In spite of the violent episodes of its recent past, Rwanda is pedaling forward towards the future with the help of a team of young and inspiring cyclists.
Rwanda is a country that is automatically associated with one of the most concentrated acts of genocide in human history. In just three months in 1994, nearly one million Rwandans were murdered when ethnic tensions exploded between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu. Since then, however, Rwanda has grown steadily and has become one of Africa’s “biggest success stories,” and an important international tourist destination.
Like other countries in Africa, bicycles are ubiquitous across Rwanda. Locals often fashion their own two-wheelers out of wood to get from place to place or haul cargo such as coffee, food and firewood. For the past few years, though, a new kind of bike rider has emerged from the mist of the tropical highlands: professional bike riders donned in sky blue and yellow shirts, the members of Team Rwanda.
The shift towards professional riders dates back to 2005 when mountain biker Tom Ritchey visited Rwanda. Moved by the stories of hope he heard from Rwandans, he founded Project Rwanda. As part of the project’s goal to increase awareness about the country, the Wooden Bike Classic was held in 2006 and young Rwandans took to bike racing for the first time. A retired American cyclist by the name of Jonathan “Jock” Boyer had come a long way to see the race. When Boyer saw the talent of the young men in the race—including Adrien Niyonshuti, who won the event that year—the plan for Team Rwanda began taking shape.
The first team members came from families torn apart by the violence of the previous decade. Although money was tight, especially at the beginning, Boyer secured enough foreign donations to get every rider a bike. The training paid off at the 2007 Cape Epic, where Adrien took twenty-third place. Later that same year, the first Tour of Rwanda was held and one million Rwandans flocked to the streets to show their support for the riders. Since then the team has grown by leaps and bounds. With each turn of the pedal, they pump hope into their country.
At the recent London Olympics, Adrien Niyonshuti competed against the world’s best mountain bikers. Although he took 39th place, his achievement in this sport has been truly astounding. In the words of Kimberly Coats, “To me it’s not about him riding a bike. It’s about him changing the perception of his country.”