The Race Around Rwanda is a 1000 km, single-stage ultra-endurance gravel race with 17,000 vm of elevation around Rwanda - aptly nicknamed the “Land of a Thousand Hills”. The route roughly circumnavigates the country in an anti-clockwise fashion traversing 60% smooth tarmac roads and 40% relatively rough, steep and technical gravel roads with some serious mountain bike single track thrown in for good measure. The brief is simple. Get to the finish line self-powered on two wheels with no external help. Use any amenities available to other contestants and be a good sport whilst doing it.
Being largely high altitude (roughly 1500 - 2850 vm), temperatures are generally mild (well, potentially baking for our Northern Hemisphere friends coming from mid-winter, but being South African, I found the temperatures very reasonable). The organisers were merciful and scheduled the race during one of the country’s two dry seasons (Rwanda is super green for a reason - and it’s not because of bucketloads of blue sky!). Furthermore, Rwanda experiences 12-hour nights pretty much year-round, meaning that riding in the dark is practically unavoidable if you wish to finish within the generous 6 and a half day cut-off.
I alluded earlier to Rwanda is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills”. This is especially true for this race, with most of the 17,000 vm coming in the second half, with 6,100 vm+ between CP3 and CP4 alone, so one has to ensure their high altitude climbing legs are packed in with them.
Although most people reading this blog will not need any extra encouragement or justification for riding stupid distances for days on their bicycles, Rwanda often comes up as a strange destination to some.
Many people can quickly group Rwanda with its struggling Central African cousins; however, in reality, it consistently ranks as one of the safest and cleanest countries in Africa. With its smiling children, helpful bystanders, high population density (read numerous resupply options) and impressive infrastructure considering its relatively recent harrowing past; coupled with an immensely diverse landscape consisting of volcanoes, tea plantations, a vast array of freshwater lakes and high altitude indigenous rain forest, it becomes clear as to why hosting an ultra distance cycling event here makes complete sense.
To the initiated in ultra-cycling, I’ll understand if you skip this section. But to those wondering about taking the plunge, take it from me, do it. You can do it.
I am not a gifted cyclist, nor do I have an FTP that resembles a phone number. I found cycling relatively late in life after a torn Achilles tendon in early 2020 sidelined my trail running for several months. The bike was a means to quicker recovery and getting outside. One thing led to another, and soon I entered this mammoth event where my longest ride was a meagre-in-comparison, a 240 km mtb race midway through 2022.
Preparation and training is a person-specific endeavour as we all have different strengths and weaknesses to work on. But like many working individuals, I wish I could have spent way more time on the bike in the lead-up. Most of my limited training time was centred on A - getting as comfortable as possible on the bike for long distances and B - climbing. Night riding, some longer intervals (10-15 min intervals rather than my usual 5 min) and toasty midday rides were also aspects I incorporated into training.
This is by far the most stressful aspect of the preparation (well, the most stressful for me). I had yet to decide what to pack regarding kit, spares or food. Should I take a bivvy? Should I take a sleeping bag? Should I take an extra spoke? I’m not exaggerating by saying I’d lie in bed at night, struggling to sleep thinking about these things! Fortunately, I read thousands of blogs from experts in the field and used kit lists published by other riders for similar races and ultimately came to the following:
- Bike: My ever-faithful trusty steed and all-time favourite possession, Kev. My Curve Kevin of Steel III in Hero Green was built up with a mishmash of components. I ran an Easton EA90 47/32 Gravel Chainset, paired up with a Shimano Ultegra R8000 font/rear derailleur and shifters coupled to an 11-36 cassette. I chose to run my 700c wheels in Pirelli Cinturato Gravel H 45mm tyres (tubeless, obviously).
- Bags: Frame bags, top tube bags and stem bags were all custom creations by Pieta Designs. A small bespoke bike bag maker from Wilderness, South Africa (another Kevin of Steel rider I might add). I ran a 14L Apidura Expedition Saddle Pack and a small handlebar bag from Mango Time, another small South African brand operating out of Cape Town. I also opted for my Salomon hydration pack with 2x500ml soft flasks and 3 bottles mounted on my bike.
- Kit: Two pairs of bib shorts, one jersey, two pairs of socks, a baselayer, arm warmers, leg warmers, a raincoat (outer shell), gloves, and emergency bivvy and clothes to sleep in (running shorts and a long sleeve merino wool t-shirt).
- Spares: two tubes, tyre levers, puncture repair kits (tubeless and patches), some sealant, mini pump, CO2 cartridges and adapter, a spare gear cable, brake pads, derailleur hanger, quick links, valve cores, a variety of multi-tools and a quick link tool.
- Lights: An Extreme Lights Endurance front light with two spare batteries as well as Ryder rechargeable rear light.
We started promptly from Maguru Coffee (the only bicycle-themed cafe in Kigali and home of Race Around Rwanda) at 04:00 on Sunday, 5 Feb, after a 02:15 wake-up to get the necessary coffee and breakie in. I usually struggle to sleep the night before an event, a major bummer when the event will take at least 4 days. What followed was a 6 km neutralised start via police escort out of Kigali and a fast, flowing 100km leading to the first equally fast and flowing (and flat by Rwandan standards) gravel sector, ultimately concluding at CP1. After a quick bite (there was always a restaurant with meals to order at each checkpoint) and a bottle refill, I was on my way. I pushed through the next gravel section along Lake Muhazi and then up the final tarred climb (30 odd km and 1000 vm) to finish my first day in the town of Byuma with 270 km | 3071 vm+ on the clock and just under 13 hours of saddle time for the first day. Stoked.
En Route 2 hours before sunrise the following morning, a semi-disaster struck. On a technical gravel descent, I pulled my front brake lever and felt no actuation of the brake. I pulled harder (as you do) to eventually hear a loud crack. Shit. I could now at least use my front brake, but the ratchet mechanism of my front shifter was done. Despite all my (dubious at best) roadside mechanic efforts, I was stuck in the small ring. I rolled into CP2 pretty irate about the shifter but buoyed by the fact that the checkpoint was located at the Africa Rising Cycling Centre in Musanze - home of the Rwandan national road team who were putting their final touches of training in for the upcoming tour of Rwanda (Chris Froome is racing to those unaware). Good news - there are mechanics! Bad news - after waiting an hour or so for the mechanic to arrive and a further 2 hours of fiddling, I left the checkpoint at 14:00 with my shifter still broken (so poor Kev was now a defacto 1x). With another 100 km to go to the next town and two tasty gravel climbs in the way (the second reaching 2850 vm), I cracked on with my limping Kev (in hindsight, of all mechanicals possible, being stuck in the small ring in the Race Around Rwanda was far less of a crisis than I initially thought). I finished the day after nightfall with around 200 km and 3350 vm done.
Day 3 was when I became somewhat unstuck. I woke up with nausea and stomach trouble - potentially the price of playing catch up the day before? I got onto the road and started meagrely turning the pedals one after the other, trying to ease myself into it. I regard myself as a decent climber for a biggish guy (1.8 m tall, 80 kg), but some competitors flew past me as if I was standing still. I was cramming anything and everything available in the villages down my throat: chapati, bananas, mandazi (a type of deep-fried dough ball) and glucose biscuits. Nothing seemed to help. Around 50 or so k away from CP3, negative thoughts were rolling through my head. Stop. You’re done. You’ve overreached. I was crawling so slowly up the climbs amongst the endless tea plantations that I was considering grabbing onto one of the 18-wheeler trucks crawling by me. The locals all do this, so seeing a truck towing 3 or 4 bikes up a long pass is not strange. As the next truck approached, I looked behind me to ensure no one was watching. To my absolute dismay, there was another competitor, Gary Mandy (an ex-Zimbabwean who grew up in South Africa. He never knew it then, but he ultimately turned out to be the turning point in my race). He crept up on me and asked how I was doing - I duly told him I was in a world of pain, and he responded that he was also hurting. He started to pull away, but I forced myself to hold his wheel - what a great decision. Gary and I rolled into CP3, a whole 100 km from our previous night, completely shattered. My initial plan was to soldier on and get through the next gravel section, a gargantuan 65 km with 1800 vm, starting with a 16 km climb ascending 1000 vm. But after lunch, much deliberation, a call home to my wife (she had been busy with her own adventure, so out of contact for the last few days), and very possibly a few tears, Gary and I decided to call the day at 100 km, have a good afternoon nap at the CP3 hotel, a good sleep, a good dinner and have a big crack the following day and ride together to the end. Winner.
We woke early the following morning and tackled the Queen Stage of Race Around Rwanda. As mentioned, the CP3-4 stretch was 270 km long with 6100 vm. Highly unlikely that we’d get through it in one go, so our goal was to get through the famous Nyungwe Rain Forest (about 160km and 4200m+). Gary and I soldiered on, and what followed can only be described as one of my favourite days on a bike. A crisp morning climbing out of CP3 through the mist up a steep gravel climb with nothing but the sound of our tyres on the gravel. I always tell people that my Kevin of Steel climbs like a road bike but descends like a mountain bike, and this day played to all his strengths. I felt as if I were floating on the way up and bombed down the descents with confidence and panache. Highlights were plentiful; a beautiful single-track descent through a jungle section, a curious group of kids, an exquisite lunch at the entrance to Nyungwe and a fabulous sighting of an adult Chimpanzee crossing the road directly in front of us. But, as with all things in ultra sports, there are inevitably lowlights, and ours came in the form of water. Bucket loads of it from the sky. It went from being pleasant to absolutely pelting down in a matter of seconds. I was soaked before I could even get off my bike. A quick pit stop in some municipal toilets, a change of clothes and finally, a use for my arm and leg warmers! What followed was an exceptionally cold and miserable trudge to our planned accommodation, compounded by the fact that the rain had finished off the last of my brake pads, so I was essentially half squealing, half leaning on Gary to our grass hut accommodation (that also happened to have no hot nor any running water for that matter). Vibes.
We rode the next 270 km over two days, with an exceptional stop and dinner, complete with a couple of beers shared amongst other contenders. At this point, we were no longer racing so we decided to try to enjoy our last few hours on the course. Gary whipped out some biltong (Saffas will understand) to celebrate the end of the last Gravel section, and we flew home as fast as my solely functioning small chain ring would let me. Gary and I ultimately crossed the finish line together in 5 days, 9 hours, and 2 minutes (unofficially) to the rapturous applause of the contestants who had either scratched or finished ahead of us gathered around at Maguru Coffee. Andrea (my wife) had flown in from SA that morning and was also waiting at the finishing line for us.
The next few days were filled with beers, laughter, war stories, dinners and contact exchanging between newly made like-minded friends. Absolute bliss.
This is an exceptional race and experience. Having been to Rwanda before, I sort of knew what I was getting myself into. However, I was still blown away by the course's beauty, the people's warmth and the adventure at hand. There’s no feeling quite like standing on the brink of the unknown.
The people. My word, the ultra-distance cycling community is rad! I met so many epic people worldwide, all with a common love for riding bikes. Cycling can often be a bit elitist, snobby and stiff and cracking an invite to the group ride could be difficult if your socks are too short, your flat white isn’t oat, or your bike doesn’t cost more than your mortgage. Not with this crew. Everyone was united by a common interest and truly invested in the adventure. A special mention must go out to the winner, Elijus Čivilis. Not only did he wait around until the LAST rider to finish came in (that’s like an extra four days), but he sat and answered every detailed question about his fuelling strategy, his training, how he paces and essentially his tactics on how he wins races. This was a refreshing change in a world of marginal gains and using every advantage over your competitor.
Racing is tough. Competition is hard, and pushing your limits is brutal. But at the end of the day, this is why we do it. To sweat, to suffer, to persevere and to endure. I can’t wait to swing my leg over old Kev for the next adventure!
My name is Jay Cowie. I’m 27 years old and have most recently been living in George, South Africa. I’m crazy about adventure and cycling - so naturally, I was drawn to Curve. I love my Kevin of Steel, and it’s my freedom machine, my sanctuary, the way I de-stress and relax. My wife and I are both junior doctors, having recently completed our community service. We’re taking some time off to prioritise adventure, with a bike-packing trip in Rwanda planned for after the race (I’m currently writing this blog post in a tent in a small town called Bumba) and another trip planned for April - June of this year.