Around 60 cyclists from France and across Africa are taking part in the 600-mile Tour de Congo which began on June 19th. There are nine stages in the race which will end in Kinshasa on June 27th.
The other African teams come from Benin, Burkina Faso, neighbouring Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.
The President of the Congolese Cycling Federation, Sylvestre Mutayo, says cycling has always been an important sport in DR Congo, at one time the second most popular sport after football, but interest has waned because of economic hardship. However, he told the BBC that the tour “will show people that we have infrastructure, and that people are friendly and hospitable, open to tourism.”
The course – which goes to the more central city of Kikwit before heading west again to Kinshasa – will demonstrate to people that conflict does not affect the whole country, he said.
The $1m (£650,000) event is 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, according to the Guardian (UK).
Prize money is unusually high for African cycling: $7,000 for first place, $5,000 for second and $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.
Despite DR Congo’s size, transport infrastructure is very poor and it is estimated that of about 153,000km of roads, less than 3,000m are paved
The competitors are up against some tough logistical asks – it is estimated that of the 95,070 miles (153,000km) of roads in Congo, less than 1,860 miles (3,000km) are asphalted – but at least the route will not take them weaving between rebel militias in the country’s tormented east.
Jock Boyer, Rwanda’s national coach, said on June 20th: “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.
“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.”
Boyer added: “There is nothing orderly about any part of this race. Few are versed in proper race protocol and organisation so it brings a handicap.
Rwanda’s Emmanuel Rudahunga wore the yellow jersey after the first stage but experienced a setback on day two when his chain broke. There was no space for a spare bike in an accompanying vehicle so he had to change the chain by the side of the road.