henry: So the tour was exactly 120 days. It was set up in such a way that we would be cycling roughly about five days or so and then we would have a rest day. So 100 days of cycling and 20 days of rest days, and so in total 120 days. And I suppose we were averaging, I don’t know, 60 to 60 miles a day or so. Across 10 countries from top to bottom. And the logistics were extremely challenging again, you know the naysayers, it’s not like they did not have a good case to base it on, this was not doable. They had a very good case and, however, what they didn’t realize I suppose, I did have a lot of experience in Africa. And you could say good credentials that governments had trusted me and the reason I was doing it, I wanted to help and they were interested and hoped that this would be a success. And which meant that they didn’t put fear as obstacles and in some cases it was helpful.

So we managed to get permits for stuff that until then nobody and even to this day some of the permits that we get. For example, in Egypt you let them go in a convoy through a large part of Egypt I think you still do. Whereas we are allowed to cycle literally at our own pace, not as a group, but each cyclist goes at their own pace. A similar situation was in northern Kenya, in those days where the only way you could go to in a convoy. Once again we got permits and we were not harassed and we were doing our own thing. Ethiopia we had some issues as well, and by the way, these issues persist from year to year different parts of the country. But different parts of some countries there were some sporadic problems and they deal with them.

So there’s a lot of reason why people would have been skeptical but as I said. And I spent years and years running different projects in many of these countries. So there was no question of my credibility as far as am I doing something that would harm the country et cetera, because as an aid worker, I brought millions of dollars to some of these countries, so they realized I’m not doing this for my own, to enrich myself and run away.

An Adventure Gene

Armando: So your clients, the guests who come and tour Africa or South America or the Silk Route, these must be folks who enjoy an adventure. And they need to be folks who can take four months off to join you. So I guess, tell me about your typical clients.

Henry: Not sure there’s such a thing as a typical client. But having different tours around the world there are also different age brackets, which attract, for example in Europe we get much older clients. And many of them are semi-retired or retired. But on the Africa trip, we get a very good cross section from 18 year-olds to literally 70, 73 years old. People even older have done the trip. Well, the number one people who have the time, of course, are semi-retired or retired people. And some of these people are simply in good enough shape that they decide to do it and they find out that they can do it and they get stronger in some ways as the tour progresses.

We also have some very young people now. We have people who did the gap year and came and done this. Where obviously they’re helped financially by their parents, or someone else, grandparents in some cases. We get people who take a break from their career because they, IT professionals often work very hard and then they take a break because they’re burned out. They also know they’re going to get a job easily. We get partners in law firms or engineering firms or any others who again have able to talk their partner, or whoever they deal with to take time off. Sometimes we get people who have some trauma in their life and they decided it’s time to whatever change their lifestyle, so they take time off. We also have people who only can do a few weeks and they come as well. For example, often emergency doctors are able to take six weeks together, and they come for six weeks one year and another six weeks the next year and so on.

So there are all kinds of people who are able to do this and what’s remarkable to me is especially sometimes the more successful people, business people who have been successful 45, 50 and they come back over and over again. We have had participants who have been on 10, 11, 12 of our tours. Which is to me remarkable that people able to take from six weeks to 5 and a half months and do these things. Sometimes there are couples. It’s sort of a lifestyle for them. Again, people in their 60s. It’s wonderful to see active people. As far as the type of people that come, it’s not simply flightless per se, there’s an adventure gene of some kind. They need to or they hear of something like this and they decide to do it.

And as I said they’re not necessarily cyclists. For example, on this trip right now across Africa, we have three people over 70. They’re all former runners, long-distance runners, and one of them had the U.S. record for over 40 and for one mile for many years. But at some point it breaks the body or they don’t want to switch to something else, they decide to do it. And literally, as I said, three over 70 long-distance runners and they’re having an amazing time and doing it. It’s not as though they’re challenged, but these people like a challenge. It makes them feel alive. It makes them feel this is the way they want to spend their time.

And it’s one of a kind, you know, in many cases, it changes their lives. One of a kind of adventure that changes their lives completely. And as I said it’s a wonderful way of staying in shape and being interested in what’s going on. You have to be on all the time, you’re stimulated with what’s going on and you have to be careful. So if you want to look for a moment and enjoy it and take a break from American politics, there’s nothing better than doing this. And everything changes on these trips, it’s just an amazing experience.

Armando: I love that you said you thought these folks had an adventure gene. I think that is so well-put.

Henry: Yeah I think over the years I have time, I cycle on the trips and I go and you spend a lot of time by yourself cycling and long distances, and I always try to figure out different things that around this puzzle, why people do certain things, what kind of people come in and so on. I have a theory that I often have brought up, what happens on these trips is that as much as possible in the modern life. We touch in our genes or in our DNA what we were designed to be, which is the hunter-gatherers. For hundreds of thousands of years we are hunter-gatherers and that’s what we react to and the hunter-gatherers spend a lot of time being very physical and of course you have to be very careful, stimulated, and danger was always around the corner. At the same time, life was kind of simple because you had a community and there was a communal sense and protection.

Well, this is what happens on these long bicycle trips, you have to be very on every minute because there’s potential when you’re in an area you’ve never been before. You never know whether it’s a crazy driver or an animal or a bad road or something that you need to deal with. Of course, there’s some potential mechanical problems. You have certain things you have to be always focused on and you have to eat properly and you have to stay clean enough and all of these things. And I think what happened is at the same time as you do these things, you are stronger, you’re producing endorphins. No matter how much you struggle, there’s a sense of well-being.

So my thesis is that we kind of approximate something of your designs [inaudible 00:18:06] and we feel good about it even though we don’t quite understand why I mean why should I be feeling good being tired every day. And sleeping on the ground at times or whatever it is, in the open. Of course, the fresh air’s always stimulating. All of this combined, I can’t tell you, you should speak with all the people who’ve been on these trips, it’s just years later. Last week in Toronto, seven riders that came on this first time, on the 2003 trip, got together and had a few beers. I missed it because I had to go somewhere else, but every day I get emails from their exchanging, how wonderful it was to see each other. So here we are 17 years later and there are such strong links and these links exist on every trip on every tour people get together around the world. So it’s a community that developed and often it’s hard for the people to understand because only if you experience something, it’s very difficult to explain what it is because on the outside it just sounds unreal.

The Tours are Still an Adventure

Armando: Have the tours changed over the last 17 years? Have they evolved? Or is it still about that same fundamental experience?

Henry: Fundamentally, it’s the same. There are some changes, perhaps some. I describe the adventure gene. There are now people who are coming who would never have come on the first, second, or third trips because either they didn’t have the confidence or they’re relatives wouldn’t let them go. But now when you start doing it over and over and they see that nobody’s being chased by Bushmen or anybody else, people are now coming. And that sort of also brings a different type of people’s sometimes expectations because people have already been doing it for years, why haven’t you solved these problems or why haven’t you done this or that. So there are certain differences in some people coming in and their expectation, what they think. You could call them softer clients if you want, but their experience is I think essentially it’s the same. It’s an expedition and expeditions are a healthy thing.

Aid Work

Armando: So I want to go back a little in time. You mentioned that you had a lot of experience in Africa before you started the tours. So I wonder, will you tell us a little about the aid work that you did, and how you got introduced to Africa?

Henry: Well I set up an organization, I was approached by a young doctor literally just out of school who wanted to help refugees in Africa. And after several meetings I decided to do that because I was an engineer, I guess I just had kind of a practical sense of how to get things done and he did not. And we started an NGO, nongovernmental organization, and the first project was a medical project in Sudan, very similar to what Doctors Without Borders do, at that time Doctors Without Borders existed but in France only, I believe, and they were a fairly small organization.

And we went and worked in Sudan, and then when I came back, I served six months and I wasn’t planning to continue this. But then the Ethiopian famine broke out, and there was a lot of public outcry about it, and I was literally on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia, and I had experience how to deal with refugees. So I kind of really, I decided okay, well let’s set up another project in Ethiopia, and it just snowballed. The project initially were emergencies. But my approach, as compared to Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), my approach, being an engineer, I very quickly realized that emergency as in emergency hospital, emergency’s important but really it’s the rehabilitation process that’s more difficult challenge and issue, and if you’re going to get people to help you again and livable communities.

So I started focusing on what some people call integrated development, which is you go into the community which is in crisis whether due to civil war or famine or whatever disaster, et cetera, and then during the emergency you’re really already planning for the rehabilitation and start focusing on variety of activities, whether it’s creating good sanitation or opening vegetable gardens or reforesting the unproductive areas, economic development, getting animals to the farmers back, all kinds of activities, building roads to the communities and farms. Very simple, very basic, no heavy machinery whatsoever. But that was our specialty of an integrated approach to the problems, and we take off. The government asked us to go into more difficult areas, more remote areas, which kind of fit my personality. I like the challenges.

And then we went and started expanding first in Ethiopia, then some other countries in Africa. It just went from there, building and sanitation, wells, digging wells. So I’m just trying to create like you could call it public health, in a way because being healthy and having nutrition and having clean water and having proper sanitation and so on. So that’s what they were doing and they got credited and that we were getting funding from a variety of sources. But my job essentially started becoming after year 6, 7, 8, 9 years of raising money because the need was endless, and I had a weakness in personality and I have committed myself that we could do something. It’s just a vicious circle trying to raise more money. So I did that for 9 years and I was kind of burning out. But in the meantime, as I said, we established projects in places like Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Malawi, and Mozambique, Angola.

So these are places that, some of these anyway, that we eventually cycled through. In fact 2003, we were cycling. We stayed in two or three of these base camps that we sent up when I was the executive director. And the NGO still exists. It’s still doing some of the same work, some of its different work. It’s smaller than when I left it. But it was a great pleasure actually to come to do this years later and see what we did and the differences that we made. And even having a place where we could actually stay and not to worry, the enclosure and the toilets and water and so that’s what happened.

Electric Bikes

Armando: So Mr. Gold, the listeners of this podcast are electric bike enthusiasts. So I have to ask. What are your thoughts about electric bikes, and have you ever thought of using them on your tours?

Henry: Well funny you mention this because I have actually tested a bike on a trip almost three years ago, well a year and a half ago anyway, from Shanghai to Hanoi, which will be called Bamboo Route, which goes from Shanghai to Singapore. It’s a three-month long trip. And I decided to test the e-bike because I managed to get an e-bike donated for testing from a manufacturer in China. So I tested it from Shanghai to Hanoi, and I even wrote a blog about it called “It’s Not a Horse, It’s Not a Donkey, Then It Must Be a Mule.” And I describe my particular experience on it, an e-bike. And the idea of testing it was to see what would be the challenges to incorporate it into our tours or create e-bike tours only.

So I have first-hand knowledge of how difficult it would be to create if you’re going to use those e-bikes for long trips such as ours. And the main challenge at the moment is just getting those e-bikes on planes, especially since we don’t a circle on our trips. So it’s very difficult if you’re going to start in China and finish in Singapore, how you deal with getting e-bikes especially from one place to another, it’s costly. But it creates another strong challenge, especially with the heavier e-bikes.

So in simple terms, I think in the future e-bikes will be happening on these tours. We’re getting more and more people asking about them. At the moment we’ll stick with challenges for us to be able to yes you can come and do e-bikes. But I think in the future e-bikes, whether they’re going to be simply e-bike tours or they’re going to be combining an e-bike and a regular bike. And of course the reason I was for saying is that we all know we have a partner who sometimes is not as committed or has physical challenges or whatever it is, but they may still want to be out there. I also have clients who are now who have done the Tour d’Afrique at the age of 65 or 70 and they may be 75, they still want to come on some of these trips, but they feel like they don’t have the physical stamina, so people who have injuries. So I think e-bike is definitely a product that’s going to enter and be used more often and I think touring is one of the options.

I’ll tell you one little story because it’s connected to what I was telling you before. I’m an electrical engineer by training, and when I was doing that investigation for setting up the factory in Kenya for the bikes in 1990. I believe it was 1991 to the bike show in Taipei. As I was walking around, I came to the demonstration area and somebody put a so-called e-bike with just a car battery on the back of the bicycle and he said, “Test it, go take it for a ride right inside the hall.” You know they have that little testing area. So I got on that and I did the little circle of 150 yards or whatever it is, and I came back and I said to myself, “I’ve seen the future.” I was convinced at that particular moment, I was convinced that e-bikes are something that’s going to happen in the future. I actually am surprised how long it took. But I think e-bikes make a hell of a difference. There’s going to be more people. The most difficult thing I think, unfortunately, for e-bikes is for the cities to create infrastructures so that people can feel safe. But I’m a fan. I don’t use it, but I’m a fan of the e-bike, that’s what I’m trying to say.

Armando: I understand. So I’ve very much enjoyed learning about your company. Thank you very much for joining me for this podcast.

Henry: Okay, thank you.

Armando: I really enjoyed talking with Henry Gold and learning about his company, TDA Global Cycling, and I hope you really enjoyed this episode of The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO. If you did, will you share it? Will you let friends and family members who might be interested in electric bikes know about this podcast? I would really appreciate it. Thanks, take care.

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