Team Africa Rising
Kimberly Coats is launching an all-women’s cycling team in a country where women are taunted and jeered at for riding a bike. Here, she tells us why it’s about so much more than cycling...
Kimberly Coats has worked with Team Rwanda for the past 10 years as Sporting Director, where her objective has been to develop the men’s national cycling team. A self-diagnosed workaholic, she has used this pit-bull tenacity to take on the challenge of forming an all-African women’s cycling team.
“These women have so few opportunities and the odds are completely stacked against them, culturally and socially,” she says. “I hope to change the way women are viewed on this continent and not just in sport. We will do it through the sport, but ultimately we are looking for the same thing women all over the world are looking for: equality.”
Her plans for an all-African women’s cycle team have been bubbling for years, but Rio was a powerful trigger. “When I watched the Olympic women’s road race a few weeks ago and saw so few women from Africa, I knew it was time.”
Although Rwanda boasts a Parliament that's 64% women, Kimberly says it does not trickle down to young girls at village level. Women are the breadwinners, while the men enjoy the rewards. To become professional cyclists, they face social and cultural barriers, and the stigma that cycling robs you of your virginity. “A former rider told me that she was ostracised by her family for cycling and told that she would never get a husband and have children.”
Kimberly tells us that Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu, an athlete being nurtured by Team Rwanda and the first Black-African woman to ride at the UCI World Championships, has an incredibly supportive family. But others must still face taunts and jeers from those who think a woman riding a bike is disgraceful.
So why do women in Rwanda want a career in cycling? “For most of the Rwandan men, it's about money and prestige for themselves. For the women it's about change,” she says. “That's one of the reasons I'm working more with women. It really is true: give a woman a chance and they will change their family and village and country.”
I ask her what she thinks her greatest achievement is. “I like to think it hasn’t happened yet. In Rio, there were only three women from Africa and not one woman of colour. We are dedicated to getting nearer to ten on the start-line in Tokyo. It’s time to literally change the face of world cycling.”