I sit on the back of a motorcycle-taxi and grip the driver’s hips with my thighs as we zoom through the lamp-lit streets of Kigali. We weave in between cars and dodge other motorcycles as we go on my way to dinner with my teammates.
The bike’s motor sputters as we ride over a speed bump, which causes me to squeeze the hips of the driver in front of me even harder so the jostling doesn’t buck me off the back. He isn’t phased, but I grimace and clench my teeth. My thighs burn from the extra effort it takes to stay seated and my gooch screams at me as we roll over the uneven pavement.
The sensitivity doesn’t surprise me though. It’s the night after I just completed my first eight-day UCI-level stage race. I am a broken man. I have buried myself in ways I never thought I could (ones I realize now are simply not healthy), and pedaled my way to the other side of a dusty, cobbled, and beautiful hell that took my friends and me from one end of Rwanda to the other and back again.
As I stare through the grimy visor of the helmet that the driver gave me to put on before I hopped on his taint-scalpel of a motorcycle, I can’t help but get lamely theatrical on my own ass and think nostalgically and existentially about how I got to this very moment (I told you I was broken man, didn’t I? Bear with me). How did I get from one end of the 2018 Tour du Rwanda to the other?
Well, lemme tell ya.
Travel was exactly what you would expect: long. Looooooooooong. Coming straight from the USA Cycling Elite Amateur and U23 National Championships in Hagerstown, Maryland, teammate, Quinten “Squintin’” Kirby, and I were lucky enough to knock-off six hours in a plane that our California-/Nevada-based teammates would have to endure on their way to Europe via the east coast.
One more flight, and we were all together in our first hotel near the Kigali International Airport, where we would stay for the next couple of days as we acclimated to the altitude and tried to shirk the jet-lag.
Total travel time for Q and me: 36 hours door to door.
The next couple of days were spent exploring the city and getting a taste of what the country’s urban center had to offer.
None of us had ever been to any country in Africa, and had no idea what to expect a cycling scene there to even look like, but we quickly discovered why Rwanda had become one of the epicenters of the sport in the world’s second largest continent over such a short period of time.
In December 2005, the now-famous American frame builder and bicycle innovator, Tom Ritchey, visited Rwanda for the first time to take a tour of the country on his mountain bike, and realized immediately the beauty in both its landscape and its people, and its potential as a cycling nation.
With the traumas of the 1994 Rwandan genocide still fresh in the population’s memory, the country was still rebuilding its national identity. Ritchey saw an opportunity. Not two months after his visit, he formed the Project Rwanda initiative in February 2006, now known as Team Africa Rising, “to contribute to the economic development of Rwanda by initiatives that were based on cycle as a symbol of hope,” as their mission statement reads. In short, Team Rwanda was born and has since flourished.
As we rode our bikes through Kigali, we could all feel a tangible excitement around the upcoming race brewing in the streets, a product of this embrace of cycling over the past two decades. People cheered and clapped for us, and gave us thumbs-up; kids waved and ran alongside us, cheering as we mozied up the hills; and we were only doing a recovery spin.
In a city as busy and bustling as any other we had been in, cars gave us a level of space and respect that we had never been accustomed to in the states. Not once did someone honk at us, and never once did a motorist come closer than three-feet to us, as they made sure to pass us in the other lane (practically to their own endangerment, for more often than not cars would be coming at them head-on).
The mood was primed for something spectacular, and we could feel it before the race had even started.
The scope and scale of the event in the eyes of the public made itself abundantly clear when we arrived by bus to the start and finish of Stage 1, a 104-kilometer circuit in Rwamagana, located in the eastern region of the country.
Rwamagana is the ninth largest city in Rwanda, and when I say the entire city was out to see the start of the race, I mean the entire city. Businesses were still open, but they only seemed to be operating half-heartedly, as most employees had stepped out to witness the festivities of the race.
After we signed in, did the final checks on our bikes, and packed our pockets with food and gels, we scooted over to the start-line to the tune of the announcer singing along with the race’s theme song and promoting the tour’s primary sponsor, SKOL, a local beer company. He spoke in Kinyarwanda, the native tongue of the country, which none of us could understand, but was clearly not meant for us. Rather, it was meant for the thousands of fans that were crowding the stage to see riders from all over Europe, Africa, and America get ready.
And then we were off. The circuit was lumpy, but by no means selective. The rolling course was fast, with some twisting turns, but nothing substantial enough to shed riders. It ended up being a bit of a disappointment for us. A small peloton of mixed strength meant it was a harder race to control, and a late break got up the road going into one lap to go on the 6km circuits. Quinten tried to send a late flyer and salvage the day, but faded in the last 400m, as the peloton was scrapping for minor places by that point, and we would pass him in the last 300m. I finished 14th on the day, 22 seconds back from the winner.
We finished the stage and immediately children swarmed us at the team car, asking us for bottles. Rather, they were demanding them from us, holding out their hands and saying “Give me my bottle.” Ah, “your” bottle, is it? We joked about it, but as the week would drag on, it would get a little old, and our chuckles followed by “Sorry, we have to keep them for the rest of the race” converted to our dead-soul faces turning to these children and saying tersely, “No. Please leave.”
Over the course of the next four stages, the team would endure some of the hardest racing we’ve collectively ever done, with three consecutive stages (3, 4, and 5) containing over 10,000 feet of climbing (one of which was over 200 kilometers long) that each brought us 7,000 feet above sea level.
Were the stages not hard enough on paper, then the competition itself certainly took care of the rest. The racing style was hard to read. On Stage 2, a break of three managed to get around five minutes on the field. Once they had gone on a climb, nobody back in the group worked, and the riding was inefficient. People attacked each other like crazy on the rollers after the first couple climbs only to promptly sit up and coast through the crest and then brake on the downhills.
Blake will proudly tell you, and I will corroborate this, that his ratio of spots lost while sag-climbing to spots made up while descending never went below 1:1 in favor of the former. For every spot he dropped on a climb, he made up double going downhill. Truly, it was an amazing feat to watch, and I only wish I had the cojones to do the same. Oh, rest assured, I sag-climbed, but my descending was conservative at best.
The craziest thing about these stages was that there really wasn’t any day that wasn’t hard, both by virtue of the fact that the Rwandan national team, who held the leader’s jersey after Stage 2, rarely refused to ever let a break go, but also simply because every day was, theoretically, a GC day. When they did let the break go (notably including former Marc-Pro team alumnus, Tim Rugg, who would go on to win a stage), the pace was still kept high, with any increase in gradient being met with an injection of pace that didn’t seem to make sense.
In the span of Stages 3-5, we lost Dave to a stomach bug, Gavin to injuries he incurred after crashing on a descent, and Quinten to debilitating knee pain. Blake was still going strong as an ox, but it had been a week of quite polarized sensations for me. After explicitly telling myself and teammates that I was actually happy with how my form was coming around and how I was finally getting acclimated to the racing style and the altitude after Stage 4, I woke up the morning of Stage 5 with a sore throat that quickly devolved into degenerative stomach issues that persisted throughout the stage and prevented me from holding anything down that wasn’t liquid.
Whatever it was that I caught, it would last until the end of the entire tour, by which point it would jump across to Blake. It put the kibosh on any chance of getting a result, consigning the both of us to the gruppetto for the better part of the remaining four straight stages.
That being said, though it was #gruppettolife for Blake and I for the rest of the race, the spectacle of the Tour du Rwanda never faded. Instances here and there seemed to put a damper on it briefly. During Stage 6, as the quintet I was with rode up the hills, we were booed, spit on, and had various things thrown at us. Perhaps the most startling thing was when I looked at the left hand side of the road and saw a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 7 years old giving me the finger. It was hilarious.
Chants of “Mzungu,” a Bantu language term used in the African Great Lakes region to refer to people of European descent, made it clear to me that the bad attitudes of the spectators was no more than just excitement that their local rider was in the lead, and cheering for him also meant booing us foreigners. Sheesh, riots at soccer games in Europe and in Central and South America have lead to stadiums collapsing and people dying, so this in the grand scheme of things ain’t that bad.
And for every booer, there were a hundred people cheering. The crowds and their electricity were of a magnitude I didn’t even know was possible at a bike race. Coupled with this, the views along the routes were absolutely incredible. Throughout Stage 5, in most of the mountain villages that we passed through after we crested the major climbs of the day, we are able to see the tea and coffee farm plots that line the rolling hillsides. They created this magnificent topographical layering around each hill, in which, from an aerial view, the plots formed concentric circles as we looked further and further down the mountain.
On Stage 6, we finished at the base of a national volcanic park, and in the distance, we could see the peaks of the volcanoes towering over the farmlands beneath it. Kids can boo all they want, but that shit was breathtaking.
Stage 8 was not your perfunctory Tour-style ceremonial city-romp. Akin to the Sunset loop at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the last stage here could have easily been win or lose for the leader, Samuel Mugisha, who ended up taking the title by only 21 seconds.
Blake and I were not up there contesting the win. We were sticking in the pack, fighting our own battle of just trying to finish the freakin’ thing.
In reality, Blake deserves a medal. He flatted in the first of four 12km hilly circuits and had to chase back on with a herculean effort. It was then another day of bombing the descents, carrying momentum into the hills, and then sag-climbing the absolute crap out of them (I’ve gotten really good at it).
The biggest worry of that day was the cut-off, which was similar to yesterday in that if we were more than 6 minutes behind the lead group going into the third to last climb at around 67km in, we would be cut and forced to abandon.
We stuck in, and despite bouts of illness, stomach pains, fevers, and being just plain wasted from having to shock our systems with this much racing at altitude, we made the time cut, and were able to ride the whole course, which included two reps up the famous “Wall of Kigali,” an absolutely brutal cobbled climb that rivals any of the Belgian Bergs as far as difficulty.
It certainly surpasses them as far as energy.
When watching the cobbled classics, nobody is actually lining the flanks of the bergs these days, with those sections of the climbs blocked off to accommodate the massive peloton, open only to VIP guests. Here, however, you can’t hear yourself think, there are so many people screaming in your ear.
The claps and cheers were the only thing that got me up that stupid hill, and even more special were the chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from somewhere in the crowd that even the Rwandans were partaking in.
Blake and I crossed the finish line afterwards, broken humans, but amazed we had managed to make it this far.
We then rode back to the hotel and promptly jumped in the pool and just let go.
The immediate hours after a bike race are something really special, and are similar to the emotions and sensations I went through in my running days every time I finished a 5km in cross-country or an 800m in track.
The first people you find are your teammates. You congratulate them and check in to see how they are doing, and how they were feeling. But then as you’re making your way back to the common area where all the teams are situated, you find yourself congratulating everybody you can. You high five people, or give them pats on the back, just to let them know that you empathize with them on a profound level, having just gone through the same pain they did.
At the hotel, I found myself doing the same thing. Regardless of what happens in the race (save for if someone straight-up crashes you out) you both manage to exchange a smile and a handshake and congratulate each other on the efforts throughout the week.
This process is made even more special when it becomes an international experience. I’ve now gotten to give high-fives and handshakes to people from France, Cameroon, Switzerland, South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, Finland, Spain, Namibia, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, and Algeria.
Even when it sucks and you’re sick and it’s the last thing you want to or should be doing, riding a bike is truly something special.
More importantly, racing a bike is truly something special, because the experience of trips like extend far beyond the race itself.
In the days after the tour was over, we had a lot we wanted to do. Firstly, we visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in the center of the city, a truly powerful compilation of exhibits documenting the history and aftermath of the tragedy.
We were then able to go on Safari in the Akagera National Wildlife Preserve Park in the southeastern part of the country, where we saw giraffes, gazelles, hippos, baboons, monkeys, and warthogs within the park. The most spectacular (and frightening) sighting of the day was when, not moments after leaving the boundaries of the park, we saw a cheetah crossing the road just outside the local village, its hunched-over body just barely visible amidst the dust kicked up from the dirt road.
We then returned to Kigali, and while Dave, Gavin, and I stayed at the hotel to recuperate from our various stomach bugs and crash injuries, Blake, Quinten, and Nick were able to road trip to the north and take a tour of local tea plantation and its processing plants, getting a royal treatment complete with butlers and mid-day tennis matches on private courts in the process.
I take off the helmet and shimmy off the motorcycle-taxi, paying the driver his earned 1,000 Rwandan Francs. I walk to dinner, and I smile knowing that the bike has, once again taken all of us to a truly incredible place.
We have a lot of people to thank for helping to make this trip the experience of a lifetime it was. Thank you to Phil Mooney’s sister, Emily, and her husband, Jesse, for not only letting us borrow their car for the post-race trips, but for hosting us at a pre-race dinner get-together and making us feel so welcome in their home. Thank you to Nick Jerabek for volunteering his time to be acting soigneur and team helper, as well as Olivier Hakiza Kayiranga, a local and friend of Emily’s and Jesse’s, who took time to be our translator, cultural guide, and all-around amazing helper. Thank you to Tom Stenovec for allowing the team members to enjoy a wonderful tour of his tea plantation and facilities, and thank you, as always, to Kevin Susco for always helping to financially support this team and our adventures.
For a closer look at the stages, check out my Strava files, found in the links below.