Wednesday 8 March 2023

52 Cycling Voices - 35: Kimberly Coats

No one has been more invested in promoting African cycle racing than Kimberly Coats. I first spoke to her back in 2021 as part of a series I did on influential women in cycling

Along with her partner Jock Boyer, Kimberly Coats have worked to support and build up cycling in Africa. Initially the focus was on Rwanda, though they have since branched out and work with riders from various parts of Africa. 

At Rwanda they have a centre where aspiring cycle racers can go on training camps as part of their journey to becoming a professional cycle racer. As well as that they assist riders in obtaining visas to go to Europe to live as a professional cycle racer. This has been one of the biggest hurdles that African riders have to overcome once they have received an offer to race for a team in Europe.

I spoke to Kimberly about how she got into this and why a woman from a comfortable environment in the United States would devote so much time to this project.

Kimberly Coates, fifty something-years-old

From: Kansas, USA

Lives: Savery, Wyoming, USA

Occupation: Chief Executive Officer, Team Africa Rising

I lived in Rwanda for eight years. I spent about 10 months in Kenya and worked for World Bicycle Relief for a little bit as their interim country director. But most of my time was in Rwanda. 

It was a mid-life crisis that took me there. I was working in Las Vegas, where I am from, as a Business Development manager for Cisco foods, a large food distribution company. It was a great job, with all these amazing perks and I made a lot of money. But I hated every minute of it! I had written in my journal of 2008 that I wanted to do something that combined my love of cycling, travel, and I wanted to help people. 

Then I read an article in Outside magazine, written by Jason Gay, and he talked about Project Rwanda and Team Rwanda, and when I read it I went "oh my gosh". That changed the trajectory of my life. And I remember, I was riding with a friend of mine, and I’m like dude I wrote this in my journal and now I've read this article, and it’s like God is speaking directly to me or something. He's saying "You’ve gotta go!" And I’m like, "I’ve gotta go!" So I tracked down Tom Ritchey who put me in touch with his business development guy, and we talked a couple of times. And he asked, "Have you ever thought about going to Rwanda?" And I’m like, "No, where is it?" Within two months of that conversation I’d quit my job, got on a plane, and I'd landed in Rwanda. 

And I was only supposed to stay three months, but that turned into eight years. So when I got there the team was operating under the non-profit organisation Project Rwanda, which provided cargo bikes to coffee farmers. It was founded by Tom and couple of his friends. Jock Boyer was running the team and it was starting to do well. So my business mind kicked in and I was like, "Hey dude we’ve gotta spin the team off. We’ve gotta do our own non-profit because we can’t raise enough money for the team if Tom doesn't want to run a team. So we formed our own non-profit. We started raising money and probably for the first four years we were always two months away from folding and going home. It was just hand to mouth. 

Then we got a large grant in 2013/2014 from the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. That changed everything and we were able to invest and started doing really well. We got a new compound in Rwanda which the Government facilitated, which was awesome. President Kigame has really been behind the project, and the Ministry of Sport was also supportive. We essentially brought all the skill, knowledge, know-how and funding for most of it, and then they met us half-way by providing us with a place to do it in the northern part of the country.

We were centred on developing professional cyclists and the national team. Jock  had been in Rwanda since 2006, and found some good talent, including Adrien Nyonshuti. Jock talked to Douglas Ryder who had a continental team in South Africa called MTN-Energade at the time, and asked if he could take Adrien, and another rider, Nathan Byukusenge onto his team. Nathan ended up coming home pretty early, but Adrien stayed and raced for Team Dimension Data. He raced in the 2012 London Olympics, and was the first black African to ever finish an Olympic mountain bike race. And he also did the 2016 Rio Olympics road race. He is the only Rwandan to have done two separate cycling events in two Olympics. Adrien retired in 2017, and he is the most famous rider out of Rwanda. He still works in cycling.

Adrien, along with his cousin, Hubert, set up an academy in his home town, Rwamagana, to develop junior cyclists. We got them set up with some smart trainers, and Zwift gave us a bunch of memberships so that kids can race virtually and be identified. So we’re finding some young kids that are pretty amazing.

Because Rwanda had been so successful, other countries were asking if we could help them. We have been working with Benin, Sierra Leone, Togo, and other federations, depending on if there’s corruption or not. We only work with groups that will meet us half-way and put in the commitment themselves, whether it’s in time or small amounts of money. 

For instance, we have been doing a mechanics training course in Sierra Leone in April, and Park Tool set up some tool kit for us at a really good price. We raised enough money for 22 tool kits, and we sent them to Sierra Leone, and the guy in Sierra Leone, Karim, set up the class. We had 22 mechanic trainees, half of which are women, who went through the mechanics training. Karim Kamara actually sets women up in their own shops as mechanics and they end up having real businesses so then they can support themselves.

We did a mechanics course in Benin, and the woman who was there, Chantal, is also a bike racer – one of the best in the country. When she went through the mechanics course she just got so emotional and said, "I can fix my own bike now, I can take care of my own bike." Previously, when she went to a mechanics - who were invariably male - there was always an issue. She would get kicked to the back of the queue, or be charged more than men. There are all sorts of difficulties for women in Africa.

Women's cycling is a tough business anyway – even in the Western world. But in Africa, there are all the cultural barriers that we have to overcome when getting women onto bikes. To get a woman out of Africa, whatever country it is, is very difficult. It may be slightly easier for a white woman in South Africa.  For example, I was at a race in Eritrea and the woman who worked for the federation used to race and said it was really hard for her. When she started racing, her parents were very upset because they said she would no longer be a virgin because she was doing cycle racing. For somebody like me, who grew up in America, this does not even compute.

One of the most famous female cyclists out of Rwanda is Jeanne D'Arc Girubuntu. She was the first Rwandan woman to do the UCI World Championships, and finished the road race in 2015 in Richmond, Virginia, which was a huge feat. She was 21 at the time and believed that she could only race until she was 24 because she'd have to get married and have children.  When I told her about Kristin Armstrong who was in 40s, a wife, a mother, and had won a gold medal at the Olympics she was astonished. 

Canyon-SRAM Generation, a women's continental team signed a couple of African women racers onto the team. Valentine Nzayisenga from Rwanda managed to get a visa to race in Europe, but her team-mate Fatima Deborah Conteh was not able to get one. We worked for months and months and spent thousands helping Deborah get a visa. But the German embassy denied her application The authorities required her to be earning around 3500 euros a month. Not many women cyclists make that much money.

She couldn't really go in on a tourist visa because it's only 90 days. Once she leaves the country she can't go back in for another 90 days, so that blows the season. It's sad, but this is life in African cycling across the board.

There is also Eyeru Tesfoam Gebru from Ethiopia. She spent three years racing at the UCI in Aigle and she’s strong. She mostly worked as a domestique, but she has won a couple of most combative jerseys during her time in Europe, but she was caught up in the war in Tigray. She went to Addis Ababa and with a friend, we tried to get her to come out to France. But Covid made things difficult. It's tough because she's an amazing rider, and there are a lot of Ethiopian women who could race at the pro level, but there are many obstacles make it difficult for them to get to Europe. 

There are good people around Africa doing some amazing things to develop cycling. We’re all working together in our own way, helping where we can, pooling resources. But ultimately, I think the UCI and especially the Confederation of African Cycling could do more of this kind of work, especially for women. There's no women’s race scene on the continent, outside of South Africa. There are local races in some countries like South Africa and Rwanda, but other than that there’s really nothing. 

But we continue to get riders on the smart trainers and we are making some progress with helping riders. Covid threw us a curved ball, but it was actually a positive thing because it made us rethink how we could do things. There is just so much talent throughout the entire African continent still to be tapped. 

Other Cycling Voices

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