This past April, Ryan le Garrec was at The Traka in Girona, Spain which has recently, and very quickly, become the biggest gravel race event in Europe. It is also part of the Gravel Earth Series, which includes such long-distance races as the Migration Gravel Race and The Rift Iceland. Ryan was there to follow Rwandan racers Violette and Innocent of the Rwanda Beyond Team, in what was their first-ever race in Europe. Follow them in the article below and enjoy the large gallery of other riders and the race’s magnetic ambiance…
Most of us just want to ride our bikes. We think it’s the most fun we can have, and that’s about it. We don’t really think much further, or when we do, it comes to the same conclusion. We can take detours in explaining how the bike sets us free and how it connects us with ourselves, others, mother nature, and all. But most of the time, it boils down to the same thing: fun.
We design our lives around it and hope to get more and more of it. Or we don’t, and we look forward to that Sunday ride or yearly trip eagerly. It helps us fall asleep at night while designing bikepacking setups in our heads or, for others, knowing their FTP is climbing steadily through the season.
Violette and Innocent, though. For them, it s a different story. They don’t just love cycling. They are pretty okay at bikes—okay is an understatement. They were somehow born good at it, really good. And then it became a responsibility to push further, to train harder, so that it could turn into something. Something they could build their lives on, something their family could depend on. Something a whole generation of aspiring athletes could look at and be inspired by. With opportunity comes responsibility.
If you have ever been to Rwanda, you will know this: When someone is good at cycling in Rwanda, they are not just good, they are excellent. Rwanda is a country of cycling. It has more transportation by bike than any other means of locomotion.
You will find taxi riders, cargo bikes, and commuters, and most of them sitting on a single speed with no brakes, sometimes carrying a live pig on the back. You will find that most of these riders go faster and further than you, and they do it with a smile and barely break a sweat while you are next to them on your carbon steed in zone 7, trying to understand why you can’t follow.
Rwanda, rarely under 1500 meters, rarely flat if ever, is a country that seems somehow designed to create the next level of cyclists. But not just yet.
It’s not the same ball game, and maybe it’s unfair that they have so much more at stake than just having fun. But don’t get me wrong, they have a lot of fun, and they sure show it well. And then there are all the barriers, the lack of gear, the cost of the gear, and the lack of time because leisure and fun are only occidental concepts.
For Violette, it was love at first sight. “I saw my brothers riding bikes and I just needed to try. One day they parked the bikes and left them for a bit, I just sneaked one out to try… yeah I had to learn all on my own cause riding a bike is not very well accepted for women, let alone girls, and so it was always gonna be a really hard thing but I just loved it too much to give up…”
At 21 years old, Violette is one of the Rwanda Beyond team’s few selected riders, being helped and encouraged to race gravel, whether at home or in Europe if visas ever come through. It took almost two years for some riders to obtain visas, as they rarely come easily for African riders, and to be honest, they barely ever come.
The team has placed a great deal of trust in Violette, and it’s easy to see why. After spending about fifteen minutes with her, it becomes apparent that she is dedicated, serious, committed, organized, and meticulous.
If you have a scheduled meeting time and place with Violette, you can be sure she will be there waiting for you, ready to go. Violette is practically bulletproof, and her most potent weapon, aside from her passion, is her infectious smile, which radiates her obvious enjoyment of anything related to cycling.
Even at 7 am on the starting line of a star-studded gravel race, Violette is dancing. It’s not so much about nerves of steel, but rather the wisdom to savour every moment along the way, instead of succumbing to pressure and resorting to nervousness. She saves her nerves for when she’ll need them during the race to face the potential adversities along the way.
The plan was simple: Violette would get food and drinks as we had planned, specifically at feed stop 2 and not before. Josh Ibbett, assisting the team on behalf of Hunt Beyond, a partner of Rwanda Beyond, had anticipated mayhem at all the feed stops. He advised the riders to carry enough food and drinks to bypass feed stop 1, gain some time, and then replenish at number 2.
I am at the feed stop 2 with Claire Frecknall, also working with Hunt. The tracker shows Violette approximately five minutes away, but it remains that way for about 45 minutes. We are unable to determine whether Violette is experiencing mechanical issues or if she has already passed the feed stop. Given that, in the end, there isn’t much chaos at the feed stop, we assume she most likely got everything she needed to continue.
But we are plain wrong. Violette followed the plan meticulously, as she always does, and when she didn’t see us, she simply assumed we were further down the route. It was long before CP3 when Claire’s phone got a message “Am empty no water, no gel, no nothing…” Now Claire and I can feel awful.
Violette came all the way from Rwanda and followed Josh’s plan meticulously when we left room for interpretation and improvisation, she did not. We’ll never really understand what happened there if Violette passed the feed stop before or after we spent 45 minutes there but there’s one thing we know, we fucked her race up.
I went to pick up Innocent, but he wasn’t ready at the designated time. While Violette exhibits rigor and organization, Innocent compensates with maximum levels of chill. The relaxed racer even forgot his helmet, only realizing a few dozen meters away. One might think Innocent is unprofessional, but that’s not it. Innocent deals with pressure in his own unique way chillaxed to the max. Since arriving in Girona three days ago, he has had stars in his eyes and a perpetual smile.
However, Innocent is aware that his legs aren’t doing the talking this morning. Both riders had a restless night at the hostel. A fight broke out in the middle of the night, someone smoked in the dorm, Violette had nightmares, and Innocent simply couldn’t sleep well enough.
“We knew the pressure would be high and challenging to deal with.” We were aware of Girona, with its professional racers and fancy bikes and riders in Pas Normal Studio’s most expensive gear. It felt like a battlefield where weapons had been distributed with a significant imbalance.
We also knew that the Traka had likely become the biggest gravel race and event in Europe. We thought that maybe the event was a bit of a gap for a first in Europe, to say the least.
But despite the odds, the lack of sleep, and the fact that they were far away from their homes and lives, Violette and Innocent appeared ready and hadn’t lost their smiles. Violette was dancing on the start line, while Innocent was so far behind that I decided to go and help him pass about 200 racers.
If anyone questioned why I felt entitled to let him pass so many, I had a few answers ready. Surprisingly, no one said anything. In fact, the only reactions I witnessed were smiles and friendly attitudes.
There’s a genuine need for inclusivity in cycling. Brands may attempt to manipulate us with their representation of black models, but the cycling community goes far beyond that. They are incredibly welcoming and ready to embrace and support inclusivity, making those brands seem slow and backward.
It has always been a different ball game for Violette and Innocent. They are on the pitch but they don’t have the right boots. The coach arrived yesterday, and there is too much to learn the night before a race to add a night of bad sleep to the equation.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. They will have fun and experience a bit of disappointment while learning. But it’s not like there’s another race next week for them to catch up and immediately apply the lessons learned. Even if they did have fun, even if they smiled a lot, tonight their oath is quiet. They digest the lessons like a heavy meal of concrete, which doesn’t sit well in their stomachs.
But they always knew they were playing a different game, where negative emotions and a pessimistic mindset were not to let invade their mood. The stakes were massive, and they didn’t achieve what they had hoped for, but you can’t break out of the crowd if you’re knocked out on round one.