Photo: Kris Evered

This US Cycling Team Is Showcasing the Benefits of Biking in Rural Rwanda

Rwanda Cycling Activism
by Tim Wenger Jan 9, 2019

Passion can overcome nearly any obstacle. Coupled with hard work and perseverance, it can even take you around the world. A new Matador Originals video series chronicles the travels of Team Illuminate, a San Francisco-based professional cycling team on a mission to do two things: participate in professional racing events around the world and, in the process, spread the word of the bicycle to communities in the places they travel. “We’re racing to illuminate the bike and how it brings individuals, communities, and cultures together,” the Team Illuminate general manager Christopher Johnson said in episode one of the series.

US cycling team in Rwanda

Photo: Kris Evered

Made up of racers from countries across North and South America, Team Illuminate has raced across the United States and in over other 10 countries, including Azerbaijan, Romania, China, and Iran. In this latest episode, the team visited the small East African nation of Rwanda to participate in the country’s most famous bike race, the annual Tour Du Rwanda. The race circles much of the country, covering over 550 miles in five extensive, stamina-testing days. Cycling is the most-watched sport in Rwanda, and races tend to bring fans to a fever pitch, glueing them to their televisions and bringing them out to watch the racers fly down the country’s highways.

Rural Rwandans watching Tour du Rwanda bike race in the countryside

Photo: Kris Evered

Rwandans watching cyclists in the Tour du Rwanda

Photo: Kris Evered

The Tour Du Rwanda is the preeminent event, a massive undertaking in which completing the race is a huge challenge. As Team Illuminate made its way through the race’s eight stages, hundreds of cheering fans lined the streets and created quite a spectacle for the young riders.

Team Illuminate traveled with a team of mechanics to keep them patched up and moving throughout the race. Part of their goal with each trip is to engage with the cycling community and bring people together around the sport that has given them so much, and they were able to smash a gender stereotype in the process. Prior to heading out, the team contacted the Rwanda Cycling Federation to enlist a bit of local expertise. The RWC sent resident pro bike mechanic Sandrine Uwayezu to join Team Illuminate for the race, who became the first female mechanic to ever be part of a team at the Tour Du Rwanda. “We wanted somebody local to help us out while we came over here,” Johnson said. “She’s probably breaking down more barriers than she even realizes.”

Rwandans lining the floors of an empty, open building to watch a cycling race

Photo: Kris Evered

Portrait of a woman from Rwanda in a pink dress

Photo: Kris Evered

Sandrine’s accomplishment was a highlight for both Johnson and the riders. “What really made (this trip) special was having Sandrine on the team… every day traveling with us,” Johnson said. Interacting with the local communities also stood out, a reminder of how the team’s passion for cycling has opened the door to life-changing experiences. “Through the common love of the sport, we’re learning about these places,” he said. “The experience we had here was amazing. We’re really fortunate to be able to come to a place and race our bike and meet people that we otherwise probably wouldn’t get the chance to connect with.”

To see how the team fared in the race, watch the latest episode of Illuminate The Bike below.

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