Cycling Rwandans

There was a moment when Jock Boyer realised just how much cycling talent there is in Rwanda. Boyer, once the first American to ride the Tour de France and now the first coach of the Rwandan national cycling team, was leading his team of professionals up a steep, winding hill.

The cyclists were kitted out in their official sky blue and banana yellow Team Rwanda shirts. They were riding brand new $4,000 bikes. As they climbed the hill, the group sped past men and women carrying plates of fruit or stacks of banana leaves on their heads. They overtook old, creaking lorries weighed down with goods bound for Congo. And they passed other cyclists: young men on rusting single-speed Chinese-made bikes huffing and puffing their way up the hill, often with loads of coffee or charcoal on the back.

One of the cyclists they passed was called Leonard, 6ft 6in tall and carrying 150lbs of potatoes. A couple of minutes after Boyer and the team passed him, Leonard reappeared at their side, keeping pace, “cranking away”, as Boyer put it. The coach found Leonard the next day and invited him to a trial.

Rwanda has always been a country of cyclists. It is known as the land of a thousand hills, and every day each hill seems to hold a thousand cyclists delivering food and firewood, coffee and cassava. The bikes are rudimentary, some even made of wood. They are for business, not pleasure, and until recently certainly not for racing.

Like most African countries, Rwanda has never taken professional cycling seriously. Outside of South Africa there are just a handful of African cyclists on the professional circuit and not one has competed at the highest level, the Tour de France.

That may be about to change. Team Rwanda is this tiny central African country’s first ever professional cycling team, and it has grand ambitions: competing in the 2012 London Olympics and, eventually, securing a place in Le Tour.

The Rwandans, who climb the country’s thousand hills with ease on a diet of nothing but carbohydrates and fresh mountain air, could be just the team to polish the image of a sport tarnished by drug scandals.

First, Boyer needs to get them out of bed.

The start of my piece on the Rwandan cycling team in this month’s Observer Sport Monthly. Photos by Riccardo Gangale. The rest is here.

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