From Where We Rise: Sterling Magnell and Team Rwanda

Photos by Sterling Magnell

Team Rwanda is the most unique and important program in cycling. It is comprised of men and women with nothing to lose, truly, in a country still recovering from a terrible past. For the riders of Team Rwanda, cycling is a chance at a life and a job. But it might also be the greatest source of cycling talent we've seen in years, taking kids who were pedaling bikes all day as pedicabs, barely making enough to live, to pedaling bikes a few hours a day making quite a bit more. Only, it needs the right personnel, a group of people with deep experience in cycling but enough je ne sais quois to do it differently and understand that it's as much a process of training the technical aspects of riding as training the human side.

Not many people have enough race experience to fill that role and be willing to uproot their lives to move to Rwanda. But Sterling Magnell does and was. 

Meet the new coach of Team Rwanda, Sterling Magnell. Aaron Stinner and Sterling actually go way back, having raced against each other in the NorCal junior racing scene. Sterling went on to join the Francais de Jeux development program and race professionally all over the world. The life of the starving bike racer was his. However, discontent rumbled beneath, somewhere, as he delved into art and fashion, and whatever else. 

Now, Sterling has purpose. He sees the team as more than just an opportunity to create great bike racers, it's an opportunity to instill a sense of belonging and change worldviews. But he had to make the ultimate leap, a jump into chaos and the unknown for a group of people who, perhaps, deserve it most. Now, residing full time in Rwanda, Meet Sterling Magnell and Team Africa Rising.

Meet Sterling Magnell. 

Meet Sterling Magnell. 

*This interview was conducted via Email. The answers to each question were written by Sterling Magnell

How did Team Rwanda come to be?

The iteration of Team Rwanda the world is familiar with started 10 years ago. As you see in the film "Rising from the Ashes," Tom Ritchey convinced Jock Boyer to come to Rwanda and investigate the local talent and racing scene.

The country did have a bike racing culture prior, just on a very basic level. The Tour of Rwanda, for instance, used to literally be a tour of the dirt, or "red" roads, totaling 1000's of kilometers. It didn't become a UCI race untill 2008 or 09 I believe. Jock started with six riders, five of which are still either racing or working with the team. There has been a slow trickle of athletes added to the program since then with a marked acceleration in the past few years.

How did you find your way over to Team Rwanda?

Two years ago Jock called my Father and asked if I would be interested in coming over. My Father goes way back with both Jock and Tom. Tom is the one responsible for sparking and supporting the genesis of my own cycling career at age 12, so it all relates. Initially I dismissed the idea when my father relayed it to me, but I promised to think about it. 

After a month of consideration and checking with peers that had been involved in past I was in. Before I came I decided I would give it three years at minimum. I couldn't find a single legitimate reason not to come and the idea of applying myself to facilitating the bike as a life changing vehicle for others, the way it has been for me I deemed a worthwhile use of my time.

Sterling Magnell being led and leading.

Sterling Magnell being led and leading.

What was the moment like when you decided you were doing this, moving to Rwanda and coaching this team? What did your friends and family think and did they understand your passion?

Liberating. I thrive on uncertainty and find my most creative sweet spot heading into the unknown where possibilities are conceptually endless and structure is at a minimum.

What are the goals, what does success look like for Team Rwanda, what do you want for your riders?

That's the million dollar question. On paper, my job, our jobs, is simply to develop the best athletes possible for the national team and to produce professionals ready to enter the sport on the international stage.

However, the bike is such a beautiful tool that I personally view success as anyone embracing it as a form of self discovery and growth.

How does your own cycling past inform how you help your riders?

In every way really . . . I've written about this in the past. Cycling changed my life. It's a forum that is very much romanticized, in my mind, as a human endeavor of expression, travel, and competition. 

Cycling's almost as individual as hand writing. No two take to it quite the same. Because I've been at it for 20 years, I can be a very good technician in all aspects of the sport, but I view that as secondary. I consider cycling and my work with it's athletes as an art form. If I have to define my own career or what I do, I define it as art. 

How would you describe your role with the team? 

A little bit of everything. My official title is "Head Coach." Team Africa Rising is basically an NGO that does FERWACY's work for them. It's an ever tenuous relationship that ebbs and flows, challenging and political. So half of my work looks very much like functioning in a leadership role in an NGO, managing personnel, daily operations and problems ect.

We play musical chairs a bit, Jock has been here 10 years, his wife, Kim, 7. So when they take a little time off I have my hands full. When they are here they do a very good job of keeping me as free as possible to focus on the team and coaching them. But, throughout the year, I have to do a lot of context switching and wear a few different hats from week to week and month to month. 

What's it like living and riding in Rwanda? Are there some major cultural challenges related to the team?

Not really. I love it. I'm not too enamored with the rainy season. I find it very accessible riding and training here. 

For most part it's very safe. The biggest danger is the unfamiliarity that the public has with the speed and stealth that elite cyclist travel with. Villagers misjudging how much time they have to cross the road is a constant danger.

Rwanda is very densely populated, people are everywhere. It's impossible to be alone in this country. Any given day, on any given road, there are people walking everywhere. 

What and who are your success stories, thus far?

That's something I should probably spend more time trying to quantify. I'm perpetually looking into the future, success stories are everywhere in terms of taking athletes that seem moderately good at riding a bike to dialing in their position, dialing in their training, and, then, six months later, seeing a whole new rider. But even with those case studies I don't think I have a single example of a rider who has gone out and reached the level of potential I see them having. 

So my honest answer would be that, while I feel like I've made a lot of progress with the team as a whole, and with certain individuals, I don't believe I have achieved what I would call or qualify or quantify as success in terms of what I think is possible. 

How does the genocide influence the riders and the country still?

It's an interesting question, contextually and simply from an anthropological curiosity about history and violence. I'm no authority on the matter and I think that it would be inappropriate for someone in my position to mold strong opinions about this part of history. But I personally see a lot of healing and resilience from the overt impact of  those deaths had. The harder thing to look at is the mentality that allows events like that to seize a population in the first place.

There can be very dangerous thought patterns that lead groups of people to tragic places when the education and autonomy of individuals isn't well accounted for. I think that today with the options, technology and communication we have at our disposal, there is no excuse for that kind of thing to ever happen again.

The education and care of our next generation is them most important thing. The kids who are going to bare humanity into the next age and inherit everything we've done and built, that has to be our focus. 

Where do you see the team going and what do you want to create, ultimately? What kind of races is the team doing now?

Ultimately, what I'd like to see is a culture of cycling that is run and supported locally without our input.

Everything that we do put together runs about $1M a year and we have 10 full time personnel at the Africa Rising Cycling Center. Cycling in Rwanda has a long way to go still. I think that we will be taking a long view approach in coming years like I mentioned earlier.

I'd like to focus on empowering the women getting into cycling and educating the youth to eventually see individuals that are talented athletes and good ambassadors for their country and humanity two, three, and four years down the road. I think it's absolutely possible we could see our current top talents solidifying themselves within the pro ranks and going to the Olympics in 2020. But I can also see them going on to do more than just "ride," on both the men's and women's side. 

As far as the types of racing we're doing . . .  I've been advocating for a shift from Africa Tour races that don't do enough to  prepare us for the professional peloton to one or two big races a year, like the Tour of Colombia which we'd like to return to.

Mixed in with trips to the U.S. or the U.K. we're we can do these short forum circuit and criterium races that allow them to hone their skills without the fallout of a 200km stage. Racing for an hour at a time on the same corners around and around really gives you the chance to progress and try things, fail, and try again. We need that. 

How does the team like traveling to races?

Less than you would think. I would say only 10% of my riders are truly excited to leave the country and embrace international adventure. There's a lack of understanding about the outside world and a lack of faith that there are things out there that they can employ to make their lives better or more enjoyable. Again it comes down to education.

I want to inject a clearer picture of what is out there and what is possible into the youth. I believe to truly grow we'll have to focus on education as a prerequisite to bike racing, not the other way around.

We often think of cycling as freedom. For these riders I'd imagine cycling is empowerment and freedom combined. Do you see major changes in your riders as they go through the system? What can cycling do for Team Rwanda and what can the cycling world learn?

No. Cycling has a very utilitarian place in Rwandese culture. Most of our athletes see it as a means to and end, a job. 

When a kid goes from making very little money riding a bike all day as a taxi driver to making 100 times as much pedaling less than all day on a much nicer bike, most of them think that is as good as it gets and they they somehow deserved it. The reality is that there are 1000's of kids in this country that are eager for the opportunity, but the motivation is wrong. Re-framing cycling as a privilege and a vehicle into a free forum attack on life is going to take time. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with using cycling as a come up. We all need to survive. It's almost impossible to put on the mindset of a poor kid in a village dreaming of having more than a few Almafaranga to rub together. 

It's incumbent on us to portray a long term view of dedication and work, where success can be defined by the tangibility of financial stability and the intrinsic value of sport co-existing with each other.

The West projects an ideal that cycling has this novel quality for everyone. The starving artist, the broke bike racer doing it for love, that is a very Western condition. The motivation and sacrifices you see for riding the bike vary from place to place. You have to pay attention, ask questions and adjust. 

Figuring out why you are doing what you are doing and why you want what you want is a door that opens into an endless world of existential questions, social science, behavioral science . . . many rabbit holes in many fields. 

This is where my greatest passion lies, it's exploring these avenues. So I'm very happy to be right where I am doing work that maybe only I can do, right here, right now.