Jock Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France, looks a little bewildered. He’s just flown in from Rwanda — a trip that takes almost two days — to attend a special screening of the movie about his life and team, “Rising from Ashes,” on Google’s sprawling Mountain View, California, campus. Thousands of “Googlers” mill about, talking on cell phones, huddled in outdoor meetings, and conducting the frenetic business of one of the world’s biggest companies.
Compared to life in the heat and dust of Rwanda, Boyer might well have been deposited on another planet.
When Boyer talks about Team Rwanda — now called Team Africa Rising — it’s with obvious pride, but also a hint of pain. “Bike racing is pain,” he says flatly. “No one escapes it.” Indeed, pain may be the singular currency of Boyer’s life, and he speaks of it as one who has known perhaps more than his share. When Boyer speaks of pain, he’s not just talking about the towering pain experienced atop an Alpine pass while hanging onto the back of a blistering peloton. There is the pain of being abandoned by his father when he was six. There is the pain that comes from his time in jail in 2002, for lewd behavior with a minor. And of course, there is the pain of his greatest undertaking to date: building a world-class Rwandan cycling team in the wake of that country’s devastating genocide.
But thankfully, along the way, there have been redemptions in the improbable journey of Jock Boyer. There is the redemption of Rwanda, from its painful past. There is the redemption of Boyer himself, from his troubled history. And now, there is the most profound redemption of all, the one that has become the focus of his life: that of the African continent, through cycling.
I meet Boyer in a coffee shop near his old hometown of Carmel, California. He’s lean, tan, and obviously still fit. He sports the western wear — sterling silver bracelets and cowboy boots — that speak of his history in remote Savery, Wyoming, where the family still has a ranch. Though it’s a relief for him to be here — the place where he first started racing almost 40 years ago — so much has changed in the life of Jock Boyer. These days he tends to an unending fusillade of emails, and his cell phone cries out relentlessly with his homemade ringtone of African wild dogs. (Imagine a noisome flock of birds.) For Boyer, it’s not just about the bike anymore.
You could say that Boyer’s life has been on an upswing. Two years ago, he married Kimberly Coats, a fellow bike rider who has become a critical part of the organization. She handles the commercial and planning aspects of Team Africa Rising, leaving Boyer to the colossal and complex work of overseeing the training, testing and racing of hundreds of cyclists. “She’s the logistics queen,” says Boyer. “But we’re both ADD. We can’t stop working.”
Their labors are paying off. Rwandan mountain bike rider Nathan Byukusenge — one of the original team members — recently qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics at the continental mountain bike championships, which Rwanda hosted for the first time. Boyer’s team won the Tour of Rwanda road race in 2014 for the first time since the event became part of the international UCI calendar in 2009. Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti, another member of the original team, is a domestique in the pro peloton, riding for MTN-Qhubeka.
Team Rwanda, formed in 2007 and the subject of the movie, has expanded to include riders from Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as other African nations. Thus the name change, to Team Africa Rising.
The sprawling new training facility that Boyer calls home hosts dozens of men, women and juniors annually. The center — originally a single, cramped house — now occupies a three-acre compound with 16 buildings and 35 full-time residents including riders, mechanics, soignuers, and coaches.
Boyer recently hired a new coach, Scott Nydam of BMC Racing. Using connections cultivated over decades in the sport, Boyer ensures a continuous stream of equipment from sponsors like Reynolds, Vittoria, Campagnolo, Louis Garneau, Oakley, Topeak, and Sidi.
Boyer routinely meets with politicians and diplomats. Millions of spectators line the roads for races. Families and kids wait hours just to watch a town-line sprint, and yell the names of their favorite riders — on training rides, no less. It’s become nothing less than a national passion.
And, perhaps most important, African cyclists are now commonly seen in continental pro racing.
Much of this can be credited to Boyer’s leadership. “It’s a long way from the early days when we put the whole thing on my credit card,” he says. “The scope is so much bigger than Rwanda now. Even though the training center is in Rwanda, it’s become a cycling center of excellence for the whole continent.”
When he takes the time to consider the future of Team Africa Rising, one goal looms large: fielding a Continental team in the Tour de France. “To have a team that’s 100 percent African — that’s my goal. I believe — 100 percent — that there’s a future Tour winner in black Africa.
“Everyone says these things are impossible, but everything we’ve done is impossible. I like the impossible.”
Boyer has been living as an expatriate in Africa, almost 10,000 miles from home, for almost a decade now. How long will he continue?
“It’s incredible being home [in America],” he says. “I love it. But I can’t allow myself to get too used to it right now. It’s too comfortable.
“In the future I want to be involved, but from a distance. Three years from now, we should be able to let [our employees] run the program. I’ll just go back for three months of the year to help troubleshoot.”
If that comes to pass, home base will be the Boyer family ranch in Wyoming. “That’s where I go to recharge,” he says. “And that’s where I’ll settle.”
I ask how his African adventure rates among the many accomplishments of his career: the first American in the Tour, eventually placing 12th; winner of the Coors Classic; two-time winner of the Race Across America; teammate to Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly; and pioneering mentor to the 7-Eleven team during its first forays to Europe.
As he ponders the question, his eyes redden, and he unexpectedly starts to tear. “This has been by far the best accomplishment,” he says of his time in Africa. “And the only reason we’ve succeeded is because of the multitude of people that have helped — whether it’s the guy on the Internet donating 10 bucks, my friends in the industry, our board members, bike shops, or the filmmakers — none of it could have been done without all these people.”
When Boyer speaks of the terrible beauty that is Africa, you sense that he might not just be talking about a country. He’s talking about his entire, storied life. And that, too, has taken a village to set right.
Jock Boyer’s African cycling team is also the subject of the VeloPress book, “Land of Second Chances.”