Few Americans have heard of Rwanda, much less know its location on a map, but a handful of American cyclists not only know where it is, they’re living there to foster a grassroots bicycle racing team in the heart of Africa.
To set the scene, a little history: Maybe you’ve heard of the movie Hotel Rwanda, which relives the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 Rwandans died during a tribal bloodletting. Sadly, that’s the country’s ignoble claim to fame.
Rwanda is also home to the last of the mountain gorillas, and now that the genocide is a memory, tourists are starting to visit Rwanda to see these reclusive primates.
I found out more about the bicycle racing connection on May 11 at the Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos, which hosted an event called Rwanda the Slide Show. Scott Nydam, a professional bike racer who took a serious crash and had to end (maybe) his career, talked about his recent stay in Rwanda where he joined Jock Boyer and Clark Natwick (3-time National Cyclocross Champion) at a training camp in the mountains, at about 8,000 feet altitude.
If all of this sounds surreal, you would not be alone, but the slide show brings home what is happening in Rwanda. The Rwandan racers have become instant celebrities in this poor country with few paved roads, as they take training rides on their colorful bikes and equally colorful jerseys.
At every stop they’re mobbed by people who want to touch their bikes and learn more about what they’re up to.
At the behest of Tom Ritchey, owner of a bike component company, a bike race called the Wooden Bike Classic was started in 2006. Now there’s the Tour de Rwanda. Tom has a multi-faceted effort underway to help the people of Rwanda, called Project Rwanda, of which Team Rwanda, the bike racing team, is one facet. (You can make donations at one of these sites.)
Signs of progress are already apparent. Racer Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN/Qhubeka) qualified for the 2012 Olympic Mountain Bike Race by finishing fourth in the elite men’s cross country race of the African Continental Championship at Jonkershoek, near Stellenbosch, South Africa.
If anyone can lead the Africans to glory, it is Jock Boyer. Jock is no stranger to blazing trails, being the first American to enter and finish the Tour de France. He has also won the Race Across America twice, and was the first professional rider to enter that event.
Scott took special comfort in the words of racer Gasore Hategeka, who has found success. “The bike, it’s a good machine.” Well put.