Excitement was building under the VIP tent. Fans crowded around televisions to watch the final five kilometers of stage 4 at the Colorado Classic in Denver. Just one thing seemed off.
Crowded around a small table, a group of animated spectators were all wearing Team Rwanda jerseys — they should have been in the race on those TV screens.
Instead, due to a disastrous 56-hour trip from Rwanda, the entire team was out of the race. Five of the six didn’t even make it past the first day. Despite all that, the team made the most of their four days at the event, meeting the mayor and participating in an African Leadership Group event that gave away 100 bikes to immigrant kids.
“These guys are an inspiration to kids,” said team manager Jock Boyer. “They spent the whole morning with five- to 12-year-olds. That’s really what makes the difference here. That’s what Velorama is trying to do — make it more than just a bike race with results.”
Boyer and Tom Ritchey founded the nonprofit Project Rwanda in 2006 aiming to both develop racing cyclists and import inexpensive cargo bicycles to the country.
They parted ways in 2010 and Boyer started a new non-profit, Team Rwanda Cycling. For the past eight years, the team has focused on developing African riders and giving them the opportunity to race at events like Colorado Classic.
The team’s trip to the 2017 race was far smoother. They came early and had a chance to acclimate and train. This year, all six riders came straight from the Tour of Rwanda on Monday.
Well, not exactly straight. A flight delay in Rwanda meant they missed their connection in Addis Ababa, forcing them to spend 26 hours in Ethiopia. Four riders made it to Colorado midafternoon on Wednesday before the race was set to begin. Two more got in that evening and drove straight up to Vail where stages 1 and 2 were held.
“It was so hard for us who had already finished Tour of Rwanda,” said Janvier Hadi, who arrived on the late flight. “It was so hard for us to come here and start the competition without training for almost four days.”
He was time cut on stage 1, as was Bonaventure Uwizeyimana, Patrick Byukusenge, and Valens Ndayisenga. Jean Cloude Uwizeye did not finish due to some confusion about the protocol for lapped riders. Only Jean Bosco Nsengimana remained in the race, and he did not finish stage 3.
“It was a little hard to believe,” said Uwizeyimana, who added that the high altitude was particularly difficult for the Rwandans in stage 1. “It made us sad.”
On Friday, the team wrote on its Facebook page that this was the squad’s most difficult day in its 10 years of racing.
“Last night all of us, staff and riders, were still in shock,” the post read. “We are tired, frustrated, sad, embarrassed. We all know we are better than what we showed yesterday and that is what makes this so difficult.”
So, the team put this disappointment behind them and gave the riders a chance to shine beyond the racecourse.
Before the first edition of the Colorado Classic and Velorama, event CEO David Koff had contacted the African Leadership group to let them know that Team Rwanda would be at the race. The relationship grew from there and this year the team was invited to join Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the African Leadership Group at an event where non-profit group Wish For Wheels was giving away 100 bikes to immigrant children.
No one wanted to see the Rwandan riders out of the race, but the chance to have them at the Saturday event was a welcome surprise.
“Over the last year, our relationship with Africa Rising Cycling has only strengthened, and it meant the world to our youngsters to ride with them,” the African Leadership Group wrote on its Facebook page. “For all the trials they have overcome, and for all the good they represent, we consider the Team Rwanda riders champions in both sport and in life.”
Hadi and Uwizeyimana said they were all disappointed to miss out on the race, but the opportunity to inspire young African immigrants was a worthy consolation.
“For me that was great to meet the mayor. To give the young kids bikes to go to school,” said Hadi. “I was really, really happy to be with the mayor to be with the kids, riding with the kids for three miles, it was so cool for us. It was nice.”
Throughout the weekend, Hadi and his teammates were also a presence at the Velorama expo, telling the story of their team.
And some of the Rwandans will have another chance on the bike as well. Three of them will head up to the Steamboat stage race September 1-3 for a bit of redemption. Even if they get stuck in some traffic on the drive up Interstate 70 to the mountains, it could always be worse.