This weekend Max and I were the support team for the boys of Team Rwanda in the Tour of the Volcanoes. I drove the car and Max hung out the window watching for riders, cheering the boys on and doing the occasional jump and run to switch out a wheel and push the rider back into the race. This was my first race in Rwanda and my first time in a support role. I am usually the one racing. I had no idea what to expect so it was somewhat stressful yet exciting all wrapped up in one completely crazy weekend.
This is all I KNOW….It IS about the Bike!
Rwandans love their bicycles and they are passionate about the boys of Team Rwanda. There were several support vehicles in the race from the various clubs around Rwanda where these boys got their start. Every single one of the people in those cars were there to have just one piece of the success of the winning riders. Those riders offer them hope.
This ride was actually quite small and to me it appeared, not very well publicized, however, as the day wore on and we rode through Rwanda from Kigali to Kinigi the crowds in each small town grew. It was this wave of word of mouth that started cresting as we raced through the town I live, Musanze (Ruhengeri). The 12 kilometers to Kinigi, the home of Volcanoes National Park, looked like the top of Alpe d’Huez.
It IS about the Bike for a young man, Alex.
Alex showed up on Jock’s doorstep with another new rider the day before Jock was leaving for the U.S. Alex was brought by the guys already on the Team. He was riding an old Eddie Merkx, the frame held together with various welds and Rwandan ingenuity.
Of course, being Rwanda we did not have electricity that night so Jock could not test the two riders to see which one should receive a bike and ride in the Tour. We ate dinner that night at my house which did have electricity and I remember Jock telling me after dinner about Alex and his “story”. Everyone in Rwanda has a “story”. They are never good “stories”. They are stories shrouded by the reality of the destruction the Genocide inflicted on families fifteen years ago.
The next morning, still no electricity so Jock had Max get bikes for both boys. Alex got the Scott CR1 I had been riding. That was the last time I saw Alex until the race Saturday morning.
Alex speaks no English, no French only Kinyarwanda. He’s a quiet boy of eighteen who I had not seen smile once. He is an orphan, a genocide orphan. I do not know his current living situation all I know is that at the age of three his parents were murdered. Who found him? Who took him in? Who raised this young man? I understand his intensity and introspection if that is what it is. Perhaps it is mostly sadness. Perhaps it is hope. Perhaps it IS the bike that he knows will help him escape his past. Bicycles have a way of doing that for cyclists.
From the start, Alex rode with the main pack. I knew from the second I saw him ride he was special. Physically he is a cyclist, small, extremely strong, very lean and most importantly he has the intensity. He has the “it”.
All day as he rode, Max and I kept our eyes on Alex. When we got to Kinigi he was not with the first couple of riders, Abraham, Nyandwi, Obed but he was not far behind. As I pushed through the crowds to find him I came across the bike. It was propped up against the other bikes and the handlebar tape was shredded. Somewhere along the last 5k he had crashed. When I finally found him, standing there in his shredded cycling shorts, he was watching the other riders being surrounded by reporters and cameras and adoring fans. I came up to him and wanted to give him a big hug but for some reason I didn’t. I just handed him a towel, showing him I wanted him to wipe down for the next stage. Max fixed his handlebars, checked the bike and off he went on the next stage.
That night in Gisenyi I could not get the picture of his intensity out of my head. He wants to be a Team Rwanda member.
The next morning we head back to Kigali and again, Alex is at the front of the peloton. He stays there all the way until about 30k from Kigali when all of a sudden Max and I see him a couple of cars away standing on the side of the road. NO….this is NOT happening to him! He has a flat. We are out of wheels. The motorbike up ahead has a wheel and drives right past Alex. The kid just stood there not saying a word. He didn’t have to you could see it in his eyes. This was not going to end like this for him. Max jumps out of the car and I slam on the brakes and jump out SCREAMING at the motorbike driver. He speaks some English but it wouldn’t have matter. The crazy blonde Muzungu was SCREAMING at the top of her lungs and EVERYONE was staring. He turns around and Max grabs the wheel, swaps it out, Alex jumps on the bike and Max must have pushed him halfway up the hill. I pull up alongside Max, he jumps back in and we ride along this climb with Alex until we can spot the pack. Alex did not need to know English, we did not need to speak Kinyarwanda. At that moment in time, he knew that we were there for him.
The closer we got to Kigali the more Max and I watched Alex, now in the lead pack with Abraham, Nyandwi, Obed and Nicodem. All of a sudden, Obed is off the pack. Alex is now in the top four. As we drove through the narrow, unsecured streets of Kigali, Max is yelling at me in French something to the effect of stay on him. All I know is Max is yelling, Max wants this for Alex as much as I do. This orphan kid with his intense riding and his quiet demeanor has completely engulfed us.
As we approach the mob at the finish line we see the four cross and then I lose sight of Alex. We pull through the crowds and park. I jump out of the truck looking for the riders. I was looking for Alex. I see Abraham, the winner surrounded by fans and reporters. Next to him is Nyandwi, where is Alex? I push my way through the crowd and then I see him. All the limelight is focused on Abraham and Nyandwi the veterans. Here is this AMAZING kid who just rode the race of his life standing there by himself. I start running to him and throw my arms around him and hug him so TIGHT!!! I have tears in my eyes and I’m not letting go of his completely sweat soaked body. I kept saying over and over, “I’m so proud of you! I can’t wait to tell Jock all about YOU!” And then, he smiled. The biggest smile I have ever seen. He SMILED and I kept hugging him.
For Alex, It IS about the BIKE!!!!
At the awards ceremony they called up the first three, Abraham, Nyandwi and Nicodem, another fantastic young rider. Alex started to get up when they came for the top three and it about broke my heart to know he was so close to being on the podium. The race official motioned for him to sit down.
After the top three recognition, they brought up the rest of the top ten. The top ten all received a monetary award. Kiki was sitting in between Alex and I and as Alex sat down I just watched him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He is so intense and solemn. He opens the envelop and just stops and looks down at all the money inside. It is probably a couple hundred dollars U.S., a complete fortune for Alex. He closes the envelop and just keeps staring down. He opens it and looks again. He runs his fingers across the money and he just stops. He doesn’t move. He just looks at it. Then he takes the money out of the envelop, looks up and puts it in his pocket. He just got paid to do something he absolutely loves. This is his future he’s staring at. This is his way to escape all the sadness life has dealt him….all because of a bike, all because Jock has worked with these boys, living in this incredibly tough place for almost three very difficult years developing this team, all because the people of Rwanda love their bikes and their cyclists, all because he loves to ride…
For Alex, It IS about the BIKE!!!