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.