Team Africa Rising is growing from strength to strength, despite its difficult environment. Yet still they have only one female rider, and social and cultural beliefs make it hard to grow the women's side of the team. TWC's contributor Emily Conrad-Pickles shares the story of an inspirational rider and her desire to be "free" on the bike...
When you think of Rwanda, the first thing that will probably come into your mind is Genocide. More recently, if you are a cyclist, you may also think of Team Rwanda, Rwanda’s progressive cycling squad who shot to fame at the London 2012 Olympics when they fielded their first cyclist, Adrien Niyonshuti, in the cross-country mountain bike event.
Set up in 2007 by former pro cyclist Jock Boyer (the first American to compete in the TDF), Team Rwanda has grown from strength to strength and is now a respectable force within the African cycling arena. But the goal of the team is greater than just country-focused. They have ambitions to help improve and unify cycling across Africa, which is reflected in their new name, Team Africa Rising.
Since its inception, Team Rwanda has grown from strength to strength and now boasts 17 cyclists and hopes to have three riders in this year’s Olympic Games in Rio. Since 2014, things have really started to shine for the team with a few notable milestones including Rwanda’s second appearance in the World Championships in September 2014, and winning the Tour of Rwanda in 2014 and 2015. With passion from inside this team and support from the international cycling federation (UCI), things are really on the up and Team Rwanda is setting a stunning example for their African compatriots. The team strongly believes that cycling in Africa will never improve unless they can bring the whole continent forward together.
Yet, despite the numerous successes of the squad, they still only have one female rider, Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu; and she has only been with them for the past two years. You see, cycling for girls in Rwanda, and other countries in Africa, is still a cultural challenge that many cannot get over. Keeping girls in education, especially in the poorer, rural areas (most of Rwanda) is hard – many will drop out at a young age to fulfill chores and duties at home and even those who manage to finish secondary schools are encouraged to marry and start a family. Cycling just does not have a place in the life of a woman here. It’s very different for men, many of whom cycle bikes for a living to transport people and goods. It’s the women who stay at home to work in the fields and do the household chores.
Cycling just does not have a place in the life of a woman here.
What’s more shocking is that across Africa; it is commonly believed that if young women ride a bicycle while they are going through puberty then they will loose their virginity. This not only discourages young women from cycling but it often makes it socially unacceptable to do so.
We caught up with Team Rwanda’s director of marketing and logistics, Kimberly Coats, to discuss the plans for Team Rwanda and, in particular, what her views are on the expansion of women’s cycling in the country.
“Getting women onto bikes in Rwanda is a struggle, but not an insurmountable challenge. I am confident that we will get there one day but it will take time and perseverance. Social barriers and attitude are our biggest challenge to get women on bikes. We do get women interested in joining the squad however I cannot just train someone – they have to really want it and have a winning instinct ingrained in their personality."
Rwanda’s first female cyclist is a hugely inspirational young lady called Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu. At just 20 years old she is showing immense promise to become a real champion. She recently competed in the UCI World Road Championships in September 2015 where she was not only the only Rwandan competing but also the only black African. In February 2016 she will compete in the African Continental Championships that, if she wins, which she is hoped to do, she will earn herself a place at the Rio Olympics later this year. This will not only move her career forwards immensely but it will hopefully do a huge amount to inspire and encourage young women in Rwanda to take up sport, in particular cycling.
The Tour of Rwanda once passed her front door she [Jeanne] commented that the riders looked “free"
Jeanne D’Arc found out about cycling through the promotion work that current, and original, Team Rwanda cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti did in Rwanda’s Eastern Province and when the Tour of Rwanda once passed her front door she commented that the riders looked “free". It gave her the encouragement and incentive to start training with the ambition to one day join the team so that she herself can be free.
Now Jeanne D’Arc is in the team and starting to make a name for herself on the international cycling arena, she faces the challenge of acceptance back home. On speaking to Kimberly, we were sad to learn that although her parents are incredibly supportive, her friends do not understand why she would want to be away from home and not get married – she often faces prejudice when she returns. She would love to have some female team mates.
She often faces prejudice when she returns. She would love to have some female team mates.
Kimberly is keen to start a series of single speed races for women across the country to help change the attitude of girls and women across Rwanda. For those who do ride bikes, the vast majority will do so on a single speed bike and it will be a great way to uncover talent from across the country. Once again, however, funding is needed to enable this so it will sadly this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Team Rwanda struggles financially to keep the men’s team running. Although they do receive numerous generous sponsorships, running a world standard cycling national cycling squad is tough. It’s even harder for the women. Kimberly told us how she had planned an “all-Africa" women’s training camp with invitations issued to selected cyclists from across the continent however, sadly, the camp never happened due to a lack of funding. However, all is not lost asthe UCI did host an all-female cycling camp at the World Cycling Centre Africa, which Jeanne D’Arc attended. She also spent the summer of 2015 at the UCI headquarters in Switzerland, which she will repeat in 2016. However, despite support from the UCI, women’s cycling in Africa is going to continue to struggle unless additional funding can be sourced from within the industry; it is hard to see how they can fund more than a select few cyclists from Africa at a time. When you twin these financial strains with the added hurdles that Africa has to get women cycling in the first place due to social prejudice, there is a huge task ahead. We can only hope that, in time, this will change and it’s great that there are women like Kimberly on the ground helping to drive things forward.
The world over, cycling and sport allows people to grow self confidence – in the same way that education will empower women to make their own decisions, cycling will give them the confidence to do so.
The world over, cycling and sport allows people to grow self confidence – in the same way that education will empower women to make their own decisions, cycling will give them the confidence to do so. There are charities all over Africa who are helping to educate women and hopefully, in time, we will see more women on bikes across Africa. The charity World Bicycle Relief is already helping to empower women by giving them bikes to enable them to get to school have so far donated over 250,000 bikes to children across Africa.
When you consider what cycling has done in Rwanda already, imagine what will happen when a women’s team starts to have similar success, it has the possibility to be a game changer.
With the right financial backing and a solid team behind them, Team Rwanda will continue to flourish. For now, the team will continue to train and add to their trophy cabinet as they seek further finance, sponsorship and look for people from the professional cycling community to work with them on a long term basis. So if you’re a skilled mechanic, masseuse, or coach looking for a challenge for a few years, there is a job in Rwanda with you name on it!
Emily Conrad-Pickles is currently riding from London to Cape Town to raise money for World Bicycle Relief. You can read her own inspiring story so far in two instalments - leg one through Turkey here, and leg two through Jordan here. There's more information about the charity and the ride here, too.