Bikes for Rwanda

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With all the troubles that professional cycling is going through at the moment, the Tour of Rwanda tells an inspiring story about how cycling is doing its small part in helping this ravaged country ride its way towards a better future. Gregor Brown is currently covering the Tour of Rwanda and tells about how Carlo Scandola is helping to build cycling in this unassuming country.

Verona is known as the city of love, the city of Romeo and Juliet, the city of two recent World Championships and the cafes in Piazza Bra. Carlo Scandola also calls Verona home and sends his love to Rwanda via bicycles.

Genocide devastated Rwanda in 1994; around 800,000 people were killed with knives, machetes, clubs and other crud instruments. Despite the blood bath, the country is recovering fast and recognising its past. On the hill in Kigali, the capital city, a museum details the genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi groups, and marks the burial ground for 250,000 people.

Below the city hums with motorbike taxis, bicycles and cars. They zoom up and down the city’s hills, around and about in the valleys, taking the locals to work and home. Very few tourists come to Rwanda, most visit Kenya to the east. Forgetting genocide, though, the country is rich in history with German and Belgian colonisation. The hills to the west also hide rare gorillas and numerous coffee farms.

Those hills, with passes up to 2500 metres, also welcome the Tour of Rwanda. It celebrates its fourth edition this year, building on the bicycle taxis, the single-speed races, the training roads and Carlo Scandola.

By chance…

“Come with me, I want you to meet him,” Scandola tells me. “I saw him here last year, riding everywhere, but on that beater bike. I gave him shorts and jerseys, but this year I wanted to bring him a bike.”

Scandola fits Ibrahim Kazoya on a used Fontana bike he was able to source from Verona – blue and yellow, the city’s colours. Later he gives him kit from a local club, Lamacart. Ibrahim is speechless, his only words coming in the local Rwandan language, not the other two official ones, French and English.

Ibrahim Kazoya on his Fontana bike fitted by Carlo

Ibrahim’s Fontana bike came by chance…

“During a trip [in 2002], I saw one of the early editions of the Tour of Rwanda. I thought, ‘Ah, they’re racing here,'” Carlo says.

He raced through the amateur or “dilettante” ranks in Italy, so his heart always pounds faster for a good bike race. Back in Verona, where “his boy” was participating in Gran Fondos, like Eroica in Tuscany, an article in La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper caught his attention.

“I read an article in the paper by Marco Pastonesi about racing in Africa. He wrote that the problem was that they didn’t have bikes to race on. That started me thinking…”

Back to the genocide

Carlo Scandola’s story in Rwanda goes back further, to the aftermath of the genocide. He worked all his life as a plumber or “idraulico”, travelling far and wide, to Algeria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Back in Italy, he started working with hospitals and then an orphanage. It was in the mid- to late-1990s, and he saw the effects of genocide as a local woman brought back 50 orphaned Rwandans to find families.

He was touched and promised his friend he would go there and help, fixing pipes or doing any odd job. Working at a Rwandan orphanage run by Italians, he met “his boy” Jean Nsinga, the youngest of 13 children and left by his mum due to Osteomyelitis.

“A virus that entered a cut in his leg and here [in Rwanda] they don’t cure it. Once it was in, it started eating at his femur. His mum didn’t care, and the disease continued and ate up a lot of the bone,” Carlo explains.

“A doctor from Verona was here by chance. He checked him out and was able to stop the disease. He remained at the orphanage where I was working and was able to walk, but like a dog. He started following me everywhere, and I fell in love.”

Carlo convinced his wife to bring Jean back to Verona and give him a chance to see specialists, to walk again. She said OK to three months, but after three years, he was still there. They helped him get prosthetics, to walk and to ride a bike. In 2002, they took him back to his mum, but she turned the other way. The trip, though, opened Carlo’s eyes to Rwandan cycling.

Carlo Scandola at the Rwanda Cycling Federation office.

Back in Italy, he saw the article in La Gazzetta dello Sport, spoke with a neighbour who was from Rwanda. He asked him to talk to the cycling federation on his next trip home to see if he could collect bikes for the needy country. The federation’s president wrote Carlo and said, “Yes, work on the behalf of our federation.”

Containers of love

Bikes have been brought to Rwanda before. Tom Ritchey, who helped invent mountain biking, worked on a project to build utility bikes for coffee and other transport. Ritchey got to work, coined it Project Rwanda and built his “Coffee Bikes” – ideal for hauling beans around the hills. The bikes can still be found, but the project slowed down due to problems with shipping costs. Rwanda is land-locked which means it is expensive, perhaps the most expensive country in Africa, to receive goods.

Carlo started by making a few flights to Kigali, bringing around 10 bikes with him each time. He then started collecting more bikes, going to local races and talking to clubs to get what he could, including those Lamacart jerseys. He collected 60 bikes, from Giant to Bianchi frames, and a container to ship them in.

“It’s better to buy a used up container, than to bother with shipping the container back,” he says, pointing to the container that sits outside the Rwandan federation at the national stadium. The shipping cost is around 7000 euro for the trek from Verona to Sicily, on the boat to Congo, back on a truck through Tanzania, Rwanda and the needy cyclists.

The first bikes were gifts, but he agreed with the federation that it would buy the others, at an average of 200 a bike. These are not your carbon racers, but steel and aluminium frames with 10-speed Shimano and Campagnolo group sets. Back home in Verona, another container is being filled and prepared for its trip. In Kigali, the federation awards the fastest amateur club racers and best performers with bikes, or love from Verona.

Carlo can’t stop his heart from beating, though. He still brings bikes and kits with him to gift, this time one for Ibrahim and another – a Colnago Dream bought in Verona for 250 euro – for his one-legged friend, Rayisi Kuvizera.

Rayisi Kuvizera with his Colnago Dream bike.

“You can donate to priests and nuns here, they take nine of every 10 euro you give,” he says. “I want to help the Rwandans directly, giving something that helps them move ahead.”

The tour continues

Carlo is staying on to follow the Tour of Rwanda this year. A Canadian (Remi Roy Pelletier) won the first stage in Kigali and the level of competition is at a very high standard. The next eight legs travel through the countryside, west towards DR Congo and east towards Kenya, areas all affected by the genocide. Team Rwanda, directed by Jonathan Boyer, races on carbon Canyon frames like those that Cadel Evans used in team Lotto. They made the leap, the jump from racing in clubs on Carlo’s bikes to the national team. The other aspiring cyclists are still out there in Rwanda’s countryside, Carlo will say “ciao” and wave when the tour passes, he knows he is playing his part in shaping this country, riding its way out of genocide.

The 2012 Tour of Rwanda is currently being held form the 18th to 25th November in its 4th edition. The couse is made up of one prologue and 8 stages and will cover a total distance of 890.3 kilometres.

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