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Race Around Rwanda - Race report

I arrived in Kigali a few days before the race so plenty of time to get acclimatised, not too hot, but warmer than the single digits I’d left in the UK. This gave me the chance to get a few rides in around Kigali to get a feel for the roads, and importantly, the off-road roads!


Firstly, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries I have ever been to, in-part thanks to something locally known as Umuganda. Walking and riding around Kigali I didn’t see any litter. And I mean zero litter…


There are bikes everywhere and this is how most people get around. They are all single speed and seem to have the perfect gearing for going fast on the flat, climbing up hill, and also somehow racing you uphill? These are not race bikes, these are chunky steel bikes with rim brakes (if at all), chunky tyres, and used to ship goods and people around! Rwanda must have a plethora of world-class cyclists hidden away, is my opinion.

 

Rwanda is hosting the 2025 UCI world championships, as a cycling destination, it is absolutely up there in my opinion. Outside of Kigali, it’s true the levels of comfort and services are not quite up to what you’d expect in, say, Europe, but there are other things that more than make up for it like the people, coffee, landscape and just friendliness!

 

Away from cycling, Kigali is really safe, I can’t think of many cities where it’s safe to walk the streets at night, plenty of cultural things to do, restaurants, and importantly, lovely coffee and cafes to enjoy.


Day 1:

An early start of waking up at 3:45am gave me time to dress, cycle to the start at Tugende and have the worlds strongest coffee and a light breakfast. Over 100 riders from 24 nations lined up for a 5am start, including some absolute class riders and experience well beyond mine.


We’d have a police escort outside of the city. At the start it was straight racing (for some reason?) from the off, which is odd for a race like this. Unlike previous years, the fixed route took us through some cobbled roads which included a cobbled descent in the dark. These were no ordinary cobbles – this was a cobbled road with potholes, and unfortunately at the bottom of the descent, after being blinded by a police motorbikes blue light, I’d hit something that blew my tyre out…


Luckily, for the first time ever I’d fitted a foam liner to my rim which saved my carbon rim (and my race) and being the back wheel at the bottom I could feel the squirm and my tyre had stayed in place.


The same thing had happened to two other riders; one had their wheel completely buckled (they also had a foam insert), the second rider had a front tyre blow out and ended up in the back of an ambulance, so on reflection, I was actually very fortunate.

This all happened 10km into the race on a Sunday morning, but also on reflection this was early enough in the race that I was able to flag down a motorbike taxi, bike over the shoulder, and I was heading back to the start for a new tyre on the back of a 125cc!

 

With a new tyre fitted, I was leaving the start for the second time over 3 hours behind, which in the world of ultra-racing is not a huge amount of time. The rules meant I only had to go back to the where I’d left the course so 25’ or so later I was back on the course but dead last.

 

Whilst not ideal, this actually made me very relaxed; I had to try not to exert myself too hard in an attempt to get back to the race as fast as possible, and meant I could ride with no stress and take in the surroundings! It was 170km to CP1 (190km for me with my doubling back to the start), mostly on gravel roads. It was incredible – every village I went through I was greeted by excited children who either wanted a high 5 or a fist bump, and would run alongside my bike! I had to remind myself how luckily I was to come to Rwanda to do a race like this, and ultimately the ‘result’ was immaterial in the grand scheme of things.

 

It was around 120k I’d caught the tail of the race and start going past the riders, by now, it was past midday and the temperatures started climbing and I found out later, since we were in the lowlands, temperatures hit near 40C. there was an hour section where I was getting through water quickly and darted into a few shops to get water and lie on the concrete to cool down!

I arrived at CP1 just before 4pm where I was able to eat some food (which would become regrettable…) drink a Fanta before filling water bottles, charging some devices, and back onto the road towards CP2.


After a shorter gravel road, it was a 20km tarmac climb up to Byumba in the dark, but an incredible and well lit road, where I dived into a hotel for the night at 1030pm – it was a further 100km to CP2 through the rural NW of Rwanda, with shops closing early, I didn’t fancy risking running out of water or no options for food, and given luck in the day so far. 270km and over 4,000m of ascent in the bag, somehow, I was now in 13th place. Unfortunately though, I started becoming ill.

 

I later found out, a sickness bug had affected a few riders and forced them to scratch (retire) on day 1, and that I and some other riders who had all eaten the same food at CP1 all experienced similar symptoms. Which ever it was, it totally sucked….

 

Day 2:


After a few hours sleep, I was back on my bike for 2.30am and straight back to gravel roads. I wanted to see how I felt, eating was really difficult and drinking anything but water was also difficult. After about 70k with it being morning, and starting to rain, I had a stop where I was quickly swarmed by children and adults alike, and was right on the edge of the border with Uganda.


Onwards I went to CP2 arriving before midday. Unfortunately I was still being sick, but managed to eat some very bland food, a very cold coke, and some water, before leaving. I carried on, but by now I was not in a good way – this would become my most difficult ride, ever. I limped over the highest point of the ride at 2,800m, before what was frankly the worst gravel road descent I could have imagined or needed at that stage.

I continued into the town of Gyseni on the border of DRC, where there were hotels and guesthouses aplenty. I was 90% sure at this stage I’d have to scratch – I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, and at 4.30 in the afternoon was checked into my hotel on the shore of Lake Kivu.

191km:3,600m ascent for the whole day.

 

‘Rule: Never scratch at night’

 

I decided that all I could do was get some quality sleep and see how I felt in the morning.

Day 3:


I woke up at 6.30am, clean and got a few things on charge. As my breakfast would be another 30 minutes, I decided to see how I felt and cycled the route around Gyseni which looped back to my hotel anyways, then eat breakfast, and could make a call.

After eating a huge breakfast and fresh brewed coffee (central African coffee is my favourite!) I decided to continue. With other riders stopping overnight, I was 17th, so not bad for a total stop time of 15 hours in the hotel.

 

After some beautiful roads around Lake Kivu it was straight uphill and the heavens opened! It was a wet 100km to CP3 over some incredible tarmac roads and through tea plantations – the weather suited me absolutely perfectly. I was joined twice by some locals on bikes who either wanted to race me (they are all fast…) or had some great chats – it was one my most memorable parts of the race….

Downhill to CP3, I’d covered just under 100km and 2,000m of climbing in about 4 hours, that’s fast for me in the summer on a road bike so I was confident I was feeling better, and I couldn’t of been happier to have a buffet lunch at CP3 again on the shores of Lake Kivu;

By now I was over halfway around the course, I think I’d made a few places up in the morning, and it was straight into the next gravel section of over 70k with another absolute monster climb, however the views at the top were breath-taking!

However, the gravel roads were not what I expected (challenging…) - another bumpy descent saw my next flat front tyre (my tubeless sealant had dried out?) and I got to experience 50 locals watch me, a giant, fit an inner tube, before continuing on and arriving back on tarmac just after sunset.

 

Smooth tarmac was welcome back again on the shore of Lake Kivu– I had two choices now, find a hotel, or ride through the night through Nyungwe forest where there was no re-supply points and limited accommodation. I decided the latter, I was feeling strong, and was frustrated in truth not to have covered as much distance as planned because of the road and more tyre issues.

 

It was hard work since it was 50km up hill with a few flat and downhill sections where the climbing added up. I was confident I could ride through the night though I did have to stop for a power nap on a bench and knew I’d be better for it for day 4, but by now the sickness gremlins were returning….


It was a real shame in truth to have gone through the forest at night (Rwanda has equal daylight and night hours because of it’s latitude ) – the views would have been incredible, though with these types of races and amount of darkness, there is always a compromise.


Day 4:

 

Riding through the night is always quite tough – I’ve learnt I’m ok with not much sleep, but having some sleep is much better and ultimately in these races you are in real world conditions which are full of variables, and you need to be in a state of mind where you can make informed decisions. This is incredibly important in my view; not because you can make decisions to be fast but to make decisions that keep you safe, fuelled and allow you to keep going.


The morning was tough as it was again, warm, hilly, and also it was really hard to eat and all I was now near the border of Burundi, I wanted was some fruit which was really hard to find?! But, I was on smooth tarmac which made progress, and soon around midday I was at CP4 – where I was asked if I would like breakfast before they brought out a giant plate of FRUIT!!


I bumped into one of the Pairs riders (A pair is 2 riders who ride as one ‘unit’ or Cap#) who’d stayed in the same hotel as me on the first night, and I’d seen at CP2 – they were just super and it was always so nice to see them. Something I’ve found in every race I’ve done, there are always 1 or 2 riders that you just keep bumping into and it’s a great chance to swap stories and share information from the road.


By now I was over 800km into the race, and was delighted to find out upon loading the next route to the finish into my GPS unit that I actually only had 170km, not 190km to the finish! Off I went, it was now midday and the sun was beating down. Despite heading down a nice gentle sloping off-road downhill, I was hoping it would rain like day 3 to keep me cool, despite the risk of the peanut butter mud that might materialise (I thought after a season of cyclocross, I’d be fine but I am still yet to experience the Rwanda mud).

 

Given the heat of day 1, I wasn’t going to chance getting heat exhaustion or worse, so would walk sections of uphill, stopped in some shops to lie on the concrete floors (the locals must have thought I was really weird…). At one point I stopped at the top of a hill in a village with a breeze and sat down and nodded off!

It was soon again late afternoon and I had 70km to the finish in Kigali. I landed again on smooth tarmac and all the gravel was behind me, so it was ‘hammer-time’ on the straight (and hilly – it’s Rwanda) roads back to Kigali.


I arrived around the edges of South Kigali at sunset, peak rush hour and as you’d expect, it’s chaos. Years of riding motorbikes was paying off and put my road craft to use; the last thing I needed was to be hit by something 25km from the finish, however unlike European traffic, everything moves much slower in Rwanda so it didn’t become super stressful.


After a long climb, I reached the top of the hill to descent into Kigali where I could see the vista across the dark city and it was absolutely incredible.


After another 7km long climb on a busy road, where I had two locals wanting to race me up the climb! On long climbs I have a habit of dropping the gears so I can stand and pedal at a lower cadence, this doesn’t change speeds, but it uses different muscles and allows you to get out of the saddle, but I’d learnt that doing this, the locals on their bikes think you’re trying to put in some kind of attack so they up the pace!


I was keeping at my own pace but it was fun and a nice distraction to have some locals giving you a kicking! I’ve also found in all my other races, the last 20km or so feels sooooo long; this time it did not and I was not desperate to finish, I was still enjoying it.


I knew I was near the finish now, since my stop at Gyseni on day 2, I was around the corner of the finish and had covered 529km and 10,900m of climbing in one ride.

 

I arrived back at Tugende at 8:30pm ish, where I was handed a cold beer, met some new friends who had finished and enjoyed a few hours in the company of some Germans and a few drinks before I got back to my hotel, shower, and bed!

 

Despite my early mechanical, 15 hours in a hotel and sickness/food poisoning, and subsequent lack of food (I managed 4 meals over the whole race), I finished 9th overall, 7th solo rider and 1st Briton. I covered 1,000km and 18,786m of elevation.

 

On reflection, I think this was likely the hardest thing I’ve had to do and pulled a lot on my mental resilience. It’s given me a lot of learnings and been a strong indicator of what I can do for the other races in the year ahead.


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