Friday, June 25, 2010

You Are What You Eat…and Other Reflections on Team Rwanda and Cycling

I never set out to work with Team Rwanda.  When I landed here in April 2009 as a wide eyed, save the world volunteer my sole focus was Project Rwanda and the marketing, sales and distribution of the PR Coffee Bike (which we promptly made a "Cargo Bike" in the name of marketing!).  Of course, as a competitive cyclist, I was always interested in the Team, that's just how us cyclists are, we love the thrill of the competition and the rise to the challenge, overcome mentality of athletes, particularly our kindred souls in cycling.

I was up to my seat post in NGO renewal paperwork, transportation logistics for the cargo bikes and simply trying to organize and run the PR houses.  I am a "systems" thinker and the act of organizing and streamlining is not simply a job it is my M.O.  I physically and mentally cannot have it any other way.  I LOVE files, balancing my checkbook to the penny and sitting back to observe a well oiled machine, whether that is a business, an NGO or a cycling team.

Because I was a cyclist, Jock asked me to do things when he was away to help with the Team.  All of these tasks came on top of the ones I already had committed to with PR.  Besides my organization freakdom, I am a workaholic that cannot say no to another task.  (I will be getting professional help for this!).  My first job was driving the support vehicle (we didn't actually have one at the time and had to rent a sputtering, bald wheeled, Rwandan pick up) for the Tour of the Volcanoes in June while Jock was in California.  I was hooked.  The 2009 TOV was the first race for Gasore.

 Alex (Gasore) Blog: It Is About the Bike June 2009

Throughout last summer, I worked on organizational projects for the Team in my spare time.  I couldn't help myself.  I was asked to do some "Visas" for one of the Team races and I spent hours looking for passport photos, paperwork, addresses, etc.  To the organizational freak that is sheer torture.  I remember asking Jock for information and my thought was, it would be so much simpler if we had all this info in one place.  I spent weeks assembling online files of photos, data on the riders, paperwork, forms etc and now instead of hours to process visa/race paperwork it now takes me literally minutes.  It has helped the Team be more efficient and the Rwandan Cycling Federation gets a file update monthly.  Now, when a new rider comes to camp and is tested, his ID card is scanned, a file is opened for him (love those files) and all his test data is stored.  I keep copies of passports and one master data sheet for races which is revised for each race showing only those riders attending.  When the Team heads to an international race, Coach gets one file with copies of all the vital online paperwork, registration, visa copies, etc.  It has made traveling so much easier, especially since traveling with Rwandans always require visas.

After my vacation in December, when camps were starting up again and racing season was beginning, I talked to Jock about working on upping the nutritional content of meals during camp, particularly, breakfast, a meal that had generally consisted of the horribly nutrition deficient, cardboard white bread and bananas.  I know as a cyclist that would be a guaranteed bonk breakfast for a 100 mile training ride.  About that time, like an answer to a prayer, I receive an email from a young woman living in Kigali, Jill Rizzi.  Jill is a young woman suffering from Lupus, who took her disease and fought it solely through nutrition.  I liked her from the start and I loved her belief in organic, real foods for health, nothing chemical.  Her search for the right, nutrient dense menus based on our lack of protein and access to variety in Rwanda was impressive.  Jock met with her and hired her to come to Musanze for a camp.  Jill introduced the riders, and the new Team cook, Petty, to a whole new way of eating and awakened all of our taste buds.  Max's favorite is still "Asian Night".  

Sadly, Jill was only with the Team a couple of months, and unfortunately, needed a full time income and was forced to return to the U.S.  Her impact is still felt in the amazing salads Petty makes and the food sources we have secured with the fish and egg markets.  I would recommend Jill and 3HealthyChicks if you want to get healthy and stay healthy and want to do it the nutritional way.  Visit Jill and her company on Facebook.

3HealthyChicks on Facebook

As time progressed, I started riding with the Team (I can keep up with them during warm up) and learned a little bike maintenance.  The riders laugh and shake their heads when I actually do fix something on their bikes when Max and Jock are not here.  It is just not a "girl" thing they are used to.

Jock also started riding with the Team, swapping motor pacing for pedal to pedal coaching which has produced great results.  He goes through the strategy before the training ride using the  little bicycle guy figurines to demonstrate the race tactic they will be training on.  Through a book called the Talent Code, brought over by one of our board members, Dan Cooper, the power of visualization especially considering the language barriers with the riders has improved their training rides.  

The level of the riders has increased substantially with the addition of new talent.  Gasore is coming into his own and won the first stage at an international race earlier this year.  Nathan is the Team Captain a role he naturally gravitated towards and the position the other riders respect.  His younger brother, Nicodem, is also a natural born leader, most proficient in English and always taking care of the younger riders like Gasore.  Both are riding strong.  

Other new riders include Eric, a tall strong young man who showed great potential in the recent Tour of the Volcanoes.  Team Rwanda's newest standout however, is Innocent aka Rocky aka Rockstar.  Six short months ago this young man was spotted on the road to Gisenyi by Max and Jock.  Today, after a two month stint at the UCI Training Center in South Africa, he is one of the strongest riders, taking all five sprints at this past training camp.

In just one month Nicodem and Gasore will be traveling to the UCI Training Center in Switzerland for a one to two month stay at the center.  If Gasore can lose the extra 5-7kgs of weight he's carrying in his upper body from years of hauling potatoes, his watts per kilo will be over 6, in the pro range.  

Just this past week we had our last training camp before we all leave for the U.S.  Training camps have become a lesson in organization and focused routine.  

The Riders come in on Day 1, their rooms made up with clean sheets and a towel for each rider.  They dump their dirty riding clothes in a large bucket outside their rooms on the way to the shower.  Those clothes immediately get thrown in the washer (Hallelujah for a big ass American washer Team Rwanda bought a couple of months ago!).  After their showers, they get a snack of fruit, hard boiled eggs, avocados and whole wheat bread (if we can find it!).  After their snack, all of the riders pick up their dishes, wash them and straighten up their eating area.  Never is a word said, never do they argue over whose turn it is to wash the dishes, it just happens.

On Day 2, they are fed a full breakfast, generally consisting of cracking 4-6 dozen eggs, oatmeal, beans, rice (brown if we can get it), fruit and avocados.  During breakfast, Jock tests new riders.  Veteran riders such as Nathan and Nicodem help Jock with setting up the Velotron.  They have taken on this responsibility without being asked....again, it just happens.  Max is working in the garage during breakfast preparing the bikes for the training ride.  

After the training ride, the routine starts anew, showers, clothes washed and off to lunch.  After lunch it is cycling race video time.  Again, visualization of races such as the Giro, TDF, Tour of California, etc., is instrumental in their growth as a tactical rider.

Dinner, English lessons...bed.

As the Team prepares to leave on Day 3, they are once again fed a huge, protein/carb balanced breakfast, they do the dishes, check their bikes, strip their beds piling all the sheets in the hall, pick up pictures I have printed off for them (they love the pics!) and say their goodbyes.  Remarkably, nothing is ever said about who does what, it all just happens.

I am grateful for my experiences with the Team.  It has been amazing to have now driven the support vehicle in four races.  In the last race, last month's Tour of Volcanoes, Max was again in his spot in the back seat ready to change a wheel, hand off food and water, or repair a disabled bike.  As we pulled into Kigali he laughed as he remembered in last year's TOV that I had missed the turn into Kigali (rookie move).  He told me, "This year, you drive good, and this year my English better."  How true....I think we just all understand one another and appreciate what we all do for each other, riders included.

I hope to be back driving a Team Rwanda support vehicle in this year's Continental Championships and Tour of Rwanda, even though I still can't speak French! If not....maybe I'll just start racing, you're never too old.

51 Year Old French Woman Wins National Time Trial



Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day...My Hero, My Dad

The hardest thing about being so far away are days like today...holidays, days when you wish you were with your family. These days, however, remind me of all the things I should have said, all the things I should have done to let my family and friends know how much I do care, how much I do love them and how incredibly much they are missed.  I've never been good at letting the ones around me know how much I count on them and how much I need them.  Now that it's been over a year without them, I long for the simple holiday meals and token gifts and the act of just getting together.  When you have those traditions sometimes your loved ones just know.  When you can't participate in the traditions, the BBQs, the meals, the gift exchanges, you come to realize all the things you take for granted must be said.  They must be said because there is that possibility whether in your Africa or across the street that you might not get the chance, that fate might intervene leaving too many feelings and sentiments locked away forever in our heart of good intentions.

Today my dad will know how much he shaped the person I am.

My dad was born in the early 40's in a small town in Michigan (right in the curve of the base of the thumb, Michiganders know exactly where this is).  He was fourth in the birth order, two sisters, a brother, my dad and my Uncle Tom.  He is Polish, he was Catholic, now he's a Lutheran, a hotbed of family feuding for 30+ years.  No one in his family had gone to college and neither did he.  However, he did know he wanted to get out of Michigan.  Unlike his family, he believed there was a world beyond the car manufacturers, parts manufacturers and mills of Bay City.  So he joined the army and ended up in Korea.  As fate would have it, he landed smack dab between the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.

When he returned from his two year military stint, he met my mom, a you understand the conversion!  They married when they were 22 and had me, their firstborn at 24.  (Ok...I cannot imagine caring for a child at 44 much less 24!  That seems so young to me.)

My mom was a schoolteacher at the time, just shy of a college degree.  My dad could fix anything.  He had a friend in Chicago who got him a job at a forklift company repairing forklifts.  That is what he would end up doing his entire career.

My dad was the first and only child to move out of Michigan.  Chicago, a six hour drive might as well have been Africa.  No one ventured that far, ever.  My dad just wanted a different life.  

My dad made very little money when I was born, but believed it important to have a mom that stayed at home.  Maybe it was just the time, mid 1960's, before the working mother, but I am so grateful for my two parent, stay at home mom upbringing.  My dad and mom were very frugal and always lived below their means.  It is a trait I still carry personally to this day.  

The earliest story I remember my mom telling me and my brother about our dad was how he spent a day walking home from work in Chicago to our home in Harvey, a suburb, during the Greatest Snow Storm of 1967. No cars could travel and he hitched a ride with a Chicago policeman for a while, but spent most of the day on foot trudging through the snow to get home to his wife and six month old girl.

From as early as I can remember, my dad worked two jobs.  He was always finding ways to make extra money.  He would sell things, dumpster diving at factories for copper and other metals to resell.  He worked on everyone's car and never seemed to sit in one place more than a few minutes.  He still doesn't.  I remember him coming home from work around 5:00, having dinner, his favorite meal being pork chops and applesauce (will never eat a pork chop again in my lifetime!) and heading back out to Job #2.  He would get in late, after I was in bed and leave again before I was up.  During the week we did not see him much, but he was always there on the weekends.  My favorite weekend tradition, my dad reading the Sunday comics to me, while I sat on his lap.  

We had the BEST vacations growing up.  I never realized we didn't have a lot of money until much later in life.  My parents were always on the go.  Camping was FUN, I never knew that camping was a necessity on their small budget.  One year, my dad took his vacation over the entire summer.  He took my mom, brother and I to a campground in Indiana, where we were joined by our best friends and neighbors, the Rozemas.  He took off every Friday and Monday and drove to Indiana to join us.  This lasted most of the summer.  I must have been 9 or 10 and it was and still is one of the BEST summers I ever had.  

We also did the total Griswald vacations complete with the wood grained station wagon, pulling a pop up camper, with four bikes and a canoe on top, spending two weeks at a time traveling through the west and then traveling east.  When I would listen to my cousins in Michigan talk about going to their cabins and never any further I knew I was lucky.  Even without money I was seeing the world....or at least a lot of the US which for a nine year old was the world.

When I was 11 my dad came home and said he had a friend who could get him a job in Kansas.  We were moving to Kansas.  Kansas?  Are you kidding me?  I live in Chicago, the greatest city in the world and we're moving to Kansas?  Already into the preteen, know it all stage, I was not happy and I was a rebellious little spit!  My dad, he was smart.  He knew what was best for his family.  At the time I thought he was mean and evil, today it was the best move he could have made.  He knew that staying in Chicago, with the high cost of living was not the best for his family which now numbered three.  My brother Paul was nine and my sister Danielle was two.

My dad moved us to Overland Park, Kansas.  Overland Park was the largest city in the middle of Johnson County, the time, the third wealthiest county in America.  With all that wealth came excellent neighborhoods, safety and the public schools that could rival any private school in America.  My dad kept working two jobs.

As I grew up and tried to fit in as any teenager does, I suddenly realized, we really did not have much money.  I looked at all my friends with nicer homes and dads who didn't have grease under their finger nails and all of a sudden I was aware, in that teenage, ignorant, self conscious, self absorbed way that my dad was different.  Even as I write that sentence my eyes well up with tears at the thoughts I had years ago as a teenager.  

What is interesting about all of this is that my uneducated dad valued education which is why we moved to Kansas.  Today, my sister is a doctor.  My dad who never had a chance to see the world in his early years, has two daughters who have been to more countries on more continents then all of our childhood friends combined.  My dad even has a passport filled with stamps from European and Central American countries now.  My dad the forklift mechanic with grease under his nails....

I remember the turning point for me as a teenager.  I was on the track team in high school and in an important race I was anchoring the mile relay team.  I recall looking in the stands for my parents at one point, it was an early afternoon and at that time both of my parents were working.  I will never forget the sound of my dad's voice as I rounded the last corner in front of the home stands neck and neck with a girl from a rival school.  I could pick out his voice as if he was the only person in the stands.  My dad made it to my track meet, sitting in the stands in his greasy clothes among all the white collar, upper middle class moms.  I knew then how lucky I was.

My parents always told my brother, sister and I that we could do or be anything we ever wanted to be.  They taught us to be independent, feisty and strong.  They instilled a strong work ethic and a certain financial smarts to keep us from also living above our means.  My dad showed me personally through our family the value of hard work.  All his hard work has paid off.  

My dad still works like crazy, even though he doesn't have to.  He just does, he enjoys it and he enjoys helping people.  He always Christmas when my dad and I were leaving a mall in a suburb of Chicago we came upon a woman with kids standing next to her car.  Her tire was flat and my dad pulled up and stepped out to help her.  He changed her tire and when she went to give him some money for helping her he refused.  As we walked back to the car, she grabbed my hand and pressed the money into my hand and told me to give it to my dad and to tell him thank you and that he's a good guy.  Funny what memories stay with you....

So, Happy Father's Day, Dad....I am the luckiest #1 daughter in the world!  I love you and thanks for helping me become everything I am today.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Year in the Life of Alex

A year ago this past weekend I witnessed a young Rwandan boy power across the roads covering the Land of a Thousand Hills in his first bicycle race, Tour of the Volcanoes. Only weeks before that day in June 2009, Alex showed up at the Team Rwanda house to be tested on the Velotron like all the other young Rwandan cycling hopefuls. Like is typical in a day in Rwanda there was no electricity to run the Velotron and on a leap of faith, Alex, a young kid that had not uttered one word, received a Scott CR1 road bike.

A year ago, Max and I watched this young man stay with the veterans of Team Rwanda during the race despite a crash and a key flat only 50k from the finish. I just remember saying over and over to Max, “This kid is good, he is really good!” and Max, three weeks of English immersion under his belt, kept responding, “Yah, he is good. No problem.”

A year ago I watched Alex take fourth in a two day stage race with the remaining nine places secured by the boys of Team Rwanda.

A year ago I watched Alex open his envelope of prize winnings, the look on his face of shock that he would receive an amount of money like this to ride a bike.

A year ago I hugged Alex when he was all alone in the middle of the crowd at the end of the race, no one there to congratulate him, no one there to hug him. I hugged him like I was never letting go.

I still hug Alex like that…..

Alex’s real name is Gasore. Gasore Hategeka. I cannot explain how we ended up calling him Alex. Somewhere along the couple of days of the race, through misunderstanding of English, Kinyarwanda and French he became Alex. Over the past year the name Alex has faded into a secondary nickname for him, and Gasore, this amazing bright light of a kid has emerged.

Like all important personal items such as names and birthdays in Rwanda, we never seem to get the right answer. The genocide eliminated all documents that we as Americans count on to prove our existence. There are no birth certificates, baptismal records, no baby books, no baby pictures. Weeks after the race last year, when Alex/Gasore came to his first training camp, he gave us his government ID card. Gasore….Gasore? How did we get Alex from Gasore? And his last name, told to us through an interpreter was Hategekimana, but for some reason his ID card said Hategeka. And his birthday? March 1…sadly just a convenient day picked by someone in government to be his birthday.

Gasore attended every single training camp. He was so quiet, so introverted. You just looked at him and wondered the horror and sadness that had engulfed every moment of his life since birth. Throughout the summer, with the passing of every camp, he improved on the bike. When we finally did get around to testing him he produced a 370 watt which is STRONG! He is a solid boy, a body built by hauling potatoes since he was six years old. By the end of the summer he was in a position to earn a spot at the UCI Training Center in South Africa.

In September, Gasore and Nicodem Habiyambere, the brother of veteran rider Nathan Byukusenge, were scheduled to attend the UCI Training Center. I was so thankful Nicodem was with him. Nicodem speaks a little English and is definitely a leader. I remember sitting in Rwandair in Kigali the day before their departure with a check Jock had left me to pay for the tickets and the inflexible, uncompromising employee telling me they couldn’t take personal checks. There was no money in the Team account and even if there was I didn’t have access to those funds. The “deal” we were supposed to get on the tickets had been rescinded due to some obscure clause in the “special” and I was looking at $1,456 as the final price to get these boys on the plane. I pulled out my parent’s “use only in case of emergency” credit card and charged the tickets. I considered the futures of Gasore and Nicodem an “emergency”. Luckily my parents did too.

Gasore and Nicodem left the next day for South Africa. Gasore secure under Nicodem’s wing and a mountain of prayers.

Gasore is an orphan. His mother died shortly after he was born, his father remarried, had more children and then he too tragically died when Gasore was about six or seven. If you do the math, that puts Gasore’s father’s death sometime around the genocide. We do not know how he died. Gasore has not said.

Gasore is illiterate. When I write that sentence, when I speak that sentence I become emotional, tears always flood into my eyes. He cannot even write his name. He never went to school a day in his life. He grew up like the thousands of kids I see every day on the side of the road hauling water, produce, baby brothers and sisters. Nothing makes me angrier in this country then seeing the hopeless futures.

I wish I could live inside Gasore’s brain for just a moment. What is he thinking a kid that has never ventured far from the fields of his tiny town, Shashwara? What did he think when he got on that plane? Every single thing completely foreign to him. Was he overwhelmed?

Gasore and Nicodem stayed in South Africa until the Continental Championships in November in Namibia. They returned shortly after to prepare for the Tour of Rwanda.

Gasore rode on Team Akagera for Team Rwanda during the Tour. He had improved during his time in South Africa, it was evident. However, what I noticed most was how much he smiled, how much he laughed, how comfortable he had become AND he was speaking English, albeit about as much as my Kinyarwanda, but he was making progress.

In January he attended his second international race, Tour of Gabon. His performance was okay but nothing like we had hoped. About that time Jock had mentioned to me that Gasore did not seem to be grasping racing. He was strong but his mental skills were lagging enough to possibly put his spot on Team Rwanda in jeopardy. Through an interpreter Jock told him he had to step up and ride. He set expectations and told him his place was not guaranteed. He needed to perform. I personally think, and I could be totally off base, but I believe it was the fear of losing his new “family” that jump started Gasore as opposed to simply riding for the Team.

In February Gasore went to the Tour of Cameroon, and he WON! Gasore was the first Team Rwanda member to win a stage in an international race. He broke through. He proved he had the strength and power to win and could hold off the competition. He proved to the Team that yes, Rwandans can win. Later that race Abraham won three stages and Nicodem missed a win by inches.

As the months passed, Gasore became more and more engaged. Gasore put a down payment on a Project Rwanda Cargo Bike with pays his “loan” every time he has winnings or attends races. Gasore NEVER misses camp. He is the rider that helps with dishes, testing new riders, picks up around the house. And he smiles…and laughs…Team Rwanda has reached into Gasore and pulled a little piece of him out into the world.

Gasore’s English improves with every camp. His English teacher said he is the most improved. He still cannot write his name….

Last week I took Gasore to have his passport photos done. He is going to spend one, hopefully two months in Switzerland living and training at the UCI Training Center in Agile, Switzerland. Gasore has never seen snow. He’s going to Switzerland.

Before we stopped for the photos I had to pick up a new fuel tank for cooking at the house. The man at the station only spoke Kinyarwanda, not even French. I usually can figure out numbers in French but Kinyarwanda, that is not happening! I asked him how much and he said some number and I hear Gasore yelling from the back seat of the car, “Kim, 26!” Sure enough I get my receipt and the amount is 26,000 RWF. Nice work!

As I get back in the car, Gasore says, “Kim, no money at bank.” Jock had paid Rocky and Gasore their monthly salary at camp a few days prior and had given them 25,000 RWF each in a check. Gasore opened his wallet and handed me the check. Confused, I pulled into Fina Bank and walked in with Gasore and Rocky. I talked to the teller, and she informed me that the other day when they tried to cash the checks there was no internet so they could not process the check. Yes, all banking comes to a screeching halt in Rwanda when the internet is down, sometimes for days. The teller instructs the boys to fill out their names and ID card information on the back of the check. Rocky grabs Gasore’s check after completing his own and starts writing out Gasore’s information. Every single time I see the effects of Gasore’s illiteracy I am rocked. If there is one thing I want to see in Gasore’s life it is to see him write….write his name, write a note to his family, fill out a visa form, write a phrase on an autograph he is asked to sign. I will see this boy write!

Last weekend, Rwanda hosted the kick off event to Kwita Izina, Tour of the Volcanoes, a two day stage race from Kigali to Gisenyi and back. Sunday, the race started in Kigali and went to Kinigi, the home to the mountain gorilla national park. Across the line in Kinigi, Gasore was third. After an hour break the riders headed to Gisenyi. Shashwara, Gasore’s home town sits at the top of the last hill before the long descent into Gisenyi. Gasore was in the lead peloton and Max and I were following close enough behind to hear the chants, “Gasore, Gasore, Gasore!” as we rode through the town. The entire town knows Gasore, the orphan potato hauling kid now riding for Team Rwanda. The hair on my arms stood up. I looked back in my rearview mirror at Max. He had this really big smile on his face. I know Gasore was smiling.

The next morning the final stage headed out from Gisenyi to Kigali. Gasore was in fourth in the General Classification. Gasore has the power to be competitive; he just needs the tactics to win. I talked to Gasore as he sat in the car waiting for the start. I think he does understand some of the things we say. It was obvious he knew where he was in the race and what might be accomplished. He was very quiet, very intense.

The cheers through Shashwara on the return were even louder than the prior day. “Gasore, Gasore, Gasore!” He is this town’s hope. If a potato hauling orphan kid can make it maybe just maybe the little boys in tattered clothes and blown out flip flops believe they have a chance too. That’s all that really matters….if you BELIEVE you have a chance.

Unfortunately, we will never know what might have been in a race that was shaping up to be an epic finish. Two kilometers before the end, Obed staged a hill climb breakaway leaving Abraham, Nathan, Nicodem and Gasore wondering if he had the power to maintain the break. Just as Obed crested the hill, with the Team car close behind the riders, I panicked. The intersection, the major intersection had not been closed. At that point I was worried someone, one of the riders, was going to be hit. The police escort clipped the curb trying to get in front of Obed to block the traffic and went down. The group of five slowed, scattered and regrouped. By this time, the race was essentially over. Obed had lost the momentum and Abraham took over crossing the line in first. Gasore was second and secured a third place win in the General Classification.

I am very conscious about treating all the boys on Team Rwanda the same, with the same respect and effort granted to all of them to help them succeed. Gasore has touched me. He inspires me, he makes me smile, he makes me stop and appreciate the gifts I was given as a kid growing up in a two parent home in America. He makes me stay….there are many days, especially recently that I have wanted to leave and then camp comes and Gasore rides up on his bike and he smiles and waves and says, "Hi Kim!" and yells ZUUUUULLUUUUUU. And I give him a big hug like I always do, like the first time I hugged him a year ago and little does he know, those hugs keep me pushing forward.