By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
On his first trip to Africa, Geoff Drake rode his motorcycle hundreds of miles through remote villages and large cities in Rwanda.
Safety was a top priority.
“I was on high alert all the time,” said Drake, 56. “I didn’t want to end up in a Rwandan hospital. I had bought $100,000 worth of insurance in case I needed to be evacuated.”
Drake’s 15-day expedition in the East African country was not a leisurely exploration.
A longtime Santa Cruz resident, Drake was invited to be part of the motorcycle crew supporting more than 80 professional bicyclists racing in the seventh annual Tour de Rwanda. The wildly popular event, which covered 584 miles in eight stages from Nov. 15-22, drew tens of thousands of spectators and an international field of competitors comprising 17 teams.
“The rise of pro cycling and elite cycling in Africa is a relatively new thing,” said Drake, the former editor of Velo News and Bicycling Magazine. “The important thing is that the Tour du Rwanda elevates the visibility of African cyclists.”
Drake had never imagined himself astride a motorcycle at the starting line of Tour du Rwanda, in Kigali, the nation’s capitol and a city of more than one million people.
The adventure unfolded weeks after Jonathan “Jock” Boyer met with Drake in Monterey. The two knew each other from the Tour de France. Boyer was the first American to race in the Tour de France in 1981.
A native of Carmel, Boyer currently lives in Rwanda with his wife, cyclist Kimberly Coats. He founded Team Africa Rising (formerly Team Rwanda) to recruit, train and develop African bicyclists with the goal of competing internationally at the highest level. It fielded three separate Rwandan teams in the Tour du Rwanda.
Boyer knew that Drake was both a motorcycle safety instructor and an experienced bike racer. Boyer suggested Drake join the Tour du Rwanda entourage, which aids racers during the exhausting, multi-day test of strength and willpower.
“At first I dismissed it as lunacy,” said Drake of the invitation. He pondered it for a month. “Then I thought this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. It combines my favorite things, bicycles, motorcycles, athletes. I put the trip together — the vaccinations, malaria medication, visas and media passes. I went for 15 days as part of the race caravan that includes 10 or 12 officials, security and press.”
Because of their maneuverability and acceleration, motorcycles are an integral part of bike racing at every level. They have access to places that cars don’t.
“I hadn’t done motorcycle support. It was a little nerve racking,” Drake confessed. “It rained every single day really hard. People cut you off, a mechanic opened his door in front of me. It was fun and intense”
A highlight was being embedded with the athletes.
“I was really mixed in with riders, coaches and mechanics. I ate all my meals with them, stayed in the same hotels. I was right there all the time. The athletes were trained by Jock and he has decades of experience racing in Europe.”
Even on his nimble BMW F 800 GS motorcycle, Drake couldn’t zip around freely during the event.
“There are a lot rules of when you can and cannot move. There are universal rules of cycling,” Drake explained.
During the tour, his motorcycle drew a lot of attention, as did he, a “mzungo,” or white person.
“I was very noticeable,” said Drake. “My experience was that every time I stopped, anywhere, all these children would come out. They were really curious. They were fascinated by the caravan of joyous commotion. They always wanted to touch my motorcycle and give fist bumps and high-fives. The fascination was mutual.”
Despite witnessing “poverty like I had never seen before,” Drake said what impressed him most was the seeming resilience of the Rwandans, survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda were murdered by members of the Hutu majority.
“It’s almost unfathomable to think what that country went through 20 years ago,” Drake said. “To stand in these crowds and think so many people went through this. It’s hard to believe.”
The mission of Tour du Rwanda and Boyer’s Team Africa Rising are connected to Rwanda’s painful past. The tour unites the country through passion for a growing sport and is showcasing both its emerging and established cycling talent. Both men and women are being recruited for Team Africa Rising and a live-in center for their team training and development was recently established.
“Every town was absolutely jammed with screaming people,” Drake said. “Life would come to a standstill in every village when people lined the roads to watch the race. They knew it was coming and they were going to support it.”
Drake also encountered high-profile cycling enthusiasts at the race, including the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, Erica J. Barks-Ruggles, and famed Tour de France commentator and former pro bike racer Paul Sherwen, who lives in Uganda.
At the finish line in Kigali, a new champion was crowned. Rwandan Jean-Bosco Nsengiman, 22, captured the lead early and dominated. The nation was jubilant that the top three spots in the race went to Rwandans.
After the race, Drake took a day off to hike to the top of 12,000-foot Mount Bisoke, a crater in Volcanoes National Park. During the trek in ankle-deep mud, Drake was accompanied by a driver, porter, four armed soldiers and a guide — a requirement since he was hiking near the dangerous border with the Congo.
When he finally boarded the plane for the 30-hour flight back to the U.S., airport security had been heightened and he feared it may take a few days to return. But he made it home to Santa Cruz in time for Thanksgiving with his family.
“I have been invited back,” said Drake. “Jock already told me I passed muster. If I can go back, I will.”
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.