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.
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 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.