Documentary tells Team Rwanda’s moving story

Adrien Niyonshuti finished 39th in the London Olympics in mountain biking and has mentored boys and girls in Rwanda who are interested in taking up the sport. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

In the spring of 2012, African cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti qualified for the London Olympics in mountain biking. While all Olympic qualifications are remarkable feats, Niyonshuti's triumph brought a litany of firsts. He was the first black African to compete in mountain biking. He was the first Rwandan cyclist at the Games. But before those accomplishments came an achievement more impressive than any other: Niyonshuti was part of the first cycling team composed of Rwandan genocide survivors.

The story of Team Rwanda has gained attention and popularity within the cycling world since the team's inception in 2007, when former U.S. pro cyclist Jock Boyer moved to the African nation to help Rwanda build a cycling federation. On Thursday, Niyonshuti's story will reach far beyond the cycling world as a documentary about Team Rwanda, "Rising from Ashes," will premiere in London.

Kathryn Bertine sat down with Team Rwanda's marketing director, Kimberly Coats, to talk about the documentary, the goals and Rwanda's progress via bicycle.

Kathryn Bertine, for espnW: Kimberly, can you give us a little background on how Team Rwanda started?

Kimberly Coats: Tom Ritchey [American bike frame builder/designer, founder of Ritchey Design] went to Rwanda in 2005 on a personal mission. He was at a crossroads in his life about what to do next, and he went to Rwanda and saw people riding these old single-speed wooden bikes. He called his friend Jock Boyer to say we need to organize a race there, and Jock said, "No, no, no." Not interested. Then Tom gave him a plane ticket, and Jock went. They did a Wooden Bike Classic at the end of 2006, and Jock saw Adrien race very well. Tom said, "Let's do a team; let's do a program." And Jock joked that since he was "the only one without a life," he'd do it. He thought he'd stay in Rwanda a couple of months. That was 2006. He's still there.

espnW: Team Rwanda has only four staff members: you, Jock, a bike mechanic and a financial strategist. How did you personally get involved, and what drew you to Team Rwanda?

KC: I got involved when I read an article in Outside magazine by Jason Gay in 2008 on Project Rwanda, where Tom Ritchey was providing bikes to coffee farmers. In June of that year, I kid you not, I'd written three things in my journal about what I wanted in life: I wanted something to do with my love of travel, something to do with cycling, and I wanted to help people. Then two months later, I read that article and thought, "Oh crap ... here it is. This is my fork in the road." I contacted Tom, and he made arrangements. I quit my job in Las Vegas as a business development manager for Sysco, and three weeks later I was on a plane to Rwanda. Like Jock, I only thought I'd be there a few months and then I'd go home, but that never quite happened. I've been with Team Rwanda for four years. Basically, I had a nice job, good money, lots of perks ... and I was miserable. And now? No regrets.

espnW: "Rising from Ashes" has been selected for more than seven international film festivals and is scheduled for a July release worldwide. The heartfelt subject matter of athletics and adversity clearly connects with viewers. Would you say the Team Rwanda program has been successful, and what's your definition of success?

KC: The true success of Team Rwanda is being able to have something in place long after we're gone. It isn't just about the bike, it's the fact that in Rwanda cycling has come from nothing into this strong federation that now runs its own local races and events. We've got a strong club system now, and it's amazing, as cycling has become the sport in Rwanda, surpassing golf and soccer, and the country has truly gotten behind cycling, especially since having Adrien in the Olympics. For the riders, what they all say about "success" is that they want people to know that Rwanda is a good place. They don't want to be known for the genocide anymore. In London, so many reporters wanted to talk about the past -- "How many of your family members died? What was it like during the genocide?" -- but Adrien didn't want to talk about the past. He wanted to tell people about what cycling has done for his country, and about all the kids on bikes, and where Rwanda is going. That's the success. It's about where we're going.

espnW: And where is Team Rwanda going? Tell us about the future of the program.

KC: On the racing level, we have one rider, Nicodem Habiyambere, who was picked up by a UCI feeder team in South Africa. He actually has a contract and makes some money as a professional cyclist. Adrien is opening his own cycling academy, and he now has enough funding for 120 Qhubeka bikes that will go to school kids for a talent ID program. Those kids will then receive a bike as long as they stay in school, which puts the emphasis on education, as well as ultimately help them race internationally. If they're not educated, they won't make it. Adrien is doing all this, and Jean de Dieu "Rafiki" Uwimana, one of our original five team members, is now an assistant camp manager and mechanic. We've got another former rider that teaches yoga, and another who teaches nutrition. All five original team members are still involved; they're doing it all without us. That's the future of our program.

espnW: With all the progress of cycling in Rwanda, are you looking to expand the program toward other African nations?

KC: That's exactly what we're working on. Other countries have asked for help. We're working with Eritrea, but with other nations there can be visa issues, so we're spread thin. We do have some help, though. We have a Carmichael Training Systems coach coming over, and our goal is to spend more time in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is much more advanced than Rwanda was at the start of the cycling program. The UCI [cycling's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale] gave them bikes, 250 pairs of shoes came in from Sidi, Primal Wear donated 1,500 kits of overstock shorts and jerseys, Vittoria sent tires. We've got local mechanics heading to UCI to be trained, too. We're really committed to trying to help Ethiopia get two of their athletes to the 2016 Olympics in mountain biking.

espnW: As of now, there are no Rwandan women competing in cycling. Why does this matter to you, and what are your ideas about change and growth, specifically for black African women and cycling?

KC: The lack of cycling women in most parts of Africa is, well, there are a lot of reasons. The expense of the sport is hard. It comes down to economics and cultural issues. In Rwanda, we're still trying to get enough bikes in the country for kids to use. It's very difficult. Culturally, it's not like America, where girls grow up playing sports and it's OK. The girls in Rwanda grow up working in the fields, taking care of numerous siblings, dropping out of school early and then starting a family of their own. For girls, sport isn't something that they even think about. But we do have some women. They're not strong yet, but they're trying. The only racing that you're going to find for women in Africa is in South Africa. Last year, in Burkina Faso, we had the continental championships. Out of the entire continent -- 54 countries -- there were only about 10 women.

But the upside is that these women who do come to our program are there because they're seeing the guys on bikes. Many of them come from Rwamagana, which is Adrien's hometown, and he's been great about mentoring boy and girls. One of the things we're most excited about is that the new bikes that are coming into the country come with a new rule, which Adrien created: Half the bikes will go to girls.

To learn more about Team Rwanda, please visit Team Rwanda's website.