Tour of Rwanda Outcycling the past (Part 1)

Cycling has become immensely popular among Rwandans: over 3 million people now line the roads during the Tour of Rwanda.

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Jacques Boyer play

Jacques Boyer

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Written by Elles van Gelder

These young Rwandans spend some forty weeks a year at Ruhengeri training with their coach, American professional cyclist Jonathan Boyer.

The rider who lives farthest away cycles 200km to get to Ruhengeri. After the morning ride they take off their shoes, peel a boiled egg and walk to the shower.

The water is hot and the beds are soft, luxuries many riders don’t have at home.

From early morning until late night, bicycles zip down the hills of Rwanda at high speed.

There is hardly a flat inch to be found, but the bicycle is an important means of transportation in Rwanda.

Bicycle riders transport immense bags of potatoes, stacks of water-filled jerry cans and passengers on their luggage racks.

In the rural areas some of the transporting bikes are still made of wood. They are very basic machines, consisting of a fork and a plank sloping back to the rear wheel.

It was this heavy, ancient-looking wooden bike without pedals that brought Boyer to Rwanda.

Boyer was the first American ever to participle in the Tour de France. He made it to the Arc de Triomphe five times, and in his best year came in twelfth.

He was invited to Rwanda nine years ago by his friend, American mountain bike builder and designer Tom Ritchey, who had started a non-profit organisation called Project Rwanda.

Ritchey designed a low-cost, low-maintenance bike that could be used by farmers to transport their yields of coffee.

He also decided to organise a race with the wooden bikes, envisioning it as an annual tourist draw, and asked Boyer to help out.

In 2006 they staged the first Wooden Bike Classic.

There they saw raw talent in the speed and strength with which the Rwandans pushed their pedals. Ritchey was excited enough by the potential to start a team, and asked Boyer to stay.

Boyer thought it would be for a couple of months but in the years since has turned a small group of Rwandan riders-in-the-rough into a professional team, racing in Gabon, the US and Spain.

He's also helped to create a professional annual Tour of Rwanda.

“There was a Tour of Rwanda, but they only had about forty riders on thirty-year-old bikes,” Boyer says.

In 2008 the minister of sport expressed interest in having a professional race.

Boyer encouraged them to hire the professional European company GSO to organise it, and a year later the first Tour of Rwanda was launched.

With the efforts of Boyer and his wife Kimberly Coats, another driving force behind Team Rwanda, cycling has become immensely popular among Rwandans: over 3 million people now line the roads during the Tour of Rwanda.

In 2014 and 2015 Boyer’s team won the race, and the riders became local celebrities.

The team’s biggest success is Adrien Niyonshuti, who rides for Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka (previously known as MTN Qhubeka), Africa’s premier team, and is now based in South Africa.

Rider Nathan Byukusenge is the last to arrive. The sun has nearly set. He is one of Boyer’s original group of five cyclists. He’s just in time to pull up a chair for a power meal of rice, avocado, tuna and beans.

Byukusenge is short and thin, with powerful calves. He seems to spend every free moment glued to his two mobile phones.

Like most of the team, he began cycling to transport goods. He earned about US$2 a day ferrying cassava and sugarcane on his luggage carrier, too little to feed his three brothers, two sisters and mother.

Byukusenge was the firstborn, and after his father was murdered in the genocide, he became head of the household at thirteen.

Boyer started this unique team in a country with a dark history.

The genocide in Rwanda began in April 1994.

Incited by hate propaganda on the radio, Hutus took to the streets wielding the machetes they used to bring in the harvest.

The Tutsis fell almost as easily as the wheat. Hutus killed their neighbours, their children’s teachers and even family members.

The bodies piled high in schools and churches where Tutsis thought they had found a safe haven.

In a hundred days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and some 30,000 moderate Hutus who refused to participate in the killings met a gruesome death.

The international community watched it happen from afar. The country was ultimately freed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel army operating from Uganda and led by current president Paul Kagame.

These cyclists were children when the genocide began. Top rider Niyonshuti lost six brothers. He is a devout Muslim who enjoys listening to country music, a fondness he adopted from coach Boyer.

His knees are covered with scars from the many times he’s fallen. He also has a scar on his thigh, earned while fleeing from the Hutu killers. He no longer remembers exactly how he got it.

“Run!” his father yelled when the killers came. Seven-year-old Niyonshuti followed his father and dove into the bushes under the shelter of banana plants.

His father had another plan for safe shelter: the home of Hutu friends. They knocked on the door and were welcomed.

Niyonshuti remembers the lack of food and water and the many other Tutsis who sought refuge there. He spent weeks in hiding.

But Hutu militia found them. They carried jerry cans filled with gasoline, forced everyone outside and separated the men, women and children in order to kill each group one by one.

This is when Niyonshuti heard the words he tries to banish from his mind: “We’re going to burn you alive”.

Above them, dark clouds began to gather. Niyonshuti heard gunshots in the distance. “Bang, bang, bang,” he pantomimes, as if he’s again a child of seven.

The Tutsi RPF army was advancing. Their rescue could not have been more opportune.

Cyclist Byukusenge also carries troubled memories. He was a little older, 13, and playing at a friend’s house when the genocide began.

“I remember many things. I remember how they starting cutting other people,” he says in broken English.

“I saw people running to the church for safety, but there the killing continued. I saw so many people killing other people.”

Now Niyonshuti and Byukusenge ride alongside Hutu cyclists.

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