Cyclists Fight Hunger as They Race Across Poorest Country

For Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer and his team of cyclists, getting a decent meal was as much of a challenge at the inaugural Tour de Congo as traversing 814 kilometers (506 miles) across the world’s poorest country.

“The restaurants don’t realize that riders eat a lot, and when the riders say half a chicken, they mean half a chicken and not a drumstick,” Utah-born Boyer, 57, said in a June 24 phone interview from Kikwit, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The restaurants weren’t able to provide the riders with a proper quantity of food, or even food at all.”

Empty stomachs, delays, last-minute course changes and unruly crowds were just a few of the obstacles facing Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France in 1981, as he attempted to lead the Rwandan team in the Tour de Congo cycling race this week.

The eight-day competition saw 62 riders on 10 teams race across Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa. The tour began in Matadi, a sea-port town near the continent’s west coast, and is due to end in the capital, Kinshasa, today.

Team Rwanda Cycling, coached by Boyer, was only notified that the race would take place less than four weeks before the June 19 start date, he said. That meant preparations for the tour were rushed and made an already physically and mentally demanding event even harder to negotiate. Attempts to contact the organizers of the race were unsuccessful.

Talented Rider

Boyer first traveled to Rwanda in 2006 to help with a race called the Wooden Bike Classic. There he identified Adrien Niyonshuti as a talented rider and moved to the country a year later to coach cyclists. Niyonshuti, 26, went on to compete in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Boyer had earlier been released from probation following a conviction for inappropriate behavior with a minor in the U.S. This was confirmed by Boyer.

Stage four of the Tour de Congo, which ended in Kenge, was delayed for most of the morning while the team cars, which ferry the riders to the start line of each race, were held up at a gas station because no one had money to pay for the fuel.

“The drivers sat from 6 a.m. to after 11 a.m. just to be able to get $20 of fuel,” Boyer said. “The whole race was delayed, we weren’t able to start on time, we weren’t able to start where we planned to start, so the race got shortened from 140 kilometers to 48 kilometers.”

That day, June 23, involved almost 500 kilometers of driving before a night spent in Kikwit, a city about 400 kilometers east of Kinshasa, where in 1995 there was an outbreak of a hemorrhagic fever known as the Ebola virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unpaved Roads

A further challenge was presented by the lack of roads in Congo, where infrastructure was heavily damaged by two civil wars between 1996 and 2003. Out of 153,497 kilometers of highway only 2,794 kilometers are paved, according to the most recent statistics in the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. The World Bank financed a $180 million project to re-pave 40 kilometers of road in Kinshasa last month.

Congo is the world’s poorest country by annual income per person at $237, according to the International Monetary Fund, yet the race across jungle and mountainous terrain is a sign that cycling in Africa is improving, said Hendrik Wagener, head of road cycling for Cape Town-based Cycling South Africa.

“Cycling in Africa is growing and growing,” he said by phone. International cycling body the UCI has a development center in the South African town of Potchefstroom that trains riders from around the continent, he said.

Prize Money

The winner of the tour will receive $7,000 in prize money from the Congolese Cycling Federation, according to Kimberly Coats, director of marketing and logistics for Team Rwanda Cycling. That compares with 450,000 euros ($586,000) for the winner of the Tour de France. Rwanda’s four riders are Emile Bintunimana, Emmanuel Rudahunga, Hassan Rukundo and Joseph Biziyaremye, with the latter winning the sixth stage of the tour on June 25.

Team Rwanda is competing with teams from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and France, Boyer said.

Mederic Clain of France won the seventh stage of the tour, which ended east of the capital in N’Sele, with Rwanda’s Biziyaremye and Bintunimana in second and third respectively, according to Team Rwanda’s Facebook page.

“These guys are starting pretty much from zero and trying to make a good job of it,” Boyer said. “There are some serious shortfalls but if they’re motivated and work hard it won’t be the first and last Tour de Congo. Maybe next year they could have a race that doesn’t have so many internal issues.”

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