The scene repeats itself dozens of times each day. My passenger, a professional photographer named Mjrka, yells into my helmet. “Stop here, on the right!” I pull over, and he scrambles up the adjacent slope to get a better view of the oncoming Tour du Rwanda bicycle race. I wait. At first, there is no one. But then, without fail, I hear the call, from somewhere deep in the underbrush: “muzungu!”
Here, in the Rwandan countryside, I stand out like a gibbous moon, even beneath my helmet. I am a muzungu, or white man. What follows has an air of inevitability. Within moments, I’m surrounded by the chatter of dozens of children, reaching out to touch me, and my motorcycle. I take their picture, and they take mine, our cultures reverberating through the lenses. The bravest ones sidle up and rest their palms gently on the gas tank, or drape their fingers casually around the twistgrip, as if to say: We know each other. We’ve been friends all along.
The truth is, I’ve never been to Africa before. And yet, the idea seems strangely plausible. I feel I have been here.
I’ve been a motorcyclist, and a bicycle racer, for much of my life. And so it would seem natural for me to ride a support motorcycle, carrying a photographer, in an eight-day bicycle race.
And yet here, in the Rwandan countryside, I can claim no special expertise. Perhaps that’s because there can be no certainties of any kind in a country that, just 22 years ago, experienced the genocide of 800,000 people in 100 days. Let me do the math for you: that is roughly 8,000 Tutsi deaths per day, for more than three months, at the hands of their Hutu aggressors. Most of these deaths occurred in the crudest way possible: with machetes. My soul quakes at the thought. How does a country recover from that? Is it even possible? I am here, in part, to find out.
There is nothing here that is familiar: the faces, the torrential weather, the sheer madness of the Rwandan traffic, the tens of thousands of people who line the roads every day. I am among strangers, and yet I am not. I am at home, and I am 10,000 miles from home. In every moment, I feel the hopes of the people rest with this race, a colorful pageant that reaches nearly every corner of the country.
But one thing is certain, as my newfound friends press in from every direction: I don’t think I’ve ever been so popular.
The whole adventure began innocently enough. I have known Jock Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France, for many years. He also happens to be the driving force behind cycling in Africa, and this race. (His storied past, which included a stint in jail, is the subject of the acclaimed movie, “Rising from Ashes.”) He also knows my affection for all things two-wheel.
In a casual conversation, Jock proffers this deal: How would I like to be given food, lodging, and a BMW F800GS for two weeks in Rwanda? In return, I must ride six to eight hours a day, and carry a professional photographer in the Tour du Rwanda, a race that started in 2009 and has grown in stature to include 17 teams from a dozen nations. Motorcycles have always been an integral part of bicycle racing, and I will be part of the “moto caravan,” which includes police, security, race officials, and media. Over the course of the eight days, we will traverse nearly every paved road in the central African country, which is roughly the size of Vermont. My only contribution: a plane ticket.
With barely feigned resistance, I accept. How could I do otherwise? After all, riding moto support in a bicycle race means closed roads, a nearly complete abolition of speed limits, and a blessing (or at least a collective blind eye) from the local constabulary. These are the things most motorcyclists can only dream of. Clearly, I have to go.
Everything in this country seems filled with portent, intimations of what has been. The first day’s race starts in the capital, Kigali, at the Amahoro stadium. But this is no mere sports facility. It’s a hallowed place, having served as the United Nations Sanctuary during the genocide. I take a moment to walk around, imagining the desperate anguish, and squalor, that resided here in the spring of 1994, as 12,000 took refuge from their attackers just outside the walls. I look around and notice there are others like me, wandering the green expanse, imagining what was. The place resonates with emotion.
Even 22 years on, Rwanda is a country in the midst of being rebuilt, and accordingly, it proceeds in fits and starts. Power, water, and Internet frequently disappear, but no one seems surprised or bothered by the interruptions. Traffic moves like an enormous amoeba. Lane lines are a mere suggestion and routinely flouted. (It makes our American imbroglio over lane-splitting seem petty and ridiculous. Everything here is lane-splitting.) Traffic through the omnipresent roundabouts moves with chaotic grace, punctuated by a constant cacophony of horns. Women sit sideways on the back of tiny motorcycles, carrying packages, sugar cane, and water jugs, oblivious to the danger that surrounds them every minute.
Ubiquitous “moto taxis” swirl about, piloted by riders in blue vests with dirty, weather-beaten helmets draped over one arm. Passengers flag them down, a price is negotiated, and they don one of the ratty helmets. The tiny bikes swarm like so many gnats, through non-existent gaps in traffic, moving Rwandan society forward one noisy inch at a time.
It’s all a beautiful catastrophe, and I like these people from the moment I arrive. I look out my hotel window, and a colorfully dressed woman strolls by, spinning a parasol in the morning sun, swaddling a baby on her back. Smiling children amble by in torn clothes, stained red with dirt. A stick and worn-out bicycle tire are the only toys available, and kids in every village jauntily pilot them down the road.
But my most enduring image of Rwanda is this: people, walking, from someplace to someplace else, carrying stuff. They line the roads by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, in even the smallest villages, laden with the commerce of daily life: firewood, lumber, farm animals, building supplies, six-foot bundles of sugar cane, bags of plastic bottles, jugs of water, potatoes, rice, garage doors, and enormous branches of bananas. Industrial parts, gasoline. Often, the load is balanced precariously on their heads, with no more thought than we would expend on wearing a baseball cap.
They are walking, always walking, carrying the commerce of society, not in cars, but on the feet of an energetic nation.
The moto caravan, of which I am a part, is a kind of petty fiefdom. The order of the motorcycles, the support cars, and nearly everything about the race is done according to rules handed down by the UCI, the world governing body of bicycle racing. We live at the discretion of the “chief commissaire,” or race official, who rides in resplendent comfort in the back of a large black Mercedes. If we wish to advance through the field or “peloton,” as we do dozens of times each day, I must ride up alongside the commissaire’s car and request permission with an inquiring glance. He assesses the road ahead, and the position of the riders, to decide if there is sufficient room and time to pass. If we’re lucky, we get a casual flick of the finger: request granted. With that, we are gone, up the road, to stop at the next overlook, where Mjrka takes another round of photos. Then we pack up, regain the field, and repeat. We live and die by that finger – it feels like an absolution from the Pope.
Horns are the universal language of the peloton. Almost every move is accompanied by a staccato beep, beep. We are honking at other motos, cars, and the thousands of children who appear ready to step in front of us at any time (and some do). It doesn’t take long to become inured to the cacophony.
And it’s demanding. In one moment we are going as slow as I’ve ever gone on a motorcycle, clutch-slipping our way up a cobblestone climb to stay abreast of the laboring riders. Then, in an instant, we are flying down the road, struggling to get ahead of the lead riders on a switchback descent. Next thing I know, Mjrka is standing on the passenger pegs, digging his knees into my back, shooting from a standing position. I labor to hold him up, bracing myself against the bars in a kind of bench press, while trying to keep the ride glassy smooth so that my unsecured rider doesn’t get ejected.
Make no mistake: moto support will make you a better rider.
I am scanning these crowds, trying to understand the events of 1994. And I wonder: How could someone kill a neighbor, or a family member, with a machete? Or commit mass rape? Or do any of the things we know occurred with macabre frequency in those early months of 1994? I look out and I wonder: Who among them? Who?
I am new to this country, and there is so much I cannot fathom. Perhaps this muzungu was not meant to understand.
And yet there are signs of what transpired, if one summons the courage to see. There, walking along the road, is a man with his hands cut off neatly at the wrists, like so much lumber. Security guards with guns patrol solemnly at every home and business that can afford them. Everywhere, there are men in uniform, with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Despite the peaceable surroundings, and the thousands of smiles, one gets the feeling it is a nation that has not left behind the ravages of that one tumultuous season. Beneath the peaceable veneer, it is a nation on edge.
But amidst the long shadows cast by that season of darkness, there is this race, and this moment. As I travel these amazing roads, all semblance of normal life ceases, and I realize the hopes of a country rest on this bicycle race. I have never been so glad of athletics, and its power to heal.
This much has been made clear to me: This is a place in need of heroes.
One thing keeps me awake at night: the Hippocratic oath. I wish to do no harm, to the bicyclists, or the thousands who line the roadway.
I look at the bodies of these racers and the sight scares me. Thousands of hours of training have made them what they are: fragile conveyances of legs and lungs. They have fitness the rest of us can only dream of. (There’s a reason that the world’s elite motorcycle racers train on bicycles.) As moto support riders, we carry the well being of these gossamer bodies in our very hands.
And in recent years, there’s evidence that we have failed them. In 2015, a rider was taken out by a camera bike – but lived – while leading a major one-day race in Europe. Weeks later, a support motorcycle knocked the current world road champion off his bike in the Tour of Spain. Another rider went down at the hands of a motorcyclist later in the same race. Collectively, these incidents have prompted a major investigation of motorcycle support in races.
Indeed, my own time in Rwanda is not without incidents. In one busy town, a woman surges out of the crowd and my mirror strikes her hand – hard. At best, she will wake up very sore the next day. At worst, I may have broken her hand. But there is nothing I can do, as the caravan presses forward with irresistible force. In an instant, she is gone, re-absorbed by the throbbing crowd.
On another occasion, a mechanic in a car is summoned forward to fix a bicyclist’s flat tire, and promptly opens his door in front me. I apply the brakes hard enough to activate the ABS and send Mjrka slamming into my backside. A collision is avoided – but just barely. The same day, a Rwandan policeman on a BMW R1200GS veers into my path and I swerve past his enormous, aluminum side cases with inches to spare.
At such moments, Mjrka’s ungloved hand shoots forward into my peripheral vision, with an upraised thumb. “Good job!” I appreciate the sentiment, though it does little to relieve my heart palpitations.
At the end of the race, I surrender the key to my BMW with a mixture of elation and relief at having survived. “In just a few days, this will all seem like a dream,” says my host, Jock Boyer, as I leave for the airport. And so it has been. Were it not for Mjrka’s remarkable photographs, I might never be sure the whole thing happened at all.
Even weeks later, as I write this, I am still dreaming. I am dreaming of a million black faces. I am dreaming of red dirt villages, of lush country, of smiles, of the best bananas I have ever eaten. I am dreaming of open roads, and the chaos of roundabouts, and the lunacy of the ubiquitous moto taxis. I am dreaming of near-death experiences, and torrential rains, and the abject fear of doing something wrong. I am dreaming of death, and the macabre, indiscriminate way it blanketed this place 22 years ago.
Most of all, I am dreaming in Kinyarwanda, the melodic language of this central African nation, and the words that accompany the dream are this: you will not forget this place.
I am dreaming of going back.
Jawa is coming back. Sort of.