Jock Boyer and Adrien Niyonshuti in the documentary Rising From Ashes, about Rwanda’s first Tour de France team. Photo: Philippa HawkerMore on Rising From AshesMore movies coverageMovie session times
Jock Boyer signed on for three months to teach cycling in Rwanda in a program that aimed to turn a group of young men who started with nothing into a team of international competitors. More than seven years later, he’s still there, determined to develop the Team Rwanda program into something that can endure.
“It’s the most difficult thing and the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
T.C. Johnstone’s documentary Rising From Ashes introduces us to Boyer’s first charges and the challenges they faced. Their story is strong and inspiring – and it’s also far from over.
Boyer (born Jonathan Boyer, but generally known as Jock) was the first American cyclist to enter the Tour de France, in 1981. He rode it five times; his best result was 12th.
He arrived in Rwanda for those first three months knowing virtually nothing about the country’s history and culture, or about the genocide of 2004. “I wasn’t interested in Rwanda until I got to Rwanda,” he says.
He did not plan to stay. In fact, there was no plan to begin with, and that was a good thing, he says. “It all emerged organically as the challenges came.”
Training the first group of cyclists was only the start. He is now involved in Team Rwanda, and with the Africa Rising Cycling Centre, which has been open for almost two months. “It’s been a game-changer for us and this country in regards to cycling, and going forward will ensure that it can have a future.”
Some of the riders we see in the film have “aged out of racing”, but they’ve gone on to take other roles: as a mechanic, a masseur, or a cook, for example, for which they have received additional training. “With the amazing riders that we spent so much time with, it’s so vital that they stay on the program. They’re the ones that had the experience at the beginning, they know how to travel and they are the mentors for the juniors we are bringing on board.”
Speaking on the phone from the centre, he now says he is there for the foreseeable future. His wife Kimberly Coats is also working with a women’s team.
“We don’t want to come home and have this fall apart because we haven’t trained and supported local riders and staff in order for them to take over,” he says.
His notion of the task has evolved over time. “It became much less about winning races and a lot more about teaching people to have hope, and the ability to provide for their families.”
There is still room to be ambitious, however. Boyer believes that Adrien Niyonshuti, one of the young cyclists we see in the film, might be the first rider from Rwanda to tackle the Tour de France. “We are also working in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and one of our plans is to have an all-African team in the next couple of years, to race in Europe.” They need to raise the level of expertise in the other countries, he says, “but the prowess is definitely there”.
The documentary has undoubtedly helped to raise awareness of Team Rwanda and its goals, but it took Boyer a while to feel comfortable with the production, he says. “I actually fought the film. I didn’t want it to be made; I just wanted to do my job, and I didn’t want to be above the radar again.”
For two years, he objected. “But it’s something a lot bigger than me, and I accepted that, reluctantly.”
Boyer’s wish to stay below the radar relates to something the film reveals: in 2002 he pleaded guilty to lewd behaviour with a minor, and was sentenced to a year in jail. He understood, he says, that this needed to be acknowledged in the documentary. “I came to realise that if I can be up front about my past and show that I am going forward, maybe that can help someone else.”
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