Since 2009 when Tour du Rwanda became an International Cycling Union (UCI) Africa Tour category 2.2 road race, cycling has grown to attract hundreds of thousands of fans.The sport has produced some elite riders including; Adrien Niyonshuti, the first Rwandan professional cyclist, currently riding for UCI World Tour Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka.
Others are Valens Ndayisenga, who recently became the first rider to win Tour du Rwanda more than once after his triumph in 2014 and 2016, as well as Janvier Hadi (now retired), who won the 2015 All African Games road race gold medal in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville),among others.
This success story is synonymous with Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, a former professional cyclist.
The 61-year-old first arrived in Rwanda in 2006, and a year later, with support from the President’s office, he started the ‘Team Rwanda’ project whose objective was to turn Rwanda into a cycling powerhouse.
Together with his wife Kimberly Coats, the couple is credited for making Rwandan cycling what it is at the moment.
After 10 years the couple has returned to America their home country. Richard Mutabazi, the former Rwanda Basketball Federation secretary general, was picked to replace Boyer as the Technical Director of the Musanze-based Africa Rising Cycling Centre (ARCC), the home of Team Rwanda Cycling.
Last week, Times Sport reporter Geoffrey Asiimwe caught up with Boyer before he left the country. Boyer talked about his 10-year experience in Rwanda and the future of cycling. Below are the excerpts.
Tell us briefly about your 10-year experience in Rwanda?
Actually, it’s been very unique, extremely challenging, but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life.
It’s certainly not something that I set out to do, we had no purpose in the real beginning. I had just come to help start a race; the Mountain Bike Classic in 2006 and after that we decided to come back and test some riders and my plan was to stay three months, now unbelievably it’s been 10 years.
It happened really quickly, I think the slowest times were the three first years. We had a federation that was pretty much inactive and after two years or a little bit less, Aimable Bayingana was brought in to lead Ferwacy and was actually instrumental in making things go forward.
In 2009, Joseph Habineza (then Sports minister) wanted a race and it came at a time when we wanted to have a national race, a national team and an international race. So we registered Tour of Rwanda as an international race, and things just organically grew and it’s been really fun.
What has been your biggest challenge and what remains the biggest challenge for Rwandan cycling to be where everyone wishes it to be?
I think one of the biggest challenges is education. In the very beginning, we had riders that were older, that had extreme trauma because of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. They had experienced a lot of emotional hardships and that was something that we first had to deal with.
An example is Adrien Niyonshuti, Abraham Ruhumuriza as well as Rafiki Uwimana, who was a street kid for five years before taking up cycling as a sport.
So, each year we had to focus on a young level and now we are getting kids at 14 years, and we have a policy which is pretty supported by the ministry that even no rider can quit school to come and join Team Rwanda.
We need smart riders that can figure out tactics because cycling is a tactical sport, so we need riders that have had proper education because cycling is not managing how much to eat or energy, you know there are so many elements that if not addressed, you won’t win any race even if you’re super talented.
Where exactly do you think you have scored highly as far your mission to develop/promote Rwandan cycling is concerned?
I think one of the most amazing things is that we have built a real culture of cycling. People here love cycling and it might be partially because there are a lot of taxi bikes unlike in most other countries where they use donkeys.
So, there is already a mentality that accepts that biking is normal. To have the Tour of Rwanda and see millions of spectators come and line up on streets, has been so great.
Do you believe it’s possible to achieve the ambition of cycling tourism, and if yes, how do you and other partners plan to achieve it?
I think this country is made for cycling tourism. One of the very big things I and His Excellency (President Paul Kagame) talked about recently was growing cycling tourism and he accepted to change the high customs duties for bikes to 0% and will make a boom in cycling already.
We are now working with Rwanda Development Board and we have almost 7000 kilometers of roads already mapped within Rwanda for cycling, we have clubs within Rwanda and we are doing a whole program with hotels that are interested or touring companies or organizations that want to put this kind of merger on their websites.
People will come not to just to see gorillas but they can say; Hey, I can spend three or more days and ride the bike around lake Burera, Ruhondo etc.
And in each region we have our former riders that have turned into guides or mechanics, so each region will be able to sustain the riders that are already there for cycling tourism, it’s really an ideal project.
Do you believe the people you are leaving behind in charge of Team Rwanda Cycling Project and Africa Rising Cycling Center; have the ability and commitment to move these huge projects forward?
They certainly have the capabilities and commitment. I think it would be a learning curve, which is absolutely normal.
If they have challenges or issues, we will be at hand to help them and I think with us being away, Mutabazi is going to be a liaison between Ferwacy and the ministry, who probably explain things better than we could.
In addition, we have one of our four original riders that will always be at the center all the time. It might be Rafiki Uwimana, Nathan Byukusenge, Obed Ruvogera or Abraham Ruhumuriza plus Sterling Magnell (American coach), who is still here, so I am not afraid of anything.
In your 10-years involvement in Rwandan cycling, what do you consider as your best and worst moments?
Best moments probably is in the first half when Adrien Niyonshuti went to the Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, also winning Tour of Rwanda in the first year was pretty spectacular and even each year that we have won it.
Probably, when the riders went on strike before the 2015 Tour of Rwanda, that was really the worst moment because at that time, they could not really communicate their problems and striking 10 days before the race, was a point where I asked myself; what are we doing?
Another bad moment was during the Vuelta Colombia, it was also catastrophic, which to some extent, makes us believe that Richard Mutabazi would be even better because he is a Rwandan, he knows the mentality and he knows what these kids (riders) are going through.
Who are the people that you can point out to have been influential and you are very grateful to have worked with you?
President Paul Kagame, without him, it would never have happened, and also Ferwacy with Aiamable Bayingana, without him and without collaboration with the federation, none of this would be possible.
It is not a single person thing, actually I and my wife could never have done this in another African country because we have had offers from other countries but you find what they are thinking about is how much they are going to earn from it not the well-being of the riders.
However, we have had a multitude of people, and that’s a lot of people that supported us within this country and also other countries, I mean we have raised and spent over US$3million in these 10 years.
Any piece of advice to your successor, the federation and the general Rwanda cycling fraternity?
My simple advice to the Rwandan people is to stay focused on the vision; you know the vision sometimes seems unreachable.
The task ahead is not going to be done overnight, it’s continuous encouragement of riders even if they are not doing well, knowing that either you win or you learn and you really have to go forward regardless of the challenges and setbacks.