Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This is YOUR Team....Rwanda

I started riding again.  I stopped riding not only because of the 15-16 hour work days in the two months leading up to the Tour of Rwanda, but also because I had become disillusioned with life outside these walls. 

My rides consisted of young men taunting me, hassling me, getting sideswiped by Matatus (overloaded mini bus transports), kids throwing things at me, the constant “Mzungu Amafaranga”, and my all time favorite….the spitting.  The spitting was always done, with remarkable accuracy, by girls in the 12 – 21 age range.  The old ladies…the Mukecurus….my biggest fans, no problems, ever.

I am riding again and, since the Tour of Rwanda, there is a noticeable “shift” in attitude and interaction from and within the community.  I asked Mr. AM if he had experienced a similar feel outside the walls and he agreed.  There is REAL love for their team.

We have always said, “This is your team”.  We say it to everyone from the local shop keepers we buy our food from, to the local single speeders trying to keep up with the team on training rides.  We tell the Federation, the Ministry of Sport, business leaders…Team Rwanda is YOUR team.

Rwanda believes it now. 

This team embodies the resilience of Rwanda.  To come from nothing 8 years ago to being the heroes to their country, this is Rwanda. 

The first editorial I read after the race was in the New Times, a Rwandan paper, written by a Rwandan entitled, “What Tour du Rwanda Success can Teach Us”. 

“I think that the answer is obvious. The Rwanda cycling federation put in place a long-term plan of action and then EXECUTED it. They got a successful coach in Jacques Bowyer and let him do his job.  They discovered potentially good riders and gave them the support, both technical and material, to train properly. They built a cycling school of excellence in Musanze District and they helped finance Team Rwanda’s European sojourns.  Finally, they sought and got sponsorship from the private sector so they did not have to depend on government handouts.”

If you read the entire article the author, Sunny Ntayombya, nailed it.  He truly understood our work. 

Just last week there was another editorial about the power of sport, which happened to include mention of Team Rwanda.  Sport, National Spirit and Progress in Rwanda was featured in the New Times on December 9th.

“Valens Ndayisenga’s win and the performance of Team Rwanda in the Tour du Rwanda has shown that a competitive spirit, a winning mentality, the desire to excel and resilience exist among Rwandan sportsmen and women as they do in the rest of the population.

That is what has brought the country to where it is now and what will propel it forward – whether in sport or other spheres of national life.”

This is the new atmosphere in Rwanda.  There is a belief in their team.  There is hope Rwanda can compete on the international stage.  And it’s not just about the bike.  It’s about these young men representing the good of Rwanda.  When you speak to Team Rwanda cyclists the number one thing they say is they want Rwanda to be known for cycling and not the past.  Although the past will always be with Rwanda, Rwanda does not have to be defined by it.  There is a new view of the future:  a team of Rwandans coming together to work for the common good of their country.

And so my riding has been filled with shouts from young men yelling,

 “Tour du Rwanda, Team Rwanda”

“Valens, Valens, Valens”

To which I respond Mzungu Mukecuru, to which they all laugh.

The other day several guys followed me on taxi bikes, the ones who normally heckled me.  They came alongside me, passed let and me me draft up the long slow climb to home.  They loved it.

The kids yell, “Rwanda”

The Mukecurus smile and wave.

And yet, the young teen girls still spit.  Perhaps I need to do more work building up women’s cycling?  2015 sisters 2015, I promise….just stop spitting at me!

One of my favorite passages came to mind as I began writing this blog days ago in my head on a long ride:

I Peter 4:10 says:  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

Mr. AM and I do not like the limelight.  We prefer the actual work.  Building this team has not been about building our resumes and our careers.  This has always been about these young men and the country they represent.  We are simply stewards of this team.

The only thing we have ever wanted is to have this country love their team as much as we do. 


Now they do. 
Thank you Mjrka Boensch Bees for this beautiful photo!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Crew

Behind the success of Team Rwanda is a group of people who, over the past 3 months, gave up everything to give this team the success it so needed, the long overdue win of the Tour of Rwanda.

They gave of themselves, everything they had, financially, emotionally, putting their own needs behind the needs of this team.  By giving everything they received everything.

That’s really how it works.  The people who give a little, who give halfway, who give to get for themselves, never understand how rewarding, how joyful, giving everything, with no strings attached, no background voices saying “how will this benefit me?” really can be. 

You cannot be a team when you hold out for yourself. 

…and it’s never easy.

Daniel, our coach who guided this team to their historic win, was away from his wife for 8 months.  During that time their dog became very ill, Ebola happened, and as with all of us, lack of money/finances is always in the back of our minds.  I have never seen someone have to make such difficult decisions.  At one point his return to the US, only months before the Tour, was a possibility.  When you don’t have children, your animals are your children.  The childless of us get that. 

What happens here when bad things happen at home is we give each other space.  No one can make a difficult decision with people always giving opinions.  At times, it might have seemed like we didn’t care because we didn’t talk much about things at home, but we do, we pray.  What I prayed for most was for Daniel to be able to see and feel and experience the impact that he had during these 8 months.  God sorted out the details. 

After months of riding, following on the motorbike for hours on end in the heat, rain and cold, Daniel watched his team, his group of young men, perform like the professional cycling team they are. 

I remember one stage in the car as we went around a sweeping turn looking up and seeing Team Rwanda driving at the front up the hill.  They were freight train.  I started crying.  For six years we have hoped to see this….here it was.

And when he returned home days after the Tour his wife AND dog were waiting for him.

Jamie, also had some ups and downs, leaving us at one point, but then coming back with both of us in a better place.  Jamie has been our best mechanic since we began.  We could not have done this Tour without him, although the stress of being in yellow the entire race most likely shaved a few years off his life.  The best thing about Jamie ….the riders know how much he works, sometimes late into the night.  They respect him.  Having Jamie in the Tour gave them comfort. 

Kelsey and Weston came to Rwanda the same time as Daniel.  They were supposed to stay for a few months, maybe, we never really talked about it until they got here. 

Weston built the first BMX pump track in Rwanda and has started training young men to ride BMX.  He also helped Daniel spending hours on the motorbike following the training rides, which got longer and more complex and more difficult with each passing week.  In his spare time he fought the internet and power outages to crank out bi-weekly newsletters and fundraising campaigns to keep us afloat.  I love seeing him training his BMX kids as I sit and imagine this is what Jock was doing 7 years ago with the original 5 Team Rwanda members.
 
Kelsey is a bit like me….doing everything and anything that needs to be done.  Thank God she loves accounting, the bane of my existence in Rwanda.  Most importantly, she too has found her niche with the team.  She is “teacher”.  The team is not only learning English.  They are learning how to do interviews, how to formulate questions and provide articulate answers.  

She also started the Team player of the day.  Riders voted every day on who they thought best exemplified “Team is Team”.  Emile won.  Emile, the once surly kid, the kid with a really crappy home life, with no good role models, a kid who literally fought his way into this family.  I cried.

Kelsey gets most of the crap work…laundry, organizing, laundry, making beds, laundry.  She stayed at ARCC during a good portion of the Tour because someone needed to be here.  She does whatever needs to be done, no questions, no complaints.  She sees it as serving.  As Jesus washed his disciples feet, so Kelsey washes the rider’s clothes.  It’s a servant’s mentality.  The riders know this.

Andy has been a volunteer for the past four years.  He’s Mr. Logistics, hauling all our bags (staff & riders) from stage to stage.  He drives ahead, secures the hotel rooms (most difficult job of the week!), puts bags in each room, washes bottles, washes clothes and makes sure when our team hits the hotel they are the first ones to eat, shower, massage and sleep.  He is a crucial component to the success of this team during the race.  He does it all on his own dime.  On top of that, he writes amazing articles abouthis time with the team.  It is mostly unspoken, but the team knows how fortunate they are to have him working with us. 

This was Jen’s second Tour of Rwanda with us.  She’s a massage therapist from South Africa.  When I emailed to ask her if she’d come back this year she said she would but would have to come on Monday, the day after the race started, because she was in a wedding in South Africa.  The day after the wedding she jumped on a plane and was here.  She massaged 7-8 riders every day.  The best thing she told me is that Abraham, after having his first ever massage with her, said “she has power in her hands!”  Yes, Abraham Jen is a powerful woman and not just in her hands.  She teaches Obed.  She loves the team….and so does her family, who drove hours this February to attend a fundraiser in Joberg for the team.  I think Jen’s mom is one of our superfans!


This year Rocky and Jacques, both former Team Rwanda members, were our assistants.  They washed clothes, bottles and just ran around making sure everything was done.  They were up early, went to bed late.  They had both raced the Tour of Rwanda…they knew what the riders needed.

At the Tour we had another mechanic, Sean, who jumped on board and made sure Team Muhabura’s bikes were fit to lead the train.  Plus, he's a super MacGuyver who can fix anything.  Very handy to have in your arsenal!

Kiki and Obed, also former cyclists, now mechanic for Team Akagera and massage therapist for all, were with Felix Sempoma making up a full Rwandan race crew, Team Akagera.  Every year, Felix Sempoma gets better and better and more invested personally in the vision of cycling in Rwanda.  He is the future leader for Team Rwanda.

Felix Safari, our assistant, worked 7 days a week for almost two months, making sure ARCC ran smoothly.  The day before the race he spent 2 hours on a bus to bring us much needed parts after one of our frames broke and we needed to scramble for a new bike for Aime.  Felix simply makes our lives easier, every day.

Roger Markham, Kelsey’s dad, hauled ALL of our race wheels over two days before the start of the race.  He brought over Clif race food and a variety of miscellaneous parts, things and doo dads, all vital to us.  He donated the bag fees and the other things he had purchased for us out of his own pocket.  We won on those wheels.

The motorbike guys….Dan, Pete, Jimmy, Thierry, Vincent, Bert and Come…thank you.   Every year you make our lives easier during this crazy 8 days.  To not worry about the safety of the motorbikes or the passengers you carry is one less thing running through our thought processes every day.  These guys come on their own dime and are paid nothing to work these 8 days.  They do this just to help out this team....they do look like they have a "little" fun!  

Today I read as part of my morning devotion the following:

Isaiah 58:10 (AMP Bible) And if you pour out that with which you sustain your own life for the hungry and satisfy the need of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in darkness, and your obscurity and gloom become like the noonday.


If you give it all you get more than you ever could imagine. 

Thank you TEAM....Team is Team!


Monday, December 1, 2014

For Rwanda....

Last Sunday I was sitting in Car 1, Team Karisimbi, as we traveled a 12-kilometer circuit around Kigali 9 times.  I was tweeting from the passenger seat trying to describe Stage 7, the final stage of this year's Tour of Rwanda.  All my "tweeting", Facebooking and Instagraming could not begin to express the depths of my emotions on that final 2 1/2 hour stage.  

Unlike the Tour de France, when the final stage into Paris is more a formality than an actual race, the final stage of the Tour of Rwanda was still anyone's race to win.  There was no champagne along the course, although a stiff shot of tequila might have done some good for my nerves.  The Moroccans and the Eritreans were still in striking distance of the yellow jersey which Team Rwanda had held for the past 7 days.  There was no "letting" Rwanda have its day.  Rwanda would have to do everything in its power to KEEP its day in history.

The previous Sunday, November 16th, Janvier Hadi won the Prologue.  Janvier Hadi, the kid with the megawatt smile, swagger and an appreciation for all things Team Rwanda, conquered his goal.  He won the Prologue in 2013, said he was going to win the Prologue this year and did so....no surprise.  The surprise came in Valens, Bosco, Joseph and Bona taking four of the top six places.  At that point I began to realize how well our coach, Daniel Matheny, had prepared our cyclists.  

Could this be the year?

Since the Tour of Rwanda became a UCI sanctioned 2.2 race in 2009, no Rwandan had ever taken the yellow jersey.  We had won a few stages along the way.  We were the top team in 2011.  But we had never won.

The crowds at Amahoro Stadium on Prologue Sunday were larger than I remember in past years.  Or perhaps I was only imagining it.  I do know the air about the teams was different.  We had spent two months leading up to the tour in lockdown.  All 15 cyclists (3 teams of 5 each) trained and lived at the Africa Rising Cycling Center from the end of September until the Tour, sacrificing time with family, friends and essentially putting their lives on hold for two months.  It was a significant commitment.  These 15 riders became closer than ever, worked together better and were willing to sacrifice for one another and for the common goal....winning the Tour.

Last year we lost the yellow on Stage 1.  This year we kept it.  Stage 1, Joseph should have won but didn’t.  There was a three-car collision.  Team Akagera was slammed into by Ethiopia or was sandwiched by Eritrea.  In the end Team Rwanda lost its spare bike, a LOOK carbon 595 and a brand new front Reynolds wheel.  It was a costly blow and things seemed out of sorts.  But we were still in yellow.

Stage 2 started in Rwamagana, hometown of Adrien Niyonshuti, who was in Rwanda for the first couple of stages.  Adrien had been in the car with Jock during Stage 1, a full circle moment.  Seeing Adrien and Jock together that day was so powerful.  Adrien was wearing my chain ring necklace I had given him on Saturday.  If I believed in good luck charms, that might have been it.  Adrien rode in Team Akagera for Stage 2.  I was back in Team Karisimbi.  My job….Tweet Queen.

The night before Stage 2 their families visited Valens and Jean Claude at the hotel.  We met Valens’ father; Valens, the younger version of his papa.  The joy on his papa’s face was radiant.  That is when I began to feel the swell.  The swell of the country of Rwanda, people all hoping this year was the year, the year a Rwandan takes the Tour.  I quickly pushed it aside as the tears welled up hugging Valens’ dad. 

Stage 2 from Rwamagana to Musanze, hometown of Team Rwanda, was the epic stage in 2013 when Abraham Ruhumuriza and Valens Ndayisenga left Jay Thompson, from South Africa, at the base of the final climb and sprinted up the hill to the finish.  The photo at the finish, taken by our dear friend, Mjrka Boensch Bees, was written about in A Most Unlikely Hero.  This stage, won by Valens in 2013, has so much emotion wrapped into it.  It’s our hometown, we won last year, and it was the catalyst for helping us secure ARCC.  It’s our everything. 

As we began the climb out of Kigali we knew Janvier would lose the yellow jersey, but we also knew Valens, who had cycled this stage hundreds of times, would be in the position to keep it with Team Rwanda.  The leading peloton was together after the second to the last climb out of Gakenke and that is when Valens struck.  The cyclist who I used to beat on descents, who spent months in Switzerland learning to descend, took the lead on the descent and emerged on the flats as the sole breakaway rider. 

At over a minute, Jock was waved ahead to follow Valens.  As we approached the Chef du Jury we asked if we could talk to Valens.  We wanted to give Valens an update on time on the peloton.  And then we made a potentially race altering mistake.  We fed Valens a Coke.  We were within the no feed zone.  The Chef du Jury began honking at us and then we realized our mistake.  In the end Valens took the victory in front of thousands of Musanze Team Rwanda fans.  We were penalized 100 Swiss Francs and 20 seconds.  Those 20 seconds would never leave my mind for the next 5 days.  Our mistake could derail this team.

Stage 3 Musanze to Muhanga….Joseph again, should have won.  He didn’t.  There was a nasty pile up on the final turn to the finish and Joseph was caught up in the carnage.  Valens was not.  An angry Joseph is a dangerous Joseph on a bike.  His time would come I had no doubt.  We were safe…we kept the yellow.

Stage 4 Muhange to Gisenyi…rain…all day rain…all day stress…Lord, keep these riders safe.  In the final 200 meters, two Eritreans, both in contention, crashed.  We were safe….the crowds were massive even in the pouring rain.  I felt the weight of Rwanda on our yellow jersey wearing shoulders.  I thought about 20 seconds.  I sprinted to the hotel at the finish as our forward vehicle with staff that normally secured the rooms took a wrong turn and was behind the race.  Get the riders rooms and hot showers as fast as possible, that was my only thought…that and 20 seconds.

Stage 5 Gisenyi to Nyanza.   This was the longest stage in the history of the Tour of Rwanda.  182 kilometers.  4,300 meters of climbing (12,000 feet for all you Americans).  This day was not going to be easy.  In the end, few breakaways with Team Akagera and Team Muhabura driving the pace and reeling in any threat.  As we approached Nyanza the pack was together as we hit the cobbles, 2kms from the finish.  Abraham flatted and the pack pulled away.  200 meters from the finish the team cars were deviated from the finish and radio contact ended.  All we knew was Valens and Joseph were in the final pack.  As I bolted from the car, water in hand, running to the finish line, I plowed through the 10 deep crowd of Rwandans surrounding the protocol area.  As I hit the safety of the roped off, secured protocol area I see Aimable, President of the Rwandan Cycling Federation.

“Who won?!” I screamed over the blaring music and announcer.

Aimable said, “You don’t know?  It was Joseph.”

Joseph…..Joseph won.  Yes, Joseph. 

“You’re crying.”

“Joseph….”

We call Joseph the grumpy, old man.  He’s not really old, only 26.  Joseph is no nonsense, straight shooter, don’t mess with me.  Joseph does well when he’s fueled by anger and frustration.  When Joseph is angry he wins.  He turns negative circumstances into positive fuel.  Maybe that is why I love Joseph so much.  I understand Joseph. 

I run through the throng of people on the backside of protocol, past the finish looking for Joseph.  He’s surrounded by a mob of people and he’s smiling; a “take that world” kind of smile. 

We win the stage….we’re still in yellow.
Stage 6 Butare (Huye) to Kigali.   The major climbs are over, rolling hills ahead on the way to the capital city.  The finish is at the Regional Stadium on top of a 4km brutal climb/finish.  Joseph won this stage in 2011.  That morning the crowds in Butare, home of Abraham Ruhumuriza, are massive, more than I have ever seen before. 

The night before I lay in bed with Jock and prayed and cried.  It’s become all too real.  Team Rwanda could win this.  Valens still has 56 seconds over Bosco, also Team Rwanda, and 1 minute 15 seconds over Joseph in third.  Our closest competitor not from Rwanda is at 1 minute 18 seconds back, an Eritrean.  Two more stages….two more days. 

The team was relaxed, having fun, in good spirits.  I’m in a constant state of nausea.  I stopped eating a few days ago.  That morning at breakfast the hotel staff is giddy with making sure we have everything we need.  Everyone everywhere we’ve stayed is making sure they give their team the best, everyone has a piece of this potential success in the making.  I’m awed by the actions of everyone we come in contact with.  This is their team, their win for their country.  This is something Rwanda will be known for throughout Africa…something good, not the past.

The Minister of Sport was only supposed to follow the tour a couple of days…that was a couple of days ago.  He’s still here.  No one is leaving.  No one wants to miss the moment.

The peloton is together throughout the day neutralizing every attack, every attempted breakaway.  Ten kilometers outside Kigali the rain begins.  Luckily it’s just a light drizzle and soon subsides as we turn the corner to climb to the finish.  It is a sea of black faces.  Never, in my six Tour of Rwanda races have I seen so many fans.  As we climb we lose sight of the riders.  And then, there’s Joseph.  Something has happened.  Later we find out he was hit from behind by another cyclist.  Bona, riding next to him, without hesitation, hands him his bike.  Jamie jumps out and gets Joseph’s bike fixed and Bona jumps on.  Bona never hesitated.  Bona is the domestique.  Joseph was in third.  As hard as Joseph rode, he still slipped into 4th overall when the GC was announced.  Heartbreaking and a reminder how anything can happen.  We still had the yellow, but we had one more stage to race.

I slept fitfully Saturday night.  There was no peace to my attempted rest.

Sunday morning at the hotel and at the start, people kept congratulating us.  It wasn’t over.  I couldn’t even think about celebrating.  We had 12 laps to go. 
                  
The crowds….I couldn’t even breathe anymore.  I sat in the car trying to tweet about the race.  I checked email.  Read some Bible verses.  I tried not to throw up.  Jock ate bananas.  He eats the mini bananas on the dash when he’s nervous.  He was 4 bananas in during Lap 1.  This was going to be the longest 2 ½ hours of our lives.

Lap 1 proved my fears to be valid.  Mekseb Debesay, the mountain jersey holder, crashed badly on the sharp left hand turn on the 50 mph descent.  We had 11 more of those to go.  Mekseb returned to finish the race fortunately.

Lap 2 good…

Lap 3 Camera crashes into the crowd.  We stop as we’re the first car after the turn.  He’s okay and Jamie gets him back on his bike.

Lap 4/5/6/7

Lap 8 Patrick crashes…loses his top 10 place in the GC but he’s back in the race.

At every descent I can see the riders go through the corner.  I watch….there’s Valens…he’s moving through…he’s through, relief.  I do that for 9 laps. 

On lap 9 just as we pass through the start/finish line, Abraham flats.  We pull over and slap on a new wheel and he works his way back to the pack within minutes.  

Seriously….I cannot breathe anymore.

The reality sets in.  The crowds are growing.  The cheers are deafening.  We are going to win this.  I don’t start to relax until I see Valens go through the final descent left hand turn.  It starts to sink in.  We’ve got this.  We did it!  Rwanda is going to win….

….and then BAM!  A front tire explodes.

“YELLOW!!!” I scream.

Valens has flatted with a little over 4 kms to go.  Joseph is riding next to him.  His enforcer, his soldier.  Joseph jumps off his bike and gives it to Valens.  Valens tries to clip in and with the adrenalin overdrive he’s having difficulty.  Jamie’s out of the car trying to push Valens.  He’s already grabbed the spare bike.  Joseph jumps on the spare bike.  I grab Valens’ bike and run back to the car.  Jamie throws it on the rack.  By the time we get back on the road, swerving through 15 cars which have now passed us, we hear on the radio that Valens has rejoined the peloton. 

Joseph rides past us trying to save his 4th place.

We hit the 3km marker.  On this course the 3km rule is in play.  If you flat, have a mechanical or crash in the final 3kms your time counts with the group you were with.  Valens is with the main peloton. 

Valens will win the Tour of Rwanda.

2kms from the finish I read an email from a friend.  As I read, the tears begin.  I cannot hold it back any longer.  This team has made history and the entire country is rejoicing.

Jock & Kim:
I was not able to actually attend any of the Tour du Rwanda this year, but like the rest of the country, I experienced it. I drove from Kigali to Musanze just ahead of the race and was amazed by a million people lining the sides of the road. Wherever I go, I find throngs of people crowded in front of a TV broadcasting "Live" coverage. You have captured the attention of the entire country with an electrifying event, and made Rwanda proud. CONGRATULATIONS.  

There’s also a link to an article, “Has Cycling Become Rwanda’s #1 Sport?”

As we make our way to protocol, pushing our way through celebrating fans we already know the answer.

The race organizer Olivier Grandjean, who has been with us all six years, hugs Jock, tears in his eyes.  Everyone is emotional.  So many people have been on this journey with us. 

I have spent the last week trying to write about these 8 days.  I will never do justice to the emotions of that week.  Everywhere we go, people on the street and in the shops stop and thank us.  How do you respond to a country’s gratitude?  

My pleasure….and this is just the beginning.