Rwanda and the transformative power of the bicycle

In Rwanda, the bike provides a platform for self discovery for an American icon, an attempt at redemption for another, and more

A bicycle is just a machine, and, as machines go, a relatively simple one. However, it can take the rider to faraway places, both physically and emotionally, while making that rider a better person for it. And in some cases, not only the rider is transformed, but also entire communities, countries, and even the world.

Such is what bicycles have done in Rwanda, with the support of two icons of American cycling. A great movie and riveting book about the unlikely Rwandan cycling explosion just came out and are bringing the story to the world.

The story is an amazing one set in a country wracked by a 1994 genocide that wiped out 10 percent of its population — nearly a million people were killed in tribal violence at the urging of the government, mostly by primitive means like machetes and clubs. Factories were wiped out by the murder of their owners and employees and by looting of their equipment, so manufacturing of products — including bicycles — ground to a standstill. In order to move goods and themselves in a hilly country largely devoid of infrastructure, people would rough-hew bicycles out of wood (pedal-less bicycles, heavy-duty scooters, really), nailing old car-tire treads around the wooden wheels to slightly smooth the ride. And, like anywhere where multiple people have bicycles, no matter how rudimentary, they race each other.

After visiting Rwanda, iconic northern California framebuilder and component designer Tom Ritchey founded the annual Wooden Bicycle Classic, a race celebrating these bikes that also includes categories for standard bicycles. He talked a somewhat reluctant Jonathan (Jock, or Jacques) Boyer into coming with him in 2006 to seek out Rwandan cycling talent at the event, with the intention of creating a Rwandan cycling team. Six years of work by Boyer in developing these riders, who were 5-10 years old during the genocide and lost many family members to it, culminated in Adrien Niyonshuti not only landing a pro contract with MTN-Qhubeka (also an organization for change in Africa via bicycles) but also riding in the London Olympics.

While the people in this story pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, the bicycle played a key role. Healing came on two human-powered wheels not just for Rwandans but also for Ritchey and Boyer. The former initially visited Rwanda in search of a project to sustain him spiritually after divorce. The latter sought redemption after a nine-month jail term for lewd behavior with a minor.

(In 2002 a judge in Salinas, California, sentenced Boyer to one year in prison, with a 20-year suspended sentence, after he was found guilty on 10 counts of felony child molestation. Monterey County deputy district attorney Tim Roberts said at the time that Boyer was one of a small percentage of convicted child molesters who, according to California law, fit the criteria for rehabilitation. That story has been covered by VeloNews, and other media outlets, extensively. —Ed.)

Riding bikes with Rwandans brought Ritchey, Boyer, and the Rwandans a second chance at life. They ended up with two projects: a bike for transporting coffee more efficiently, thus resulting in a higher-quality product that could be sold for a higher price, and a national cycling team.

Ritchey and Boyer have unique gifts that made these successes possible, and the bicycle allows them to be manifested in the world. In 1980 on Mount Evans, I was in the breakaway with Boyer, eventual winner Bob Cook, and two others. Boyer had long been a hero of mine, as he was the first American that I knew of to win pro races in Europe and be on a big European team. I thought he was about the coolest rider I had ever seen. He was so smooth on the bike and had an inscrutable facial expression no matter how hard or easy we were riding. I could not imagine his tenacity to persevere through the solitude and physical agony necessary for a kid from Wyoming to thrive on a French team without other Americans paving the way.

He would go on to win the Coors Classic weeks after our ride together on Mount Evans, and a year later he would become the first American to race the Tour de France. The fall and winter following Boyer’s Tour debut, with an injury I’d sustained at the 1981 Tour of Ireland keeping me off the bike, I worked for Ritchey at his house atop the coastal range above Palo Alto, assisting in the construction and finishing of the fillet-brazed steel frames and Bullmoose handlebars for a new breed of bicycle — the mountain bike. A few nights a week, I slept in the unfinished guest bedroom of the log house that he and his wife were gradually completing. He taught me much about ingenuity — not only designing, but also coming up with creative and inexpensive ways to realize those designs, something he shares with Rwandans who hew bicycles out of tree trunks.

The projects of many non-governmental organizations in Africa fail for lack of the intestinal fortitude necessary to stick it out for the long haul. They tend to pull out after a year or two, and whatever they had built rapidly crumbles. This is what the riders expected Boyer would do, too, and Niyonshuti in particular kept asking him when he would be leaving. But Boyer is built out of tough cloth. The willingness to pick up his entire life and take it to another country and culture for the long term served him as a pioneering pro rider in Europe and serves him in Rwanda as well. Having experienced his father leaving his family when he was young, he can identify with the abandonment feared by riders who have pinned their hopes for a better life on him. Boyer’s commitment and tenacity won the Race Across American twice and broke through huge physical and cultural barriers to become a key support rider for Bernard Hinault on the world’s best team. His commitment to Rwandan riders has been equally firm.

The bicycle allowed Boyer to discover his ability to withstand suffering where others would crack, and it also formed the bridge overcoming differences to working cooperatively toward a common goal in Rwanda. In Rising from Ashes, Boyer says that cycling and suffering are inseparable — you can’t have one without the other. Children who have survived family members’ deaths at the hands of mobs probably have a deepened ability to withstand suffering. Yet the common bond of suffering among cyclists can bring a shared kinship, regardless of each rider’s history.

As Boyer seeks, some say impossibly, to shed his perception as a child molester, Team Rwanda riders desire for their efforts on the bike to transform the world’s view of their country from one of horror to one of opportunity. When they showed up at their first international race, the 2006 Cape Epic in South Africa, they were confronted by amazed looks. It was not only the first time that any of them had been on an airplane, but also the first time some of them had ridden in a car or had left their small area of Rwanda. This transformation was broadcast worldwide in 2012 when Niyonshuti carried his country’s flag in the London opening ceremonies and finished the Olympic mountain bike race. A broken chain had derailed his bid in the African Olympic-selection road race he was favored to win, and he had missed the selection in the time trial by a single place, so he chose another type of bicycle to realize his Olympic dream.

The MTN-Qhubeka tribute page to recently deceased Nelson Mandela quotes the charismatic leader who inspired his country’s rugby team to its improbable victory in the World Cup on South African soil as saying, “Sport has the power to change the world.”

The bicycle, a vehicle unique in its ability to carry more than 15 times its own weight, also has a unique ability to bring sport, its transformational power, and its biggest stars to people living in the most remote corners of the world.