East African athletes are renowned for the awards they have collected due to their legs. Ethiopian and Kenyan runners are world-record holders across distances from the marathon to the mere 800 meters. Now, there is another sport for which they are flexing their muscles: cycling.
Rwanda is the unlikely candidate leading the bike boom. Five years after Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer – the first American to participate in the Tour de France – set up Team Rwanda, the country sent its first cyclist to the Olympic Games.
Adrien Niyonshuti – a survivor of the genocide that killed six of his brothers and a million other countrymen – rode in the mountain biking event. He was placed 39th of 40 riders, but that hardly mattered because he put Rwandan cycling on the map.
Niyonshuti is now a professional rider contracted to South African team MTN Qhubeka, which competes at events across five continents, including Niyonshuti’s home country in the Tour of Rwanda.
The race is 25 years old and this year, for the first time, it is set to launch a women’s version. Should the plan come to fruition, it will be the first major stage race for women on the African continent.
The wheels to turn cycling from a mode of transport into a competitive sport were put in motion by complete chance. In 2006, Boyer was lured to Rwanda by a childhood friend, Tom Ritchey, a bicycle frame designer and builder, who had traveled to the country. Like many foreigners who came to the country after the genocide, he wanted to serve the people and had a skill that could benefit them.
Ritchey had an association with American businessman Daniel Cooper, who was involved with Starbucks. Rwandans transported their coffee harvest on foot or by single speed Chinese bicycles. Cooper wanted to make the process more efficient. Ritchey designed a special cargo bicycle with an elongated rear to distribute through a non-profit start-up called Project Rwanda.
Their masterpiece was to be unveiled at a rally, the Wooden Bike Classic, which would feature races between cyclists, taxis and motorbikes and, for the first time, a mountain bike race. Niyonshuti, who was 15 at the time, won the climbing event. Boyer was impressed with the teenager’s potential and promised to return, but few believed him.
The following February, true to his word Boyer came back and started recruiting a team. He tested cyclists and selected the top 10 for intensive training. Niyonshuti was among them. A month later, Boyer handpicked him to complete in the Cape Epic, the biggest professional mountain bike event in the world that is held in South Africa. Boyer and Niyonshuti raced as a team and finished 33rd out of a field of 607.
That was how the concept of Team Rwanda took off. The coffee-carrying vehicles formed part of the broader project. They were sold at cost, usually on credit, to vendors, while the professional cycling arm was to make itself financially viable through donations and eventually corporate sponsorship.
Money has dripped in and the aim is to assemble a team that will compete at the Tour de France.
“Everything is progressing towards seeing an all-African team at the Tour de France. It will not be an all-Rwandan team but a team made up of riders throughout the continent,” Kimberly Coats, Team Rwanda’s director of marketing and logistics told Forbes Woman Africa.
“Federations across Africa are getting more involved and putting more money into cycling. What we need most is money, financial support and a commitment to sponsorship from local, national and international companies. The future of cycling is Africa, it’s now time to invest in this continent’s young talent.”
For the same reason, Team Rwanda has not been able to extend itself to women just yet.
“With our limited budget and the lack of races in Africa, we have focused on the men,” says Coats.
But if interest levels are anything to go by, Rwandan women are enthusiastic about cycling despite the difficulties they face in participation.
“Culturally, it’s not like America, where girls grow up playing sports and it’s okay. The girls in Rwanda grow up working in the fields, taking care of numerous siblings, dropping out of school early and then starting a family of their own. Sport isn’t something that they even think about,” says Coats.
Gender inequality affects much of the region and continent. Cast an eye to western Kenya’s Kisumu county, where a hotly-debated law could see women forced to sit sideways on motorcycles and bicycles because it is considered improper for them to straddle.
“Bicycles have brought a culture that is really demeaning to our women,” says Kisumu county assembly member Caroline Owen.
With attitudes like that, it is understandable why women are reluctant to take up sport in some areas, but in Rwanda the trend is catching on. Cricket is played widely, especially at schools. There are 10 institutions with established women’s teams and an inter-school tournament, sponsored by an Indian family, was introduced in February of last year.
Stories like these give hope to Rwandan women cyclists, that soon they too may receive the funding they need to race. They already have the support of the Rwandan Cycling Federation (RCF) and hold monthly races, in which women participate. In November 2011, the runlikeagirl.com blog reported that one of those events drew 84 female participants including Angelique Mukanekezi, who caught the interest of Boyer and Coats. She is part of their training program, which is slowly growing to accommodate women.
In March 2012, the national federation held a 40 kilometer race exclusively for women. Over 100 women took part.
“One of our objectives this year is to develop the sport among women so that we have a national team of women cyclists,” says Emmanuel Murenzi, executive secretary of the RCF.
The country is getting there. Last year, Rwanda sent two women to the Continental Championships in Egypt. The men’s team took bronze in the overall event and the two women finished 8th and 10th in the women’s junior event out of a field of 15. Their progress was hailed by Murenzi, who promised that this year they will up their game even further.
The next and biggest step will be to hold a women’s Tour of Rwanda and Coats sees no reason why that boundary cannot be breached. She also believes in Team Rwanda’s ability to cross borders. They have been asked to expand their project to Ethiopia and Eritrea and if they can find the funding. Soon, the men and women of East Africa will have another discipline to stretch their legs for.