Rwanda: From Genocide to Olympic Glory

Rising From Ashes from T.C. Johnstone on Vimeo.

“Rising From Ashes” documentary screening around the world

By Gary J Boulanger
Photo courtesy “Rising from Ashes”

In late 2005, three men, separated by more than 2,000 miles and vastly different backgrounds, were about to be pulled together by a tiny country in Africa with a tragic past.

Avid mountain biker and framebuilder Tom Ritchey, based in Woodside, California, was nearly two years into his separation from his wife, living alone in the cabin he built on Skyline Boulevard. Jonathan Boyer, the first American to race the Tour de France in 1981, was running a bike shop near Monterey, California, a broken shell of a man coming off a short stint in jail. The third man was me, running a small bike company in Dayton, Ohio, living in relative comfort in the city best known for the exploits of Wilbur and Orville Wright nearly a century prior.

All business
Dan Cooper, a Chicago businessman, contacted Ritchey about touring Rwanda by bicycle. The well-traveled and adventure-seeking Ritchey didn’t need to be asked twice, but Boyer and I did. I bit first, and it would be a few months before Boyer would join us, and nearly a year before he’d set foot in the country known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.

Ritchey and I met Cooper and a handful of California folks in the Brussels airport, sharing the 10-hour flight to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Our objective was to tour the country by mountain bike, meeting various leaders and experiencing the culture and terrain firsthand. The plight of Rwanda was multi-faceted: nearly 1 million brutally murdered in the spring of 1994 during a cultural genocide, with no prospects of polishing its tarnished image to the world. With no railways or waterways to export goods like coffee, tea and bananas, business was stilted, and the country was suffering.

Cooper, who toured parts of Rwanda by bike prior to our trip, thought that there was potential for the bicycle to become a symbol of hope. With handmade wooden bikes and singlespeed utility bikes filling the streets, footpaths and mountain trails, Cooper’s vision had legs. And in this case, the legs of our small touring group pedaled our bikes through small villages, where we witnessed genocide museums. Hundreds of children would run alongside us, even on the remote trails in the jungle high above civilization. Their smiles and enthusiasm were infectious, if not misplaced: ‘shouldn’t these orphans be more careful?’, I thought. ‘And why are they so happy when they’ve lost everything?’ My American mind wasn’t paying attention to my heart.

Moving pictures

One of the Californians on our trip was T.C. Johnstone, a filmmaker who captured our every move. Not sure exactly what would come from his efforts, Johnstone spent most of the time sitting backwards on a small motorbike, filming us riding in some of the most lush and technical areas I’ve ever seen. After our 10-day journey came to an end, we went our separate ways, our heads full of memories and our hearts convinced there was a story to share and work to be done.

Two months later, our group convened in a historic house on the Pacific Ocean south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. We brainstormed, this time in the company of Boyer, who was intrigued by our recent adventure. We laid out a multi-fold plan, which included a few tangible and realistic objectives: 1. Create a cargo bike for coffee farmers, who get paid a premium for the freshness of their coffee cherries, but can’t afford cars and usually walk several hours; 2. Create an adventure touring company to lead mountain bike rides; 3. Identify and train young men to become cyclists, creating national pride. 4. Put a Rwandan in the Olympics or Tour de France someday, bringing worldwide attention to the country as small as Maryland.

Ritchey got to work immediately on creating a cargo bike, building several prototypes. Boyer’s interest in identifying and developing Rwandan riders grew as 2006 progressed, and we enlisted another former professional cyclist to join us in Rwanda later that year, none other than Alex Stieda, Boyer’s 7-Eleven teammate, and the first North American to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey in 1986, the year Greg LeMond became the first American to win in Paris.

We determined that the best way to identify potential candidates for the national team was to stage a race. The Wooden Bike Classic was held in September 2006, and the winner of the mountain bike race, ahead of Boyer, Stieda and Ritchey (still in peak condition, even in their late 40s and early 50s) was Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost his father and six brothers during the genocide. He was a teenager with vast potential, a bit rough around the edges and very green on the bike (it was his first mountain bike race).

Thousands filled the stadium to catch this spectacle, and we realized there was great potential with our plan to develop riders. Boyer committed to moving to Rwanda in 2007, where he set up a base to test and train riders. Johnstone returned several times to Rwanda, his camera and crew in tow.

London calling
It would be another four years before the team gelled; along the way, Boyer and Ritchey brought Niyonshuti and another Rwandan to race the Cape Epic, testing their mettle against some of the strongest endurance cyclists in the world. A near-miss by Niyonshuti kept him off the 2012 London Olympics men’s road race squad, but his saving grace was the mountain bike, on which he qualified for the cross country event, held August on Hadleigh Farm August 12, the last event of the Games. Niyonshuti finished 39th out of 50, 13:39 off the pace of gold medalist Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic). Niyonshuti’s training partner Nino Schurter was pipped at the line for second; Schurter’s team director is former Ritchey team star Thomas Frischknecht, who also finished second at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. My family and I witnessed Frischknecht podium in Atlanta, then finish mid-pack during the men’s road race the next day, on his Ritchey SwissCross, after his Swiss compatriot Tony Rominger scratched.

Rising From Ashes
Seven years after our first visit to Rwanda, Johnstone finished his documentary, which is being screened around the world. Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker narrates the 80-minute film, which I watched with my wife and parents in Redwood City, California, on March 10. The narrative runs parallel with the life stories of Boyer and Niyonshuti, primarily, who both lost their fathers at a young age, but who bonded because of the bicycle. The rich, green Rwandan hills reminded me of my two adventures to Africa, and the impact it’s had on my life. As a wise gentleman told us during our first visit in 2005, ‘it’s easy for some to support others with their money, but the best way to truly support others is to walk a mile in their shoes, and to see for themselves how similar we all are…’

My life was changed instantly because of Rwanda, offering clarity while allowing me to see into the heart of others. The bicycle has changed many lives, and is a constant reminder that it just takes vision to change a country, no matter its history. My talents nowhere near come close to those of Ritchey, Boyer, Niyonshuti. Stieda or Johnstone, but I was invited early and continue to champion the cause through my storytelling.

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