“The race is harder, every year, it’s going up a level,” Adrien Niyonshuti says. “You can tell the level is rising here in Rwanda.”

Niyonshuti speaks at the start of the Tour of Rwanda, his home race. In the distance, the announcer enthusiastically calls off the names of the cyclists competing in the sixth leg, from Musanze to Rubavu, near the boarder of DR Congo. As we speak, about 20 to 30 young Rwandans gather to see that familiar face, Adrien’s. He is as famous here as Eddy Merckx is in Belgium or Bernard Hinault is in France thanks to his success story, from genocide to the Olympics and on to the pro ranks.

It didn’t always used to be this way.

Rwanda was dead

“The bike is very good to help take something out of your head and to help you to forget something like genocide,” team Rwanda’s masseur, 33-year-old Obed Ruvogera explains. “You’re training hard, you need to win, sometimes you don’t have time to think about genocide.”

Obed Ruvogera (right) masseur of Team Rwanda who was a former rider on the team himself.

When the president’s plane was shot down in 1994, it triggered off one of the nastiest scenes our world has ever seen. Tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus had been running high, but that crash was the flash point. Over the next 100 days, the two groups killed each other in the cruellest ways imaginable. Some survived, hiding in the hills, but many, around 800,000 were hacked and left for dead in streets, homes, schools and churches. As the memorial in the capital city of Kigali says, Rwanda was dead.

It’s hard to imagine then that the Tour of Rwanda is in its fourth year as a UCI-registered race. That every day, for seven days, the race snakes all the country’s paved roads from DR Congo to the west to Tanzania to the east, from Brurundi in the south, through the coffee farms to the volcanoes in the north. The country seems made for cycling. If one is rich enough, he buys a bike to haul water, coffee beans, potatoes or anything else imaginable. The hills, passes up to 2500 metres, produce climbers.

Boyer’s dream

Jock Boyer brought Rwandan cycling, and cyclists like Niyonshuti, to where it is today. Pioneering wasn’t new to him; he was the first American in the Tour de France in 1981. He already led the way for the stars like Greg LeMond and an eventual American team in the Tour.

Jock Boyer in his workshop.

In post-genocide Rwanda, in 2007 he re-started his life. Back in the USA, he’s labelled a sex offender. In a feature last year, The New Yorker described it well:

I had a really bad time of my life then, just made some really poor decisions.” The girl was sixteen in 2002, when she told police that Jock had groped her on multiple occasions in a three-year period, beginning when she was twelve. He admitted it at once, and faced the possibility of twenty years in prison. After he pleaded guilty, he was given a one-year sentence, because he was judged to be of no further threat to anyone, including the girl; he served nine months in the Monterey County jail before he was released on probation.

“When I look back, it’s just so foreign to me,” he said. “It was an anomaly in my whole character. I just can’t relate to any of it.” He still has to register, once a year in California, as a sex offender. In the eyes of the world, he said at one point, “it would have been better if I had killed somebody.

Tom Ritchey, after a recent mountain bike trip, encouraged Boyer to visit Rwanda. He did once in 2006 to help organise a mountain bike race and returned for good in 2007. He started a team, recruiting the top local cyclists and submitting them to power tests.

“I was very excited,” said Rafiki Uwimana, one of Boyer’s first crop of riders along with Ruvogera and Niyonshuti.” When I used to ride, it was just at the town level, on a wooden bike. When I met Jock, I thought this could my chance to live my dream and become professional.”

Rafiki Uwimana of Team Rwanda

Uwimana’s story is the same as the others, that Boyer is instrumental in Rwanda’s success and helps them forget their past. In Niyonshuti’s case, he lost one sister and five brothers to the genocide.

The cycling federation got behind Boyer. They started chipping in money to his team and the Tour of Rwanda, which in 2009 became a UCI event.

Boyer primarily uses his racing connections to fund and supply the team. In his workshop and training centre in Musanze, Look rules. The French company has donated pedals and frames. Other sponsors give what they can and others are in line, hopefully encouraged by a new film about local cycling, Rising from Ashessss. They are helping Rwandans reach their dreams.

The next level

“Cycling has given me lot of opportunities, I’ve travelled around the world and seen how things are different,” Adrien Niyonshuti says, the announcer still calling off names for the start of the stage. “I’m happy for it all. I’ve already done a lot, met a lot of different people.”

Adrien Niyonshuti a former winner of Tour of Rwanda in 2008.

Niyonshuti won the Tour of Rwanda in 2008 and signed to join team MTN in South Africa. Part of the deal was training at the newly created UCI centre in Potchefsteoom (checck).

The centre, directed by J.P. Van Zyl, acts as a stepping stone to the pro ranks for Africans. Daniel Teklehaymanot went through it before going to the Swiss head-quarter centre and joining Orica-GreenEDGE. Niyonshuti paid his dues. He raced on the continental level and in mountain bike races – this year racing in the London Olympics. Next year, he graduates as MTN-Qhubeka has received the nod for a Professional Continental or second division licence. The team is establishing base in Lucca, Italy, taking all of its 21 riders there to live and to learn in the big races.

J.P Van Zyl congratulating one of his riders after a stage during Tour of Rwanda 2012.

“My dream is to be competitive in an event like the Tour de France,” Niyonshuti says. “I have a chance, now my team is a pro continental team. I’m looking forward to be there and to be competitive, the first black African to compete in an event in the Tour de France.”

J.P. Van Zyl is looking over his current crop, which in the Tour of Rwanda includes mostly Eritreans. He smiles when he sees his old charge and friend, Adrien.

“We’ve had 1255 athletes in the last seven years, and 85 percent of the current Africa Tour peloton is from the Africa Centre. Every single rider in the main Rwandan team comes from the training centre: Jock discovered them and I formed them,” Van Zyl says. “Like Adrien Niyonshuti … We prepared him for the Olympics. It’s like steps.”

MTN will be the first second division African team to race in Europe. Of the 21 cyclists, 15 are African. Niyonshuti is the sole Rwandan, with others coming from Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Africa. Other Rwandans are in the pipeline, like Janvier Hadi and Emmanuel Rudahunga.

“It’s very tough here in Rwanda, some of them have not been to the school, they’ve just started cycling from riding taxi bikes. We find them on the road and we try to show them what they can do to change their lives,” says Niyonshuti. “It’s not like Eritrea, though, which has a long history in cycling and many local races. I’m sure, though, in the next two or three years, Rwanda will be like Eritrea or Ethiopia, or maybe like South Africa.”

Bringing back home

MTN is helping fund the UCI centre next year in South Africa, Van Zyl is able to ramp up his staff and help produce more stars. He is also setting up a smaller centre in Tanzania.

Boyer keeps focused in East Africa, building on his work in Rwanda. He is also working on similar structures in Eritrea and Ethiopia. He dreams of creating a second African team to push into Europe with MTN, managed by Doug Ryder.

“We can build two or three teams here in Africa. It’s very important that Doug and I work together, and we do,” Boyer says.

“At some point we’ll have our own ProTour team because we’ll have too many riders [in Africa]. We’ll have riders from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya maybe, and Rwanda for sure. It will be just a pure African team for going to Europe.”

Boyer helps re-enforce the system by finding jobs for the riders who are unable to cut it as cyclists. Rafiki Uwimana and Obed Ruvogera raced through last season; the former is training and working as a mechanic, and Ruvogera has become a soigneur.

Ruvogera says, “In my team, when you get to be old men like me and Rafiki, the coach says, ‘OK, if you want to do massages or be a mechanic, we will hep you to go to school and then you’ll come back to help the team and young riders.’”

Adrien Niyonshuti is on board too. Besides dreaming of the Tour de France – he wants to win a mountain stage – he is planning a centre of his own. He wants to create a junior team that would essential feed Boyer’s team and complete the circle. No longer would young Rwandans make their way via taxi bikes, but a system of junior road races and teams.

“I’m going to be racing for the next eight ten years,” Niyonshuti says. “When I’m done, I’ll come back and help Rwandan cyclists full time.”