Scene from the 2024 Race Around Rwanda.

Race Around Rwanda gallery: Roads full of life

Photographer Matt Grayson offers a flavour of Rwanda.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 11.05.2024 Photography by
Matt Grayson
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Earlier this year, when Europe was just waking up to bike racing again and before the Classics began in earnest, before even Joe Blackmore and his Israel Premier Tech Academy contemporaries lit up the Tour of Rwanda, the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ welcomed a cohort of bikepackers and ultra-distance athletes for the Race Around Rwanda.

First run in 2020, the Race Around Rwanda is fast becoming a bucket list event for ultra-distance cyclists and bikepackers eager for a unique adventure. The landlocked country presents quite a challenge for individuals and pairs alike as they battle over 1,000 kilometres of mixed terrain, 40% of it off-road, with almost 18,000 metres of climbing. Punctured by mountains in the west and savanna to the southeast, there are lakes throughout Rwanda, and a weather system that offers everything from baking sun to freezing rain.

British photographer Matt Grayson has become very familiar with Rwanda and this race over the years, and his photos really provide a flavour of the event. Like so many of its kind, for most of its competitors at least, the Race Around Rwanda is much less about the result than the experience and the things you see along the way.

And on Rwandan roads, you see a bit of everything.

The race started in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali at 0500, and with riders turning up from 0330, the nerves were palpable as riders conducted last-minute checks and braced themselves for the adventure ahead.
It was a mass rollout from Kigali with a police escort for a few kilometres. In earlier editions, the Race Around Rwanda has struggled to prevent drafting in the more urban opening phases, so this year the organisers added a cobbled climb out of Kigali to break up the groups, and enforced the rule: no drafting after sunrise.
Top favourite Kenneth Karaya of Team Amani was in a jovial mood before sunrise, seen here chatting with the jeep that contained the media team and race director.
Jean Ruberwa (Project Rwanda Beyond) led a small front group of Kenyan and Rwandan riders on the first gravel section as daylight began to burn through the mist. [Matt: “I’d never seen a morning like that in Rwanda, so misty!”]
Kenneth Karaya (Team Amani) and Innocent Niyireba (Project Rwanda Beyond) stretch the no-drafting rule at the front of the race.
As the riders pushed on through daybreak, local communities were getting up and going about their business, many of them dressed in their Sunday finery.
[Matt: “I think it’s very unlikely this was water for drinking, I think these lads were collecting water for cleaning.”]
Tending to paddy fields before church.
The chap on the left was part of a team whose bike had failed to arrive on time for the race start, but having come so far, there was no missing the rollout. A hired mountain bike made for an especially challenging first day, but as luck would have it, his own bike arrived Sunday morning and was driven to the first checkpoint to meet its relieved rider.
Ariane Richter was on a mission, in her own words, “maintaining a 25-hour effort to secure the lead at [checkpoint #2]. Minimal sleep and demanding stretches were of course hard on body and mind, but I was stubborn enough to keep going”. She would go on to win the solo women’s category a good four-plus hours ahead of second place, finishing 10th overall.
After just a couple of hours on the go, Kamil Jacak – part of the leading pair with Urszula Żuchowicz – enjoyed what would become a common experience on the Rwandan roads: an excited interaction with local children.
Another common experience was roadside maintenance under the scrutiny of curious locals. Here, Benjamin Schmetz makes an adjustment on the perimeter road around the Akagera National Park, the second gravel sector that was more or less flat until nearer checkpoint #1.
Kenneth Karaya in the lead over Innocent Niyireba by about 15-20 minutes, which is quite substantial at this early stage.
Innocent Niyireba approaches dancers performing for the camera. [Matt: “Something that really stood out to me was that all life seemed to happen on the roads. It’s not like in the UK where they’re just a way to get from A to B. In Rwanda the roads are central to everyday life.”]
Kenyan rider Vincent Chege was quite a long way back on day one, but that would change. His was a story of patience and perseverence, and by the finish he’d overtaken both his rivals to take a memorable first place.
By late morning, Kenneth Karaya was well on his way to checkpoint #1, while around him locals enjoyed a Sunday morning chequers tournament.
About to be overtaken by a milkman … or overtaking a milkman.
Belgian rider Guillaume De Spoelberch was sitting third at this point but ended up scratching.
Ariane Richter (introduced above) wrote, “Forget cars, in Rwanda, bicycles are king.”
Few of the bicycles that spend their lives on these roads were a match for those in the race, but every one of them had a story to tell. This enormous old steed (an overused word that seems right for this workhorse) has an enchanting makeshift pannier rack mounted to its frame.
Checkpoint #1 (CP1) was a welcome opportunity to oil dusty chains and refuel weary bodies before cracking on towards the first overnight stint.
The aforementioned Benjamin Schmetz with Fabian Wurm stocking up on snacks and water in a town a little after CP1.
Innocent Niyireba on the Twin Lakes gravel sector (no. 4) against a backdrop of terraced hills. The end of this fourth sector brought the riders close to the border with Uganda.
There’s still a long way to go. This gravel climb took riders up to around 7,500 ft / 2,200 metres.
Riding into the last light of day.
Innocent Niyireba’s race went through a full spectrum of adjectives from fantastic to strong via disastrous and fortunate. The home favourite reached CP2 in second position and planned to ride through the night, but shortly after midnight he was set upon by a group of drunk revellers who pulled him from the saddle and pedalled his treasured race bike away as fast as they could. After alerting the police, the culprit was found, alas without the bike, and Innocent resorted to sleeping through the misery, his fantastic start falling away. But then at 6am, two hours after he’d put his head down, Innocent was woken with the news that his bike had been found abandoned in the middle of a field, his light and GPS still running. But he couldn’t resume just yet; Innocent had paperwork to fill out for the police before he could get back on the road. It was 8am by the time he set off again having lost seven hours. He would eventually finish a strong fifth among the men, sixth overall, and first Rwandan.
Day two brought the riders into a volcanic area of northern Rwanda bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to where mountain gorillas find their home.
One of the racers interrupting the early-Monday-morning routine.
Lake Burera, one of the twin lakes and really close to Uganda, provided a stunning backdrop for the riders’ second misty morning.
The Race Around Rwanda was a remarkable first-ever ultra event for Giorgio Pessina.
One of many beautiful juxtapositions seen out on the roads. That saddle has seen a lot.
This village was on a volcanic section where the gravel consists of really hard rock, very different from the loose stuff we think of when we hear the word ‘gravel’. It’s a vicious surface to ride, and the sector was very steep and pebbly, some of it near impassable – it seemed better suited to a mountain bike event than a gravel race.
When asked later, many of the riders agreed that the toughest and roughest part of the race came on the heavy gravel and choppy terrain before and after checkpoint #2.
The use of bikes couldn’t be much different here, although checkpoint #2 did bring the riders to the home of the Rwandan national cycling team, Africa Rising, so the locals are no strangers to seeing Rwandan riders out training.
Volcanoes watched over the riders throughout day two.
The riders came across several bike taxis on the roads, very few of them as beautifully laid as this one.
After CP2 in Ruhengeri, the riders headed into the Gishwati highlands, reaching the highest point in the race at about 2,800 metres. The landscape here is almost like Alpine pasture with its cattle and isolation, with tea plantations lower down. This is one of the new roads being laid in the area with a fine grit going down before resurfacing – it’s going to cause issues for route planning in future!
More of that highland mist burning off in the background.
The sun sets on the tea plantations at the end of day two.
Mozes Dufitumukizad of Rwanda Beyond is tailed by a road resurfacing crew on a climb.
Two very different experiences of the Kivu Belt road in the rain.
Having dropped down into town for refuel, the riders were still pretty high up at around 1,800-2,200 metres above sea level.
A tea picker well wrapped up to protect against the prickly tea bushes.
[Matt: “Some of the roads are better than most in the UK.” – ed. yes, he’s British!]
Checkpoint #3 was at Kibuye on the edge of a lake, where the sun dried out the riders caught in the rain storm. Just outside Kibuye, the route brought the riders close to the Kiziba Refugee Camp which is home to more than 16,000 refugees and asylum seekers (as of August 2023).
The Gisovu Tea gravel sector took the race close to another of Rwanda’s stunning lakes, Lake Kivu, which spans almost the entire western edge of Rwanda.
This was the hardest, and probably longest, most sustained gravel climb, taking riders from the lake at 1,500 elevation up to 2,500 metres. The gravel sector lasted 65 kilometres and included a gnarly descent.
Jenny Tough pictured at sunset at end of day three.
Same climb, different day – there’s only so many times you can do it!
George Smith Lomas stopped to stretch and buy bananas at the same junction as the bunny hop above.
The support vehicles were unable to follow the entire race route, often having to veer off onto more main roads that the vehicles could better cope with. This was one of the points where riders and support diverged.
Don’t forget your suncream, kids.
Nyungwe Rainforest National Park is home to a huge variety of different monkeys and chimps, and there’s also a heavy military presence given its proximity to the Burundi border.
Marie Gest stops for supplies in Huye, home to CP4.
Second in the women’s category, Gest was concerned it might be a struggle to sort out a niggling mechanical issue, but the local bike shop got it done. Apparently the French rider’s husband saw that her tracker had stopped for a while, but was relieved to see her on the road again with her bike sorted nice and quick.
Smiling through the pain on the Kibeho Holy Land gravel section.
Shielding from sun.
The Kibeho Holy Land sector took the riders through a mixture of tea plantation and eucalyptus forest.
After the rainforest, it was back onto gravel roads through tea plants.
After almost nothing through the forest, Kitabi offered the first refreshments for quite some distance.
CP4 at Huye provided a moment of reflection for Alma Moekotte who was riding in a Dutch-English team with her boyfriend (below).
Stuart Harrison-Baker took advantage of the swimming pool at the hotel (under construction) that housed CP4.
Rice fields at dawn about 30 km from CP4.
The German pair of Oliver Hoffman and Mark Henkel cut through the rice fields on the last gravel section of the race, one that was mercifully pretty flat.
The sector did have a bit of a sting, though. Hoffman and Henkel were very distinct in their EF replica team kit.
Alma Moekette again riding through life on the road: kids walking to school, bikes transporting goods, daily life …
Riding away from paddy fields.
Stuart Harrison-Baker stopping for one of the many chapati enjoyed along the road.
Always curious, always friendly.
Two different approaches to a very gnarly bridge. [Matt: “Alma might have been taking a picture here.”]
One of the many taxis on the road.
Cold beers awaited the weary riders at the finish of what had been a truly epic ride.

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