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Project Horizon // Race around Rwanda

After Project Horizon athlete Lukas Rathgeber successfully completed his Thin Air Project in the Alps last year, a new challenge was waiting for 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 preparations were already made, but then everything turned out differently than expected.
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We are happy that Lukas has written a guest article for this chapter where he reports about his time in Rwanda:

"When the path becomes the destination.

It was supposed to be my first real ultra-cycling race. With sleep deprivation and everything that goes with it. 1000 km in 72 to 96 hours. 400 km of it on gravel all around Rwanda. Permanently between 1400m and 2900m, as close to the equator as never before. Maximum eight hours sleep were planned. Hub dynamo and lights were ready to go. 40 mm tires, which also roll well on asphalt, were mounted. Some of the best ultra racers were entered – so a perfect comparison to see where I stood.

For a long time it looked as if the race could take place as planned, as Corona was very well under control in Rwanda. Two weeks before the start date, sporting events were banned throughout the country to keep the numbers down. Thus, the Race around Rwanda could not take place as a race. However, before the start, the government supported the organiser in allowing the race to take place as a Journey under changed conditions. This of course changed everything, but I still found the idea of a 1000km bikepacking trip through Rwanda super exciting. The route was divided into six stages and the hotels were booked for us accordingly beforehand. This of course meant more luxury items in the luggage and an extra bag on the bike.

In the end, it was an unforgettable trip through incredibly beautiful landscapes with many new acquaintances. Of course I was prepared to ride the race, but I would have missed so much! I would not have had the opportunity to meet my fellow competitors and enjoy the landscape in the light, nor would I have been able to explore the people and culture.
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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, we entered the first gravel sector. Together with race photographer Nils Laengner we went into the national park. The graveltrack got narrower and narrower until there was only a singletrack left. Everything was quite comfortable so far. Until the Rwandan national riders came from behind and somehow discovered the desire to race. So we followed them and tried to keep up with them. Curve, start, curve, start, curve, puddle, start, puddle, curve, start over almost ten km. All this with a bike full of luggage that felt like a truck. After the racing intermezzo we experienced what it means when it rains in Rwanda and were almost washed off the gravel road to arrive in the end in the sunshine at the first hotel.

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 arrival at 5pm says it all. That was a really tough day. With super beautiful gravel roads by lakes, views of volcanoes and descents that challenged my non-existent off-road riding skills, it was a really long day on the bike. Arrival was at the Rwanda Federation Cycling Center and the service was 1A. From food to mechanics, everything was at our disposal. Plus the first hot shower in days. So good.

From Musanze we went on to Kibuye at Lake Kivu. 190 km with 3800 Hm were on the clock at the end. The whole day I rode together with Raphael Albrecht and we had our own little adventures. Broken rear derailleur at Nils after 45 minutes. A flat tire at me shortly after the highest (and muddiest) point of the race at 2800 m. Crazy descents and lots of coke, as well as a relaxed last part of the stage together with Fabian Burri and Jean Ruberwa, who was only called "Campione". Here and there we rode a few small sprints against each other at the end. When cycling feels like "playing", that's when it's at its best. Afterwards, a beer or two together. What more could you want?

The shortest day should not be so really short. Although only 100 km, but also with 3000 hm we started very late as a Gruppetto. Rapha had to cut short because of knee pain and so I was alone with Fabian the rest of the day. The track led us through the greenest landscape I have ever seen, through tea plantations to a path through the rainforest. We pretty much burned up in the sun and were very happy to find a small village shop that had Fanta and biscuits. Apart from a flat tire in the last few metres, we rolled the rest of the stage to a relaxed finish. Due to limited spare tubes, I learned how to patch a tube for the first time.

Stage 5: The first 55 km and 1500 Hm no re-supply and in waves through the rainforest (Nygunge National Park) up to 2500m. Again three of us started rather at the back end around 6am (sleeping is just nice too). After we started relaxed, 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 uphill, almost like in the Alps. Only much greener, a view to 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 ahead of me. They didn't make life easy for me and we had a few little games, which is not a good idea at 2500m when you are already running at peak consumption anyway. Without breakfast, with two Maurten water bottles and four gels I made it to kilometer 55. There I had rice, potatoes and vegetables for breakfast at 8:30. At the end of the stage there was still 70 km of gravel to Nyanza. But I left my seven lives on the first 55 km and took it easy.

On the last day it was supposed to rain for the second time on the whole trip. The others were all out for two hours by the time we left at 8am. Unfortunately this took revenge and we started in the rain while the others at least started dry. After 10 km of gravel Rapha had a flat tire and I gave him my last tube. For me it was then clear that I pull the joker and drive the 120 km to Kigali on the road, according to the motto: "Cobbler, stick to your last" and did without 70 km gravel (and mud). The ride was then but quite kupiert and I had at the end but again more than 2000 Hm on the clock. After all the days with the guys and girls together on the track I enjoyed it very much to be on the road alone for a few hours and to let everything work on me in peace. At the end we all met on the terrace of the Onomo Hotel at the "finish" and drank a beer or two together.

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Unmentioned so far, but omnipresent during the race, were the children of Rwanda. Whenever you are spotted on your bike, the kids run after you and shout "Muzungu, Muzungu". This is quite new at first, but you get used to it over time. In the same way, the whole village comes together when you stop somewhere to buy something in a local shop. At the same time, people are always super nice and keep a certain distance. Never once on the whole trip did any of us feel unsafe or scared. Okay, I did get briefly scared sometimes when trying to follow the others downhill on trails I never thought you could ride. Rwanda - the land of 1000 hills - I can definitely subscribe to that. Out of the 1000 km, it felt like not a single kilometer was 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) can't block out how surreal it is to cycle through remote villages where people have to walk several kilometers to the next well. It definitely makes you think. Overall, it was a trip that definitely left its mark on me and one that I will always remember. Race around Rwanda 2021."

A race that never was. But we all won.


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Photos: Nils Laengner / www.nilslaengner.de@nils_laengner

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