Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills. The Race around Rwanda is an ultra-cycling race of 1000km long and 18000 meters elevation gain with a mix of tarmac and gravel.
I heard about this race through my husband, Miguel V, who was planning to race it in 2020, which didn’t happen due to the pandemic. Finally, in 2023 the race was on and I was going to race as a pair with my friend Juliet. We weren’t fit enough as this race happened two months after we both had covid leaving us with very low immune systems to train as hard as we wished. But we were healthy to go, and though we all like to win and can get quite competitive, we aligned that the goal was to have fun, explore a new country and culture, stop for pictures, and even sleep 4-5hrs a night – which is a luxury in an ultra-cycling race.
Touchdown Kigali! We arrived and went through all the race preparations: unpacking and putting our bikes together, registration, and a ride to test the bike. Woah, the hills there were no joke! No wonder Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills, you either go up or down, and there are no flat roads whatsoever. I felt a bit terrified. Shook it off and tried to rest the next 24hr before the race start.
For the ones who don’t know, an ultra-cycling race is self-supported, you must bring with you all you need (clothes, nutrition (your Tailwind!), tools, spare parts – yes, you are also your own mechanic!). You can stop to refuel and buy anything you might need, as long as it is a commercial outlet that is available to all. As a pair, you can help each other and even draft. As a solo, you are on your own.
We took off Sunday at 4 am and felt so strong. We were rolling! We were smiling! We were in sync – pace, strength, and it felt so good! We made a quick stop around km 100, got all the samosas and donuts, and ate on the go. We made it to checkpoint 1 by 12-1 pm. We were ahead of the schedule and feeling on top of the world so we decided to keep going through the Rwanda gravel and amazing scenery. It was too early to call it a day anyways. By sunset, we stopped and took a boat across Lac Muhazi and spent the night at this beautiful hotel that we couldn’t really enjoy as we were on a mission: cold shower to prevent any inflammation, eat, and sleep. We got up at 3 am and hit the road again. We had a massive 22km climb that we wanted to do in the dark before the sun (heat!) came up. We were a bit tired and this day we decided to put our headphones on with some music to focus on the climbs ahead. We made it to checkpoint 2 and it was so gorgeous there that we decided to stay the night. We didn’t hear the alarm and “overslept” until 4 am, putting us behind schedule. But we were cool because again our goal was to have fun!!! This day was very tough for me, the gravel climbs started to get harder as my left knee started to hurt, but we kept on pushing. Rode through the volcanos all the way to the Congo border and stopped at Lac Kivu. We took a long break there and had a nice meal. It was needed as we were hitting a low point. After food and a catch-up with other riders who caught us, we were pumped and ready to go again! Amazing how many second winds you get when you are riding nonstop for 15-20 hours a day. The night came and we started to see lightning on the horizon so decided to stop short to avoid the storm. A few hours of sleep and we were off on the road again. Got to checkpoint 3 by 8 am! Meanwhile, my husband finished the race in 8th place! I couldn’t be more proud!
Juliet and I continued our journey, and this day the route got more and more technical, but no problem as we love that terrain and (despite my knee pain) I was having a lot of fun (mainly on the descends, as most climbs I was having to push my bike up). We were behind schedule, I was in pain, we got cold caught in the rain in the rainforest bordering Burundi, it wasn’t easy, but blood, sweat, and tears are all part of the secret recipe for adventure!
I have won races that weren’t as fun as this one. Changing my mindset to do races for me, and to do it healthy (can we stop glorifying people continuing to race injured or in pain?), and truly enjoy the experience and the country I am in, has been a game changer, that sometimes I even perform better not thinking about performance! Remember to just have fun! Or why are we doing this?
There were a few learnings, like doing more research about the race and organisation, as I didn’t feel this one actually supported women and this particular race had issues with people following the rules, and from appearances, it seemed that the organisation was unable to enforce them. Test all of your equipment!!! I knew that and have always done it, but failed miserably this time with my “exposure” front light. Having not tested before, one night when darkness approached and my light ran out of battery, I found out the hard way that the light wasn’t charging while on as the brand claimed. Crisis averted, luckily, Juliet’s light still had some battery left so she led the way until we reached our sleeping spot for the night. Biggest lesson was the have fun goal will be applied to most races going forward. I truly enjoyed the pace and the adventure more than chasing the podium (when doing it not for me or injured etc.).
I was so impressed with how Rwanda is so safe and clean, the air smells like eucalyptus, the people are reserved, but if you smile, they will smile back, and their skin glows like it is golden hour all day long. The kids were very curious and ran after us trying to say hello or touch our skin. So curious about our phones and wanting to see the pictures we took, seemed confused looking at me putting water in my hydration backpack, or the music in my headphones!
Rwanda is a beautiful country with very challenging terrain for cycling, and I would love to go back to do a training camp there someday! Until next time…
Header Photo: Miguel Veterano