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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No30: Kimberly Coats

Maria David Sponsored
30 Mar 2021

Director of marketing, Team Africa Rising

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photos: Team Africa Rising

After making a successful career as a business development manager for a Las Vegas food distribution company, Kimberly Coats had something of a mid-life crisis in 2009.

It led to a decision to live out a wish she had written in her diary a few years earlier – she wanted to do something that combined her love of cycling, travelling, and helping people.

She credits journalist Jason Gay with helping that become a reality after she read an article of his in Outside magazine about Project Rwanda, a not-for-profit organisation providing cargo bikes to coffee farmers, and Team Rwanda, a racing team offshoot.

Kimberly picks up the story:

‘It was like God was speaking directly to me and saying “You’ve gotta go!” And I’m like, “I’ve gotta go!” So I tracked down Tom Ritchey (legendary racer, designer and framebuilder, and also the founder of Project Rwanda) who put me in touch with his business development guy who said “Have you ever thought of going to Rwanda?”

‘Within two months I’d quit my job, got on a plane, and landed in Rwanda. I was only supposed to stay three months, but that turned into eight years.’

Initially Kimberly worked on the Project Rwanda initiative, but then worked with fellow American and former pro Jock Boyer to spin off the racing team section into a new not-for-profit organisation, the Africa Rising cycle racing team.

For the first four years the organisation functioned hand to mouth, but a grant from the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation in 2013 made things a lot easier.

The team included Adrien Niyonshuti, who would go on to become Rwanda’s most famous pro cyclist, racing for Team Dimension Data in 2016 and 2017.

Adrien also competed in the mountain bike race at the London 2012 Olympics, making him the first black African to ever finish an Olympic mountain bike race, and competed in the Olympic Road Race at Rio 2016.

Now retired, Adrien and cousin Hubert have set up an academy where junior cyclists train on smart trainers using Zwift. They aim to organise a Rwandan E-Championships with the hope of identifying talented riders who could race in Europe in the future.

Attitudes towards cycling in Rwanda had been negative for a long time, but things have changed, and much of it is thanks to the Tour of Rwanda, first held in 2009.

In Benin the woman on the course, Chantal, got so emotional at the end of the mechanics course because she could now fix her own bike. When she’d had to go to male mechanics, there was always an issue – she would be kicked to the back of the line, or they would make her pay more. Women cycling in Africa is a tough business

Kimberly explains: ‘Before, it was like, only poor people rode bikes. If you succeeded financially in Rwanda you would buy a car. Now, the Tour of Rwanda is the most famous race on the continent, and people love it.

‘The upper-middle class in Rwanda, who have done well financially, now want to ride bikes, and having a bike is now seen as a status symbol.

‘Sometimes you will see a little bar in Rwanda with this tiny TV, and a gazillion people up against the walls and the windows, watching the Tour de France.’

Following the success in Rwanda, other countries are keen to work with Africa Rising.

‘We are working with Benin, Sierra Leone, and Togo right now. Sometimes we work with federations, sometimes governments.

‘It depends if there’s corruption or not. We will only work with groups of people who will meet us halfway and put in some commitment themselves – be it in time, or small amounts of money.

‘For instance, we are doing a mechanics training course in Sierra Leone in April. Park Tool set up this awesome tool kit for us at a really good price, so we raised the money for 22 tool kits.

‘The local guy in Sierra Leone, Karim Kamara, is setting up the class and we are paying for our mechanic to go there from Holland. We will have 22 mechanic trainees, half of which are women.’

Providing training for women is very important as this provides a way to earn a living and gain independence, as Kimberly found when they ran the course in Benin.

‘In Benin the woman on the course, Chantal, got so emotional at the end of the mechanics course because she could now fix her own bike.

‘When she’d had to go to male mechanics, there was always an issue – she would be kicked to the back of the line, or they would make her pay more.

‘Women cycling in Africa is a tough business. I was at a race in Eritrea and the woman from the federation said when she started racing her parents were very upset because they said she wasn’t a virgin anymore because she was racing a bike.’

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

Women who race are expected to stop by their mid-20s so that they can get married and have children. Nevertheless, there are a few women who have come through in the sport and succeeded.

Rwandan Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu raced and completed the Richmond 2015 World Championships, while Ethiopian Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru completed a training course at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland.

These are positive signs at a time when the UCI World Road Racing Championships are potentially to be held in Africa in 2025.

While Kimberly is happy with the achievements of Africa Rising, she believes there could be more gains if there were greater involvement by the African Cycling Confederation (CAC).

Kimberly explains:

‘We got 10 trainers from Wahoo, and Zwift gave us 20 licences. Hopefully we can get more, because we’ve got these kids and we need about 100 trainers. But I’m thinking, “Shouldn’t these requests be coming from the CAC?”

‘We have Rwandan racers participating in a South African Premier League series on Zwift. I think this is going to democratise the sport and gives black African cyclists an even playing field because we’re always hampered by finances.

‘Now they can just get on their bike and race against anybody in the world right from their home in Rwanda. Covid threw us a curveball and it was actually a positive thing because it made us rethink how we could do everything.

‘There is just so much talent throughout the entire continent still to be tapped.’

Find out more about the Team Africa Rising projects here.

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.