Rising From Ashes: Rwanda’s Olympic MTB Glory

Tom Ritchey participates in the first Wooden Bike Classic race in Rwanda, September 2006.

By Gary J. Boulanger

The eyes of the world will be watching Adrien Niyonshuti race his mountain bike at the 2012 London Olympics on August 12, but the 25-year-old Rwanda’s backstory began in the spring of 1994, when tribal genocide swept the landlocked African country the size of Maryland, claiming nearly 1 million lives.

A new documentary film, “Rising From Ashes”, is being screened across the country this summer, providing a glimpse into a nearly 7-year project led by filmmaker T.C. Johnstone. The film weaves the story of how Tom Ritchey and other Americans were invited to tour Rwanda by mountain bike in December 2005.

As a result, Project Rwanda was established to assist the country with a rebranding effort to convince the world Rwanda was a safe, beautiful place to enjoy. One of those initiatives included creating a national cycling team, with the goal of racing the Olympics. Click here to read a 2006 article by Dirt Rag contributor Martin Edwards.

One-time Tour de France yellow jersey Alex Stieda high-fives participants of the 2006 Wooden Bike Classic.

A few months after the first visit to Rwanda, American road racing pioneer Jonathan Boyer was recruited to find, identify and train potential Rwanda cyclists. Boyer was the first American to race the Tour de France (in 1981, in support of 5-time winner Bernard Hinault), and was initially unaware of Rwanda and its history.

The first Wooden Bike Classic was held in September 2006. Designed to attract local talent, the event was a huge success, with more than 3,000 Rwandans crowding into the Kibuye soccer stadium and lining the streets to watch the first ever mountain bike race in Rwanda, followed by a singlespeed race and ending with a wooden bike downhill race.

Rwandans took the top three places in each event, despite pressure from two former Tour de France racers, Alex Stieda (the first North American to wear the yellow leader’s jersey, in 1986) and Boyer, who won his second Race Across America that June.

Adrien Niyonshuti won the mountain bike race, and in time proved to be one of the strongest Rwandan racers in Boyer’s stable. Boyer moved to Rwanda in 2007, where he continues to train riders for the national team, and lead Team Rwanda Cycling.

Johnstone’s movie provides the scope of Rwanda’s beautiful terrain (‘Land of a Thousand Hills’), and the narrative focuses on Boyer’s paternal relationship with his riders, many of whom lost their fathers and brothers in the 1994 genocide. Gaining an Olympic spot is a nearly impossible task, and the road was long for Boyer and his riders. Johnstone captures the intensity of cycling, letting the coach and riders share their reasons for choosing the bicycle as a freedom tool. The global journey begins in Africa and includes racing in the United States.

Tom Ritchey (center) speak with Team Rwanda Racing director Jonathan Boyer (right) and Joseph Habineza, Rwanda’s Minister of Sports, following the 2006 Wooden Bike Classic.

“The goal of this film is for viewers to see it as their own journey,” Johnstone told the capacity audience at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center in Atheron, California on July 12. “Not only is this about Rwanda and its cycling team, but my hope is that people look at it as a framework for their own life.”

Tom Ritchey (center) addresses 3,000 spectators in Rwanda following the 2006 Wooden Bike Classic. Event volunteers included (left to right) Jared Miller, Lisa Clark, Benjo Clark, Greg Bettis, Ritchey, Boyer, Stieda, Sara Ritchey, and the author.

As one of the Americans invited alongside Tom Ritchey in December 2005, I thought Johnstone captured the essence of Rwanda beautifully. He’s always talked about the film being more about second chances than bikes, how our past doesn’t have to define our future, and how the human spirit can make amends for anything, even a genocide.

Niyonshuti is currently finalizing his Olympic training in Switzerland. Johnstone and his team will capture the opening ceremony in London, to be shared with Rwanda in August, just in time to cheer on their favorite son. The movie, narrated by Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker, will be completed this fall, and have worldwide distribution.

Here’s a preview:

Rising From Ashes from T.C. Johnstone on Vimeo.