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Rolling towards the dawn

Joseph Delves
18 Nov 2016

How cycle racing in Rwanda has helped to transform a land shattered by hatred and mass murder

With the 2016 Tour of Rwanda finishing in Kigali on Sunday, we take a look at this unique race, and the role cycling has played in building bridges between communities deeply wounded by the nation's horrific past.  

As Adrien Niyonshuti lined up at the start of this summer’s Olympic road race, on the front of his jersey could be seen a yellow sun rising above a lush green land, a stylized version of his home nation’s flag.

One of the world’s newest, the flag’s design doesn’t symbolise the birth of a nation – Rwanda existed long before the flag was adopted in 2001 – but rather the hope of a new dawn and a fresh start for a country that for many years was synonymous with horror.

A small, landlocked nation in the centre of Africa, Rwanda is home to 11 million people. Its national cycling road race, the Tour of Rwanda, began in 1988 as a loosely organised event held between six of the country’s amateur cycling clubs.

Inspired by the Tour de France, the leader was awarded a yellow jersey, and the mountains classification leader the polka dots.

Known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda didn’t, however, have enough flat roads for a green jersey sprint competition.

Around 50 riders from the country entered the inaugural edition, which was won by a man named Célestin N’Dengeyingoma.

The following year the event expanded along with the country’s fledgling road network. Three Rwandan squads competed against national teams from five neighbouring countries. Again a Rwandan won, Omar Masumbuko of the Ciné Elmay team. The 1990 edition was won by a teammate of the defending champion, Faustin M’Parabanyi.

That, though, would be the last time the race was held for a full decade.

Ethnic tensions

It was 19th century European colonialists that described borders around the land known today as Rwanda. In doing so they inextricably linked the fate of two distinct groups living there – the Hutus and the Tutsis.

And it was only with the arrival of these Western colonialists that ethnic tensions between the two communities arose.

With their racist obsession for cataloguing different phenotypes, the European settlers elevated the more Caucasian-looking Tutsi minority to a managerial class to help them control the people and the lands they occupied.

By the 1960s, as Rwanda lurched towards independence and Hutu majority rule, the Tutsis found themselves in a precarious position. Hutu violence against the Tutsis escalated steadily and by 1990 the country was in a state of low-level civil war.

However, in 1991 under pressure from international donors, Rwanda sent a mixed Hutu-Tutsi team of 10 athletes to compete at the Barcelona Olympics.

In the road race, Tour of Rwanda winner M’Parabanyi, together with compatriots Emmanuel Nkurunziza and Alphonse Nshimiyiama, put up a brave fight but failed to finish, due to a lack of both support vehicles and experience of European-style racing.

Their involvement should have served to kickstart Rwandan cycling, but none of the athletes would ever represent their country again.

Instead, over the course of one hundred days from 7th April to mid-July 1994, almost 20% of Rwanda’s population was murdered.

Sparked by the downing of the Hutu president’s plane, a wave of long-planned violence was unleashed against the Tutsis and politically moderate Hutu groups.

As the UN procrastinated, the world stood by and watched until Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame wrestled control of the country.

Africa's World War

In the years that followed, war and recrimination continued to rage on, spilling across Rwanda’s borders to spark what some would label – on account of its scale – Africa’s World War. All told, more than three million people would perish.

Of the Tour of Rwanda’s first three champions, only one survived. Faustin M’Parabanyi, a Tutsi, had initially sought shelter with his former teammate and close friend Masumbuko, but fled on discovering Omar’s brother was intent on killing him.

Losing the majority of his family, he was lucky to escape several attempts on his own life. After the war, Masumbuko, a Hutu, was himself jailed for his part in the killings and would eventually die after falling sick in prison.

The Tour of Rwanda’s first champion N’Dengeyingoma, meanwhile, died when a grenade he had thrown at a group of Tutsis exploded prematurely.

Alphonse Nshimiyiama was murdered while fellow Olympian Emmanuel Nkurunziza was attacked with machetes but somehow survived.

By the end of the conflict Rwanda had become the world’s poorest nation. Kagame retained an iron grip over the country, yet realised that reconciliation was the only way forward.

From now on there would be no Hutus or Tutsis, only Rwandans and those guilty of the crime of ‘divisionism’ were harshly punished.

Over the following years, aid poured into the country from a guilt-ridden international community, but for obvious reasons provision for cycling was not at the forefront of anyone’s mind.

A peculiar pioneer

Long and strange roads led Americans Tom Ritchey and Jock Boyer to this land of rolling hills and scarred history.

Ritchey rode for the US national road team in the 1970s but was an accomplished bike builder too with a passion for off-road riding, and is widely viewed as largely responsible for the creation of the mountain bike.

Famous for his gruff manner, clean living and signature handlebar moustache, Ritchey sank into a period of listlessness and depression on the break-up of his 25-year marriage.

Wealthy and successful in the hippy-Californian model but lacking direction, Ritchey decided to visit Rwanda in 2005 on the advice of a church leader who’d been steering influential Americans towards the country.

As a white person in Rwanda, Ritchey would have been novel enough, but to the crowds of children that invariably mobbed him, a white person out on his bike deep in the countryside was even more intriguing.

On exploring the country, Ritchey was intrigued by the ingenuity of the ramshackle bikes that served as transportation for people and cargo.

Often made of little more than wooden planks, and with no cranks or brakes, they reminded him in some ways of the early mountain bikes he and his friends had cobbled together decades before.

Given what he knew of the country’s past he was struck by how people seemed able to live together without hatred.

As tends to happen on the best long bike rides, plans started to form and resolve themselves in Ritchey’s mind as he wheeled on through the Rwandan countryside.

The collapse of his marriage had left him hurt, but his hurt didn’t compare to that of these people who’d survived such violent horror yet appeared able to reconcile and move on.

By the end of the trip, Ritchey had pulled himself out of his slump and was resolved to help Rwanda and its people through the medium that had shaped his own life: the bicycle.  

Rebirth and reinvention

Most Rwandans survived through working the land. The idea Ritchey took with him when he returned to the country some months later was a specially designed cargo bike that would allow the country’s coffee farmers to transport their crop for processing.

Available via a microfinance loan, it proved very popular among the growers. Watching the workers haul huge loads across the country’s hills, Ritchey became convinced that the country harboured a wealth of raw cycling talent. So he started planning his next project – to set up a team that could develop that talent.

To run the team, he brought in another American cycling pioneer, Jacques ‘Jock’ Boyer. The first American to race in the Tour de France, Jock was – at that time – experiencing a crisis all of his own making.

In 2002 he’d been jailed after pleading guilty to molesting an 11-year-old girl. There isn’t the space here to go into the relativising that saw the judge reduce his sentence to a single year in prison and hold him up as an ideal candidate for rehabilitation.

Needless to say, he’d never have been appointed to such a role back in the US. At the time of his release Jock wasn’t even sure where Rwanda was, but with little to keep him at home he agreed to help set up the team.

New start

A country where no one knew who he was and where the survivors and perpetrators of genocide could live side by side was probably as good a place as any to make a new start.

Boyer’s first task was to assemble his squad. In Rwanda there were no pro cyclists, but there were certainly plenty of people riding bikes out of necessity.

Setting up his testing equipment, Jock measured the wattages and VO2 maxes of those who responded to the call for riders. The results were promising and he quickly selected five riders to form the core of his team.

These riders were Abraham Ruhumuriza, Adrien Niyonshuti, Rafiki Jean de Dieu Uwimana, Nathan Byukusenge and Nyandwi Uwase.

Of that original quintet, three made their living as bicycle taxi drivers. The imperious Abraham Ruhumuriza, a five-time winner of the reinstated Tour of Rwanda, continued to earn his money this way between accumulating his five victories.

While competition between riders could be fierce, for most the overriding desire was the ability to support themselves and their families.

Riding for the team might have brought a degree of celebrity and prestige but it was also a continuation of their previous lives in that they were using the bicycle as a means to scrape a living in a country that was still brutally poor.

Boyer worked tirelessly with his charges to instil in them the fundamental skills of bike racing. Money from winning races along with the wage paid out by the team was enough to ensure the riders turned themselves inside out in pursuit of victory.

A tradition of communal living and responsibility also meant that the team quickly came together as a unit.

On their first trips abroad they preferred to share a communal sleeping space rather than retire to separate rooms.

However camaraderie and physical ability will only get you so far in bike racing. Despite some success in Africa the team lacked the finesse to win further abroad.

Roads beyond Rwanda

Rwandan riders tended to attack from the off, blowing the field apart early only to fade in the later stages. Worse still, despite their huge physical talent many were uncomfortable riding in a bunch.

This lack of race craft was symptomatic of not having come up through the traditional European club system and having spent their childhoods working rather than glued to Eurosport watching bike races.

In order to develop the team and build up their level of experience, Boyer decided to take them on a tour of the United States, where they would compete in the Tour of the Gila and the Mt Hood Cycling Classic, among others.

With few of the squad having ever left Rwanda, these trips abroad saw them fascinated and amused by everything from pets and supermarkets to air conditioning.

While the squad raced hard they failed to make much of an impression and riders became worried that on their return Boyer would give them their marching orders.

But Boyer had seen much to give him confidence in their growing abilities and the, crucially, the trip had helped gain vital interest and funding for the squad.

Among the riders, one was starting to stand out as a future champion: the rangy and introspective Adrien Niyonshuti.

Unlike his team-mates, Niyonshuti came from a relatively prosperous background and grew up cycling for pleasure rather than work. His uncle Emmanuel was a former cycling champion from who he’d inherited his bicycle.

As a Tutsi during the genocide the majority of his family were murdered, including six of his eight siblings. As a child, people came to kill him and his parents on several occasions, but they managed to escape. Despite its horror, in Rwanda stories like his were far from remarkable.

The civil unrest and subsequent genocide meant that the Tour of Rwanda didn’t run throughout the nineties. Restarting in 2001, with the country still deep in a state of deprivation, the race was a ragtag affair.

Competing riders, most from Rwanda but some from neighbouring countries too, would be followed by a convoy of cars. While some contained race officials, there were also informal support vehicles and hangers-on. Accidents were frequent and the racing fierce but disorganised.

However the existence of Team Rwanda and the international attention that their story was drawing helped publicise the race and its exposure grew.

When Niyonshuti won the 2008 edition, it was enough to attract the attention of the South African MTN team.

He and team-mate Nathan Byukusenge were invited to Johannesburg to try out for the squad, however an armed robbery resulted in the stabbing of another rider they were lodging with. During the attack Byukusenge, a Tutsi and genocide survivor, was badly beaten and decided to return home.

Adrien had hidden in a wardrobe during the robbery, and the incident brought back painful memories of hiding from murderous mobs as child.

Despite being badly shaken, however, he impressed in Johannesburg and stayed on to become the first Rwandan to sign with a professional continental outfit.

Fresh horizons

The following year the Tour of Rwanda became part of the UCI Africa Tour, meaning entrants could now accumulate points towards qualifying for events like the Olympics.

In a country with precious few sporting spectacles, let alone ones that could be enjoyed for free, the race had always exerted a huge pull.

And now that UCI continental and national teams and their support cars were kicking up the dust, the Tour of Rwanda became a full-blown circus. In 2009, over three million flocked to roadsides to support the national team.

In the meantime, Niyonshuti – now resident in South Africa – became the first Rwandan to ride in the European professional peloton.

In 2012, he competed in the cross-country mountain bike race at the London Olympics and since then he’s raced across the world to become the highest-profile Rwandan sports person.

Over the summer he represented his country at the Olympic road race in Rio, while the Team Rwanda development squad made their debut appearance in a major UCI classic at the Prudential RideLondon 100, cementing the team’s ongoing success in bringing Rwandan athletes to the world stage.

Over the past decade The Tour of Rwanda has become the country’s premier sporting event and the cycling team a source of huge national pride.

Although the nation is still very poor, things have been improving consistently in the country with life expectancy leaping from 46 to 59 in the years since 2000.

Indeed, modern Rwanda is often held up as a model of reconciliation and development. Niyonshuti continues to live in South Africa, although he has set up a cycling academy in Rwanda in the hope of inspiring  the next generation of  Rwandan riders.

Rwanda’s newest wave of cyclists will be the first to grow up without direct experience of the country’s darkest period. And thanks to the efforts of its cycling pioneers they’ll be able to keep their gaze focused on the road ahead, rather than the shadowy path behind.

The Tour of Rwanda is running from 13-20 November. See tourdurwanda.rw for more.

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