After Project Horizon athlete Lukas Rathgeber successfully completed his Thin Air Project in the Alps last year, a new challenge awaited him at the end of January: The Race around Rwanda. A perfect opportunity to combine his passion for cycling with experiencing a new culture. Together with ultra cyclist Raphael Albrecht and photographer Nils Laengner, he wanted to face the tough race in the "land of a thousand hills". All the preparations had already been made, and then everything turned out a little differently than expected.
We are pleased that Lukas has written a guest article in which he reports on his time in Rwanda:
"When the path becomes the goal.
It was supposed to be my first real ultra cycling race. With sleep deprivation and everything that goes with it. 1000 kilometers in 72 to 96 hours. 400 km of it on gravel once around Rwanda. Permanently between 1400m and 2900m, closer to the equator than ever before. A maximum of eight hours of sleep was planned. Hub dynamo and light were ready to go. 40 mm tires, which also roll well on asphalt, were fitted. Some of the best ultra racers were entered, so a perfect comparison to see where I stand.
For a long time it looked like the race could go ahead as planned as Corona was very well under control in Rwanda. Two weeks before the start date, sporting events were banned across the country to keep numbers low. Thus the Race around Rwanda could not take place as a race. However, before the start, the government supported the organizer in allowing the race to take place as a journey under changed conditions. Of course that changed everything, but I still found the idea of a 1000 km bikepacking trip through Rwanda super exciting. The route was divided into six stages and the hotels were booked for us in advance. Of course, this also meant more luxury items in the luggage and an additional bag on the bike.
In the end it was an unforgettable trip through incredibly beautiful landscapes with many new acquaintances. Of course I was ready to drive the race, but I would have missed out on so many things! I would not have had the opportunity to get to know my fellow combatants and enjoy the landscape in the light, nor would I have been able to explore the people and culture in this way.
On the first day we went to the east of the country towards Akagera National Park. All participants started more or less individually or in small groups. After the first three hours on asphalt, it was time for the first gravel sector. Together with race photographer Nils Laengner we went into the national park. The gravel track got narrower and narrower until only a single track was left. Everything was very comfortable so far. Until the Rwandan national drivers came from behind and somehow discovered the desire to race. So get on with it and somehow try to keep up. Curve, acceleration, curve, acceleration, curve, puddle, acceleration, puddle, curve, acceleration over almost ten kilometers. The whole thing with a wheel full of luggage that felt like a truck. After the racing interlude, we experienced what it means when it rains in Rwanda and were almost washed off the gravel road, only to arrive at the first hotel in the sunshine at the end.
The next day we continued north to Musanze. 200 km with 120 km gravel were on the program, garnished with 3000 meters of altitude. Start at 5am and arrive at 5pm says it all. That was a really bad day. With super nice gravel roads at lakes, views of volcanoes and descents that challenged my non-existent off-road driving skills, it was a really long day on the bike. The arrival was at the Rwandan Federation's Cycling Center and the service was 1A. From food to mechanics, everything was available to us. Plus the first hot shower in days. A dream.
From Musanze we continued to Kibuye on Lake Kivu. 190 km with 3800 vertical meters were on the clock at the end. I spent the whole day with Raphael Albrecht and we had our own little adventures. Broken rear derailleur at Nils after 45 minutes. A flat tire for me just after the highest (and muddiest) point of the race at 2800m. Crazy descents and lots of Coke, as well as a relaxed last part of the stage together with Fabian Burri and Jean Ruberwa, which was just called “Campione”. At the end we did a few small sprints here and there against each other. When cycling feels like "playing", it's at its most beautiful. Then a beer or two together. What more do you want?
The shortest day shouldn't be that short. Although only 100 km, but even with 3000 Hm, the three of us started very late as a gruppetto. Rapha had to take a short cut because of knee pain and so I was alone with Fabian for the rest of the day. The track took us through the greenest landscape I have ever seen, through tea plantations to a path through the rainforest. We got pretty burnt out in the sun and were very happy to find a little village shop that had Fanta and biscuits. Apart from a flat tire in the last few meters, we finished the rest of the stage relaxed. Due to limited spare tubes, this was my first time learning how to patch a tube.
Stage 5: The first 55 km and 1500 m of altitude gain no re-supply and in waves through the rainforest (Nygunge National Park) up to 2500 m. Again the three of us started at the back end around 6 a.m. (sleeping is nice too). After we rolled off in a relaxed manner, I suddenly found a pretty good rhythm and had a lot of fun testing what was still possible. I was in my element again, on asphalt and up mountains, almost like in the Alps. Only much greener, a view of Burundi and soldiers patrolling the road near the border. Gradually I was able to catch up with a few others in the group until I finally saw the Rwandan riders in front of me. They didn't make life easy for me and we played a few little games, which isn't a good idea at 2500m when you're already on the road with peak consumption anyway. Without breakfast, with two Maurten drinking bottles and four gels, I made it to kilometer 55. There, at 8:30 a.m., we had rice, potatoes and vegetables for breakfast. At the end of the stage, there was still more than 70 km of gravel to Nyanza. But I lost my seven lives in the first 55 km and took it easy.
On the last day it should rain for the second time on the whole trip. The others had all been on the road for two hours when we left at 8 a.m. Unfortunately, that took its toll and we started in the rain, while the others at least started dry. After 10km of gravel Rapha had a flat tire and I gave him my last inner tube. It was then clear to me that I would pull the joker and drive the 120 km to Kigali on the road, according to the motto: "Cobbler, stick to your last" and refrain from 70 km of gravel (and mud). The ride was quite bumpy and in the end I had more than 2000 m on the clock. After all the days with the boys and girls together on the track, I really enjoyed being on the road for a few hours on my own and being able to let everything sink in. In the end we all met on the terrace of the Onomo Hotel in the "Target" and had a beer or two together.
Unmentioned so far, but omnipresent during the race, were the children of Rwanda. Whenever you're spotted on the bike, the kids will run after you and yell "Muzungu, Muzungu". It's pretty new at first, but you get used to it over time. Likewise, if you stop somewhere to buy something from a local shop, the whole village comes together. The people are always super nice and keep a certain distance. Never on the whole trip did any of us feel unsafe or scared. Okay, I've gotten a little scared sometimes trying to follow the others downhill on trails I never thought could be ridden. I can definitely sign Rwanda – the land of 1000 hills – like that. Of the 1000 km, not a single kilometer felt flat.
It's really hard to put into words what cycling in Rwanda feels like. On the one hand you are speechless because of the beautiful landscapes and the open people, on the other hand you (I) cannot hide how surreal it is to cycle through remote villages where people have to walk several kilometers to the next well. This definitely gets you thinking. Overall, it was a trip that definitely shaped me and will always be remembered. Race around Rwanda 2021."
A race that never was. But we all won.