Bonaventure Uwizeyimana would figure out when the Rwandan national cycling team was training and started showing up to their practices, riding a bike that didn’t really work well.
The 18-year-old became a fixture, though the wasn’t officially part of the team, benefitting from the training, but not the food and massages reserved for members.
A couple times a day, riders would compete in sprints, the winner biking away with $1.50 in Rwandan francs. One day, Uwizeyimana won. The next day he was invited to camp.
Now that 18-year-old is 24, the current Rwandan National Champion and one of six cyclists Team Rwanda will field for the inaugural run of the Colorado Classic in August.
“My goal is to represent my country,” he said, “to show my people, to show Rwandan people, they can do something special.”
The Rwandan national team has raced in the U.S. before. The first time was back in 2007, soon after the team was first created and was still viewed as an oddity, said Jock Boyer, technical director for the Rwandan Cycling Federation. Now, with more experience and better equipment under them, the riders are professional competitors.
And they’ll need to be.
The Colorado Classic is an HC race, which means it’s one of the highest caliber races with a field of riders more competitive than Team Rwanda is used to riding against, Boyer said.
Although the Rwandan riders will be accustomed to the altitude, they’ll have to adjust to the heat and dry air, he said. He’s aiming for the team to make a stage’s top 10.
“We started from absolutely zero,” said Boyer, the Coors Classic standout who, in 1981, was the first American to compete on a Tour De France team and one of a group of cycling industry leaders who started Team Rwanda. “We’ve grown into a legitimate cycling team.”
As Team Rwanda grows, so does the cycling in the country.
Although a small riding culture used to exist, it was lost in the 1994 genocide. But interest has surged, and the country now hosts one of Africa’s top tours that can draw 3 million spectators to the streets. Add in race broadcasts and a quarter of the country’s population watches the tour, Boyer said.
As the national team riders roll into towns, people holler their names, Boyer said. They’re famous. More than that, they’re heroes. That includes Uwizeyimana, who was ostracized growing up because of a cleft palate.
“It became a culture. It’s been very unique because we’ve actually seen a culture happen within a decade,” Boyer said. “The country has really embraced it.”
Many riders in America and Europe are surrounded by bikes while growing up. The exposure makes much of riding seem like common sense. But that’s not the case in Rwanda.
“(Uwizeyimana) spent most of his early life looking for sticks to burn for fire to cook and getting water from the stream,” Boyer said, adding that Uwizeyimana spent time in a Democratic Republic of the Congo refugee camp as a child. “We stayed at the Broadmoor last night. Goodness gracious, the room was bigger than any of their houses and the room had water. It’s a shock.”
With the national team, he earns between $5,000 and $6,000 a year — significantly more than the average income of $600 a year. He hasn’t taken it for granted, though. He uses the money for his family, building two houses and supporting his sister’s education.
When Uwizeyimana puts on the Rwandan jersey, he’s doing more than trying to win a race. He’s changing how the world viewed Rwandans and showing his country that they are strong, he said.
“Everywhere I went before, they were asking me about the genocide. I was really young, I didn’t know anything about that,” he said. But then teammate Joseph Areruya won a stage at the under-23 Giro D’Italia — the first win by a Rwandan at a Union Cycliste Internationale race. “Now they can ask him so many things, not about the genocide.”
“I watched so many movies about what’s happening in Rwanda,” he continued. “I (want) to show the world how Rwandan people, they really work hard to build their country.”