KIGALI, Rwanda — For a rider with dreams of competing in the Tour de France, Rafiki Jean De Dieu Uwimana began in an unusual manner.
For years before joining Rwanda’s national cycling team, he hauled plastic jugs of water atop a creaking, rusted single speed bicycle, earning a small wage from customers in his hillside village.
“I started this when I was 13,” said Uwimana, now a short, wiry 25-year-old who could pass for a teenager were it not for a carefully styled soul patch.
“The business wasn’t bad but I never thought I’d become a professional rider.”
In a region where competitive cycling is still in its infancy, Uwimana’s background is not surprising.
Though North African-born riders have competed for France since the days of its colonial empire, and a white South African, Rudolf Lewis, won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in cycling’s individual time trial, sub-Saharan Africa has produced few elite riders.
Despite the continent’s dominance in distance running — particularly among athletes from Ethiopia, Kenya and the rest of East Africa — no black African has ever competed in cycling’s premiere event, the Tour de France. Until last year, when Rwanda’s Adrien Niyonshuti rode the three-day Tour of Ireland, none had competed in any European pro tour event.
Yet it’s only a matter of time before African cyclists emerge at the sport’s highest levels, according to Team Rwanda coach Jock Boyer.
“You have in Africa people that have the talent to do very well in the Tour de France,” said Boyer, who became the first American to ride the event in 1981 — long before the days of Lance Armstrong when it was an almost exclusively European affair.
“Physiologically, the talent is here. But there are a huge number of things that cyclists must learn over a long period of time to be successful."
In Rwanda, that learning curve began in 2006, when Boyer first visited the country at the request of Tom Ritchey, an American mountain biking guru with designs on developing Rwanda’s cycling talent. Together, the two organized the first Wooden Bike Classic, an annual race named after the two-wheeled, scooter-like contraptions long used for transporting coffee beans by local farmers. Drawing thousands of spectators, the 2006 event featured riders from across Rwanda — from transport cyclists like Uwimana to club riders with some racing experience — mostly on rusted decades-old bikes.
Niyonshuti, already a veteran of Rwanda’s fledgling club circuit, won the inaugural single-speed road race and, months later, was one of five riders selected by Boyer to form the original Team Rwanda.
Since then, under Boyer’s tutelage, the squad has developed into one of the more established national cycling teams in Africa. Competing in both mountain and road events, Team Rwanda is now a fixture of the Africa pro tour circuit, and recorded its first-ever stage victories at the Tour of Cameroon this March. Its riders have competed in events in the United States and in South Africa’s Cape Epic — known as the Tour de France of mountain biking.
Niyonshuti, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, now rides for South Africa’s MTN-Energade, the continent’s top pro team. This November, the 23-year-old will attempt to qualify for London on his home turf, when Rwanda hosts the African Continental Championships.
Despite his top rider’s accomplishments, Boyer says he’s always on the lookout for new talent. Often, current riders will recruit friends or family members. Other times, he’ll spot candidates during the team’s training rides.
“You can see talented riders out on the road,” he told GlobalPost. “You will see a guy riding a single speed bike with 300 pounds of potatoes on the back just going up the hill and trying to keep up with us.”
Once potential athletes are identified, Boyer brings them to the team’s camp in Ruhengeri, a town in Rwanda’s Northern Province. He hooks them up to a heart rate monitor and tests them for aerobic capacity, cadence and power output on a stationary bike. Within 20 minutes he can determine whether a rider has a chance to make it in competitive cycling. Riders exceeding a given number of watts per kilogram of body weight are given a bike for a month and asked to train with a team member and attend a weekly training camp.
The bikes, which cost roughly $4,000, are provided by what Boyer calls “extremely generous donors.” After a month, if the rider has improved, he keeps the bike. If not, he goes home.
“Our team consists of how many bikes we have,” said Boyer.
For those who make the cut, the perks are many. According to Boyer, team members earn an average of $5,000 per year (about ten times Rwanda’s per-capita income) between race winnings, government bonuses, and a monthly team stipend.
Uwimana is one of three team riders who have recently used their earnings to build new houses. He now supports his mother, pays school fees for siblings and other relatives, and claims to be a mild celebrity in Kigali.
“All this money I’m taking in because of cycling,” he said, lounging in his new sitting room and sporting his green, yellow and sky-blue Team Rwanda jersey. “In Rwanda, everyone knows us. We are stars.”
Despite such local success, Boyer admits it will be a while before Rwanda — and Africa — becomes an international cycling powerhouse. Proper bikes, in the absence of donors, are still prohibitively expensive. Roads — though vastly improved in Rwanda — are pot-holed and dangerous across much of the continent. And the tactical and mechanical nature of the sport means it takes years for a rider to transform raw talent into top-level success.
That said, Boyer maintains that African cycling is progressing at a steady pace. Within six or seven years he expects to see the first black African rider in the Tour de France.
Though a long shot, Uwimana insists he’ll one day be part of that peleton, attacking alpine climbs before cruising the cobblestones of the Champs Elysees in Paris.
“I’m only just beginning this sport,” he said. “I will get there. Now, I’m 100 percent focused on the bike.”