One of the countries represented at this week’s UCI races is Rwanda. The team’s been steadily developed by former US pro cyclist Jonathan "Jock" Boyer and has become a symbol of hope, change and unity. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: Richmond Cycling Corps is presenting a screening of Rising From Ashes, the documentary about Team Rwanda Thursday, September 24, at 5:30 at Center Stage. You can see the Team Rwanda's Valens Ndayisenga, Jean Bosco Nsengimana and Bonaventure Uwizeyimana compete Friday, September 25th at 12:45 pm in the UCI Men's Under 23 Road Circuit. Jeanne D'Arc Girubuntu races Saturday, September 26th at 1:00 pm in the Women's Elite Road circuit. If you can't make it to the race, you can stream online at Richmond2015.com
Team Rwanda’s members grew up in the shadow of the 1994 genocide. They’ve lived with trauma and in poverty. Some dropped out of school to work and support their families. And many still don’t have running water at home. But today, four of them are on the world stage, competing in Richmond at the UCI Road World Championships.
Valens Ndayisenga: My name is Valens Ndayisenga, I’m from Rwanda...
Valens Ndayisenga is 21 and a Tour of Rwanda champion.
Ndayisenga: I started cycling in 2011.
Jean Bosco Nsengimana helped the team with Bronze in the recent All Africa Games.
Bonaventure Uwizeyimana: My name is Bonaventure Uwizeyimana.
Uwizeyimana is racing in his second UCI just months after a serious cycling accident.
Uwizeyimana: Cycling changed many things for me.
Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu: My name is Jeanne D’Arc, I come from Rwanda.
And 20-year-old Jeanne D’Arc or Joan of Arc Girubuntu is making history as the first female Rwandan to race in a world competition.
UCI Announcer: Our next rider coming from the continent of Africa, riding for Rwanda. Here is Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu! Our only representative from the African continent in this Women’s Time Trial event.
Kimberly Coats: Jeanne D’Arc, she’s groundbreaking right now in Rwanda.
Kimberly Coats is Team Rwanda’s Marketing and Logistics Director.
Coats: The biggest thing is just to have women’s pro teams that are here, see her. Because you see what happened this year with the Tour de France and two Eritreans. They broke the color barrier, they were the first Africans to ever race in the Tour de France. And we need a woman of color, we need an African woman in the women’s pro peloton. It’s time and she could be the one to do it.
With legs longer than her male teammates, Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu is fierce, says Coats. She shrugs off the long gash healing on her elbow from a recent crash. Speaking through an interpreter, Girubuntu says she hopes to inspire other young women back home.
Girubuntu (through interpreter): It’s a very rare opportunity and I’m very glad that I am the first one to be able to do this and I know that by doing this I’m really opening up doors for other female cyclists within the country. It’s just not rare that I’m a female, but it is rare in itself to compete on an international stage especially with World Championships so I’m very happy that I get to be the one to do that.
Soft-spoken and focused, the Rwandan cyclists don’t take anything for granted. Cycling has helped them become breadwinners for their families. It’s taken them across borders and oceans and expanded their world view. It’s given them the opportunity to be ambassadors for their country and help write a new history for Rwanda. It hasn’t been easy to get here, says Jean Bosco Nsengimana, but his teammates have always helped.
Nsengimana (through interpreter): He started off really not knowing what to do but because the other teammates were more experienced, they really helped him come along. He says learning is always continuous and there’s always room to grow and that’s what he’s doing, he’s growing, the more he trains with them.
These younger riders are inspired by the Team Rwandan cyclists who came before them, like Adrien Niyonshuti who rides for MTN-Qhubeka, a professional South African team. Valens Ndayisenga likens it to a house. The coaches built a strong foundation. The first cyclists added supports. And the new riders are putting on finishing touches, showing everyone the house is complete.
Ndayisenga (through interpreter): He said I started when I was around 16, 17. I’ve had a lot of time to train with the team. And now you’re starting to see the fruit of the labor that the coaches put into this team and into cycling within Rwanda - the fruit is starting to show.
Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the first American to race in the Tour de France, started Team Rwanda in 2007. Its successes have led to a larger organization, Team Africa Rising which also works with Eritrean and Ethiopian riders. They opened a live-in Cycling Center in Musanze, Rwanda last year. In addition to daily training, home cooked meals, yoga and physical therapy, cyclists benefit from a full-time English teacher. Coats hopes next year they can come to the US for a series of races with riders from all three countries.
Coats: So that we can show the world that even countries that are in conflict like Ethiopia and Eritrea, they’re not in conflict on the bike. It’s not about conflict among the people, unfortunately it’s conflict at the government level. The same as in Rwanda as far as our team goes, there’s people from both sides of a conflict that happened 20 years ago, but they ride as one, they’re Rwandan.
Team Rwanda has another connection to Virginia's capital city. A few years ago, they connected online with the Richmond Cycling Corps, which provides training and mentorship to inner city youth. Inspired by the work of the Cycling Corps and their similar missions, Team Rwanda invited the Richmond teens to design a t-shirt for them.
Coats: In the documentary Rising from Ashes, in one part of the film one of our riders says “we came together as one”and “team is team” and that’s become our motto. So they did this amazing t-shirt design with inspirational words and team is team and it was designed by them, and we still sell them and that’s thanks to the Richmond Cycling Corps kids.
UCI Announcer: Girubuntu is off now, wearing the yellow, teal and white of Rwanda. They’ve sent a few athletes up here to Richmond...
Both Team Rwanda and the Richmond Cycling Corps have seen the powerful impact of cycling and how it can be a tool of hope and change. As they push up hills and maneuver difficult turns, these cyclists are transforming their own lives while also inspiring others. Be passionate, says Jeanne D’Arc to aspiring cyclists, and you’ll eventually see the benefits. Have a heart for what you do and love it. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.