Team Rwanda: From Kigali to the Valleys


 

 

Hook, July 8, with Team Rwanda

 

On his first day in the UK, Rwanda U23 rider Jean Claude Uwizeye (22) is on the turbo at Dassi Bikes in Hampshire. A bike fitter is monitoring his movements on a screen. In the adjacent showroom, the three other team members – Joseph Areruya (20), Jean Bosco Nsegimana (22) and Samuel Mugisha (18) – are munching down scones with strawberries and cream.

 

They’re squeezed together on a sofa watching films of their cycling antics on the team’s Vimeo channel. Looking at them chatting away and laughing, they could be any 20-year-olds hanging out. Their legs and elbows beg to differ –  the scars and muscle tone can only be the result of repeated crashes and hard riding.

 

They’ve recently ridden the Tour of Colombia. “I didn’t like the descents,” says Joseph. “Not like home,” Sam agrees. Bosco chips in to show a sharp bend with a hand gesture. The only thing about Colombia that makes them smile is when Joseph says “Vamos, vamos!” – words of encouragement learned on the South American climbs.

Team Rwanda

Even the best of pros struggle with descents, but it’s unusual to have a team so unanimous and open about their fear. Sitting down on the floor next to us, Team Rwanda coach and American ex-pro Sterling Magnell fills in: “In a Rwandan road race, there’s time to think about what to do when an attack goes. Race situations evolve slowly. In US or European crits, it’s split-second decisions. You get on the wheel or you’re out.”

 

They are in the UK to work on fast racing. Sterling adds that there is no culture of speed in Rwanda and very few cars: “Unlike in the US, they don’t start racing for the love of speed. To win, yes, but not speed for the sake of speed.” To most Team Rwanda riders, cycling is a job and a way to make ends meet, not a hobby or a passion.

 

Sam shows us a video from a time-trial at the Tour of the Ivory Coast. When a rider catches his minute man, the latter simply jumps on his wheel. In the end, there is a string of riders drafting behind the strongest man, an example of how different the races encountered by the Rwandan riders can be from bike races as we know them in Europe.

 

When I first meet UK tour organiser and DS Jeremy Ford before the team’s arrival, one of the objectives of the trip is to get the riders contracts. Meetings will be set up with UCI-registered UK teams during their time in the country and hopefully this will lead to new Rwandans in the pro peloton.

Team Rwanda

Coach Sterling is more tentative about clear-cut objectives. Jeremy comes from a marketing background and has worked very hard to put the tour together, finding sponsors and support, while as a coach Sterling comes from a different perspective. He doesn’t want to rush it: “Let’s focus on the skills and the experience and see how they go. They’re here to learn.”

 

Abergavenny, July 15

A week later, we are in Abergavenny, a pretty little Welsh town with freshly painted shop fronts and empty streets. It’s very quiet for a Festival of Cycling. Crowd fences have been lined up to create a tight circuit where three abreast will be a squeeze in many places, including a dead turn to stretch the field. There is no crowd to hold back, nor riders to watch at this point, but things pick up in the evening with the youth races.

 

One could be forgiven for dismissing the kids and heading for the pub until the ‘real show’ begins. Big mistake. Youth racing is what it’s all about. This is why Team Rwanda are here, this is why they have to play catch-up – Rwandan kids don’t have downtown crits. Welsh youth riders like Zach Bridges, Guto Dafydd and Bevan Smith smashing round the circuit tonight have a ten-year head start on their Kigalian counterparts.

 

As they’re warming up on the rollers in a parking lot, coach Sterling, who is also racing tonight, says the roads in Rwanda have enormous, man-size drain holes. “And the authorities aren’t as open to closing down a town for a bike race, not to mention that the road lay-outs are different,” he adds.

 

Two commissaires come over to talk to Jeremy about the gridding. When he says they are a UCI team, one of them is sceptical, so Jeremy goes to fetch the licences in the team car. While he’s gone, the commissaires talk about ringing the UCI to check the licences are real. One of them adds: “You’ve got to feel for them, they’ve been through hard times.” He goes on to say something disparaging about races “in Africa” not being real races. Are these guys real commissaires?

 

People come to photograph the team on the rollers. Some are attracted by the Dassi bikes, others by the riders, but in the end it works both ways – the tech geeks end up asking about the riders and the cycling fans notice the bikes. I’m wondering about their roller skills. It clearly isn’t something they do on a regular basis.

Team Rwanda

A couple of teenagers come to ask for Team Rwanda bottles, but the team only has a limited number for the UK Tour and can’t hand any out. In spite of Jeremy’s explanation, the lads keep eyeing up the plastic bag filled with bottles lying on the ground next to the team car.

 

Before they roll off to the start of the Abergavenny crit, Sterling gathers the team in a circle in the parking lot for a briefing. The boys are clearly nervous, not as chatty as usual. Even Sam, who is usually all smiles, looks ashen. Sterling reminds them to look where they’re going, not where they could crash: “Lead with your eyes, lean in to the bends – the bikes will follow. If you’re struggling, follow my wheel.” When he talks, he also demonstrates with his body. A last silent huddle and off they go.

 

A Madison Genesis rider attacks from the gun and the race keeps a blistering pace until the end. Sam struggles the most with the hellish pace, but settles in and starts moving up the groups after sitting dead last in the first couple of laps. Jean Claude and Joseph hang in the front group for a while and once they drop back, they drive the chase. Bosco has the best night with 29th place, staying in the lead string for most of the race.

 

Compared to other riders at the front, Bosco is pulling a heavier gear out of the corners. Looks like he could do with changing down to give his muscles some respite. He has won the Tour of Rwanda, so no doubt has the stamina and the power. “Rwandan riders are made for stage races and long hard classics,” says Jeremy. “If Bosco can figure out the how to sit on a wheel in a crit, the Tour de France won’t be far off.” He says Rwandans have amazing cycling physique with very low body fat. “They have a very healthy diet. You won’t find any fast food or ready meals in the country. Add to that, they train at 3,000 metres.”

 

Bosco’s crit result shows that he’s on the right path. Jeremy is very pleased: “In road races, he doesn’t like sitting on a wheel, he just sits in the wind wasting watts. These boys have power, maybe too much for their own good, which is why they’ve never had to learn to save energy. They have to here, though – the racing in the UK is faster, intense, crazier.”

Team Rwanda

Coach Sterling’s foot is hurting and he has to pull out of the race halfway through. He had a big crash in Germany a while back and now has metal plates in his foot. The pain is chronic and it’s as if he is carrying the boys’ pain, so that they can work harder. If the ‘old man’ can do it (he’s only 33), so can they. No matter if he doesn’t finish, he’s there for them, suffering alongside.

 

Llangattock, July 16, rest day

The team spend the day between the Abergavenny Criterium and the Welsh Grand Prix at a cottage in the hills near Llangattock. Over a plate of pasta and rice, I push Sam and Jean Claude about their cycling dreams.

 

After some prompting, Sam says it’s to ride the Tour, but I don’t get the sense that it’s entirely his ultimate ambition. He wants it, but isn’t quite sure yet what it entails. He’s being encouraged to project himself as a pro cyclist, but to him it’s still ‘just’ a job, and he is taking it step by step, neither overly panicking about the future, nor being overly hopeful. Just realistic. A dream is usually something that stems from childhood – you worship sporting heroes and want to emulate them. It doesn’t feel like it’s the case for him. There is an inspirational racing tradition in Rwanda, but Rwandans going pro abroad is a recent development. The UK Tour is another step in their discovery of what it could mean to be a pro – in terms of racing, but also when it comes to being away from home.

 

Dimension Data’s Adrien Nyonshuti was the first Rwandan to turn pro, back in 2009. 2014 Tour of Rwanda winner Valens Ndayisenga and Bonaventure Uwizeyimana have now joined Team Dimension Data’s Continental team. Finally, Bosco and Janvier Hadi recently signed for Stradalli-Bike Aid. This means there is still very limited knowledge and experience amongst the Rwandan riders of what it could mean to compete at the highest level.

Team Rwanda

During the rest day, each riders spends up to an hour on the rollers working up a sweat, while Jeremy sits on a stone wall, coordinating the UK Tour from his phone. He receives a voice mail from the RideLondon-Surrey Classic – it’s an invitation to race with the WorldTour teams in London…

 

Jeremy isn’t sure it’s a good idea. Of course, it’s fantastic, but there’s no point throwing the boys into the deep end if they aren’t ready for it. They did well in the crit, but this is a big step up. It would mean lining up with Cav, Greipel, Froome and the crème de la crème of pro cycling – the dream of any would-be pro, let alone four under-23 riders from Rwanda riding on (allegedly) fake UCI licences.

 

He returns the call to say he wants to see how the boys cope in the Welsh Grand Prix first. If at least two of them stay in the bunch, they’re good to go. Having Team Rwanda on board is a coup for the London race and would be an amazing experience for the team. The worry is not the WorldTour teams but the Continental outfits who always have a point to prove. Sterling thinks it will be okay. The course should suit the riders’ skills more than a crit. They just need to sit tight at the start, as the race should be frantic until they get out of London.

 

Racing in London could be another giant leap for Sam when it comes to imagining himself in pro cycling. It may allow him to dream. For now, the biggest dream of the riders is to descend like Froome in his 2016 Tour de France attack – they keep watching his unconventional downhill move on Jean Claude’s phone.

 

As Team Rwanda members, the riders are given a stipend of $120 a month. They keep $50 and give the rest to their families. Each or them support ten to 15 people, so they are breadwinners and people count on them. Being national heroes and local stars (the Tour of Rwanda finish in Kigali draws more people than the Champs-Elysées on the final day of the Tour), they are extremely popular. They are big fish in a small pond, but to be competitive internationally, this fame can’t go to their heads.

 

This is why Sterling and the team make sure the boys learn to take care of themselves. Being able to cook, wash, clear up, it’s all part of the training. It’s also about keeping level-headed. Back at the training centre in Rwanda, it’s all done for them, including English lessons, but they have to be able to function independently, otherwise they can never become pros. Sterling loves that they always cook both rice and pasta in the same meal. Throughout the afternoon Sam and Jean-Paul keep polishing the kitchen surfaces in the cottage and Joseph spends hours preparing an oven dish.

Team Rwanda

Sam is the chattiest and most open of the four, but in spite of English lessons back home, communication in English is laborious. Sterling says he spends time talking English to them in addition to the lessons at the training centre, but communication remains hard and he has to prompt the boys and encourage them to speak. This is where Sterling’s ability to ride with the team is important – because of the language barrier the riders are often better instructed through showing than telling.

 

Sterling becomes more and more intriguing as we spend time with the team. Reading up about the Americans running the Africa Rising Cycling Centre where Team Rwanda is based, there is a sense that they all went to Rwanda for a second chance, to take on a new challenge after personal disillusions. But Sterling says that’s reading too much into it. Going to Rwanda isn’t about finding redemption or escaping problems at home. It’s about doing something meaningful.

 

Part of the reason Sterling took the coaching job and moved to Rwanda was because cycling is what gave him a break in his life: an education, opportunities and a chance to travel. “I grew up in tough, almost sect-like conditions. Cycling offered me a way out. It gave me a purpose, and now I’m committed to living in Rwanda, developing the national team and giving the riders the opportunities I had.”

 

He has been there for 18 months and says that however liberal and open-minded you think you are, you’ll always carry the white man’s history with you, a way of looking at people and things. “My goal is not to judge, to stay open-minded, to let things sink in.” That’s culturally as well as in his coaching – the better he can understand the riders’ take on things, the better he can articulate ways of helping them develop.

 

Abergavenny, July 17, Welsh GP

A vast parking lot in the town centre has been reserved for the race teams –  JLT-Condor, NFTO, Madison Genesis, Pedal Heaven, Wiggins… All the major players on the national scene are here. Team Wiggins must have practised their entrance, because the way they park their vans and set up the bikes is one giant mechanical choreography. Everything falls seamlessly into place.

 

The Team Rwanda fleet consists of one team car and mobile mechanic Peter Merridew’s Sprinter van. Once a Team GB rider, he now works for the Plan2Ride bike shop in Wales. He has volunteered himself and his van for the UK tour. Peter is a perfectionist and never stops fiddling with the bikes.

Team Rwanda

The Rwandan riders are a lot more relaxed than at the Friday crit. While Peter does the final adjustments to the bikes, they sit on the back of the car joking with each other with rap blaring out of the car stereo. This in stark contrast to other competitors perched on their folding chairs, tensing up.

 

Minutes before the start, Jeremy realises someone must have nicked the bag of Team Rwanda bottles at the crit the other night – they’re all gone. The teenagers? He walks over to the Wiggins camp to ask for a few bottles and off we go. Just over an hour into the race, Jeremy brakes and the car comes to a standstill inches from the Giant-Sheffield car in front of us. Riders come rolling back through the line of team cars to refuel. There has been a crash and the race is neutralised with a breakaway group a couple of minutes up the road.

 

The neutralisation is due to a car pulling out from a B&B between the breakaway group and the peloton and driving headlong into the main bunch. A few riders have gone over the bonnet and two ambulances squeeze past the caravan to attend to them. Bosco has done well to collide with a bush. Unfazed, he disentangles himself.

 

Before the restart, the DS from Giant-Sheffield says the national series lacks stage races, that’s what British racing needs. These one-day events aren’t doing the business: “There used to be more stage races in Britain.” Sounds like the Brits and the Rwandans can learn from each other.

 

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Go Jean Claude!” Jeremy hollers, hitting the wheel with the palm of his hand as the race radio announces that number 213 – Jean Claude – is in a chasing group of five. And we still haven’t seen a single Rwandan being spat out. It means they’re increasingly likely to be at the start of the RideLondon-Surrey Classic at the end of the month. Everyone is ecstatic in the car.

 

It’s clear from the reaction that everyone had hopes and fears going into the race and having the boys race like this is such a release. We’re relieved on their behalf. We want them to do well. It’s impossible not to root for them.

 

 

Bosco drops out of the peloton just before arriving back into Abergavenny for the final laps. We hand him a Wiggins bottle. I expected him to be the strongest after Friday’s performance, but it seems the crit has taken a lot out of him. Also, as Sterling had told us earlier, Bosco has had a tough year. He only arrived in Germany at his new Stradalli-Bike-Aid team in February. He’d never been so cold in his life and used all the clothes available on the rides, but was still freezing. Then he was off to the Tour of Colombia, home for a week, and now a month in the UK.

 

As we hit town, Jean Claude is reeled in with a bunch of other riders. At the same time, in the final laps of the Abergavenny finishing circuit, Sam loses contact with what’s left of the main bunch and ends up with Bosco. We give them bottles, or rather we grab their bottles and I quickly refill them, before handing them back. We’re out of bottles.

Team Rwanda

The team car in front of us motor paces, hand-slings and drags their riders back to the main group, while we leave Sam and Bosco to pedal. Not sure the super-gluey DS-ing is doing the riders any favours, especially as they keep being spat back out. As an ex-racer, Peter, the Team Rwanda mechanic, is outraged.

 

As we ride round the final laps in Abergavenny, Stuart Abbott, founder of Dassi Bikes and sponsor of the UK tour, stands by the finish line holding up two fingers, then one, indicating the number of Rwanda riders left in the bunch. Eventually, the field is ripped to shreds with the last surge to catch the break. Dropping off with three laps to go, Joseph is the last Rwandan standing. He’s disappointed he wasn’t able to hang in longer, but they’ve done amazingly, exceeding all expectations.

 

Jean Claude says riders in the peloton were shouting “bloody Rwandans!” jokingly every time he flew up a climb – he was making everyone suffer. Having been off the front, he’s on a high after the race.

 

Crystal Palace, July 26

The Palace crit is a chance to see how the team have progressed since Abergavenny. This time they’re on it from the start and are the main race makers behind winner Ethan Hayter, VC Londres, and his two breakaway companions from Nuun-Sigma. The overall level of the field is lower than at Abergavenny, but most competitors are regulars who know the circuit inside out and the results show that Team Rwanda’s under-23 riders are getting the hang of crit racing. Tonight they are fearless, with Joseph finishing 7th and Bosco 8th.

Team Rwanda

Ethan Hayter rolls over for a chat after the race, or rather to pose for photos with the team. He is the same age as Sam. Their backgrounds are worlds apart, but they are both riding for their respective national teams and working hard to join the pro peloton. The fact that Sam and his team-mates can even start dreaming about it is amazing. Physical ability is hard enough: they also have to overcome cultural barriers and distances. A spectator at Palace observes that these must be the major obstacles for Team Rwanda: “Cornering and descending are the least of their worries.”

 

RideLondon-Surrey Classic, July 31, St James Park

As they step off the sign-on podium, the four Team Rwanda members meet Chris Froome. He poses for a photo with them before the race. A symbolical culmination of the UK tour, but there is no Hollywood ending. The day provides a sharp reality check. The race is fast and the Rwandans are caught up behind crashes in the early stages. Bosco lasts the longest and abandons after 100km.

 

It’s intimidating to suddenly ride next to people you’ve looked up to. Not finishing sows doubts. It has all come so quickly, and although there is disappointment amongst the riders, Sterling is encouraging and will use this as a confidence booster. He won’t make any categorical statements, but he’s clearly pleased with the UK trip. The difference between Team Rwanda and local pros is more down to race experience and skills than to physical ability.

 

“They’re young and can’t be expected to measure up against the strongest pros in the world,” he says. “Not yet…”

 

From Rouleur issue 66

 


 

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