If the Tour of Rwanda was disputed at another time in the calendar, it is very likely that its repercussion beyond the borders of that African country would be imperceptible. But there is the circumstance that the organizers, with good sense, placed it in the last part of the UCI calendar, when the bulk of the international peloton is hibernating in front of the first concentration of the year. Although it is a second level race (2.2) in the sport, it has several elements that make it an attractive cycle test, indispensable in any other that wants to boast of solera. The exuberance of the landscape, the mountainous route, with hardly any level ground, the “Africanmuur” of Kigali, the passion of the fans.
But one thing is what we see in the West, which is summed up in the spectacular rise of the paved wall of Kigali, and another is to tell you how the Tour of Rwanda is inside. For this, I have been fortunate to be able to contact Tim Rugg, one of the few non-African cyclists who came to dispute the eighth edition of the race. Coiled in the ranks of the Canadian amateur team Lowestrates.ca, whose goal was to have a top ten in the overall standings, Rugg left the script and got to the point of reaching 31 years to win two stages, his first two victories as a professional. A little late? As it looks, since it was in 2015 when he gave the jump of category in the equipment Lupus Racing, the same that would welcome in its rows a year later to Chris Horner.
Tim Rugg is an atypical cyclist. The first thing that surprises is his aesthetic hípster, with tattoos and slopes, not frequent in the bunch in which the most striking thing is the long hair of Sagan or the beard of Geschke. Until the age of twenty he did not buy her first bicycle. He has been able for years to reconcile his work as a network engineer in companies such as Fannie Mae (the public bank of mortgage loans that broke in the crisis) with the discipline of training 20 hours a week. Now he works in Strava part-time. Rugg is intelligent, open and restless, coffee lover and for whom the bicycle is a way of life. It has a Winnebago caravan with which it trains to train – “this way I do not forget anything”, it frequents the elite competitions of the American circuit, it runs the same with road bike, ciclocross or MTB, it is active in social networks and it does not have Safe equipment for next season.
But only still, since that could change in the coming days. “I think Rwanda may have taken me to Europe. I will not say much because it is still only a dream and I would rather wait until I know for sure. ”
When do you find out you’re going to run the Rwanda Tour? What was your reaction?
I was invited by a Canadian Team as a guest rider with only a month to get ready. My reaction was, “Awesome, now what?” I had a lot to do in a little time with going to a travel clinic for vaccinations, training, and of course preparing for altitude and the logistics of getting there by myself.
It is curious that a team like Lowestrates.ca, below continental category, is called to a test that is run in Africa. How does the team get the invitation to compete in the Tour de Rwanda? Who are primarily responsible?
I can’t really answer this one with a definitive answer, but I know a lot of the invite had to do with the team’s commitment to bringing cycling gear and engaging with local cycling clubs a week early. It was an immersive experience with a goal of really impacting the community we were coming to race in. I was thrilled to be a part of that experience that was so much more fulfilling than the racing itself.
What were the team’s career expectations before leaving for Rwanda?
I think the team was hoping to get a top 10 GC result from their climber-type Brett Wachtendorf. I had some misfortune with multiple flat tires in the race and would have surely finished top 10 overall, meeting the teams race goal, but it wasn’t to be for myself or Brett in this tour.
In addition to competing, your team adds its bit to make cycling grow in Rwanda. What are the main actions for this purpose? What has been your role in all this?
See my response above. To add to my earlier thoughts, I was able to pull in a last minute clothing sponsor for the team through my connection with Jakroo and we were able to donate all of our team kits following the conclusion of the race. Not only that I was able to donate a few items of my own while I was there to local clubs and to other racers in the Tour. I did what I could to make the connection back home in the USA with my social media updates and story telling throughout the race. It’s a small world after all!
First stage and first victory as a professional. What did you feel when you knew you were the best time in the prologue?
Well, that was a bit of a shocker. I took off on the course only mid-way through the line-up and I was sure I’d have a top time, but really expected to be bested by the real hitters later on. I went into my cool-down routine, watched as the big names were finishing their warm-ups and just found myself noodling around waiting for the day to be over. When I came back to the start-finish area and saw that there were 10 riders left, I got excited that I got a top-10, and then there was-5, and I was like, “wow this is really great”. Then when I realized I was going to be on the podium I was beside myself with only minutes left until it was revealed that I would be the winner. I really didn’t believe it, and in a time trial you don’t normally get to celebrate as you cross the line so having that build up I think I really got to let my emotions fly as I headed to the podium and on the podium. I think I made some Rwandan fans simply from my celebrations.
Is Skol beer good or would you rather have celebrated your winnings with other drink?
Skol beer was awesome! And it was really great having them at the race because they provided a lot of excitement with the helicopter and the podium presentations and of course, the beer!
You lose the yellow in the second stage, but you win the third solo. Do you think that you had aspired to the final victory in the general of not having lost time in the second stage?
First off, I don’t think anyone could have beat Valens for the overall in the Tour Du Rwanda. He is a true champion and an absolute shredder on the bike. The team I was riding for is an amateur team and although we went into the first stage hoping to defend, the team just wasn’t able to and I got caught looking as the race rode away from me. I do think under different circumstances I could have aspired for a very impressive overall result, but I kind of like how things turned out.
Is a victory like that of the third stage planned or is there free will?
The third stage was revenge for the flat tire on the second stage which also caught me out. I had flatted on the start of the category 1 climb and with the caravan being held up to try to discourage unfair play by dropped riders, I was left riding a flat front for longer than I could have ever hoped for. After an eventual change I found myself charging pass the 3rd group, then the 2nd group, and eventually catching on to the lead group as we crested the Cat 1 climb. However, only a few km’s later we hit a Cat 3 and I found myself in a newly formed 2nd group that I eventually led home in 11th. Too make a long story short, I knew I had what it took from that effort to be a contender in the mountains, and that wasn’t something I was aware of yet.
So, to finally get to the third stage. We hit the Cat 1 climb that was 25km from the end of the stage and I broke away solo despite 3 riders, 1 who had already been dispatched, being off the front from the early breakaway. It wasn’t planned but I was feeling a little anxious having barely avoided a crash only minutes before. I had about a minute over the top and descended like I’ve never descended before to catch the breakaway and then ride into the final 4 kilometer Cat 2 summit finish climb. I attacked from the bottom to get rid of the eventual KOM winner, 19 year old Samuel Mugisha (the future of Rwanda!), and found myself with only about 25 seconds on a splintered group chasing in earnest. At 1km I thought I had it and was shaking my head with a 17 second lead until the massive crowds cleared and I saw the steep pitch with 500 meters to go. I sprinted, if you want to call it that, as best I could only to finish 2 seconds in front of the second placed rider. I was completely out of oxygen and could barely get my hands up or remove the distorted look of pain on my face as I crossed the line.
And in the fourth stage, the jungle. How is the landscape and what does it feel to shoot in groups for places like that?
The jungle would have been a very enjoyable beautiful stage if it wasn’t at 2500 meters and the race being full-gas from the beginning. Instead, we all suffered that day in the rain and weren’t able to see any wildlife or catch our breath.
The Rwandan hobby is impressive. Describe to us how we live from the inside, how the hobby is, how the cyclist is treated, and how he differs fundamentally from the European follower.
It was fascinating to hear from so many Rwandans that cycling was their number 1 sport. It seemed obvious by the crowds, but to hear people say they preferred it over soccer and other sports was special. For many Rwandans, riding a bike is just as much a part of life as driving a vehicle in the U.S. or Rwanda. It is used for work, to get to work, and to make life more convenient. This is why the fans their can relate because the bike is not just exciting, it’s empowering.
So hard is the paved wall leading to the finish line of the sixth stage with final in Kigali?
That was brutal. We were scared it’d be wet and unrideable having spent the entire stage being rained on, but the sky opened up when we hit Kigali and the anticipation for that effort grew. Valens was the opportunist and smart rider of the day having soloed away before the climb giving him free reign. I on the other hand was at the back of a 15 man group forced to take the lines that were given to me, which on a cobbled road don’t exist in the first place! It was steep to start and rattled me to the core, and then it got steeper, and steeper, and then we got off the climb only to see 1km to go and still a climb to the finish. And the fans! So many people and so much noise. I was worried because there is a lot of favoritism to the Rwandan riders, but we all made it through without consequence but it wasn’t a totally positive experience. But I’m not going to harp on that because the people watching are passionate and still learning how to be fans of such a unique, up close and personal sport.
That is a stage and finish worthy of being a 1 day classic in itself, but after 5 days of riding, it was again, brutal.
From a Western point of view, one wonders how the organizational level of a career like the Tour of Rwanda can be. How is it different from the races of the American circuit? What do you think should improve and which aspects have surprised you in the positive?
The Tour of Rwanda actually had a bunch of organizational help from French race organizers and was more fluid than any race I’ve ever done before. Sure, there were some interesting details like leaving your luggage for a transport truck every day and hoping it made it to the next hotel, but everything went off without a hitch.
How are the hotels where you stayed during the races?
Some hotels were nicer than others. Some only had cold water, sometimes you had to use a bucket to shower. But honestly, it was much better than I could have imagined and I believe the hospitality was bar-none anywhere I’ve ever been in the world.
How were the displacements between cities? What vehicles did you use?
Each team was given a team car that sometimes broke down but surprisingly always got running again. Most days we did point to point stages where all the teams luggage was transported by a big truck and we’d eventually be reunited after the race. I think with the ability to throw day bags into the team car for immediately after the stage and then getting out luggage at the hotels was a very reasonable way to transfer.
What was your life like outside the race in Rwanda? Did you integrate with the native population and the cyclists of African teams? Do you keep a friendship on your return to the USA?
I really enjoyed how we’d have about 2 or 3 hotels per stage and the teams would be rotated so we’d all get to interact with each other at the buffet meals. I really enjoyed the interaction with locals and with other cyclists from every team. I think sometimes I got caught up in the racing, but when we’re all at the hotel eating the same meal we’ve had for the past 5 days and we’re so tired, all barriers are broken down and I really got to know and make some new friends.
How are the roads where you rode with the bike? At least in the videos it is seen that it is good, similar to that of Europe or America.
Best roads I’ve raced on 90% of the time. The other 10% you really had to be careful or you were going to flat or crash, but I think everyone was very safe and called things out and didn’t attack when it was dangerous and made for some very special racing.
Did you have contact with the authorities of that country? With those responsible for cycling in Rwanda? Did they make you some kind of welcome?
Because my team came a week early we did get to interview with a couple news outlets.
In short, what has impressed you most about this country and the race?
How organized the race was and how much the people of Rwanda welcome and support the race.
You are accustomed to running second level (.2) tests of the North American circuit. Do you notice the competitive difference between the Tour de Beauce or the Gila Tour and the Tour de Rwanda?
It’s just a different style of racing. I think so many of the racers at the Tour Du Rwanda have so much to gain from a result that the racing is very aggressive and non-stop. But with the terrain being quite literally up or down the entire time, you just have to always be on your toes. There’s never really a point where the breakaway goes and the race resets. If the breakaway goes it’s really having to go and the race is still just as hard because drafting is a little less critical with the terrain.
How are anti-doping controls? How are they different from what you can spend in Europe or the USA?
There were none at this race.
Did you see a young African rider who can triumph over the next few years in Europe?
I said his name before, Samuel Mugisha. I wish him the best! But I do really hope Valens finds a team as he’s aged out of the Dimension Data development program at only 23 years old. As someone who’s 31, 23 is very young! I didn’t even start racing until I was 24.
Do you think that, as seen, with cycling can happen the same as with athletics and that in the future we see some African winning WT races in Europe? What should they focus on?
I assume we’re referring to black African’s winning WT races because Froome has obviously done this. However, I do get what you mean and the only thing holding the athlete’s from Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other countries where cycling is still developing is the race experience. These riders have been tested and their numbers are amazing, they just don’t have the race experience and tactical understanding yet that they can only get by going to race in Europe and countries where cycling is highly competitive. If you can imagine, riders that show promise in places like Rwanda go straight from, showing promise to racing professional level races.
You traveled to Africa on humanitarian aid issues ten years ago and came back this month to run the Rwanda Tour. What do you think has changed Africa in all that time?
The people I met then and the people I have met on this trip are still the same most welcoming, hopeful, and beautiful people I’ve ever met.
You are an atypical cyclist. You become professional with 30 years in the Lupus Racing, the continental squad in which among others have run Chris Horner. Why is this moment so late?
I started late and in the U.S., up until a year ago, I believe the age requirement for continental teams to have 40% of the squad racing age 27 or under, kept me from getting a chance. I had to develop as a rider, instead of hoping to get on a development team. Things happen for a reason, and at just the right time.
You’ve been living in a caravan for a few months. How does that help your preparation for the races? How is your day?
I think you are referring to my Winnebago. I haven’t actually lived in the R.V. long-term but it does make training and racing all over the country quite enjoyable because I am not rushing in and out by airplane or worrying about whether I forgot anything. I have my whole life in their and it’s pretty fun to spend a couple weeks at a time in National Parks or down South when it starts to get cold at R.V. parks.
How are you able to combine your engineering work with sport at this almost professional level?
For years, I do not know how I was able to make it all work. Maybe it’s because I didn’t. In my early years racing I’d fly out from work the night before a race, race, and fly back Sunday evening so I could be back to work on Monday for another 40+ hour work week. I was burning the candle from both ends.
I had a contract end after working in Information Technology for 10 years last July, and I didn’t try to go back home to return to work right away. I decided to figure things out, and eventually found myself working part-time at Strava doing tech-support around the same time I found out about the Tour Du Rwanda. I think now I’ve found the balance, and working a little less I found a better balance that helped me step up my game just that bit more to succeed in both work and cycling.
How do you manage the time to work and compete on a bike at the same time? How many hours per week do you train? What about work?
15-20 hours a week for both work and cycling these days.
In 2014 you start a kind of road trip with a friend to try to get a professional contract. Why do you decide to make that leap? Has your experience changed your life?
I wasn’t on a mission to get a professional contract as much as I was desperately in need of an adventure and the years of working as much as I was and training and racing wasn’t adding up the way I wanted it to. I think after that trip it began the avalanche that would lead to me finally taking the leap I am taking now.
If you focus exclusively on cycling do you think you could have or could you reach a higher competitive level?
I’m hoping I never have to focus on JUST cycling to reach a higher level. I have many hobbies and I think finding a balance is something more cyclists, but at least myself, have found to be more fulfilling. A wise man once said “the journey is the destination.” However, I will be focusing a little bit harder for what I hope to be my first year racing in Europe next year! Fingers crossed things work out.
You talk about cycling for you as a way of life. Since when is it so?
The balance. The adventure it takes me on. The therapy it affords me while I’m training. The health and fitness it gives me. The opportunities I’m still finding out.
Are you still cycling on TV? Which are your favorite runners? And what is your idol from when you were a child?
I watch as many recaps and live footage as I can find. I do love this sport. I can’t say that I have a favorite cyclist. I’ve been rooting for Joe Dombrowskie and Ben King for years since they are Virginia boys and I’ve been lucky enough to ride and share a few drinks and stories with them. I don’t think I had an idol, I would find myself as a kid imaging different scenarios where I could maybe become a hero myself.
You’re out of gear for next year. Have you received any offers? Do you think victories in Rwanda can help you?
I think Rwanda might have lead me to Europe. Again, I won’t say much because it’s still just a dream and I’d rather wait until I know for sure.
In addition to professional careers, you run tests of the amateur American circuit. What is the competitive level of this type of evidence? How many runs in a season and what are your favorites? Have you won any of them?
I have held sprinter, KOM, Overall, and Most Aggressive Rider jerseys, and found myself on the top step of podiums in almost every kind of race in the U.S. for Road racing, Track cycling, Mountain Biking and Cyclocross. I think I am a true all- arounder, or opportunistic rider and love any race on two-wheels. The Rouge-Roubaix in Louisiana and the Leadville 100 MTB race where two of the most epic days I’ve spent on a bike.
What do you think about the uses of TUE unveiled by Fancy Bears, like those of Wiggins or Froome? Do you think that a cyclist who has health problems should run with a medical exception or is it better to stay at home?
If you’re too sick that you need something that will make you better than if you weren’t sick, don’t race. What people want to believe is probably a bit different than what has been actually going in the highest levels of the sport. Look, I’ve never been paid to race my bike, but there’s a lot of money available at the highest level so you can imagine there’s a lot more to be gained by being a loser.
Was it fair that Armstrong took the seven Tour de France?
It’s not fair for anyone to win anything by cheating. Dopers suck.
What do you remember about Greg Lemond? Did you follow the Tour you won in the 80’s?
I didn’t even know about cycling until about 8 years ago. However, I do have a really unique experience of being awarded the “Most Aggressive Rider” jersey by him in 2012 at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota where he lives. As I learned more about him I realized how honorable that experience really was.
Do you think you can run a great test like Giro or Tour on bread and water or do you need to take substances that improve performance?
I think I could race the Giro or Tour clean but I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to prove that to you, haha.
From your particular experience, do you think that cycling today is clean or cleaner than before, as it is said from some political estates like the UCI?
I really have no idea. I’ve heard about masters cheating to win Gran Fondo’s or National Championships at 50 years old and Category 3 amateurs cheating to get pro contracts and doping is obviously still going on at the highest level. I have no experience with cheating and never will because it would diminish everything I’ve accomplished for myself and for those that have believed in me all along. I hope that every chance I get to race that the dopers flat or get mechanicals and that I get honest shots at honest results until I’m done, honestly.