Picture Story: Bike Racing in Rwanda

By Meghan Ahearn

© Ben Ingham
A rider attacks a climb on a rainy day. To see more images from the assignment, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

There’s no question that Europe is the center of the cycling world. Many of the sport’s most prestigious races are held on the continent, and they are huge, corporate-sponsored events with celebrity riders and devoted fans. But recently, Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, has held smaller races in Africa and Asia. These events not only introduce lesser-known riders to cycling fans, they also bring new spectators to the sport.

The novelty of back-to-basics racing in an unusual setting is what photographer Ben Ingham had in mind when he pitched a story about the second annual Tour of Rwanda to the British cycling magazine Rouleur. Ingham isn’t a sports photographer but he has worked with athletic brands that don’t want polished, traditional sports imagery. He shot the first as well as subsequent ad campaigns for Rapha, which have helped the cycling clothing company establish its brand identity. That work led to his collaborations with Rouleur, an unconventional cycling magazine that focuses on design, photography and writing to convey the beauty of the sport.

Editorial director Guy Andrews says one of the reasons that the Tour of Rwanda article was a perfect fit for the magazine is that it’s far removed from the European cycling scene. Plus, he adds, “it has all the essential ingredients: drama, beauty and a sense of adventure.”

Ingham arrived two days before the seven-day race with writer Tom Southam, a former cyclist turned journalist. Ingham’s original plan was to follow a specific team, such as the Rwandan riders or the Ethiopian riders. However, he says, “as it transpired, it didn’t feel right to focus on just one team as Africa is so huge and has such a diverse culture. I decided to show as much as I could.”

Each morning, Ingham planned his coverage for that day’s leg of the race. There were standard places where he could always shoot: the riders’ hotel before or after the race; the start or finish line; or along the route of the procession, which went ahead of the racers to alert people that the race was coming. The challenge was figuring out where to shoot the cyclists during the race in order to get different vantage points.

Ingham explains, “I need to be in a position where I am free in both senses of the word. I want to [be able to] jump on a motorbike, if I can find one, or hop in and out of available cars as well as be spontaneous with clear vision and no expectations of what I ‘should’ photograph, just watch the human story.”

It was a documentary approach to covering the race, and sometimes, the conditions were a challenge. He recalls a memorable day when he rode on the back of a motorcycle alongside cyclists, making pictures in the rain. At one point he changed out the film in his Leica camera, while still on the motorcycle, wearing just shorts and a T-shirt, with his gear in a bag on his shoulder. “I was just thinking to myself: This is a really stupid thing to be doing; you are no hero. But then you see the picture happening before your eyes and you forget about being scared.”

The shot he’s referring to is a moody image that evokes the feeling of a rainy day, with trees reflecting off the wet asphalt and dark clouds on the horizon; the excitement of the spectators, who cheer despite the weather; and the struggle of the cyclist, standing on his pedals as he makes his way uphill.

“I’m interested in the actual effort that goes into this,” Ingham says. “I’m interested in what happens to a person who willingly pushes their mind and body to the very edge during the course of doing something they love that involves great effort and pain, and who has taken years of training, striving and self-denial to get to a position where they can kill themselves for a day or a week or three weeks for possibly no prize or reward, just the chance to do it again. That’s what I find fascinating, their dedication. So I feel a responsibility to recognize and understand that, and that’s what I try and bring back home with me. It is all about them and trying to tell their story in an honest way.”

But the cyclists weren’t the only people Ingham focused on. “The racing is hard. It’s always great to see,” he says. “But it was the crowds that captivated me more than anything. The race was a moving carnival in a place where nothing really happens and it brought with it respite and great joy to onlookers and villages.” In the smaller towns along the route, the spectators displayed pure excitement and Ingham loved photographing the cross section of people—from kids working in the fields to prostitutes hanging around—who were all equally fascinated by the event.

When Ingham returned to England, he did a preliminary edit of the work after speaking with Southam about the text. The article was eventually published in three parts, in which Southam explored three aspects of the race: the enthusiasm about the race in Rwanda, the state of African racing and the politics of European racing in regards to smaller races like this one.

Ingham’s edit included images taken with his Leica (he continues to shoot film rather than digital whenever time and budgets permit, he explains) as well as stills from a video he shot with a Canon 7D. Ingham brought his photo picks to Andrews, and together they chose the ones that would be used in the magazine layouts. For the cover of the issue that contained part one of the article, they ran an image that shows a group of women with just their shoes and hemlines in the frame. It was a still from a video clip Ingham made of their dresses flapping in the wind near the race start line.

“Because we are essentially a subscription magazine [and don’t have to consider the newsstand], the cover isn’t necessarily indicative of what to expect inside, but usually has some reference to a story in it,” Andrews notes. “So we use the best image that works graphically and photographically.”

Ingham is now in the process of editing the motion work he made in Rwanda as a personal project. He’s also working on a new sports-related assignment for Asics, photographing athletes all around the world. But he’s keen on watching the trajectory of the young African riders he met in Rwanda, who are starting to make their way onto the international cycling stage.

Related Article:

Ben Ingham Photo Gallery

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