In 4 hours, the summer Olympic Tokyo games road race will kick off. My emotions are mixed because a it is a tragedy about to unfold, not because Olympic participation isn’t beautiful thing in of itself, but because of what could have been, because of what could be and isn’t.
On the one hand I’m proud of the athlete Mugisha Moise whom I know well becoming an Olympian and having the privilege to represent his country with pride. On the other hand I feel anger and a pain in my heart knowing the reality he faces on the start line. He will not finish the event, not because he does not have it in him, but because he has never been allowed the opportunity or given the support to prepare himself properly. By kilometer 140 he will be dropped from the leaders, by kilometer 200 he will have either stopped the competition or be outside the time limit that would allow him an official place in the results. The even is 234 kilometers long.
Moise has not pinned on a number to race his bike since late 2020, it has been 8+ months since his last competition. Disagreements with his team and negligence by sport governing officials allowed him to be excluded from Tour du Rwanda 2021 only the second road racing competition held in Rwand since late 2019, the other being the 2020 Tour du Rwanda where he narrowly missed brining the crown back to Rwanda finishing 2nd in the general classification. There has not been a road racing competition held for Rwanda national athletes in nearly 2 years. The national championships have been cancelled on 3 occasions while competitions like BAL, beach Volley Ball and others go on. The pandemic cannot be an excuse.
In the summer of 2018 during negotiations for the contract that I would eventually complete near the end of 2020 I faced constraints that meant the person on the other side of the table couldn’t pay my rate. So I made a compromise placing my work and the priority of pursuing excellence in racing above the dollar amount; I accepted a lower rate in exchange for a contract that would ensure I had the opportunity to develop the national team candidate for Rwanda’s place in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games road race. To that end I requested a contract I duration of 29 months.
No one including myself could have foreseen the postponement of the Games from 2020 to 2021 due to Covid-19 ravaging our world. What I could have foreseen but hoped for forestall was the apathy with which those responsible for managing and developing the sport of cycling changing for the better. Even 2 years is not a lot of time to prepare to face the best in the world at the Olympic games but it was still plenty of time to make a valant effort and make progress.
My belief was that it was possible to improve on our track record of mere participation in the Olympics, Tokyo slated to be our 3 appearance in cycling. Even developing an athlete to a level where they could aspire to finish the race in the official allotted time from a sporting perspective would have been a huge leap forward.
Unfortunately I and the team never received either the support and equipment or access to racing that we needed and I requested again and again.
Things went from bad to worse as time went on and by the time I attended a status update meeting of all federation coaches in the NOC offices circa early May of 2020 time had run out and there was no clear vision, mandate or support forthcoming that would have allowed us to achieve a greater level of competitiveness. When I was asked what the sate of our preparation was, at that point with +/- 3 months remaining until what was to be race day in Tokyo, I answered that no Rwandan cyclist was prepared to finish the event and the time frame would not allow for that fact to change in any realist or meaningful way. So I asked, what has the NOC envisioned for these games over the past two years that I have been ignored? Were there other goals that they hoped to achieve via participation? I then detailed that position in a report submitted that week, a portion of it cited below. I wish Moise the absolute best possible experience today in his Olympic berth and I pray the fate of future Rwandan Olympic cyclist will change but that change must start at the top, the custodians of the sport of cycling have failed and will continue to fail until held accountable.
As I previously covered during the first committee meeting on 5/3/20, all things considered, any of our top athletes we choose to represent Rwanda in the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games road race in Tokyo will face nearly insurmountable odds against finishing the race distance being awarded a position in official results.
I will reiterate that statement here with qualifiers. History will reveal that no athlete from Rwanda has ever officially finished a race of this calibre. Recent examples would be any of the UCI World Championships of the current Olympic cycle (2016 - 2020) including the Rio Olympic road race itself. Adrien Nyunshuti failed to finish despite having raced consistently at the World Tour level for multiple seasons. The exact cause of his DNF in that case was heavily influenced by mechanical misfortune, but the end result is still just as salient. Of any athlete in Rwanda’s history, no one has ever been better prepared to finish a race of this calibre. Bonaventure Uwizeymana failed to finish in Doha 2016. Valens Ndayisenga failed to finish in Bergen 2017. No Elite member of team Rwanda was started in Yorkshire 2019, in the U23 race only Moise Mugisha crossed the finish line, even classified as DNF finishing beyond the time allotment. In the Junior race Uhirwe Bizya Renus was our sole race finisher in 45th place. An Olympic Road race is on par, if not identical to a UCIWCS Road Race. These races are nearly always between 220 to 260 kilometers long and require an expenditure of 6,000 to 7,000+ kilojoules to complete. As you can see, the sheer physical challenge just in terms of energy is astronomical. An example of what it is like to train for that level of energy output, would be our 257 kilometer training day from Rusizi to Musanze 3 weeks before the 2020 Tour du Rwanda. Samuel Mugisha burned just over 6,000 kilojoules on that day. This is the first hurdle, and the adaptation most readily within reach. However, upon examination we will see there are crucial differences between the training example given and the type of Elite World level event road race we have as our target.
The easiest to understand in terms of numbers, is the difference in power profile. Samuel Mugisha averaged 250 watts for 8.5 hours to complete that day in training. It would not be unreasonable to see the average power of a finisher in one of these events equal out to an average wattage that is not much higher than that, as well as a kilojoules load that will likely be in the same range. The difference is in the amount of higher wattage spikes of 600 or even 1,000 watts required by the athlete to navigate the peloton throughout the ebbs and flows of the race over the course of 6+ hours. During an extremely challenging training exercise over this kind of distance, Samuel may achieve spikes into the 400+ watt range numbering in the 100’s, spikes over 600 watts likely no more than 20-30 times and spikes of 1,000 watts or above less than 10 times (this is including intervals and motor pacing, on this occasion these numbers did not occur at all, his highest recorded power was 684watts for 5 seconds.) The required power spikes to survive the distance of an Olympic Road race will mean that the spikes over 400 watts would be so numerous and consistent they would have to be measured in minutes and considered time in zone 5, rather than spikes. The spikes of over 600 watts would undoubtedly measure in the hundreds. The number of required spikes of 1,000watts and over could be in the 10’s and will most likely occur in the final 20% of the race duration.
These 3 different levels I have choses as reference points are relevant because of the significantly different metabolic demands of each. These metabolic demand are further compounded and begins to morph according to the progress along the timeline of the race where the power demand occurs. The requirements on the athlete to perform at this level are both metabolic in terms of ATP production, mitochondria function adaptation, as well as the actual physical adaptation (hypertrophy/strength) of the muscle fiber.
This means that there is no known humanly possible method in existence that enables the athlete to train for this level of output. The only way to truly achieve the ability of these energy, power and metabolic demands, is to race at this level on multiple occasions at slightly shorter durations, (5 - 6 hours, 190 - 240 kilometers.) This is what the worlds best do to prepare. *Keep in mind these illustrations are so far, still limited to the physical, power and metabolic demands of the athlete.
The secondary part of the successful equation we seek cannot be divorced from the other. The challenge of positioning, pacing and handling by the athlete on the bike within the peloton. He needs to put himself in the right positions at the right time to achieve maximum efficiency and use the minimum energy possible. Top riders are very adept at this and highly skilled when employing the aid of their teammates throughout the race to preserve a position near, or at the front of the group where the accelerations and mishaps are at a minimum. Often the most successful athletes in cycling perfect this skill of efficiency outpacing stronger rivals of lesser skill. Riders of both lesser skill as well as calibre, strength and status are easily relegated to following further behind in the group, which in turn demands greater power spikes and energy to stay in contact. The athlete “out of position” relegated further back in the peloton will spend 10 or 20% more energy than the frontrunners, possibly more, and possibly just as much if he is successfully determined to position himself in the front. In order for his efforts not to be canceled out, the athlete must command not only the strength required and bike handling skill to navigate the peloton well but be able to command the respect if his peers enough so that they are happy to allow him to ride in a forward position (relatively) uninhibited.
I am presenting here the highest level of analysis that I believe will be useful for this exercise aimed at imparting a rudimentary comprehension of what the demands of this race in Tokyo will be, and why my expert assessment is such as it is. A higher level of assessment would indeed reveal much more precise numbers and include more nuance in the absolutes I have mentioned. That level of understanding begins to be very trade specific in its terminology and data sets which I do not believe will be useful at this time, however it can be made available upon request.”
I submitted this report in May of 2020, no response or feedback was ever returned.
The following is an article I penned as it appears on the news outlet Taarifa, one of the most respected media houses in Rwanda. The post can be viewed here: https://taarifa.rw/what-you-didnt-know-inside-rwanda-cycling-sport/
Published in early May of 2021, the issues I outline not only still exist unresolved or addressed, there has been not a single inquest or communication regarding the points I have raised. Perhaps I have spoken my mind and told the truth for too long and have become radioactive. All that I can say for sure is that African cycling’s greatest hope, team Rwanda is and has been on a rapid decline by no fault of its active members or for want of talent. *A message to any relevant parties, documentation of everything addressed herein is available. Someone should really do something, I’m all outa moves.
My name is Sterling Courage Magnell, I served as the head coach of the Rwanda national cycling team from May of 2015 until November of 2020.
What follows is a somber, but I believe necessary message. While what I am about to share may be stark on its face, it is aimed at a better future, at change and at influencing the path forward for cycling. I have largely avoided speaking out in the media for a long time out of deference for my peers and also a sense of patriotism that has grown out of my 6 years living in country. I am proud to have played my role in Rwanda cycling, proud of my associations, my team and honored to have served the institutions that govern our sport. The image of Rwanda is important to me.
However, that same sense of loyalty to my chosen community motivates me to look at the reality of our situation in cycling today honestly, believing that issues must be faced head on and that the Rwandan public should be informed.Cycling doesn’t just belong to the national team, cycling is the crown jewel of Rwanda sports and it belongs to all of us. From every kid on a bike, to every fan along the journey, every bike taxi driver, our team chef, the guards at the gate who watch over us at night and watch us come and go on our training exercises. To our drivers, to the receptionist at the many hotels we stay in, to our champions, our support crews, to each and every fan of the sport all the way to the cowboys in Kinigi that had gone from shouting after me “coach!” to knowing my real name calling out “Sterling!” by the time I moved away from my residence at ARCC permanently at the end of November.
Thanks to our leader H.E. Paul Kagame, the RNP and the RDC, Rwanda is stable, Rwanda is safe. Rwanda also possesses world class road infrastructure, high altitude and an ideal climate for training and racing bikes. It is, at least in theory akin to a Garden of Eden for cycling primed to nurture a bike racing culture phenomenon like the world has never seen.
My question today is this: To the various cycling and sport leaders responsible for the management of our sport, where are you leading us? I personally believe that Rwanda houses a deep talent pool with all of the necessary potential to compete at the leading edge of the sport. Yet we consistently underachieve at a level so egregious that the public likely has no idea how far short of our potential we actually are.
For my part, I came to the conclusion some time before my post as head coach ended, that in order to truly develop cycling up to the potential level of impact it has the power to enact in Rwanda and beyond that I would have to leave the confines of my position to be effective.
Thinking in advance about the future of the national team, even as we were engaged in intense preparations for Tour du Rwanda 2020, I requested permission to bring in an intern, Jean Hubert as an apprentice to hopefully teach him as much as possible and potentially prepare him to be a candidate for my replacement. The reasons why I believed Hubert was qualified to learn and possibly take over the coaching of the national team are many. However, the email communication I sent explaining my request was ignored, no reply was or has ever been sent, never so much as comment on my request.
But now we are in the middle of the story, not at the beginning. This request came in January, some weeks after my resignation letter which lasted only a matter of days before NOC vice president Festus Bizimana urged me to the negotiation table, calling a meeting that he brokered between myself and newly elected FERWACY president Abdallah Murenzi. NOC chairman Valens Munyabagisha joined us as well for talks over dinner at L’Epicurien restaurant. Issues and terms were discussed that allowed us to reach consensus that night after which I committed to continuing to work in my role.The events leading up to my resignation were having started training for Tour du Rwanda in camp on location at ARCC from November 1st 2019, the quarterly funding allocated to ARCC for functions including training camp had not arrived and would not arrive until after Christmas. Staff salaries, including my own were delayed for the same period. ARCC was able to continue training camp operations on credit from our suppliers while staff held out patiently waiting for their salaries, staying dedicated to their roles regardless of the delay.
There was only one problem could not be solved in this manner, equipment shortages. A number of athletes cycling shoes were delaminating, a process where the sole falls apart from the upper construction rendering them useless. Drivetrain parts were worn and badly needed replacing. Parts designed to fit an athlete properly to the bicycle were absent with no more component options remaining in our inventory to make changes. Many small parts needed to adapt essential components of the bikes were lacking from inventory as well. The list was growing with each day of training, we were told each time for the asking that nothing could be done and to simply wait. The problem with waiting is that timing is everything when you are preparing for bike racing. Blocks of training need to be laid meticulously and athletes monitored before the following refinement of fitness and physical adaptations desired can take place. When you lose time, you literally lose fitness. The level of form you have the potential to reach literally shrinks. Waiting is not an option if you want to win.
Flashback to summer 2018 during the initial months of my most recent contract term with FERWACY, ARCC found itself in a bind lacking enough of even basic equipment necessary to train let alone race. At that time ARCC director Ruben came up with an emergency solution which involved my flying to Johannesburg curtesy of RwandAir to purchase equipment and bring it back on my person to ARCC. Felix Sempoma accompanied me on the trip as well, seeking equipment for his team Benediction Ignite. I purchased directly (rwf)6million+ worth of equipment, filling various orders from ARCC mechanics and a few of the technical coaching tools and pieces that would allow me to do my job. After our return, I assembled a basic word document along with receipts and submitted it to ARCC director Ruben Haburuema for review and reimbursement. A short time later I was paid in full for the amount I had spent.
While not best practice to use my own finances to buy good for the national team, it was the only viable and timely solution that I knew of. So once again during the period of funding delay that stretched for approximately half of our Tour du Rwanda 2020 preparation training camps, Ruben created a request form and gave me instructions to fill in what we needed, promising that as soon as our funding arrived I would be reimbursed as I had the time before.
I also discussed this with FERWACY President Abdallah Murenzi whom instructed me to follow a procedure of 1. Request 2. Approval 3. Payment and submit it to Ruben. I sought out the least expensive source for each item on the list utilizing vendors that included like Amazon and Ebay as well as my relationship with Pioneer to secure wholesale pricing for cycling power meters I needed to fit to a limited number of athletes’ bikes in order to collect and track their training data. These materials that I purchased for the national team went into immediate use during preparation and were also used during the Tour du Rwanda 2020. Many of these materials are still in used by the national team or in ARCC inventory to this day.
In my endeavor to leave no stone unturned in our preparation, in addition the list that I submitted, I purchased goods for the team that I knew were beyond the reasonable threshold for Ruben to approve given the circumstances. Things like nutritional supplements in the form of vitamins and amino acids. A wearable Whoop band to track one of my athletes sleep and recovery, limited socks, glasses and on the bike nutrition products (things riders eat while training or racing.) “Power bands” for strength and stability exercises, a batch of heart rate monitor chest straps, specific bike fitting materials for custom shoe adaptations, even a product called AmpHuman lotion that has been tested and proven to improve race times by up to 2% and used by many of the top World Tour teams. All of these things I donated to the team simply out of a desire to see them, to se US succeed. I did not ask to be reimbursed these items, or for taxes paid to customs when the materials I submitted receipts for arrived, nor the handling fees.
One of the items was a batch of 20 Revitis mini two-way radios and matching ear pieces. This type of radio which fits easily into a designated pocket sewn into the bib shorts worn by the athletes resting midway up the back, is used in higher ranked races for communication between coach and rider as well as between riders when out of shouting range or when one does not want to broadcast what is being said as in the case of tactical discussion or instructions. Most international teams coming to the Tour du Rwanda since its UCI2.1 ranking arrive with these radios in their luggage and use them throughout the race. This ability to communicate is a massive aid in team function and a huge advantage over teams that do not have them.
I had raised this issue and made a request for them during a meeting with FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Murenzi and ARCC director Ruben Habaruremana sometimes in the summer of 2019.The request was granted with Emmanuel even laughing, saying that getting them would be easy and “not a problem.” Unfortunately, I have no proof of this meeting or its contents as I was not informed of the meeting schedule beforehand learning of it only after it was in progress and there was no request for an official document made in regards to the need for radios. At any rate, the radios never materialized even though this is something that you would assume a “technical director” would be well aware of and even by now a year and a half later as Rwanda’s athletes compete in Tour du Rwanda 2021, they have no radios.
Unaware of the regulations in Rwanda limiting the legality of two-way radio type and frequency capability that civilians can own, I ordered these radios in January so that they would arrive in time before the start of the Tour. I learned about the illegal nature of the radios the hard way when RURA seized the shipment, albeit after I had paid the taxes and duties. To date I have received no notification of the seizure, no refund and have been unable to locate the items in order to ship them return to sender.
However, my biggest disappointment was what this meant for the team and our chances in the race. Not having that ability to communicate left us at a disadvantage compared to other teams. Instead of being able to respond to tactical changes and moves in real time, the only way our athletes could speak with their coach was to drop to the back of the peloton and call for the team car, which in the fastest of cases means losing ground to the front of the race which must be regained after waiting for the car to reach them, often by which time the race has progressed while we are unable to react.In fact, as I write, today mid 2021 edition I received a call from one of the coaches of the 3 Rwanda teams currently competing asking for assistance locating some radios, even 1 or 2 because there were moments in today’s stage where his riders lost crucial ground due to his inability to communicate with them. They ended up coming to the finish well behind losing ground as a result.
I now understand and fully respect the regulations regarding certain technologies, my question is, in the year between Tour du Rwanda editions, why hasn’t FERWACY addressed this and found a way to safely and legally provide a solution to its teams?
Another material issue of significance leading into the Tour du Rwanda 2020 was the matter of the national team “kit.” That January, athletes on the team informed me that they didn’t want to train using the national team bibs (shorts) because the elastic in them didn’t fit properly causing leg pain and cutting off circulation while riding. As you can imagine, in cycling where the legs are what really matter, this is a pretty big problem, unacceptable really. I was shocked to hear it and admonished the boys on the team for not informing me sooner. I alerted FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Morenzi of the problem, to which he assured me that new kit was on the way to rectify the issue. However, when the race arrived, no new kit was to be had and the national team was forced to race with the old shorts.
Failing to provide radios for the team so that we could race on par tactically with the other challengers is one thing, but expecting the best riders in the national to represent Rwanda in our national tour with the handicap that these ill-fitting shorts represented was beyond unconscionable. How can you enter your biggest crowning international event hosted in Rwanda to represent your country in a bike race wearing shorts that hurt your legs whenever you try to push hard on the pedals?
Post Tour du Rwanda 2020 having submitted all request forms and receipts for reimbursement totaling (rwf)5m, I followed up regularly awaiting reimbursement. Periodically throughout 2020 I sent messages to Ruben inquiring about the status of the case, 10 times that can be confirmed via WhatsApp conversation and many more times in person and email about the issue in the interim.
Finally, after continued delays, excuses or non-responses on March 10, 2021 a year on from Tour du Rwanda 2020, I submitted a certified letter asking that the bill be payed to FERWACY. The response from Abdallah Murenzi demanded additional paperwork consisting of: 1. Proforma invoices, 2. Purchasing order, 3. Bills, 4. Delivery notes.
On March 29, 2021. I met in person at FERWACY offices located at Amahoro stadium with SG Leonard Sekanyange to discuss the issue. He shared with me documents submitted by Ruben revealing an adjusted inventory which within its contents claimed to not be in possession or to have no information about many materials I had submitted in the forms and receipts for with a number of items unlisted in his evaluation at all. This was the first time I had been made aware of Ruben’s evaluation, at no point earlier was I given notice in any form of his assessment or asked for additional paperwork. Both demand for additional documentation and Ruben’s evaluation came 4 months post cessation of my contract and I had left my residence at ARCC.
Shortly after these exchanges a picture surfaced on Instagram of the national team training with one of the team members wearing one of the pairs of shoes on the list that Ruben claimed were never given to ARCC or they had no information about. There are other materials I have witnessed in use during this year’s ongoing Tour du Rwanda edition as well claimed in his evaluation not to exist. I have since submitted a full account of the extent of my knowledge detailing how each item was used, for whom and where it is likely to be today to the best of my knowledge.
Of course, it is now impossible for me to verify with certainty which materials are where this far beyond my time at ARCC, as well as it is impossible for me to produce the full roster of paperwork FERWACY now demands. Why has it taken a year of me asking for an update or information about the matter for these responses? Why was I not required by Ruben to provide these documents in 2018 when I assisted in procuring equipment?
Why now, is it my responsibility to provide proof that I realistically cannot obtain since I have left my post for such a period that I cannot be certain of the whereabouts of all materials? Why is the burden not on director Ruben for not following procedure as my superior? Further, referencing item 2.2.3 in my contract, why is the burden not on my employer, FERWACY for not providing the necessary equipment in a timely manner in the first place? In fact, so brazen is the attitude of our federation, that they maintain they never approved half of the list while oddly approving of the other half. Abdallah’s response when pressed has been “how do we know you bought these items for the national team, maybe it was a gift!”
In August of 2020, aware that this could become a growing problem that I would not be able to act on or monitor after I left my post at ARCC once my contract ended, I requested protocol guidelines from FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Murenzi. At that time, I observed equipment being used or loaned to athletes seemingly at random without a set protocol for awarding access to equipment or bikes owned by FERWACY nor a protocol for keeping track of it.Scarcity of equipment and means by which to develop cycling has always been a major sticking point for Rwanda’s cycling culture. In late 2018, along with Junior and Women’s coach Nathan Byukusenge who also served as my translator, we met with every club in Rwanda for interviews in Kigali. There is no official record of this conference so I do not have proof that it occurred. We interview either the president or another representative from every club asking what their concerns, needs and requests were. With the information I gleaned from those meetings which focused heavily on a need for bikes and equipment, I created a document entitled “Club Reform Proposal” which outlined a yearly subsidy program based on a budget equal to our expenditure related to our participation in the 2018 Innsbruck UCI World Championships. I officially submitted it twice to leadership. Via email and in hardcopy form on other occasions. I also shared it with various colleagues to get their input.I have never been asked for follow up, refinement, implementation or further discussion regarding that proposal by anyone in cycling leadership despite submitting it multiple times and referencing it on various occasions.
Post Tour du Rwanda 2020, we anticipated preparations for the next competition, the African Continental Championships which was scheduled for late March in Mauritius. However, it was cancelled before we had a chance to assemble in training camp due to Covid-19 prevention measures.
Following the news I asked for an audience with FERWACY president Murenzi Abdallah which occurred on March 17, 2020 at FERWACY headquarters. I used that meeting to impress upon him the window of opportunity that the postponed or cancellation of races presented us with. I reminded him that we were far behind in development of new riders, juniors and women and that we still desperately needed new equipment. This was the time to formulate a plan and submit it with a request for funding to the Ministry of Sport and to then get caught up using the break in racing to our advantageI followed up on that meeting with an email detailing my frustration and questions of the moment. Eventually that exchange led to another meeting which I had to press very hard for to discuss my future with FERWACY on July 21, 2020. In that meeting I expressed my sense that he did not intend to continue the partnership based on our relationships thus far, that I also did not wish to renew my contract, that we should agree in order to anticipate how to best move forward. He consented that we would not renew the partnership. I then expressed my desire to assist in any way possible in the search and/or briefing of a new coach to make the transition as smooth as possible. I further expressed a desire to issue a joint statement near the end of my contract to present a united front in support of Rwandan cycling and he agreed.
On September 9th I received official notice from FERWACY that they would not seek to renew my contract as per notification stipulations within its contents that notice be served within two months of its expiry.On September 22, 2020, I received notice from FERWACY that I was being given the annual leave as per my agreement with Abdallah in January, the extra 30 days in addition to the normally allocated 18 days. This meant in effect that I was being put on vacation for the remainder of my contract. I immediately responded to the email communication in which form it came with a message detailing that because of the downtime created by Covid-19 measures that I had no need or desire to “take time off,” further detailing that I wished to forgo my annual leave if at all possible to make myself available for any and every method of assistance or contribution to the team or indeed cycling in general whilst still under contract. I received to reply. I followed up that email a few weeks later to reiterate my position. Still there was no response. Finally, I sent another replay asking explicitly if it was FERWACY or ARCC policy not to reply to emails or communicate with me? I received no reply then either. Regardless, I continued to remain available for any mandate.
On November 2nd, The New Times published an article based on a press conference held by FERWACY president Abdallah Murenzi in which he is quoted as saying the following regarding me: “We will not extend his contract. We need a coach who will be part of the process to unearth new talents, not just someone who works with ten (elite) riders in the national team. Until we find a new permanent coach, Felix Sempoma will step in as interim coach.” I was not contacted for comment by either the New Times or FERWACY before or after these events.
FERWACY & co. have proved themselves to be excellent hosts of international events including the well-organized tourism cooperation between ARCC, FERWACY and RDB. They do a wonderful job and no visitor or tourist should ever expect anything less than a stellar and unforgettable experience. This is to their credit, the infrastructure, equipment, cooperation and coordination required to pull it all off successfully is a true testament to these organizations ability to get the job done when the mandate and goal is clear. What I don’t understand however, regarding the leaders of cycling, is what could possibly be unclear about mine and other communication regarding what is needed and required to developed the racing side of cycling?
It seems to me, increasingly so, that the custodians of bike racing have willfully neglected the development, infrastructure and nurture of the bike racing community on nearly every front. There is no new equipment coming in even for the national team, clubs flounder without means or access to affordable equipment. On good year there are little more than 10 national races in Rwanda.Contrast this with the preparation required to host the Tour du Rwanda which takes months, even up to a year of planning in advance. The allowance given by the Ministry of Sport to FERWACY is ample in order to produce this event, I am uncertain of the exact number provided for the 2021 edition. In one meeting I had personally with the former PS of the Ministry of Sport, when I pressed about the need for equipment, he confided in me that FERWACY was being given over 350million for Tour du Rwanda and that they should be able to spare something for equipment, the point being, they have budget, why doesn’t any of it go to development of our athletes and their needs?Drawing an international field, hosting foreigners is a top priority for our sporting leaders, so why is the same or even a portion of that attention not allocated to the equipment and time needed to field, identify, select and train our own athletes?
On May 3, 2020 I was called into a committee meeting between head coaches of sporting federations and the RNOSC, the national Olympic committee of Rwanda. The meeting, chaired by Vice President Festus Bizimana was to hear progress reports regarding preparation progress status for the games from each sport. (At that time, the games had not been postponed to 2021 yet.) When it was my turn to give an oral report, I started with a question: What was the NOC’s goal for cycling in the games? Because the answer depended on what the aim was which had never been communicated to me despite being asked to give periodic technical reports which I did on athletes’ condition, training and readiness.I proceeded to explain that there was no foreseeable possible scenario where any national athlete currently engaged in bike racing had even a small chance of finishing the event we would race in Tokyo. The explanation for why that is, is complex, but in a nutshell, no one is racing at the level that this race will be, 250K+ with the world best athletes to be found. Nothing we do or have done would prepare them to reach the conclusion of the event. So, knowing from the technical side that we cannot hope to finish, what other goals did or does the NOC have regarding participation? Following the meeting I wrote a report detailing the aspects I had outlined.
My report, my email and my follow up received no response to this day. These are hard truths, sporting truths. Bike racing is a meritocracy, the best rise to the top. If you want to compete, you need to understand the competition. By my account, there is not one leader of cycling that shows a true willingness or interest in understanding the true nature of bike racing competition.
Nowhere are these problems more evidenced than the flight of 4 of Rwanda’s all-time top athletes: Janvier Hadi whom qualified Rwanda for participation in the Olympic road race event for the first time in history ahead of the 2016 games in Rio, Brazil. Bonaventure Uwizyemana, current national champion and victor of single day races too numerous to list and even the overall GC at the 2019 Tour of Cameroon. Valens Ndayisenga, 2 time Tour du Rwanda champion in 2017 and in 2014, the first Rwandan to take the crown during the races period of UCI sanctioning. Multi time national champion and darling of the cycling community and indeed the public. Finally, Jeanne D’arc, Rwanda’s premiere female athlete, multi time national champion and silver medalist in the individual time trial at the 2016 African Continental championships. All four of these athletes have not only left the sport, but left the country in search of greener pastures.
These now former athletes are all brilliant, intelligent individuals their talent extending a broad spectrum placing them in the ideal position to contribute to the sport extending beyond their athletic careers as leaders, coaches and mentors to younger athletes. In fact, Valens was one of the individuals that I felt most strongly, after years of working with him, was well qualified to take over coaching the national team. His Charisma and spirit are unparalleled in recent Rwanda cycling history and every athlete looks up to and respects him. The fact that all four of these cherished individuals have left our community is to my mind a failure by cycling leadership and on this count, I include myself in that number.
A final vignette that I will leave you with takes place during the short-lived training camp to prepare for the 2020 UCI World Championships in Imola, Italy. Ahead of the camp, I requested Covid-19 testing for all attending participants in order to create a safety bubble as per my best interpretation of best practice regarding avoiding the spread of the virus. However, no testing was organized or required and the athletes arrived in camp with their status unknown. Mere days into the camp a number of individual athletes converged on my quarters at ARCC to inform me that they were being told to leave camp and return home immediately. No communication was sent to me by anyone at FERWACY previous to this decision. I was not notified or consulted by anyone. I immediately instructed them to stay in their houses to await instructions from me and left my quarters to locate ARCC Director Ruben. I informed him verbally of my concerns, in particular that two of the athletes currently in the camp were suffering from Corona virus like symptoms for which they had come to me requesting mediation and there was no way of confirming whether it was Covid related or not. I also reminded him that as head coach that riders should receive their instructions when in training camp from me, or at the very least I should be consulted.
The riders were pressured to leave regardless of my objections and they did so, after which I turned directly to email to express my concerns to FERWACY President Abdallah Murenzi. Many more instances of a failure of oversight by cycling leadership over my tenure as head coach have led me to write this letter, of which it would take much longer to detail and would be impossible or difficult to prove. This is why I, and I believe the Rwandan public should be asking; where exactly are you leading us?
Cycling leadership makes no small matter of their desire to host the UCI World Championships in 2025. One can be certain that if awarded the bid that Rwanda will do an exceptional job of hosting these championships, creating a spectacular experience for every participant, for all those that the event touches and a spectacle on display for the entire world to see that will make all Rwandans, indeed all Africans proud.
But what about the community? What about the athletes, the staff? What about young kids that aspire to enter the sport? What about those like myself dedicated to the mentorship of our racing culture and its community? The 2025 World Championships are now 4 years and 5 months away. Where are the bikes? Where is the coach? Where are the new athletes? Do our sports leaders understand what is required for the task of preparing ourselves for these championships, or is the only priority only to host outsiders in Rwanda?
If one had to report from the evidence, you could easily be led to conclude that Rwanda’s national sport is in fact, tourism.
I have a lot of conversations with the people I work with within the Rwanda cycling community. They range from the personal to the technical to friendly banter. Most importantly, I interface with so many individuals that have things to say, things that they tell me about their worries, struggles and sometimes shocking injustices that they are either afraid to speak up about, or don’t have anyone to tell them to. I’ve always searched in the back of my mind for a way to help them be heard, to tell the true story of this cycling community that has in essence become, my community.
Originally I endeavored to produce a documentary, I hired a cameraman to film behind the scenes throughout the 2020 Tour du Rwanda, incidentally the last race held in Rwanda to date since the pandemic struck. The footage from the race, which was brutally hard and filled with extra complications, has been sitting with the editor for over a year now as I’ve struggle to finance its production. All we really needed to finish it was to sit individuals from the team down and have them tell their story about the race, the lead up to it, training camp, what happened and why etcetera.
So I build a makeshift sound recording studio in my house and started work on it, I got the most basic mics, cameras and lights I thought would do the trick and started working on the script. However getting people to work on the film for pennies on the dollar since I am unemployed at this point proved near impossible, so I switched gears.
Everyone and there mother’s uncle has a podcast now, I never planned on throwing my hat in the ring, but here I am with all the equipment and a studio, desiring to tell a story that needs to be heard and well, voila, fine, let’s do a podcast.
I call it Mayonnaise on Every Bite because I’m not trying to say that I’ve figured out a new way to slice bread in the cycling world and that’s why you should tune in. The project needed a name and I’d rather have a funny one that maybe people can remember! Yes there is a meaning behind it. Growing up I always used to observe my Father whenever eating a sandwich, apply mayonnaise from the little packets they usually come in at delis across the USA, a little at a time before taking each bite, a habit he learned from his Mother, my late grandmother Peggy. I personally prefer to open up the sandwich and apply a generous helping across the span of it, one and done. But on a plethora of other meals, I dab it on every bite. It’s a family legacy in a way, silly as it may seem.
I’m two episodes deep now into this new endeavor and it takes way more effort and planning that I ever imagined it would. I can’t tell yet if it is worth it, no one really seems to be watching, but such as it is with all meaningful projects, I suppose it takes a while to appear on peoples radar. Our video footage isn’t great, I could only afford basic Panasonic camcorders to start with and our conversations are very sporadic. I don’t have a formula other than to introduce my friends to the world and give them a space to speak. I’m refining the structure of the podcast each time I do an episode, each one is a little better than the last and soon we will have a library of accounts on what it is to live as a bike racer, mechanic, staff member, fan or observer of Rwandan cycling and hopefully beyond one day soon.
Eventually we will get better cameras and provide the show in true HD, I hope to assemble a mobile setup that can come with me wherever I go so that we can capture the experiences and stories of cycling community members across Africa. I hope you enjoy the show, if you have the desire to learn and understand what really goes on around here, stay tuned, we’re gonna tell you all about it.
The idea has been floating around my head for the better part of a decade. Always conceptualized in its ideal form of expression as the fine art of the pursuit of excellence in bike racing. Building a team. That’s the dream. I’ve consulted with other parties about their concepts, coached other teams as they grew and often wondered why no one seems to be able to do it in a truly original way. I heard it said once that you should give your ideas away, the ones you can’t give away, those are the ones you develop.
In my 5 years of working in African cycling I’ve become absolutely convinced that the talent to compete at the highest level exists in spades in many as yet untaped communities. Physical specimens that inspire awe at the miracle of the human weapon. The only thing lacking is the individuals and programs to develop these athletes. So year after year, would be superstars never even climb on a bike.
If I could do anything, I would change that. I would bring the dream under one roof and seek out the truest manifestation of native talent and cultivate it with the most refined methods I can conceptualize. When I was coming up as a young athlete, I went through the gauntlet that every young aspiring pro must go through: Europe. There is no substitute for the convergence of forces that result in the international, world class, European peloton. If you wanted to compete with the best in the would, you had to go jump in the trenches with them, and it was rough.
Today the same is true, and while limited, African athletes make brave forays into the international Euro, but increasingly global racing culture. The biggest obstacle is how cost prohibitive the sharp learning curve is. The ROI on sending a team from Rwanda to go compete in Belgium or France is not sustainable. It takes time to adapt and gain the confidence needed for success. Season long tenures by individual or isolated small groups of Africans are again, brave, but often a losing battle. Adapting to culture as well as to the pinnacle of performers in the sport is so all consuming that something has to go. Quality of life really matters in the end, so in most cases, it’s the racing craft that doesn’t get enough oxygen.
I believe that all of this however, isn’t necessarily necessary. The only reason for joining in the absurdity of the Euro charged cycling circus, is that it houses the biggest and best stages in the world. But what if there were a better way for African athletes to prepare for and adapt to the world stage, what if instead of begging for a spot in the white man’s circus we started building our own?
Before there was gravel, there was the red roads of Rwanda that the brave pioneers of the sport rode on. It’s intriguing if you look back to see how many phenomena of the present have occurred in history under different circumstances. Who knew. Personally I love riding the red roads criss crossing the thousand hills of Rwanda by the thousands, there’s something there, a magic that shouldn’t be forgotten or lost. Why not race on them once again?
The Rwanda Cycling Cup national race series saw what was a welcome change in my view. A shift away from long form point to point road races to shorter legs ending in circuits, or, just circuit races outright. I’ve heard quite a few people voicing concerns that this style of racing is inferior to the longer format.
In principal they are not wrong, strictly speaking. But in the context of Rwandan cycling as it is in its current iteration, the long form road races are actually problematic. In Rwanda almost all of our roads are hilly. While this does make the race challenging, it reduces the tactical nature of the race significantly reducing the effect of drafting and the size of the field usually quite early on. What this does is create a race of attrition that typically rewards a largely aerobic ability over 4 or 5 hours. These races end up being remarkably similar to a training exercise in one of our training camps, minus the motor pacing of course. The lack of tactical challenge and the absence of a clear pinch point that decides the race means that 9 times out of 10 the winners are simply the ones that lasted the longest. This is certainly a component of what makes a good bike racer, but it is only one component, and it is fairly simple to train.
On to the circuits. These races provide a different kind of challenge and result in a different, more dynamic kind of racing. More corners challenge athletes skills, shorter circuits, often slightly less challenging than the open road keeps the peloton together longer. The winners that emerge and the athletes that excel at this type of racing are better bike handlers, tactically inclined, and possess a greater racing acumen that often would go unused in the longer format. This style of racing also requires higher, more polarized power outputs which are a greater indicator of success in the international peloton than the sub-threshold extended efforts of the long road races. In fact, the athlete good at 5 hour sub threshold efforts often is not suited at all to the demands of actual professional bike racing
What all this means is that the shift to more circuit style racing brings out a much improved setting for young athletes to truly learn how to race bikes. It also provides me, as a coach, with much more valuable observations that can actually translate up to the next level.
The long form has its place and its value without question, but it will take some time for the size of our peloton to grow to the numbers that would create a dynamic race. We need to see fields of 60, 70, or 100 and multiple teams capable of contributing to the race. Our fields have been growing slowly, but the number of athletes actually capable of influencing the race are still few. So in short, the circuits are a welcome format purely from a cost benefit analysis considering where Rwandan cycling is in its development. Lastly, I think the circuits provide more energy to the environment, the public can watch a race unfold for hours rather than seeing it go by once or twice. This educates the public a little bit about how bike racing works as well.
I hope that sheds some light on our national series and persuades the naysayers to enjoy the format.
2019 was a really tough year. 2020 doesn’t look much easier. I’ve been coaching the Rwandan national cycling team for almost 5 years now. In the early days I marveled at my good fortune having stumbling into a job so perfect for me. It put me on my bike, and got me fully immersed in the science of extracting the most and best possible performances from a whole team of athletes. But most of all, it put me smack dab in the middle of one of the most interesting cultures and places to ever pursue high level cycling. It was a dream come true, it felt like what I was doing was worthwhile. When I see my athletes, I don’t just see a bunch of kids from Rwanda, I see myself. I WAS that wide eyed kid from the village (country.) I didn’t know jack shit about the world and the bike was my ticket out of obscurity.
It’s never been a bed of roses, every worthwhile effort has its pitfalls and hazards, but along the way, over the years, something has changed. I still relate to my boys, I still love the art of the craft of coaching and spend countless hours studying the latest science. I read the papers and listen to the lectures or podcasts to glean something new that might be useful for us. I still dream of seeing our kids fill up the roster of a top World Tour team one day, Tour de France type shit, you know? Not just one token African guy that goes and gets a participation medal at the Olympics. If you know anything about professional bike racing, you know you can’t train up to that level. You need probably fifty race days at the top level to adapt to that kind of competition. You could have all the talent in the world and there is still no possible way to prepare for being competitive without being a member of the World Tour.
I don’t wanna say that we’ve reached the limits of our abilities up here nestled between Mount Sabyinyo and Bisoke, home to Gorilla families and base of the Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) but we’re definitely stuck for too long up against the same obstacles. It’s been a long time now since the national team was well funded, since equipment was replenished and true racing gear has been infused into the team. Tools like power meters, computers and components for proper fitting contact points on the bikes are sorely lacking, and have been for years. The outright supply of race worthy bikes and wheels is dwindling. Not to mention the general scarcity of bikes in the country, period.
I can’t lie to them. I can’t sit here and say “hang on, it will get better” because it hasn’t. I don’t know how far up you have to go to make a meaningful change that would actually allow someone with bike racing knowledge to make executive decisions and budget calls. Corruption is the bane of many an African federation. It’s a stereotype no one likes to talk about, but the bullshit bureaucracy that gets put in place to protect against the corruption in the first place is almost as bad. Wherever there are talented athletes, progress is getting blocked by wanna be politicians, making a career out of their positions instead of serving, if not being outright corrupt themselves. The dream seems so far off… way further than ever before. Whatever money comes along to fund new bikes and equipment is too little too late to keep up with the time it takes to develop the next generation. The sport is dying. So where do we turn? I’m not just interested in the future of the sport for the kids, I’m interested in it for all of us. Rwanda has the potential to lead the way for all of Africa. The thousand hill miracle, there’s hardly a place better suited to training and building a racing culture. We hold in our hands a precious commodity. An opportunity to make history, to build something that wasn’t here before. To create a movement that could carry thousands, even millions of Africans forward. The bike is that powerful. I want to pump as much life into this sport around here as I can, but there’s a wall of obstacles in front of me.
Give us bikes, build us a velodrome, give us programs for education for athletes serving on the national team. Imagine what we could do with 500 athletes in the country instead of barely 100… where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Tour l’Espoir au Cameroon 2017. That was a high energy, highly charged time. We were on the way up, pushing our limits and pulling together to make our tactics comprehensive within the team. Then that qualified us for the 2018 Tour du l’Avenir which was a dose of reality that knocked us all back quite a bit. Coupled with that and the beating we received at the 2018 Innsbruck UCI World Championships left us all feeling like we needed something we didn’t have in order to compete with the world. That’s a problem I still haven’t solved yet. Trying to weigh wether the goal for us is to dominate Africa, send soldiers out to climb up the ranks of the European peloton, or to recalibrate and just focus on the home front for a few years. The things each of those goals require are different. But the funding, equipment and programs I would need to accomplish any of these ambitions are not dissimilar. Anything is possible I believe, but someone still has to pay for it. For now my next focus is Tour du Rwanda UCI2.1 2020. I’m going at it with as specific and detailed of program as I’ve ever tried to implement, doing everything I can think of to move the needle even half a percent. I’m hoping that the details add up to the marginal gains everyone always talks about and gets us on the podium even if we can’t yet win the race outright in its newer iteration of UCI2.1 ranking. Nothing would make me happier than to have a squad that can surprise some people in our home race come February.
It has slowly dawned on me, more and more as time goes on, the fickle nature of all our personal media platforms we use. People have entire careers now stemming from an Instagram following or a YouTube channel. I’ve always looked at these people and sort of admired their ability to constantly and aggressively serve up their lives to the world for your entertainment. But I’ve never been able to conceive of spending that much time, or making that kind of effort to put my story, my work, the things I have to say out for you. For one, my following isn’t that of a supermodel or a controversial talk show host, so a lot of hours and effort go into something that maybe get viewed 100 or 500 times. Basically drowned out by all the noise. That is why I have for years been retreating to the timeless analog of writing an actual book. Gambling in a sense that the trend is coming, already started in my estimation of intellectual and genuine people starting to unplug, partially or fully from the social media matrix in search of more indelible formats of information and story. More analog and sincere formats. I’m caught somewhere in-between. Huge swaths of my days and the story of my work goes undocumented because it’s simply too much work. The ROI seems to be nil, but maybe it isn’t. It’s a loud world out there and I’m not that interested in competing for your attention as you scroll…
When I first arrived in Rwanda 5 years ago I started a blog called “NoMessNoMessage.” Eventually I fell off of updating it and now I am missing many moments, many scenes, stories and pictures that would provide some joy, education and entertainment for the right audience. Maybe even just for me to catalogue my experiences and getting maybe just a bit more of it on tape to post here for my family, friends and faithful little following to come and enjoy. Today I took a trip down memory lane watching some of the old videos I’ve made of the team. I teared up watching some of the athletes that were once an indelible, integral part of our team, but are now gone. Bona.. Janvier.. Vava.. I love you boys and I hope wherever you’re at is working out for you.