“And next, we have Team Rwanda”, called out a disembodied announcer’s voice through loud speakers, “It is their debut entry to participate in RideLondon, they have come a long way to be here, please give them a big hand.”
It was Team Rwanda’s turn to be introduced to the spectators and the waiting cameras. And on a specially constructed stage, in front of the imposing, historical Horse Guards, where team after team stood to acknowledge the crowd as they were called, walked the Rwanda quartet, Jean Bosco Nsengimana, Joseph Areruya, Jean Claude Uwizeye, and Samuel Mugisha, all members of Rwanda’s U-23 cycling team.
They waved to the spectators who happily responded to the announcer’s invitation to welcome and cheer them on. Predictably, the loudest cheers came from a small group of members of the UK’s Rwandan Diaspora community, who had claimed a spot right in front of Horse Guards.
“We have colonised this bit for Rwanda”, quipped one of them, Karisa Karemera (or as he prefers to spell his name, Kalisa Kalemera) a founder member of the community organisation. He has been in the country for over two decades, and has clearly “gone native”, down to a penchant for claiming other societies’ territories as his own.
They had tied (or as Karisa would have it, planted) a Rwandan flag on their bit of railing. Any mention of Rwanda drew cheers and enthusiastic flag waving. The context didn’t seem to matter, since much of what was said couldn’t be heard that clearly anyway.
The size of the group would have been more impressive, but, for shambling confusion about a meeting place. Unhappily for them, with hundreds of thousands attending the event, it was easy to lose a few Rwandans, even ones waving their national flag.
But, what they lacked in numbers, they made up in enthusiasm.
And soon Team Sky was announced to the stage, led by the impressive Chris Froome, fresh from the superhuman feat of winning the gruelling Tour de France, for the third time. The Rwandan crowd cheered almost as energetically as they had cheered their own. It wasn’t just recognition of a great sportsman.
Earlier, as the competitors gathered, Froome had come to take a picture flanked by the Rwandan team, a gesture greatly appreciated, and applauded by their supporters. He suddenly became the Rwanda Diaspora’s new best friend.
The RideLondon race was the culmination of a four week tour of the UK by TeamRwanda, a tour that saw them take part in twelve elite races across the country. They looked fresh, none the worse for wear for all their exertions.
This race, however, would surely be the most exciting part of their tales when they return home.
We made easy progress to the start venue, they will say, many of the capital’s roads had been closed for the race, eight miles of them to be precise. As we waited for the start, we took in the imposing building, Horse Guards, which faces one of London’s most beautiful parks, St James’.
And, they will no doubt add, they were excited by the prospect of racing against the world’s best teams, including Team Sky, whose most celebrated rider, Chris Froome, who only a week earlier, was in Paris, being crowned winner of the Tour de France for an incredible third time.
Continuing with their tale, they may say to their listeners, then the Mayor of London, Sadique Khan was introduced. He made a few celebratory remarks about the day, and the race, then, once the organisers were content that we were ready to set off, we were called under starter’s orders.
The mayor invited the crowd to count from ten, and at zero, we were off, with cheers from spectators ringing in our ears.
The peloton went round St James’ park, past Buckingham Palace, the magnificent London home of Queen Elizabeth II. We picked up speed as we headed into the British countryside, they might recall.
They may be asked about RideLondon. They might know that it is an annual event, established three years ago, by the Mayor of London as was then, now British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, together with other agencies, including TfL (Transport for London), and British Cycling, among others.
The ambition was to create a festival of cycling as part of the sporting legacy from the London 2012 Olympics. It has succeeded beyond expectations.
It has become an internationally recognised festival of cycling which draws the world’s best teams, amateur riders from across the country and beyond, fun riders, and hundreds of thousands of spectators, along the route.
The amateur cyclists alone number 27,000. Almost all of them ride to raise money for various charities, including Oxfam, Cancer research, among many others.
The professional riders are timed to set off, as the amateurs finish. Taking the same route as the 2012 Olympians, cyclists ride 100 miles through the centre of the capital, on roads closed to all motor vehicles, and into some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside in Surrey, and back in London.
The finish line is on the Mall, a grand boulevard, leading up to Buckingham Palace. It is arguably the most famous road in the country, used for almost every ceremonial, celebratory occasion. For the Rwandan riders, this is the sort of competition they will face, as they fulfil their ambition to race on the world stage.
Their coach, Sterling Magnell, an American who has clearly picked up some rudimentary Kinyarwanda, saw the race as a chance to broaden his riders’ experience.
“Our best young Rwandan talents possess world class-pedal power, but, they need more experience with cornering and close-quarter racing,” he said. Earlier at the start, he had called them into a huddle, “dusenge”, he directed. He was taking no chances, and wanted every help he could get.
The race was won by Belgian Tom Boonen. Three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome, clearly content to save his energy for the Olympic road races due to start next weekend.
However, the festival was marred by the sad death from cardiac arrest, of amateur rider Robin Chard, at the 25th mile. He was air lifted to hospital, but, could not be saved. Chard was a cancer survivor, who was riding to raise money for cancer research.
The race was also interrupted by two serious accidents causing delays, as the route was diverted. One rider fell and hit a tree and another sustained serious head injuries. They were both taken to hospital by air ambulance.
For the Rwandan riders, however, this will have been the race of their lives, from which they will have gained invaluable lessons.