Not knowing too much about Rwanda before I flew besides its obvious terrible past, I was keen to get to grips with this new place and find out what this country had to offer. What was I doing in Rwanda you ask? A few weeks earlier I was asked by my old stage race partner, Daniel, if I wanted to ride the Rwandan Epic with him. Let’s just say you don’t need to ask me twice to go on a trip with my bike!

In its first year as a stage race, the Epic was scheduled to be a 4-day race consisting of a prologue, 2 marathon stages, and a cross country style lap format stage. Not being one to pass up an adventure, my flights were booked and bags and bike packed before setting off to a brand new country.

After a couple of days of settling in and getting to know our way around the capital of Kigali, it was time to get the racing started. The prologue was a short 11km effort through Kigali’s outskirts which duck and wove its way through the local streets, down staircases, techy natural singletrack, and lung-busting climbs. Rwanda is of course a country at altitude, so coming from sea level was no small adjustment! Daniel and I were fast enough to nab 2nd place on the first stage behind the 5 times Cape Epic winner Karl Platt and his young Rwandan teammate, Jean-Eric Habib who had set a blistering pace around the course.

Matt Grayson S1.jpegImage: Matt Grayson - Prologue stairs

Our main race hub for the remainder of the event however was not Kigali, but the Africa Rising Cycling Centre in a town called Musanze, a 3-hour bus ride away. The ARCC is the home of the Rwandan National Cycling Team and was founded to identify, nurture and develop cycling talent in Rwanda. The center features a state-of-the-art workshop, training facilities, and access to the equipment they need to be competitive on an international stage. Top riders like Adrien Niyonshuti were developed here, and have paved the way for other Rwandan cyclists to make it onto European teams. This comes as no surprise, as the altitude, good roads, and many long climbs are the ideal breeding ground for any rider with talent. I was also extremely interested to learn that Rwanda will host the UCI road cycling World Championships in 2025, making it the first African Country to ever host a road cycling World Championships. 

By now it was crystal clear to me that Rwanda is a cycling nation. Not only are the local riders a force to be reckoned with, but the majority of its people use the humble bicycle as daily means of transport and are well respected on the roads by other road users. Due to this, everywhere you go in Rwanda, competitive cyclists gather a lot of attention, and spark the interest of its people.

IGIHE S2 local.jpegImage: IGIHE Images - Local commuter

Given the way our prologue went, our first marathon stage should have been no surprise. With my sea-level lungs and a team that was hard to beat on any given day as our main competition, we had to settle for another 2nd place, on what was a brute of an introduction to the Rwandan countryside. The stage was dubbed “Twin Lakes”, and after climbing onto a ridgeline and passing through a few villages with cheering locals, we were treated to expansive views. The two lakes that characterize the area lay on our left, with the dormant Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo volcanoes watching over us on the right as we raced through the winding footpaths in the hills.

Matt Grayson S2.jpeg
Image: Matt Grayson - Twin Lakes 
IGIHE S2 riders.jpegImage: IGIHE Images - Catherine Colyn and Leone Verster

NC S2 .jpegImages: Naomi Cousins Photography - Mid-race chase

With 2 days of racing (read- surviving) behind us, we thought we had a good feeling for what the remaining stages would be like. We were treated to an incredible sunny morning on day 3 for our XC format stage in the Volcanoes National Park, with the stage scheduled to start in the afternoon. The national park also happens to be the place to go to see the renowned mountain gorillas. This is something I will need to return to Rwanda for one day, but it was a great feeling knowing that they were on the jungle-covered mountain slopes nearby.

What was supposed to be a short and fun day, suddenly fell to pieces as clouds made their way over the looming volcanoes and the heavens opened up.

IGIHE S3.jpegImage: IGIHE Images - Volcano in the distance

Matt Grayson S3 tech.jpegImage: Matt Grayson - Negotiating the mud and rocks
locals.jpg
Image: Don Ailinger - Karl Platt entertaining the locals

EpicStage3-105.jpegImage: Naomi Cousins - Muddy!

We faced an absolute mud bath as the volcanic soil made the race a slippery and treacherous affair. Being the team with the highest skills average, we used this to our advantage and took the lead on the descents to put pressure on the less experienced Rwandan teams, and gave it everything on the climbs to fend off the chasers. This proved to be a good strategy, and we managed to hold the lead for the first half of the race. We gave it our best shot, but it wasn’t quite enough to keep the previous winners at bay, and had to settle for a well-deserved 2nd place.

The final stage of the Rwandan Epic saw us depart (after A LOT of cleaning) from the beautiful Africa Rising Cycling Centre in Musanze and board buses for Gishwati, the highest starting point of the entire event at 2300m. 

IHIHE S4 scene.jpegImage: IGIHE Images - Local village

The finish line lay waiting for us on the shores of the magnificent Lake Kivu, with the stage boasting almost double the amount of descent as it did ascent. We first had to work for this reward by climbing up Gishwati, the highest point of the race, which brought us just shy of 3000m in altitude in the 8km of climbing. The descent was a combination of high-speed mountain gravel roads, and technical narrow footpaths where we sometimes clocked 80kph + as we weaved through the many villages on our way down the lake’s shores, with one or two steep ascents standing in their way just to keep us honest.

IGIHE S4.jpegImage: IGIHE Images - Stage 4 start

Unfortunately, an untimely mechanical issue took away our chances of a stage win and resulted in another 2nd place finish for the day after we were looking poised to break the previous days’ results streak.

MG_RE_Stage 4_36.jpegImage: Matt Grayson - Ascent up Gishwati

One by one, the remaining riders arrived on the grassy banks of the Palm Beach Resort where we were able to share stories, laughs, and a good few beers to end off a magnificent 4 days of riding.

NC S4.jpeg
Image: Naomi Cousins - Finish at Lake Kivu

After everything that was seen and experienced, I can’t help but smile at the memory of what was truly an unforgettable week in Rwanda. It was a country that kept surprising me over and over, and was truly a different kind of Epic experience.

Rwanda welcomed the Mzungu (white man) with open arms as we pedaled our way around its beautiful footpaths and hills. The land of a 1000 hills, may as well be known as the land of a 1000 smiles, as the locals watched us pass through their villages, footpaths and trails. It really is a country that embraces visitors, especially cyclists.

A huge thanks to JaSure and their support of this race. It's great to be able to switch on and off my bike cover when I go on international adventures like these and know that I am covered.

The race organisers not only offer the Rwandan Epic, but also the Race Around Rwanda. This is a 1000km gravel race around Rwanda with a mix between tar and gravel. If Rwanda wasn’t on your list of countries to visit, it should be now. 

Until we meet again Rwanda. Murabeho Mwirirwe (Goodbye).