‘Dreams can come true’: Uganda’s first female pro cyclist aims for the Tour de France | Global development

andt is September and the beginning of the rainy season in Uganda, when roads become flooded with clay waters. Everyone is slowed down by the incessant downpours. In spite of these conditions, 21-year-old Florence Nakaggwa is out training in the outskirts of Masaka, a town 80 miles south-west of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

She cycles between 30-60 miles (50-100km) each day, switching from tarmac to the red soil of village roads.

Earlier this year, Nakaggwa became Uganda’s first female rider to receive a professional cycling contract, signing with Team Amani, a racing collective fiercely pushing for inclusivity for riders across east Africa. Based in the Netherlands it has sister clubs in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.

The team provides her with 900,000 Ugandan shillings (about £200) a month, equipment, clothing and representation at races around the globe.

Her signing came as a surprise to her home village of Kalagala, where neighbors had derided her ambitions. “People, young and old, called out insults like ‘leave cycling for boys or you will turn into a man.’ I tend to ignore them. This is my chosen career – not working in a hair salon, as many in my culture would expect.”

But standing on the main street of nearby Ssaza, home to Masaka Cycling Club and a bicycle repair shop where Nakaggwa works part-time, she garners respect from onlookers as she has her photo taken, a sign that attitudes may be shifting.

In 2015, a social worker and cycling fan from Masaka called Miiro Michael noticed an increasing number of young boys racing bicycles they would normally use to fetch water or for other household chores.

Florence Nakaggwa and Miiro Michael. Photograph: Frank L’Opez

“I knew that I had to bring the youth together,” he says, so he formed the cycling club, which now includes 10 girls and 15 boys.

Its purpose is to harness local talent and engage young people in community work.

The club’s continued existence is down to Michael’s commitment and zeal.

“Even being a wheelchair user, contracting polio at two, could not stop me from loving the Tour de France on television as a child. I wondered why there was never a Ugandan participating.”

Michael’s chance meeting with Ross Burrage, an ultra-endurance racer from Australia who was training around Masaka in 2019, improved the club’s fortunes. As an ambassador and main fundraiser, he has helped build the clubhouse that is now filled with donated equipment and frequented by young people wanting to compete.

“I was out riding with Florence’s brothers and we rolled into their parents’ place. There was a young girl: it was Florence, gathering charcoal,” Burrage says. “When I asked why she wasn’t riding, I got nothing but a blank look. The next time I came back, she was racing her brothers.”

In a society where girls are expected to marry early and look after men, Florence has created a female culture of her own.

When she started racing competitively in 2019, she became the first woman to join the cycling club. Michael recognized her leadership qualities and appointed her captain. Since then, nine more girls and women have joined. “I tell the girls where I started from – I tell them not to sit on their talents. You just need to believe that all dreams can come true with hard work,” she says.

“The undermining of girls must be stopped, or at least diminished.” Nakaggwa leads female club members on training runs through local villages “so that they may be seen”.

Her father is a member of the club and a coach. He was a mountain bike racer, but did not reach professional status. He is now eager to empower his daughter to help her reach the next level: competing internationally.

a girl in shorts lifting weights outside a small house
Florence Nakaggwa started racing competitively in 2019. Photograph: Frank L’Opez

“I am grateful he works me hard enough,” Nakaggwa says. “When you sit on a bike you are not a boy or a girl, you are just a being – and I need to keep up with everyone in the race no matter who they are.”

Women’s racing is a comparatively new phenomenon; as a result there are few all-female races in Uganda. Longer off-road mixed treks are more common in Africa and are Nakaggwa’s immediate focus.

After coming first in local community races, one of her first challenges on the big stage was the Kintu Trial in western Uganda last year, a tough 500km of mountain biking over five days, competing against European and African men and women, as well as two local boys from her village.

On day one she came first, and was held aloft in amazement by those at the finish line.

Her next race is the arduous Rhino Run this month, an endurance expedition that begins in South Africa and crosses 1,700 miles (2,750km) of mountain ranges, forests and towering sand dunes to Namibia. Competitors self-navigate, carrying all their camping equipment and food. Nakaggwa and her two male team mates, Paul Kato and Peter Wasswa, will be the first Ugandans to enter the race.

Completing it will be another first for this young pioneer, who is determined to take her place among the cycling greats. “I have to reach the level of the Tour de France… that is the best place for a pro cyclist to show their tactics and their spirit. If you reach there, you have made it.”