screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-44-01Members of Goma Cycling Club head to a local cafe after training. Photograph: The Guardian
Ruth Maclean and Caleb Kabanda

Weaving in and out of traffic, competing with motorbike taxis, they overtake a lorry on its last legs, shuddering as it spews out a fog of black smoke. Concentrating hard on not hitting a speed-bump or pothole, the cyclists receive curious stares from men on chukudus, large wooden scooters used for transporting everything from building materials to sacks of vegetables.

Mount Nyiragongo, the live volcano that last erupted over the city in 2002, looms before them, smoking.
“They are fast,” mutters a driver, as he athletically changes gear and guns his Land Cruiser in a vain attempt to catch up with them. “They are too fast.”

Goma, where viciously sharp lava coats the dirt roads, insecurity is rife and groups of thieves lie in wait, is a cyclist’s nightmare. But that hasn’t stopped the Goma Cycling Club. Since it started a year ago, its young members have become very good, very quickly.

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One, Jimmy Mohindo, is now the Congolese champion, and spends much of his time abroad competing. Four others are in the junior national team. Considering most of them come from poor families, and are lucky if they get enough to eat, let alone a proper racing bike, this is remarkable.

“I work very hard not to disappoint my club, but also to defend my life,” says Samuel Mwanukehere, a lean 18-year-old. “My father is dead, and he was the one who provided everything. My mother sells fish, onions and tomatoes and manages to feed us twice a day, but it’s a hard life. I’m working just to have a good life. I only dream of bicycles – that’s it.”

When Mwanukehere finishes school, he hopes to make it big as a cyclist and pay the bills with his prize-money. Some of his teammates have already had a taste of this – Daniel Ishara, who wears his Congolese junior team Lycra with pride and with rainbow-striped legwarmers, recently won $500 (£400), which he spent on a set of wheels that brings him great joy.

This morning they are competing with each other: eight rounds each of Goma’s only 11km (seven mile) stretch of good roads, some of which were built by the UN last year.

A member of the Goma Cycling Club takes a breather. Photograph: The Guardian

After each cyclist has rolled in, exhausted, their coach and club founder roars up on his motorbike and gives them a pep talk by the side of a busy roundabout.

Charles-Guy Makongo already has his hands full helping the DRC’s most vulnerable people access justice – his day job is directing the American Bar Association – but in his free time, he takes some 30 teenage cyclists under his wing.

One gets a telling off for taking a shortcut in the competition. “You’re only cheating yourselves if you do that,” Makongo says. “You need to change your rhythm,” he tells another. “If you can’t change that, it won’t work.”

Their briefing over, the cyclists park their bikes by the side of the road and, helmet straps dangling, tramp down a narrow alley over chunks of lava to a local café of rough wood. They sit on long benches, passing chunky chapatis and large mugs of fermented milk down the tables. Laughing and shouting over each other, they exchange advice about pacing themselves and sprinting in between milky slurps.

Makongo makes sure to get at least this one meal into them after training. “Some of the families are poor, and if we don’t have breakfast, they wouldn’t have anything to eat,” he says.

A keen cyclist himself, he started the club after a few boys saw him braving Goma’s traffic and asked him to help them improve their riding. On normal training days, there’s no missing Makongo, riding alongside his proteges in his Cameroonian Lycra suit. On competition days, though, he is on his BMW motorbike, zooming after his cyclists, lights flashing, beeping inconsiderate drivers, and stopping to hold up minibuses.

At first, the cyclists were greeted with disbelief and unbridled aggression from their fellow road-users, but after launching a “respect riders” campaign and handing out leaflets, the shouts of: “What are you doing on the road?” have become less common.
A member of Goma Cycling Club whizzes past. Good bikes are in short supply. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian

Much of Makongo’s free time and a good chunk of his income is spent on the club – on taking them to competitions in neighbouring Rwanda, haggling over helmets, shoes and Lycra in the secondhand Virunga market, and buying $2,000 carbon fibre bikes from the US. He is considering setting up a bike workshop to try to ensure the club has an income when he eventually returns to Cameroon.

In a region scarred by war, Makongo thinks it is worth the expense to keep his members busy and focused on something positive. Some are still at school, some are trying to work out how to afford university, but all are aware that unemployment is extremely high and are trying to find a way out of poverty.

The lack of jobs is one of the biggest factors driving thousands of Congolese people to protest against a government that, they say, is only good at collecting taxes and clinging to power.

On Monday, the prime minister resigned, clearing the way for a “unity government” after the current administration did a deal with a sliver of the opposition allowing the president, Joseph Kabila, to stay on beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms.

The opportunities that do exist in Goma can be deadly. “Young men here are always under pressure to join armed groups,” Makongo says. “So the idea was to stop them. Goma is a very complicated place.”

There has not been much rebel recruitment in Goma since the powerful M23 group was defeated in 2013, but last weekend the group’s leader was reported missing from the demobilisation camp in Uganda where he was being held. He has reportedly crossed into the DRC with dozens of soldiers.

“When you are a young, unemployed man, you may have bad ideas about joining bandit groups and militias,” says Cadeau Kabumba, one of the club’s newest members. “The club keeps you busy and stops you having those thoughts.”

Like many of the Goma Cycling Club’s members, Kabumba’s concern is more prosaic but no less pressing – how to afford a bike.

He has finished school and would love to be an agronomist, but there are so few jobs that he has to content himself with very occasional work as a gardener that pays $15 a day. With ageing parents to support, he has no money. He borrowed a Matabaro from his brother – a single-speed heavy goods vehicle of a bike with ribbons on the handlebars – and comes in last in every competition. However, he has strong legs from jogging and thinks if he can one day get his hands on a racer, he will do well.

According to Ngunza Ngolo Lukanga, a 66-year-old cycling fan, cycling was big in the Belgian colonial era, when there were some good roads in the countryside near Goma, but under Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country for 31 years, the roads were left to go to ruin.

“This cycling is something new in Goma. These are new roads. It never existed before,” says Lukanga, stopping on a dusty street to get a closer look at the boys’ bikes.

But a few good roads are not enough to keep the club’s members spinning, he says, predicting that most would have to drop out after a year.

“There is talent but they need to be supported. These boys should be sponsored by big companies like in developed countries. They spend their own money, and they don’t have money.”

Poverty will not put Kabumba off, however, and he refuses to be diverted. “I hope one day I’ll get a job and be able to save up for a good bike,” Kabumba says. “But I won’t quit cycling, even if I get a good job. I can work in the daytime, and cycle in the evenings. I dream of going to the big competitions.”