I thought I’d end off the year by telling you about Charles Bucumi and Gerard Bukuru. They’re from Burundi and we met them at the Tour of Rwanda.
They looked nothing like cyclists. In a sea of skinny, leggy lads, Charles and Gerard stuck out like sore thumbs. They were heavier and much older than the other competitors. And by their own admission, they rarely trained – just three days a week for a month-and-a-half before the Tour. “Because of the war in our country, our team broke down,” Charles told me one evening. “But I am ready to race anytime.”
Each morning, as we followed the riders in our car, we’d keep a lookout for the two Burundians. They generally marked the end of a long line of competitors. Huffing, puffing, suffering on Rwanda’s hilly roads. We’d honk, drive past, occasionally yell out words of encouragement. It must have been so hard for them. Each stage was about 150 km. How on earth did they manage to keep their spirits up?
Charles is a shoeshiner, Gerard, a boda-boda rider. The irony didn’t escape us. Because miles and miles ahead of them, hanging with the best in the peloton, were Zakayo, our former shoeshiner, and Mwangi, the ex-boda-boda rider.
At the end of one stage, long after the prize-giving ceremony was over, we saw Charles rounding the corner towards the finish line. He seemed exhausted. As the days wore on, he would look more and more tired. Still, he’d show up. Even as other better riders dropped out due to injury, damaged gear or plain fatigue, Charles and Gerard finished. They never gave up.
How could they? They’d had to jump through hoops, coming to the race. They almost never made it because neither man could afford riding gear.
“Our own bicycles were just too old,” Charles explained. “Too old.”
And then, just before the Tour, the unthinkable happened. The President of Burundi heard about their plight and sent them a pair of new bikes. Nothing flashy. But the Burundians treated them with reverential care. It was even rumoured that Charles and Gerard were under strict instructions to do two things: 1. Not crash, and 2. Finish the race.
They did. Charles was dead last.
He won the prize for fair play. The look on his face when the announcement was made, was priceless. Shock. A goofy grin. He didn’t quite know what to do. Then, someone half-poked the man and he stumbled towards the stage. There was a standing ovation, hi-fives, slaps on his back, loud cheers.
Charles Bucumi wasn’t a world-class cyclist. Would never be. Yet he stole the show, this shoeshiner who came with his president’s bicycle and showed us all that there was no shame in finishing last. Because sometimes, finishing, is all that really matters.