Team Rwanda matures in Central Africa’s top cycling team

Over the past decade, Team Rwanda matured from a struggling band of inexperienced racers into Central Africa’s most successful cycling program.

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A nervous energy pulsed through Team Rwanda’s hotel suites on the day before the 2017 Colorado Classic stage race. Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing manager, shuffled between rooms with an orange cooler in tow, handing out sandwiches to riders. Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the team’s co-founder and longtime director, paced down the hall barking out logistical orders to his soigneur on his cell phone.

Inside one room, rider Bonaventure Uwizeyimana sat on his bed and spoke with a reporter. His goal for the four-day race was to win a stage, despite the presence of WorldTour teams. Uwizeyimana was unfazed; at 25 he had already raced his bicycle across Europe and Africa and won Rwanda’s national road title.

“I come here, and I want to win,” Uwizeyimana said. “Yes, I am a bit nervous. What can you do? It is a race.”

For Rwanda’s national cycling team, the pre-race scene represented a powerful bookend to a process that had started a decade earlier. When Rwandan cyclists first raced in the United States in 2007, simply making it to the starting line was a success. Boyer brought Team Rwanda’s original five riders — Adrien Niyonshuti, Nathan Byukusenge, Abraham Ruhumuriza, Rafiki Uwimana, and Nyandwi Uwase — to the southwestern U.S. to race New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila, a much smaller race with a lower tier of competitors. None of the five Rwandans had ever been outside of Africa; just 18 months before, several had worked as bicycle deliverymen.

The Rwandan riders lacked the horsepower of the domestic U.S. peloton. On each stage, all five were immediately dropped; simply completing the stage marked a form of success. Only Niyonshuti completed the five-day race.

In the decade between these disparate scenes, Team Rwanda made enormous strides, both on and off the bicycle. The project overcame seemingly impossible financial and organizational hurdles, as Boyer, Coats, and the project’s other benefactors found ways to keep the project afloat. They capitalized on mainstream media attention to publicize the transformative power of the project to a wider audience. They navigated cycling’s social circles in search of benefactors with the dollars to propel it forward. And they found people with enough passion to keep the program moving forward.

At each pivotal moment, the project has taken a step forward. The mission, however, has remained the same: to build a sustainable program for the Rwandans to oversee.

“The Africans are the captains of their future with this project,” Boyer says. “All we’ve done is open the door for them. Their choices will determine where they are going.”

Team Rwanda
Boyer (left) discusses the day’s plan at the 2017 Colorado Classic. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

THE STORY OF TEAM Rwanda became lore within the North American cycling scene due in part to the 2011 New Yorker story “Climbers,” and the 2012 documentary, “Rising from Ashes.” Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France, and mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey, launched the nonprofit Project Rwanda in 2006 with the dual goals to both develop racing cyclists and import inexpensive cargo bicycles to the country. The two men shared a common belief that the bike could help Rwanda step out of the shadow of its decade-long civil war and genocide. Rwanda is, and has been, a land of hundreds of thousands of cyclists; they ferry cargo and passengers aboard antiquated Chinese bicycles.

Ritchey and Boyer discovered five cyclists who showed talent and set to work developing them into racers. In the ensuing years, those athletes raced across the continent and the globe, inspiring their country to follow cycling and take up the sport. Two of the riders even made it to the sport’s highest echelon. Niyonshuti competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games and raced in the WorldTour with Dimension Data; Byukusenge raced mountain bikes at the 2016 Olympics. The project became the focal point for mainstream American media, and all five original riders attained some level of fame.

“In Rwanda, people know us because of the Tour du Rwanda, or the races we do, or because of technology like Facebook,” Rafiki Uwimana says. “It’s different how the guys follow us in the USA. They know us because of the magazines or watching the movies.”

Behind the scenes, the Rwanda project struggled to overcome a series of organizational and financial hurdles. The project had a tiny budget; for its first year, Ritchey donated $100,000 in funding and also paid Boyer to work on the project full-time. In the second year, the budget grew to approximately $130,000, mostly through donations. Boyer stretched every penny to pay for a masseuse, mechanic, rider salaries, and traveling fees. Funds trickled in from private donations, industry sponsors, and the Rwandan government. The project rarely had enough cash in the bank to fund the program for more than three months.

“It was highly stressful — knowing that maybe in three months I’d have to pack up and go home,” Boyer says. “I was finding volunteers and sometimes fixing bikes and taking them to the races. I was totally winging it.”

Boyer uprooted from Monterey, California, where he operated a bicycle parts company, and moved to a small house in Kigali to coach the riders full-time. His coaching did not stop at cycling; Boyer taught the Rwandan riders a wide range of skills, from proper fueling and eating strategies, to how to budget expenses.

Ritchey juggled co-operating duties of the project with the rigors of operating his own company. He traveled to Rwanda twice a year, often bringing figureheads from the sport to show them the project.

“I felt like I needed to involve all of these people from different parts of my life,” Ritchey says. “There were a lot of people who helped the project along in the process.”

Ritchey and Boyer began to deviate in the program’s third year. The financials of the cargo bike program didn’t add up — even at a steep discount the bicycles were too expensive for Rwandans. Boyer wanted the project to focus squarely on athlete development. Ritchey was in California, Boyer was in Rwanda, where he had begun a relationship with Coats, who joined the program in 2009. Eventually, the two men’s relationship frayed.

“It was evident we needed to separate,” Boyer says.

[pullquote attrib=”Tom Ritchey”]“It was a beautiful mess. It did nothing but bless my socks off.”[/pullquote]

And there was another component of the project that troubled Boyer; the Rwanda project included plans to produce a feature-length film. In 2006 Ritchey and entrepreneur Dan Cooper brought filmmaker and producer T.C. Johnstone to Rwanda to ride and Johnstone was immediately captured by what he saw. The next year Johnstone sent a film crew to Rwanda to document Boyer’s progress. The move caused tension. Boyer saw the film as a distraction; between $30,000 to $50,000 was earmarked for its production each year, and those funds could have funded the athletes.

Boyer had another reason to balk at the film. Boyer has an infamous past. In 2002 he had spent nine months in a California prison after he pleaded guilty to groping a teenaged girl on several occasions during a three-year period. Boyer has since discussed his crime and sentencing in the media at length, but in 2008 he was still hesitant to draw attention to himself.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to be on the radar again. I even told the producers to cut me completely out of the film,” Boyer says. “I just thought it would create more problems for everyone.”

Eventually, the mounting tension caused an irreparable schism. Boyer and Coats separated themselves from Ritchey in 2010. The original nonprofit, Project Rwanda died; the new nonprofit, called Team Rwanda Cycling, started with $5,000 in a bank account and a $1,200 purchase on Boyer’s credit card.

Johnstone, who worked closely with both men, believes the stresses of the seemingly impossible task put enormous strain on the relationship — it was doomed to fail.

“You have two guys who are so similar. They’re both brilliant and extremely opinionated,” Johnstone says. “You have two personalities just hitting up against each other with management philosophies. Tom is here, Jock is [in Rwanda], and I think the vision for the project got complicated.”

Ritchey and Boyer have come to peace with the breakup. Ritchey called the move “natural,” and continued to help the team navigate the cycling industry in an unofficial position. Boyer and Coats took on full-time management of the program, including fundraising duties.

“It was a beautiful mess,” Ritchey says. “It did nothing but bless my socks off.”

Team Rwanda
After years of collaborating on the Rwanda project, Ritchey (left) and Boyer parted ways in 2010. Photo: John Pierce/Photosport International

THESE DAYS THE EPICENTER of Rwandan cycling is a collection of houses and brick buildings that sits on the outskirts of Musanze, a city in the country’s mountainous northeast. Like many Rwandan cities, “Musanze” is an adopted name — the city’s previous name, “Ruhengeri,” was abandoned years ago in an effort to forget the genocide. Ruhengeri was a place of mass graves and revenge killings; by contrast, Musanze is where Rwandan cyclists train for the professional ranks.

Rwanda’s cyclists travel from across the country to the compound, called the Africa Rising Cycling Center, to undergo physiological testing and participate in talent camps. The program’s various national teams meet at the center to embark on long training in the nearby mountains. A team of mechanics resides at the center to fix and maintain bicycles and gear. The country’s new cycling federation is also based there. Coaches, directors, and soigneurs assemble at the compound to plan the coming season.

Boyer and Coats first saw the collection of buildings during a training ride in 2012. By then, the two had left Kigali for Musanze, where they ran the organization out of two rented houses on the other end of town. Boyer’s team had become Rwanda’s de facto national program, yet the riders crammed into a series of bunk beds in one house and fixed their bicycles in a small garage. Coats and Boyer shared the other house with five staffers a quarter of a mile away. The setup was far from ideal.

“We had come to the point where, if we didn’t get a new home, we were done,” Coats says. “We had the conversation. We either need to go big or go home. We couldn’t keep living like this.”

The buildings on the edge of Musanze represented a lifeline. The price tag for the buildings, however, was well out of the reach of Project Rwanda. In 2014 Boyer asked Rwanda’s minister of sport Joseph Habineza if he could arrange for the team to take over the center. Habineza told Boyer that the country’s president, Paul Kagame, could approve such a transfer. Should Boyer’s team win the Tour du Rwanda, he might get the opportunity to meet president Kagame and ask.

[pullquote attrib=”Kimberly Coats”]“We had the conversation. We either need to go big or go home. We couldn’t keep living like this.”[/pullquote]

In November 2014, Boyer got his chance. His rider, Valens Ndayisenga, won the overall on the final day of the Tour du Rwanda. Boyer and the team received an invite to a presidential media event alongside Kagame. Boyer says he was told that the moment was his chance to change the project’s future.

“I introduced the team and then I asked [Kagame] for the center. I also asked for new bikes,” Boyer says. “We were facing the press and photographers. When he responded he said, ‘Absolutely, the center is now yours. It’s about time.’”

The serendipitous meeting was one of perhaps half a dozen pivotal moments that helped Rwanda’s cycling project grow from those chaotic first years. The program’s first lucky encounter occurred in 2008. Boyer met S. Robert Walton, the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, while racing the 2007 Absa Cape Epic. A passionate cyclist, Walton traveled to South Africa to participate in the Absa Cape Epic and invited Boyer to work as a crew for him. Walton then traveled to Rwanda to see Boyer’s project. He was amazed by what he saw.

“Jock had this patience and this firmness and all of those things you need to be successful,” Walton said. “I was really impressed with what they were doing and I liked the story of the recovery of Rwanda.”

Walton marveled at the Rwanda project, and in 2010 agreed to donate $75,000 to the program each year. The donations boosted the program’s bottom line to $180,000.

“We could buy a generator. We could build an area for the mechanics. We could pay for plane tickets,” Boyer says. “That was all because of the Walton grant.”

Then, in 2015, Walton stepped up his contribution. He promised $750,000 to the program, to be paid out in $250,000 annual payments for three years. The grant completely changed the way Boyer and Coats thought about the program and its potential. The door opened for the team to compete across Africa and abroad.

“It was the first time we could actually do long-term planning,” Coats says.

Team Rwanda
Bonaventure Uwizeyimana joined Team Rwanda when he was a teenager, after attending several of the team’s development camps. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

THE NEXT PIVOTAL MOMENT came in 2012. Of the original five cyclists, Niyonshuti showed the most promise. He had inked a contract to ride with Doug Ryder’s MTN-Qhubeka for the 2009 season and raced a series of major events in Europe and Africa. The team wanted him to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London. Ritchey thought Niyonshuti had a better shot at qualifying in mountain biking, so starting in 2009 he began racing both road and off-road events. In 2011 he qualified for the Olympics.

But could he actually finish the race without being lapped? Ritchey posed the question to Swiss mountain bike legend Thomas Frischknecht, who said no. Frischknecht invited Niyonshuti to Switzerland for several months and personally trained Niyonshuti to prepare for the race. Niyonshuti finished in 39th place in London, 12 minutes down on winner Yarloslav Kulhavy. He finished on the same lap.

The scene was immensely important; it created the emotional bookend for the documentary film, which by then had entered its sixth year of production. The project itself suffered through rocky moments; after Niyonshuti missed the 2008 Olympics the film was shelved for an entire year. Boyer eventually warmed up to the project after Johnstone proved his dedication; five years in, film crews still followed Boyer and the Rwandans to races. Starting in 2010 he upped his budget for the production, and by 2012 the total spend surpassed a half million.

[pullquote attrib=”T.C. Johnstone”]“We wanted to know, ‘What is the value of hope?’”[/pullquote]

“The story of this team was reconciliation and going through borders, and changing an entire country,” Boyer says. “That was far greater than me being faced with my issues being back in the limelight. It would have been selfish not to tell it.”

Over the years Johnstone’s crew had captured thousands of hours of content. They witnessed the Rwandans progress as cyclists and saw them become celebrities within their own country. They captured Rwanda’s intense poverty, and the wide-eyed children who flocked to see the cyclists. Yet there was no guarantee that the footage would ever be cut into a film. Niyonshuti’s participation in the Olympics gave the film a natural ending.

Johnstone secured additional funding from a private donor in Texas, and in 2012 was able to create a final cut.

“The fear was this project could have continued to fly under the radar if somebody didn’t put it on film,” Johnstone says. “We wanted to know, ‘What is the value of hope?’”

The film was released in October 2012, just two months after the Olympics. Its launch proved to be another important moment. Johnstone took the film to festivals across the country, and the audience response was immediately positive. It won awards at 12 consecutive festivals, eventually taking home 18 festival victories and 30 total prizes. It gained distribution on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, and brought the project’s story to millions of viewers.

Johnstone and Boyer launched the Rising from Ashes Foundation to generate funds from the film. While the fundraising has been small, the impact it has had on the program’s awareness is impossible to quantify.

“People send us notes and emails saying how much the film has impacted their lives,” Boyer says. “It’s about how the bike changed the lives of people in dire situations and what the team has done for African countries. It’s given hope in so many ways.”

Team Rwanda
Sterling Magnell, director of Team Africa Rising since 2015, speaks with Kimberly Coats, the team’s longtime marketing manager. Photo courtesy Sterling Magnell

LIKE HIS PREDECESSORS, BONAVENTURE Uwizeyimana pedaled a taxi bicycle before he joined Rwanda’s national cycling team. Unlike Niyonshuti or Byukusenge — both of whom were in their late 20s when they joined — Uwizeyimana came on as a teenager after being invited to several of the program’s development camps.

“All I wanted was to be a pro [cyclist],” Uwizeyaimana says. “I did not get it the first time, and I trained so hard for my second time.”

Uwizeyimana entered the program amid a new generation of stars. Uwimana, Ruhumriza, and Byukusenge retired from racing and joined the program as coaches. New riders Joseph Areruya and Samuel Mugisha joined the team as teenagers. All three riders had more time to develop the requisite skills for pro cycling. Mugisha now competes for South Africa’s Dimension Data team.

The three men also entered the program during a management upheaval. By 2014 Boyer needed assistance with the day-to-day operation of the Africa Rising Center and the national team. The program had rebranded itself Team Africa Rising, and Boyer and Coats looked beyond Rwanda to create similar programs in other nations.

Fundraising and operations took most of their attention, and Boyer lacked the time to coach the national team riders. He hired retired U.S. pro Sterling Magnell to come to Rwanda and oversee the national team.

[pullquote attrib=”Bonaventure Uwizeyaimana”]“All I wanted was to be a pro [cyclist]. I did not get it the first time, and I trained so hard for my second time.”[/pullquote]

Magnell arrived in 2015 and saw a program sagging under the weight of its operational requirements. The Rwandan team had anywhere from 15 to 20 full-time riders who received a financial stipend. Dozens more hovered around the periphery, unpaid but awaiting a chance to prove themselves. There was no incentive-based program to elevate riders. Some veteran team members neglected training or disappeared for weeks. Yet they still drew a payment.

Magnell ended the guaranteed payments, and instead initiated a payment plan based on results.

“I think Jock was trying to get people to the level where they could compete, and just doing that was a success,” Magnell says. “I wanted them to win races. I changed the mindset of this being a charity to this being a national team of athletes and ambassadors of Rwanda. We stopped the handouts.”

Magnell’s policy drew immediate criticism. Simply to make it on the Rwanda national team brought stardom to a rider; and the stipends made the riders rich. The riders were incredulous. Midway through the 2015 season, a handful of riders went on strike during the Vuelta a Colombia. Magnell responded by suspending them from competition.

Differing opinions exist about the decision to drop the riders. Former members of Team Rwanda were critical of the choice. Magnell believes the move helped the team by creating a new level of responsibility.

“I lost one rider for good; the four individuals who came [back] became leaders of the team,” Magnell says. “They have created a new culture and taken ownership of the values. They value winning.”

Areruya was one such rider who was suspended and then returned. In 2017 he won the Tour du Rwanda and was the top-ranked rider in the African continent.

Magnell’s success with the team led to the most recent chapter in Team Rwanda’s evolution. During the project’s first decade, Boyer and Coats had worked independently of Rwanda’s fledgling cycling federation, yet they named riders to the teams, oversaw development, and paid the cyclists.

In 2017, the government-funded cycling union, called FERWACY, received the funding to take over the project. In April it assumed control of the Africa Rising Center. The new federation hired Magnell and his other coaches as sub-contractors and began to pay the bills for the Africa Cycling Center. The program was funded by government cash, rather than by the Walton family grant and other private donations.

The move marked a natural conclusion for Coats and Boyer. After a decade in Rwanda, both sought a return to the United States. In late 2017 they relocated back to Boyer’s family ranch in Wyoming.

“We probably stayed too long in Rwanda,” Coats says. “Hindsight is 20/20.”

In the months after their departure, Boyer and Coats started a new mission: to grow cycling across Africa. If the original program succeeded in Rwanda, could a similar model be replicated in Nigeria, the Congo, or someplace else? The two are currently working with the Nigerian government to launch a UCI Continental team there in 2019.

Should that project work, then perhaps Project Rwanda could become the model for growing cycling across the globe.

“This thing has always been about how the bike can change the lives of people in dire situations,” Boyer says. “What this team has tried to do for African countries, it has given hope in so many ways.”

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