Rwanda's known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, so no wonder the Tour of Rwanda is Africa's toughest cycling event. Micha Glowatzki managed a small German team that took part, he was impressed by Rwanda's cycling scene.
This year's Tour of Rwanda ended with a spectacular finish on the infamous "Mur de Kigali," one of the steep cobble-stone streets in the Rwandan capital. Home favorite Samuel Mugisha claimed victory in front of thousands of cheering fans, winning the 10th edition of the eight-day race, known as Africa's most difficult because of its mountainous route.
German amateur team Embrace the World also impressed on the Tour, snapping up three stage victories. Team manager Micha Glowatzki discusses the crowds' excitement, the grueling climbs and missing replacement parts.
DW: Micha Glowatzki, did you think it possible to win three stages at possibly Africa's toughest cycling event before the race began.
Micha Glowatzki: Not at all. We never expected that, and then to chalk up three stage wins in a row was a complete surprise. It was sensational when we were sat in the car and heard that we had won a third stage. Rwanda really is the Land of a Thousand Hills, roads only ever seem to go uphill or downhill. So you have to have a very good day in order to keep up with the locals. For Europeans to win these stages is a rather rare thing.
Your team now has experience racing all around the world. So is an event like the Tour of Rwanda really an adventure?
Yes, definitely. The Tour of Rwanda was the highlight of our year. Firstly because it's such a tough event, and also because we had already unsuccessfully applied to take part three times. The atmosphere there also makes it a special event, the crowds are simply incredible. There's an excitement akin to the Alpe d'Huez [probably the most popular and famous Tour de France stage — editor's note], apart from there, I've never seen anything like it. The country is also one of the most beautiful that I have visited to date. The race is an adventure, but everything here is very well organized too.
Where does Rwanda's love of cycling come from?
The race really gets hyped in the media here. It's the sporting highlight of the year. Local sponsors do their part, the money's there. The Tour of Rwanda is advertised very differently here than races in other parts of Africa. Here, it's football and cycling that get the promotion. And the local riders also have very good equipment.
What makes the race so tough?
Long, flat stretches are really very rare. Sometimes you're climbing, sometimes you're descending, and often it's very steep. The way the local riders race also adds to the excitement. There are three Rwandan teams, which support each other on the one hand, and yet are still in direct competition with each other. That means that somebody is always attacking, you never know what's going to happen next. And the often-lighter African riders have a particular advantage on the hills. We mainly claimed our successes on the descents [Julian Hellmann won stages 3 and 5, Timothy Hupp won stage 4 — editor's note]. That's where we have the advantage, because of our better riding technique.
Rwanda's civil war was more than two decades ago now. What aspects of it are still noticeable when traveling in the country?
Actually, nothing at all. The atmosphere is very peaceful. We were welcomed very warmly, everyone wanted to see us and of course to see what we had brought with us. Trackside, there really was no sign of tensions between the different ethnic groups.
Your riders are genuine amateurs; they're either studying or working, and cycling as a secondary outlet. How is the team progressing, five years after it was founded?
That's right, we work or we study. This is all extra-curricular and we don't earn any money through cycling. We even pay for our flights to races out of our own pockets, we're very committed amateur athletes. I'm often asked if I'm planning to go to the next level and set up a pro team on the continental level. But for that, the whole team would have to be restructured.
What's behind your team's name, "Embrace the World"?
We want to embrace both the world and cycling, using our bikes to explore the globe. The main idea behind this was that it's also possible to race internationally as amateurs. Our donation campaign is connected to this. When we first got to know some African teams, we quickly saw that they were riding with equipment we might have been using 10 or 15 years ago. They needed all manner of equipment. So we decided to bring material with us to the races and then to give it away. In the mean time, we've passed around more than 1,000 replacement parts like wheels and specialist clothing. Much of that was donated to us back in Germany.
If the Tour of Rwanda is often dominated by local riders who are strong climbers, could they some day occupy the leading positions on the Tour de France as well?
At the moment, I don't think that very likely. To achieve that, you'd have to make it into a large professional team — and that's not easy. In Europe a rider has several good ways to grab the big teams' attention, in Africa it's much harder to get noticed. That's because the UCI-points awarded in European races are treated much more seriously by the top teams than points accrued in African events. It's harder to evaluate races taking place in Africa. On top of that, many African riders that do make it to Europe then require a period of time to acclimate. The training methods in Rwanda are excellent compared to other places in Africa, but still the scientific approach to training — which no European professional team can do without nowadays — is lacking. But there are very good climbers here, rather like in Eritrea, and some Eritreans have made it to the Tour de France.
Micha Glowatzki is 31 years old and works in a sports institute in Germany in bike fitting. He is also the volunteer manager of the Embrace the World cycling team, which has raced in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Stronger riders like former pro and Olympian Dan Craven are now riding for the outfit. Glowatzki, a former lower-level pro rider himself, has launched a charitable scheme to help cycling develop in less wealthy countries.
Joscha Weber conducted the interview.