Race Around Rwanda 2021: An ultra-distance race turned journey by bicycle

It was a month out from the Race Around Rwanda ultra-distance cycling event, and Eleonora Balbi, (komoot’s customer support assistant) had a decision to make. With all her plans for winter events in Europe either canceled or postponed, she could jump on the last-minute invitation to participate in the Rwanda event now, or risk an indefinite period of demotivated riding with no trips or events on the horizon. 

Three weeks later she found herself in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. She had a week to acclimatize to the steamy tropical temperatures before setting off on the bike, and even so, she wasn’t exactly well-prepared in the training sense. But as an experienced ultra-distance rider back for the second year in a row, and with the event format updated from a race to a bikepacking journey to accommodate local corona restrictions, Eleonora was happy to soak up the excitement of the event without worrying too much about the outcome.  

Carb-loading with lake views

The renamed and reformatted Journey Around Rwanda lived up to its title. What transpired for Eleonora was a six-day journey at a more sociable pace than the typical race allows, giving her and the other participants more time to enjoy Rwanda itself. Long lunch breaks to escape the heat were the norm, and as she pointed out, the food is great, and perfect for cyclists. Rice, potatoes, vegetables, and beans made up Eleonora’s staple meal, usually served at a set-price buffet (a novelty for an ultra-distance racer used to eating on the bike to save time). One such meal was even enjoyed with a view of Lake Kivu! 

Whether you’re enjoying a meal by the side of a lake, or enjoying the well-maintained tarmac roads, Rwanda brings the scenery. As Eleonora discovered on her first trip to Rwanda, the country is a far cry from the dusty savanna that features prominently in the European imagination when you mention “Africa”.

I was expecting the country to be really dry, with dusty, potholed roads, but I quickly realized Rwanda is really green! Neverending hills covered in rice, tea, and vegetable crops.” 

Calf muscles (and nerves) of steel

Green hills, smooth tarmac… and cyclists. You can’t visit Rwanda as a cyclist and not notice the volume of heavy, single-speed bikes (inevitably loaded up with firewood or other goods), as well as the strong, cheerful (and arguably fearless) men who ride them. “I saw cyclists going down steep hills without brakes – they just put their foot on the ground if they want to stop. The impressive thing about it is that they are really fast on those bikes, especially as it is almost never flat! On one of the climbs, I had a Rwandan guy riding next to me who was kind of acting as my pacemaker. After about five kilometers of climbing up the hill together, he said with a grin,

‘Hey Sista. Good bike, but you slow!’” 

And from feeling humbled by another person’s strength on a simple, low-tech bike, Eleonora went to feeling like someone quite special after all: “Sometimes I felt like a celebrity when I was cycling through the small villages. I had all these kids running after me, cheering me on and trying to race me while they were running next to me.” 

There are three things that made Eleonora stand out to those kids, making her a novelty in their eyes: She’s a woman, she’s white, and she’s riding a bike for fun – not something people see much in rural Rwanda. For starters, women aren’t often seen on bikes, and even fewer people are seen riding for the pure enjoyment of it. According to Eleonora’s anecdotal observations, “For most Rwandans, the bike seems to be a way to transport all kinds of things. Using the bike “for fun” is a weird concept.” That’s not to say that cycling as a sport doesn’t exist there – even if many Rwandans are unaware of it.

Pro team heroes

The professional Rwandan cycling team, Team Africa Rising, competes on the international circuit and enjoys funding from the Rwandan government, as well as reverence from the local community around the training center in Musanze. “It was super cool to see how the local pro riders are heroes around Musanze. Every kid and every adult knows them, and when they stopped, the kids wanted to fill up their water bottles for them.”

She also got to experience that hero quality first-hand: “On the first day we were riding in a group and when I dropped back, the youngest of the Rwandan riders, Jean-Eric Habimana, came to me and made sure that I could sit on his wheel to catch the others.” When Eleonora complimented him on his effort, instead of shrugging it off, he put things in perspective, “He calmly said that this is his daily business and he trains every day to be faster than others.” 

Ride Rwanda for yourself

Kind pro-riders or not, Eleonora had a great time riding in Rwanda, and experiencing the country outside normal race conditions gave her a really special experience. With a curfew in place from 18:00 to 04:00, there was more freedom to structure her own rides, including what time she got going and the pace of her days. She loved tackling the days’ rides from early in the morning, especially after a good rest.

I really enjoy the morning hours on the bike, being up before everybody else and having the roads to myself, and then slowly realizing that the rest of the world is waking up. Hearing the birds and seeing the sun rising gives me a lot of energy for the rest of the day. Additionally, I just didn’t want to feel in a hurry to reach the hotel before 18:00, so waking up early gave me more time to enjoy the day on the bike.”

It was times like these that have endeared Rwanda to Eleonora, and she highly recommends the country as a place to visit, and ride!


The logistics in a nutshell

Kit list

As the original name suggests, Race around Rwanda is typically an ultra-distance race, something for which Eleonora packed accordingly, “I like to be minimalistic about things that I bring, so I only had a small saddle bag and a small top tube bag.” She crammed the following items into her two packs:

  • Sunscreen
  • Repair kit with spare tubes, pump, tire levers, tool, zip-ties, isolation tape, chain oil, some wet wipes
  • Spare pair of bib shorts
  • Arm, and leg warmers
  • Rain jacket
  • Some underwear for the night (for the uninitiated, cyclists don’t wear undies with their bib shorts)
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste

Routing & navigation

Komoot was the routing partner for the event, so everyone used it to download the gpx tracks. Riders used it to adapt the route for easier days and to check out potential shortcuts and Eleonora used it specifically to check out the elevation profile for the next day, so she knew what was coming up and how many climbs she had to do.

When it came to navigation, Eleonora used a Garmin Edge 530. “I connected my komoot account to my Garmin account, so the syncing of Tours was super easy. All I needed was my phone and an internet connection. The event organizers gave all participants a local SIM card with some data on it, so there was no problem syncing the Tours, even on the go. I just charged the Garmin every evening at the hotel and the battery easily lasted for the full day.

Accommodation

For the Race Around Rwanda, Simon, the race organizer, sent out an email to the participants with accommodation information along the route. He organized the hotels beforehand and provided the address of each hotel in the morning. This way everyone could decide their own schedule – when to leave/arrive, as long as it was in line with the curfew times. 

Eleonora’s tips for bikepacking in Rwanda

  • Bring an extra spare inner tube
  • Drink enough water and watch out for the sun
  • Try to learn some words in Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s lingua franca) – everyone loves talking to you!

For a day to day breakdown of the route and Eleonora’s experience, visit the Journey Around Rwanda Collection on komoot.

Photos by Nils Laengner

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