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Project Rwanda at UCI Africa Tour Report

release by Jock Boyer/Project Rwanda

February 7, 2009 – Our invitation to the Tropicale Amissa Bongo came from the organizers of the Tour of Ivory Coast Peace Race that we competed in last year. Jean Claude Herault saw Team Rwanda at the Ivory Coast race and wanted to extend a full paid invitation to his “Tropical Amissa Bongo” tour of Gabon this year. The organization paid for airfare, full room and board, transportation and most everything else for 10 people!

I was able to get a top-notch mechanic from France, Maxime Darcel, to join us. Sarah Pedersen, our logistics manager, was available on a Tufts University break so she could come to assist and Faustin Mparabanyi from the Rwandan Cycling Federation also joined us. Both Adrien Niyonshuti and Nathan Byukusenge were headed to South Africa to race with the MTN team so were unavailable. Our team was made up of Abraham Ruhumuriza, Rafiki Uwimana, Nyandwi Uwase, Obed Ruvogera, Nicodem Habiyambere and Daniel Ngendahayo. The last two were members of our “B” team at the Tour of Rwanda 2008. Nicodem is Nathan’s brother and both he and Daniel were on the first “international” trip of their lives.

Watching Daniel and Nicodem strap themselves in on their first flight from Kigali to Nairobi was quite the visual. Eyes that could not shut, fear-struck expressions as the plane gathered speed blasting down the runway, and that final moment when the plane left the ground, knuckles gripping the armrests.

You must realize that these two young men (Daniel at age 26 and Nicodem at age 20) had never been out of Rwanda in and if it were not for the bicycle they would never have been further than walking distance from their homes. Neither Daniel nor Nicodem have electricity or running water at home; Daniel makes money by charging cell phones for a fee and Nicodem does not earn an income. Nicodem lives on dirt floors, and neither man speaks anything other than the native tongue of kinyarwanda. On the plane that day, both were afraid to smile because, though they were excited, I am sure they thought at times that they were headed to their ultimate doom on this growling, shaking flying machine they were on. Imagine what they must have thought looking out the plane window and seeing their country from the air for the first time? Not only that, but having never imagined it was even possible to see their country from the air! Do you think they could focus or was it just a mass of indistinguishable colors, a patchwork of green and flowing brown? Can you imagine a trip where nearly EVERYTHING you see and practically everything you experience is new, odd, and totally different than what you are accustomed to?. Their Rwandan vocabulary did not even have words to describe much of what they were seeing and experiencing; how were they going to relate this experience to their loved ones at home.

So this was not just a bike trip with Team Rwanda, but it also gave two young men an experience of a lifetime. It would expand their horizons to places they had never imagined; I was excited for them and honored to be part of this new journey.

In Libreville, we were met by the French organization and all was handled smoothly and quickly. Because the Gabonese government was our sponsor, we were treated like arriving diplomats. A military C130 aircraft was waiting to fly us and all of our baggage to Franceville for the start of our first stage. Most of the African nations arrived about the same time as us, while the “European” contingency along with Sarah and our mechanic Maxime were to arrive the next day.

We were settled and the riders had already been on rides when Sarah and Maxime arrived, it was such a relief to see them! Sarah all the way from Boston with her bulging suitcases filled with Team and Jock “stuff”, Maxime with his tool kit, new parts and stand from Paris on his first African adventure! By dinnertime I was already totally jazzed with the luxury of a real “team mechanic” and a competent, familiar “helper”!

Stage 1 Franceville-Akieni 88.4 km

The race was short, fast, hilly, hot, and humid. Gabon is a dense jungle with a few roads through it. The race began with a field of 83 riders, of which 53 were African riders. The European teams were there to get in some hard rides preparing themselves for the cold races to come. They were not there on vacation and the pace showed it! A group of 14 riders went off the front early on and stayed away until the finish. Team Rwanda kept intact and made an impression. We were followed by European TV and radio wanting to see what Team Rwanda was all about. Daniel and Nicodem in their first real international race stuck together like brothers and were only distanced by the pack at the end. I was proud of the team. Five time Tour de France winner and former teammate Bernard Hinault came to greet and congratulate the riders.

Results of Stage 1:

Winner: Matthieu Ladagnous of Francaise des Jeux at 2hr11’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Nyandwi Uwase 28/10 at 10’10″
Abraham Ruhumuriza 29/11
Obed Ruvogera 41/20
Rafiki Uwimana 47/24
Nicodem Habiyambere 72/44
Daniel Ngendahayo 73/45

Stage 2 Mounana-Bongoville 120.2km

This was the hilliest day and the breakaway happened about 25km to the finish. At the top of the climb Abraham was just meters from the breakaway group and never could bridge the gap. He finished alone 4’ off the pace and another 4’ ahead of the next group. His strength and determination were evident and he moved into 18th place overall and 6th among African riders and was poised to move up in the days to come. Kiki who was active during the race marked points for the “combativity” jersey. Even from the vehicle teamwork was essential because in the blistering heat riders need necessary fluids and call upon us do deliver them. Sarah was there passing out water or Cytomax mix as we came up alongside the pack.

Results of Stage 2:

Winner: Evgeny Sokolov of Bouygues Telecom at 3hr18’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Abraham Ruhumuriza 18/6 at 4’31″
Nyandwi Uwase 27/12
Obed Ruvogera 31/16
Daniel Ngendahayo 34/19
Rafiki Uwimana 38/23
Nicodem Habiyambere 51/31

Stage 3 Leconi-Franceville 98.8km

This stage brought us near the Congolese border and out of the jungle. The landscape was on the bleak side but the weather still hot and humid. Hills continued as part of the morning’s menu. Obed made it into the first breakaway of about 18 but was caught by the motoring pack who continued with the fast pace until the hilltop finish in Franceville. Both Nyandwi and Abraham were well placed for the finish but somehow in their over-zealous effort to beat each other both went down with under a kilometer to the finish. They were up quickly and still managed to hang onto good placing. Team Rwanda moved up in Team placing and Abraham moved to 24th place overall.

Results of Stage 3:

Winner: James Ball of House of Paint at 2hr36’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Obed Ruvogera 28/13 at 26″
Rafiki Uwimana 29/14
Nyandwi Uwase 31/16
Nicodem Habiyambere 37/18
Abraham Ruhumuriza 42/22
Daniel Ngendahayo 53/32

Stage 3 was followed by another military and charter transport to the “border” (Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea) town of Oyem. The airport was comically small, understaffed, with a general lack of facilities. Gabon with its massive size and tiny population of 1.4 million seemed void of people, a stark contrast to Rwanda. In Oyem with its Cameroon border close by the bustle of commerce was much more apparent. A walk to town with Sarah revealed no local items for sale, however we found onions imported from Holland? Yes Holland! A generous choice of French wines and a gruesome “meat” market complete with bloated mini deer, monkeys, and various other animals, either chopped up, being prepared for a meal, or sitting there rotting in the blistering heat and humidity! Sarah opted for rice and pasta for the rest of the trip.

Stage 4 Oyem-Bitam 96km

This stage showed us the “real” Gabon: jungles and tropical humid heat. A beautiful winding road cut through some of the densest jungle I have ever seen. The terrain was not flat and the pack seemed to be supercharged as it flashed through the multicolored greens and browns of the tropical forest. Occasionally we would see a rider spit off the back and come through the race caravan, no longer able to keep his rhythm or composure. All of our riders hung in tight until Nicodem, who had been trailing at the back, couldn’t hold on anymore with about 5km to go. He too came back through the race caravan like the others; Sarah this time leaning out the window encouraging him as we passed by.

Fast days like these take a toll on the legs of the riders, they were indeed tired as we got back to our hotel in Oyem. At dinner Sarah conducted interviews with the riders. I observe and am amazed at the patience Sarah has as she literally extracts answers from the boys; she has to ask the question not once, not twice but, three or more times before they can give some sort of answer. It is not because they do not understand, they just want to be sure, perhaps, that she actually cares about what THEY think.

Results of Stage 4:

Winner: Johann Tschopp of Bouygues Telecom at 2hr14’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Nyandwi Uwasi 18/7 at 16″
Abraham Ruhumuriza 21/9
Obed Ruvogera 46/26
Rafiki Uwimana 48/28
Daniel Ngendahayo 64/41
Nicodem Habiyambere 77/47

Stage 5 Bibasse-Oyem 106.9km

When the riders looked at the information for Stage 5, fear struck their hearts due to a “10 lap circuit”. It brought back memories of their first “criterium” in America at the Tour of Gila in New Mexico. I tried to assure them that the 10 lap circuit was longer than a typical “criterium” so it would not be so difficult. The race started fast and ended faster. I could see Nicodem and Daniel hanging on for dear life at the back of the pack, fortunately there were some hills so they had a chance for reprieve as the pack hammered along. With only 3 laps remaining Abraham had some seat post problems, but each time we tried to get it fixed he kept drifting back leaving a big gap between him and the pack. I have tried and tried to teach them how critical it is to keep contact with a fast moving pack, especially at the end of a race! I wanted to strangle him as he drifted farther and farther back. The seat post got fixed, but the gap between Abraham and the pack was too wide with only 2 laps and 16km to the finish. Abraham lost precious time. All but Rafiki and Nyandwi lost contact in the end with the pack during the fastest finish of the race. I was seeing the riders too often at the back of the pack where it is actually much more difficult on the riders. At dinner I (or they actually) was fortunate to have Sarah there to temper my mood, she has a nice way of telling me that I really do not need to be so harsh on the riders. Coach Jock is not always the most pleasant person to be around, especially if you are not following race advice!

Results of Stage 5:

Winner: Manuel Cardoso of Liberty Seguros at 2hr30’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Nyandwi Uwase 26/12 at ”
Rafiki Uwimana 33/17
Obed Ruvogera 62/34
Nicodem Habiyambere 64/36
Daniel Ngendahayo 65/37
Abraham Ruhumuriza 76/47

Stage 6 Libreville-Libreville 136 km

Stage 6

Another military and charter transport and we were back in Libreville. The hotel was great and right on the race course. The start was a bit out of town and there was a 9 lap circuit through the capital city. We could not have asked for better conditions or organization, it did not really seem like Africa! For us the race was relatively uneventful excepting that Nyandwi broke his chain. Maxime was able to quickly repair it and Nyandwi was able to catch the pack. All the bottle passes went smoothly, we were getting the rhythm of the race and it was already the last day. The heat was not affecting the riders as much as the first days either. All the riders looked very relieved and very happy after the finish of the race. They had finished and had done excellently in their first race of the season! I was proud of Daniel and Nicodem who emerged with confidence, experience, and greater strength.

Results of Stage 6:

Winner: Yauheni Hutarovitch of Francaise des Jeux at 3hr7’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Nyandwi Uwase 21/10 at ”
Rafiki Uwimana 26/14
Abraham Ruhumuriza 39/21
Obed Ruvogera 42/24
Nicodem Habiyambere 43/33
Daniel Ngendahayo 76/47

Final Overall Classification riders:

Winner: Matthieu Ladagnous of Francaise des Jeux at 15hr59’
Rwandan Results (overall/African riders):

Rafiki Uwimana 29/11 at 18’35″
Nyandwi Uwase 30/12
Obed Ruvogera 40/20
Abraham Ruhumuriza 43/23
Daniel Ngendahayo 63/36
Nicodem Habiyambere 74/45

Final Team Classification:

1. Liberty Seguros at 48h02’
2. Francaise des Jeux at 0’12″
3. Bouygues Telecom at 0’33″
4. House of Paint at 27’46″
5. Morocco at 28’
6. C.C. Bourgas at 42’50″
7. Libya at 44’15″
8. Cameroon at 44’23″
9. Tunisia at 48’32″
10. Rwanda at 48’55″
11. Burkina Faso at 51’42″
12. Gabon 1 at 52’19″
13. Ivory Coast at 1hr
14. Gabon 2 at 1hr43’

We did not leave until Tuesday so we had a full day on Monday to relax and regroup. Our hotel had a pool and because Sarah had been a competitive springboard diver, her first thought was to get the boys in the pool. Only two riders, Nyandwi and Obed, even knew how to swim so her mission was to get as many as she could into the pool!

She had two takers along with Nyandwi and Obed, Rafiki and Daniel, and she soon found out that the last time Daniel was ever surrounded by water was in his mother’s womb! He had NEVER before been in a body of water. What a sight to see Daniel first get in the water, then get swim lessons from Sarah, and then brave jumping into the water belly flop and all. Soon he was flailing away trying to keep afloat with his dense African bones and 4% body fat! Rafiki for his second time attempting to swim was amazing to watch too. Both could not stop laughing and screaming as they each tried to keep up in the water. A note from Sarah later revealed that she would never forget the experience of watching Daniel enjoy water for the first time and the impact of being part of such a special event in his life.

Our journey home was far from smooth and just another lesson in trusting God to get us though seemingly impossible situations. Our flight reservations didn’t seem to exist until we finally figured out (hours later) that they were filed under our first names instead of our last. Kiki almost did not get on because his passport had one first name and the ticket two!

A day later we arrived in Kigali, however all 13 bags, including all our bikes and equipment, were missing. I started to really flip as lost bags in Africa generally means stolen bags. Luckily I had met a Rwandan in Libreville who worked at the airport and as soon as I returned home I sent her (Sandra) an email with all the bag codes and she went to work almost immediately locating the bags. Her friend worked in Douala and went physically down to baggage, found all 13 bags, retagged them with “rush” stickers and they were on the next flight to Nairobi then to Kigali the next day!

And so, our voyage had come to an end; Daniel and Nicodem would never be the same. Each rider was instilled with new energy and drive to take their fitness and performance to the next level. Maxime, for his first time in Africa and with Team Rwanda, went home with a new respect for cycling and what riders with very little resources can accomplish. He wants to continue to be part of Team Rwanda in our future races. Sarah returned back to Tufts University in Boston, from 100 degrees to 17 degrees. She too was impacted profoundly by what she saw and experienced through working with Team Rwanda. I always return from these trips knowing that I am where I need to be doing what I need to do.

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