HERE'S THE THING about the Wooden Bike Classic, in Rwanda: It's not really a bike race. Well, there are bikes. Sorta. They're more like prehistoric scooters, carved from eucalyptus trees, with wobbly wooden wheels, wooden handlebars, a wooden platform for your feet, and a splintery wooden seat that's best avoided if you want to have children someday. They look like they were stolen from Fred Flintstone's garage, and though they've been pushed around Rwanda for as long as anyone can remember—hauling bananas, tea, coffee, beans, mangoes, plantains, oranges, chickens, goats, pigs, and whatever else can be lashed aboard—no one ever thought of racing them until Tom Ritchey rode into town.
A Rwandan racer takes a test spin at the start of the Wooden Bike Classic, September 2007.
Terraced agricultural plots in Rwanda, "the Land of a Thousand Hills"
From left, Ritchey in Butare; the start of the 2007 Wooden Bike Classic; a family walking home near Ruhengeri
From left, Racing, wooden-bike style; Team Rwanda on the podium after the Wooden Bike Classic road race; team rider Adrien Niyonshuit, who won the event
Ritchey is greeted by an entire village on the road to kimbuye.
Ritchey, 51, a lanky, handlebar-mustached Northern California bike builder, first traveled to Rwanda in 2005 to have, as he likes to say, "a great midlife crisis." An ex-racer who crafted some of mountain biking's earliest lightweight frames in the eighties, Ritchey was enthralled by Rwanda's wooden bikes, which are found all over its mountainous, landlocked countryside. No two are built exactly the same, and Ritchey was staggered by the innovations he saw: hand brakes that use rubber strips from worn-out tires, metal bearings taken off old cars, aluminum cans repurposed as reflectors. These were magnificent machines. Then, being an American, he thought, Hey, let's race 'em.
So now I'm here on a humid September morning in the dusty college town of Butare, at the start line of the Wooden Bike Classic 2007, along with a hundred or so Rwandans, many of them barefoot teenage boys, and about a dozen American lunatics, including Ritchey, who's conducting a prerace inspection. The Rwandans don't know Ritchey by name, but they figure the White Dude in the Navy Shorts is in charge somehow, and they clear a path as he runs a hand across their rickety handlebars and wheels. Ritchey halts when he comes to a skinny young man holding a broken wooden frame in his right hand and a busted set of wheels in his left.
"No, no, noooo, man," Ritchey says in his mellow-yellow California accent. "You can't just run it. You've gotta ride it."
The kid has no idea what he's saying, but someone else explains to him, in Kinyarwanda, the regional language, "The bike cannot be carried, dude. It must be ridden." The dejected racer walks away.
Ritchey, who's now at the start line, is waving his arms maniacally as he instructs a Rwandan man about the proper way to start a bike race. "You gotta do it this way!" he says. "You gotta say, Ready! Set! Go!" Ritchey pumps a fist three times. "Ready...Set...Go!"
All around me, the Rwandan racers are getting impatient. They start clapping in unison, like high school football players on the sidelines in some cheesy movie. Ritchey hustles to the back and grabs a tall wooden bike. The Rwandan starter jumps out and flails his arms, just like Ritchey told him to do.
The race is a mile long, most of it on this dirt road. I feel a twinge of nervousness as I place my left foot on my wooden bike and dig my right foot into the red African earth.
"Are you readeeeeee?!" the starter asks.
OH, RIGHT: Rwanda.
Not exactly a biking destination, you're thinking. A country less than a decade and a half removed from the genocide of 1994, in which mobs slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in roughly 100 days. A place so stigmatized by terror and tragedy that when I told my mother I was going there, she responded with only one anxious word: "Why?"
Well, for starters, I'd heard there was a story to be told, about a tiny country pulling itself out of the clutches of civil war and becoming a surprising model for self-improvement in Africa. There were reports of national reconciliation, international private investment, and a promising trickle of global tourism. But I'll confess: I mostly came for the wooden bikes.
The plan was simple. As Ritchey explained to me over the phone from his home in the Bay Area a couple of months before our trip, I would meet him and some of his friends in the capital, Kigali. We would ride mountain bikes around the country for a few days, ending up in the southern city of Butare for a string of weekend races that would culminate in the Wooden Bike Classic.
And that was the extent of the agenda. Though Ritchey owns his own company, Ritchey Logic, which sells high-end bike components around the world and has some 50 employees, the man doesn't really do superfirm plans. He also doesn't pack much for his frequent biking adventures. Marion Clignet, a French Olympian who won cycling silver medals in 1996 and 2000, joined us in Rwanda and told me about a bike trip she'd taken with Ritchey a few years ago in the Pyrenees, for which he brought a wool jersey, shorts, flip-flops Velcro'd to the front fork, and a toothbrush sawed in half to shave weight. He used newspapers picked up along the route to keep his chest warm. (Not surprisingly, one of Ritchey's coolest inventions is the Break-Away, a top-tier road bike that can be disassembled to fit into a piece of luggage about the size of an accordion.)
Rwanda is a potential paradise for hardcore cyclists. At least that's what Ritchey's friend, investment manager Dan Cooper, decided when he went there on a business trip in 2004. The country is roughly the size of Vermont and even more vertical—it's known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, and the endlessly repeated punch line is that the title leaves out a few zeros. Elevations range from 3,100 to almost 15,000 feet, and during his stay Cooper saw hundreds of miles of winding dirt roads, spectacular vistas, and few cars. You can even ride road bikes on a couple hundred miles of paved routes. A former colony of Germany and Belgium, Rwanda also possesses a rich cycling culture. In addition to the wooden bikes, it's home to thousands of taxi-bike riders, a handful of competitive cyclists, and an annual Tour of Rwanda stage race.
In December 2005, Ritchey flew to Rwanda to see for himself. It was a delicate period in his life; his marriage had recently fallen apart. "I didn't know how to deal with my 17-year-old daughter or my 17-year-old company," he says. "I went out on a metaphorical gangplank and decided it was time to jump."
So he got on his bike and cranked out hundreds of Rwandan miles, visiting tiny villages and the bustling capital. He talked with mechanics crafting homemade bikes and pedaled alongside taxi riders pushing 30-pound tubs of steel. "I had no plan," he recalls. "It was a completely spontaneous, walk-in-through-the-door experience for me."
The Westerner Affected by Africa is one of the great travel clichés, but it exists for a reason. Ritchey likes to say that Rwanda is "a place of second chances," and here he was, desperately needing a reboot. Within weeks of returning to the U.S., he'd started a nonprofit called Project Rwanda. He began welding away in his garage on a low-cost, low-maintenance "coffee bike" that could speed up the transportation of freshly picked beans, enabling farmers to sell them to U.S. and European buyers at a premium (see "Mean Bean Machine,"). He concocted the Wooden Bike Classic, envisioning it as an annual tourist draw—a sub-Saharan running of the bulls. And he turned to his old friend Jock Boyer—the first American to complete the Tour de France, in 1981—to develop a Rwandan national cycling team that could spread the feel-good word about the country's recovery. Boyer would come to Rwanda searching for his own kind of new start. In 2002, after pleading guilty to a felony charge of molesting an 11-year-old girl—a crime that stunned the cycling world—he'd served nine months in prison. Ritchey's decision to offer him a job was inspired, in part, by a Christian belief in the power of forgiveness.
"I hired Jock because he was a faithful, reliable, and uniquely gifted friend," says Ritchey. "And after the troubles he'd been through, and my experience with Rwanda healing itself, it seemed to make sense and fit together."
A longtime supporter of Christian charities, Ritchey says he was inspired by Rwanda's ability to forge on as a country. "I realized I was in the center of a place that was almost a vortex of reconciliation and renewal," he says. "It's the most obvious observation, but when you see the scars on a person over 13 years old, what must have happened to their parents..." His voice breaks. "They're just getting on with life."
OUR BIKING GROUP IS A COLORFUL CREW. Along with Boyer and Clignet, there's Kelly Crowley, 30, a world-champion Paralympian in women's swimming and cycling, with an underdeveloped right arm, who used to be Ritchey's next-door neighbor. There's Ritchey's old friend Kevin Cusack, a 51-year-old Michigan investment manager, and Doug Grant, a happy-go-lucky guy from Orange County who held a Project Rwanda fundraiser ride on his 50th birthday and raised $30,000. There's also a small group from a Christian charity called Kids Across America—all wearing matching white safari shirts—here to launch a U.S.-style sports camp.
Our first ride happened two days into the trip. After a quick group photo taken about an hour outside Kigali, zoom: We were off down a steep, bouncy dirt road. The landscape was astonishing—sumptuous valleys thick with green-tea plantations and dense eucalyptus forests; jagged, cloud-lined cliffs; steep waterfalls that dove into shimmering rivers and lakes. At times it looked like Brazil meets Switzerland meets Maui.
Let me admit right here that I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I've been riding road bikes for a few years now, racing as a thoroughly mediocre amateur for the past two. But I live in New York City, and I've hardly done any mountain biking. Ritchey doesn't exactly subscribe to the everyone-sticks-together theory—consciously or not, he likes to floor it and see who hangs. After a half-hour or so, I was dropped and depressed. Then it dawned on me: Up the road were a five-time Tour de France competitor (Boyer, who's also won the Race Across America twice), a six-time world champion (Clignet), and Tom freakin' Ritchey. It wasn't like I was riding with three chumps in cargo shorts.
And then she appeared, from out of the woods—a barefoot girl around five years old, dressed in a rose-colored smock. She began to run alongside me, smiling.
"Where are you going?" she asked in English.
"Ruhengeri," I said, though I was sure I'd totally mangled the pronunciation.
"Where are you going?"
And on we went. I crawled along in a low gear; she hopped along, with no shoes, for at least a mile, into one village, then the next. Later, Boyer would tell me that many of the people we encountered on the mountain roads rarely stray more than 20 miles from their homes, never seeing larger cities like Kigali or Butare. I could not imagine what I must have looked like to the girl. In my white helmet, bug-eyed sunglasses, and black-and-yellow spandex uniform, I was a superfreak, a fact confirmed when I rode into the next village, where a young boy perched on a bluff let out a buoyant scream:
As in mzungu, Swahili for "white person." This is what I would be called throughout the trip—at least 150 times a day before lunch. Not only is it accurate; it's clearly a very fun word to say, because as soon as the first kid let loose with a "Muuzuungooo!" there was another one saying it, and another, and another, until there was a formation of a dozen kids bouncing alongside my bicycle, giggling at my ridiculous getup and marveling at the fluke of my pigmentation.
I rolled into the village pursued like a tabloid celebrity. Ritchey and the gang were already there; he'd flagged down what appeared to be a wooden bike assembled by Hummer. The thing was at least six feet long. "I've never seen one like this before," he said. "Would you look at those bearings? Those are from, like, a truck."
I'd started to notice something unusual. In this village and all along the day's route, we'd encountered tons of kids—there was a massive baby boom after the genocide, and 42 percent of Rwanda's population is under 14. We saw old folks, too, but what you don't see a lot of are people in their thirties. It's a sad realization: There really is a missing generation here.
When I pedaled wearily into Ruhengeri as darkness was falling, I headed into the red-brick guesthouse where we were staying and peeled off my spandex. And for a moment, I started to tear up. Not because I felt grimy and exhausted (which I did), or couldn't believe we'd have to ride this hard again the next day (which we would), but because I was overwhelmed. Earlier, Ritchey had told me, "You can't leave this place untouched," and I could already see he was right.
So I had a little cry. Then I stepped into the shower, lost my balance, slipped and fell on my ass, feet over head, and slammed my skull hard into the porcelain with a dramatic thwap. And I laughed, loudly, for what felt like an hour.
IT CAN BE TOUGH to get Rwandans to open up about the genocide, but nearly everyone we met had a story. A driver in Kigali, a Tutsi in his thirties, told us how he'd hidden in the woods and tied plastic bags filled with powdered milk around his feet to throw the militiamen's dogs off his scent. Saidi, a gregarious driver hired by Ritchey's cycling team, had been a spy for the Tutsi resistance, infiltrating the Hutu leadership and reporting back on when the killings would occur. A chef who works at Boyer's house, in Butare, had recently been reunited with a son he'd presumed dead since the mid-1990s.
In Ruhengeri, we were invited to dinner at the modest home of John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop who lives in the compound where we were staying. A small, stocky man dressed in matching olive shirt and pants, he welcomed us and took a seat in the living room under an enormous map of the world. As a meal of chicken, goat, and rice was served, there was a loud thunderclap, and rain rattled off the tin roof.
Bishop John told us his story. Of Tutsi descent, his family had gone into exile in Uganda and the Republic of the Congo in the sixties, when the new Hutu regime began target=ing their countrymen. Like other older Rwandans, he pointed out that the 1994 genocide had been preceded by many smaller attacks. "This country lost about 300,000 people between 1959 and 1962," he said.
For most of the next 30 years, the bishop was in Uganda with 150,000 other Tutsi; he spent 1988 at a seminary in Pennsylvania. After reports of renewed killings in Rwanda reached Uganda in the mid-nineties, he returned to his homeland. "The forces of darkness were unleashed here," he said as rain battered the roof. "I was feeling a huge call to come witness the horrors."
In America, of course, the Rwandan genocide inspires guilt, because our government did little to stop it. It's immeasurably worse in Rwanda. "You need to be able to understand the guilt we carry," Bishop John said. "Imagine how it must feel for those who took the machete to their brothers."
Lately, however, the bishop is seeing reason for hope. There's a stable government, led since 2000 by President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi general. There are promising steps in education and public health, especially in the prevention and treatment of HIV. Kagame's business-friendly approach has helped earn Rwanda's coffee farmers major corporate buyers in Costco and Starbucks. Last year, Google sent a team to the country to set up communication services at government ministries and three universities. Meanwhile, the government has been aggressively investing in Web access across the country, a debatable choice for a nation made up mostly of subsistence farmers.
There's also been a pronounced uptick in the number of adventure travelers. Though tourists have long come to see mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, the visits were usually part of East Africa package safaris. Now Rwanda is becoming a destination in its own right. Part of the draw is the genocide memorials, which attract sightseers looking for the same kind of inspiration that Ritchey felt. But upscale outfitters have also launched a number of new trips since 2003, and in June the celebrated Governors' Camp chain opened a luxury resort in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains.
Ritchey's Project Rwanda is supposed to add to the positive momentum. The coffee bikes, which farmers buy for about $185, have the potential to boost the annual revenues of Rwanda's half a million growers. The Boyer-led cycling team provides both international PR—it's raced in a couple of U.S. events—and national pride. Since the team came together, in the fall of 2006, they've shown signs of becoming a serious contender in the African Continental Confederation. Their top rider, Abraham Ruhumuriza, is ranked 72nd out of 400 African cyclists and, at the African trials, just missed a chance to compete in mountain biking at the Beijing Olympics.
"It's a real blessing," Bishop John said of the team. "We can use them to blow the bottleneck—for Rwandans to see that they, too, can fly."
AFTER THREE MORE DAYS of riding—and one over-the-bars, helmet-cracking crash by yours truly—I was ready for a break. Luckily, it was time for the first big event of the Wooden Bike Classic weekend: an 80-mile road race from Kigali to Butare. I'd just be watching, thank God.
In the start-line crowd at a mini-mall in downtown Kigali, the guys on the national team were easy to find. Not only were they dressed in blingy gold, green, and turquoise Project Rwanda kits; they were the only Rwandans riding bikes that looked like they'd been made after 1964.
There are five riders on the team: Ruhumuriza, Adrien Niyonshuit, Nyandwi Uwase, Nathan Byukusenge, and Rafiki Jean De Dieu Uwimana. Each of them raced bikes locally prior to being recruited by Boyer; several worked as bike messengers. They've become national celebrities. "Everybody know Rafiki now," Rafiki said.
All the team members have devastating stories from the genocide. Soft-spoken Adrien lost six of his brothers. Nathan's father was killed. Though they represent Rwanda's new growth, the past is never far away. "We try to move on," said Abraham. "But we think about it a lot."
I hitched a ride in the Team Rwanda car with Boyer, as well as Ryan Scheer and Andrew Johnston, a pair of twenty-something filmmakers who flew over from Austin, Texas, to make a documentary about the team. They'd been in Rwanda for a couple of months and had the scruffy beards and farmer tans to prove it.
When the ride began, we roared off and chased after the peloton. At a rotary, we were suddenly joined by at least 60 green-helmeted motorcycle-taxi drivers. Our driver wove through the green helmets until he stopped short at a logjam, and—smack!—a moto driver skidded and bonked off the back of our Toyota SUV. Andrew and Ryan laughed uproariously. The rider was OK; he hopped up, inspected his bike, and sped off.
"Go, go, go!" Boyer said to the driver. "What are you waiting for?" Then, to us: "I don't think the driver is used to race driving. Maybe not any driving."
The day's route was perfect for Team Rwanda. They're all lithe climbers—not one of them weighs more than 150 pounds—and the ride out of Kigali was punishingly steep. Within five miles, the lead group had been whittled down to about 20: the full team, along with Ritchey, Marion Clignet, Kevin Cusack, and a couple of Project Rwanda volunteers from the Bay Area. As a stretch of hills approached, the team rode to the front, and the mzungus started dropping away.
Boyer popped out of the sunroof and barked at his riders in French. "Allez, allez, allez! C'est bon! C'est bon!" A truck wheezed by and exhaled a plume of thick smoke. "Those guys are going to be eating a lot of diesel today," he said.
By now Team Rwanda was riding alone; Adrien took the win in a brief team sprint at the finish line. But before we arrived in Butare, Boyer got a phone call from someone who told him that Ritchey had crashed. Not long after the climb out of Kigali, his front tire had flatted on a descent, sending him careering into a ditch. He landed in a grassy patch, narrowly avoiding a stand of trees. After "taking inventory" of his body and realizing there were no broken bones, he brushed himself off, replaced his inner tube, and jumped back into the race. Cusack would later tell me that he watched Ritchey roar past him at 30 miles an hour, drafting behind a truck. Only later did I learn that Ritchey had actually been holding on to the back of the truck.
"ALL I REMEMBER was doing this organic gymnastics routine, and I ended up in a ditch," Ritchey said, somewhat dazed, an hour or so later in Butare. "Everything kind of went backward from there." He wiped his head wearily. "Anyways, it's good to see you guys."
Butare was a scene. The main drag was crowded with trinket shops and restaurants, the biggest of which was the Hotel Ibis, a loud, outdoor café and mzungu magnet serving hamburgers and French fries. The Ibis was the headquarters for the weekend's events, which included a mountain-bike race, a coffee-bike race, a single-speed race, and, finally, the wooden-bike extravaganza.
In town were a gaggle of well-groomed executives with World Vision, a massive Christian relief organization based in the U.S., there to discuss various programs related to Project Rwanda. Also in attendance were some of the bigger wallets in the realm of Christian giving, including Chicago investor Joe Ritchie (an adventure pal of the late Steve Fossett) and Dick DeVos, the Amway scion and a failed Republican candidate for governor of Michigan. With them was a stern posse of bodyguards from Blackwater Worldwide, the controversial private security corporation founded by DeVos's brother-in-law Erik Prince. Having them there in sleepy Butare was like toting a bazooka to a baby shower.
Still, the moneymen did signal more change in Rwanda. As weird as it sounds, the country is on the verge of becoming trendy. Rwanda was recently the topic of a panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival. Shortly after my return to the U.S., a sprung-from-prison Paris Hilton would announce that she, too, plans to pay a visit to Rwanda. A friend of Ritchey's would e-mail me to see if I know Hilton's publicist—Ritchey is hoping the heiress will lug a few bikes over.
Not everyone is so impressed by the rush to modernity. An American engineer I met in Butare worried that Rwanda is getting too many sexy, 21st-century ideas like Wi-Fi and isn't focusing enough on unglamorous pursuits like infrastructure. "There's a lot of guilt money here," he said. "But I can't find people to pour concrete. They're shitting in streams, and they all want to be Java programmers."
It's fair to say that Ritchey's project combines both practical and whimsical ideas. There's no question that his coffee bikes can have an impact on small farmers. And while the bike team is not a utilitarian venture, it can afford Rwandans the luxury to dream.
Indeed, helping Rwanda dream again might wind up being Ritchey's true legacy, which is kind of amazing when you consider that he's one of the main reasons people on this earth ride singletrack on wide, knobby tires. A man who made his name doing something a little insane a few decades back has been reborn by doing something a little insane again.
Which, naturally, brings us back to that wooden-bike race.
"ARE YOU READEEEEEE?!
Oh, we're going, all right. The first biker bolts off the line early, and a stampede follows. The Rwandans shriek as they sprint past a French television crew. "Zis is a crazee bike race!" the host will say to Ritchey later.
Frozen, I look up at the field ahead and the race just, well, explodes. I've seen stuff in races before, but I've never seen a half-dozen bikes fly eight feet into the air, wheels shooting off the back, handlebars bouncing by my head. It's probably dangerous as hell, but everyone is laughing.
When I finally get going, a bike in front of me disintegrates, its rider falling to the ground and opening up a bloody gash on his forehead. (He'll get stitched up by one of the Blackwater medics.) I watch Cusack roar by, feet in the air, being pushed by two kids. Then it happens to me, too. One moment I'm flailing; the next, four Rwandan kids are pushing me and my bike down the road. I feel the seat warping underneath me, and common sense tells me to tell them to slow down, but I just can't. The adrenaline is too intoxicating. I think of one of Ritchey's many Ritcheyisms: "There's a lot of fun on the other side of risk."
Yes, zis is a crazee race. But maybe it's crazy enough to make a difference. None of this makes sense, after all. A country that's endured what Rwanda has is not supposed to turn right around and become a tourist destination. People like Tom Ritchey are not supposed to restart their lives at 50 with a second act that may wind up dwarfing the first one. And as my groin can tell you, wooden bikes are not really supposed to be raced.
"People ask me, ‘Why do you have the wooden-bike race?'" Ritchey says later. "And, really, I just think it's funny."