It is a far cry from Sir Bradley Wiggins pedaling to glory down the Champs Elysees, but what it lacks in finesse the inaugural Tour de Congo makes up for in potholes, punctures and unpredictability.
About 60 cyclists are competing over nearly 965km in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DR Congo) biggest sporting event since Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”
The US$1 million event, largely funded by the government with backing from private sponsors, hopes to a show a different side to a country weighed down by “heart of darkness” cliches. It is being filmed from the air by a media company using drones.
Prize money is unusually high for African cycling — US$7,000 for first place, US$5,000 for second and US$3,000 for third.
As in the better known Tour de France, the race leader wears a yellow jersey, but this one is emblazoned with the blue, red and yellow of the Congolese national flag.
Sylvestre Mutayo, president of the Congolese cycling federation, said cycling was once the second most popular sport in the country after soccer, but it lost ground owing to economic hardships.
“The Tour will show people that we have infrastructure, and that people are friendly and hospitable, open to tourism,” he told the BBC.
The competitors are up against some tough logistical asks — it is estimated that of the 153,000km of roads in the DR Congo, less than 3,000km are asphalted — but at least the route will not take them weaving between rebel militias in the country’s tormented east.
Even so, the race began a day later than scheduled and it saw numerous crashes. With eight stages being held, some in remote and mountainous areas, no one is expecting a smooth ride.
“It’s their first big race and I really think they’re trying to make a statement,” said Kimberly Coats, manager of Team Rwanda, competing alongside Benin, Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Republic of the Congo, France, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. “We have to give it to the DRC [DR Congo] for trying something like this. It is a surprise, but it shows that African cycling is moving forward and making a name for itself. Yes, it’s chaotic, but it’s real.”
The cyclists piled into a boat from Brazzaville to cross the Congo River to Kinshasa, Coats added, then had to take further transport to the port city of Matadi, where the race began on Wednesday.
Witnesses at the start described the atmosphere as having an unmistakable Congolese flavor of exuberance and chaos.
The UN’s Radio Okapi reported that the Congolese riders wasted 10 minutes in a confusion over the official start and sustained a number of punctures. A Togolese cyclist hit a dog crossing the road, it added.
“The starts are unimaginable in the sheer sounds — music blaring, bands playing repetitive rhythms — and teeming masses pushing in, then thronging across the street when they see a rider, only to be replaced by another mass replacing the void left,” Jock Boyer, Rwanda’s national coach, said on Thursday. “The police are in full numbers and actually very good — they know the scene and crowd control, which they do with a calm ease, not losing their cool, all fully armed and stacked with tear-gas canisters.”
“There is nothing orderly about any part of this race. Few are versed in proper race protocol and organization, so it brings a handicap,” Boyer added. “The [cycling] federation, I think, realizes this and as the days go on they will get better at it.”