Race Around Rwanda: Tugende
Rwanda’s first bikepacking race featured three members of Team Rwanda, competing in their first ever ultra-distance race. Despite never having ridden a gravel bike, used lights, GPS or bikepacking bags, the local riders animated the front of the race and Jean Ruberwa and Eric Nduway took victory in the pairs category. We asked Jean to share his experience riding his first gravel ultra-race.
When creating the Race Around Rwanda, the organisers were keen to avoid only having foreign riders at the start. Simon de Schutter tells us “We really wanted to have Rwandans to take part in this race, but bikepacking, gravel cycling and ultra-racing, were completely non-existent in the country. Just explaining the concept of the race was often quite challenging. We are lucky though and the cycling federation saw the merits of this sport, and selected three riders to participate in the races, and our sponsors Ridley and Apidura made sure they were kitted out just as well as all the other participants. Still, this was a big unknown: how would those riders, that are mainly used to 100km road races, fare in an extreme race like the Race Around Rwanda?”.
Rwanda is one of the biggest cycling nations in the world, metal single speeds are probably the most common form of transport (both for people and cargo) and the country is host to one of the biggest stage races in the continent, with World Tour teams participating each year. The lowest point of the country is 1,400 metres above sea level and many Rwandans grow up above 2,000 meters. During his time in the country, Simon has noticed that “I manage to keep up with Rwandan riders on some of the rare flat patches of road, but from the moment the gradient starts to rise, they flutter away.”.
For Simon, it was no surprise that the Rwandan racers kept up with the leaders of the race in the beginning. He explains that “I was expecting them to drop back once they passed the 100 km mark. They did not! Not after 100 km, not after 200 and not even after 500. The pure talent of Rwandan cyclists was clear once again. Probably the biggest challenge they had was navigation: they were navigating by phone only, and the enormous thunderstorms that they were greeted with on the first night made them almost impossible to use. They actually managed to keep up with eventual winner, Ultan Coyle, until km 300, when they took a wrong turn and only realized this 25km afterwards.”.
“Jean, Eric and Innocent have truly managed to show the ultracycling world what Rwandan cyclists are capable of. They told me they’ll be back next year to win this race, and I have to say: I believe them.”
We asked Jean Ruberwa to tell us more about his experience at the race:
How long have you been racing bikes?
I have been a senior racer for the past four years and was a junior for seven years before that. I originally got into cycling for the experience, it is a special sport. But I do hope to also make a living of this, I dream to own my own land, my own house, one day.
What was your previous longest ride?
My usual training rides range from 40 to 120 km, and even the races I’m used to doing don’t often go beyond 150 km. I have once done a training ride of 260 km, but that was the maximum (and all on tarmac). The first day of the race, we did 400 km without sleeping, and almost half of that was on gravel!
Did you do any special training for the race?
Not really, to be honest. We trained like usual, the same kind of preparation I would do before riding a stage race.
How did ultra-racing compare to normal racing?
We are not used to riding on gravel. I’ve done some mountain biking in the past, and am usually a road cyclist, so this constant switching between road and gravel, we had to get used to. We also learned a lot by looking at the others, for example we noticed that every time we stop, we need to charge lights and phones immediately. This is not something we usually need to think about.
How did you find riding on gravel?
Fantastic! This race was a gigantic adventure. We drove a lot for not only the victory in our category, but also for the overall victory. We were therefore close to Ultan (the later winner) until we took a wrong turn somewhere at 1:00 am. Having to navigate yourself during a race is new to us, and that lack of experience cost us.
Did the race change your perception of Rwanda?
We almost always train on the same roads. Most of the route for this race was completely new for me as well. The country seems so much larger when you start riding gravel roads, most of the villages you can’t reach by road bike!
Will you enter again next year?
Absolutely, I really enjoyed the game, I got to know my country in a different way too. And above all: with the experience I have now gained, I want to go for the full victory. We will probably ride solo, because we have noticed that in this sport it is faster to ride alone. I also want to explore the entire route in advance, so that we can find the way without problems, even without GPS.