The women bike racers of Sierra Leone

Tom Owen and Matt Grayson tell the stories of the women who raced in this year's Tour de Lunsar

The Tour de Lunsar in Sierra Leone has grown rapidly in the last half-decade, adding more days of racing and more participants from both domestic clubs and foreign invitee teams. This year, with the support of indoor training platform, Zwift, the Tour was able to scale up its women’s race from a single day event to a stage race over two days. This makes it one of only two stage races on the continent, the other being the Tour of Burundi. There are no UCI women’s stage races at all in Africa. 

Host club of the Tour, the Lunsar Cycling Team, has by far the largest women’s section in the country, fielding around one third of the total 31 participants this year. 

British photographer Matt Grayson was at the race in 2023 and 2024 to cover the racing, but also managed to capture a set of far more intimate portraits of the women’s team at their homes. 

Yainkain Sawyer (Image: Matt Grayson)

Yainkain Sawyer is the team’s captain. In 2023 she was selected alongside one other rider from Sierra Leone to go and train in Benin with the Team Africa Rising-supported performance programme there. Concerned that she might not get enough calories, Sawyer’s mum packed her off with a care parcel including a large portion of canya a crunchy paste made by pounding peanuts with sugar. Canya is delicious, but the presence of a package of compressed, brown powder wrapped in cellophane caused some consternation when she passed through border control.

Yainkain Sawyer racing in the Tour de Lunsar (Image: Matt Grayson)

Becoming captain, as well as this opportunity to travel – something extremely rare for Sierra Leoneans – has given Sawyer a much deeper confidence. She is currently sitting her WASSCE exams (similar to GCSE in the UK) and is head girl at her school. In the run-up to the 2024 Tour, Sawyer’s parents hosted the women’s team at their house for three days, to focus on team-building. 

Mbalu Fofanah (Image: Matt Grayson)

Mbalu Fofanah is a natural athlete. Good at seemingly all physical activity, whether it’s cycling, netball, or lobbing stones into trees to knock down mangoes. Sierra Leonean mangoes are the best in the world, by the way, so being a dab hand with a pebble comes with fruitful rewards. 

When she is racing, Fofanah has a stern demeanour, and she’s also always the first to tell the male riders to pipe down when they’re out of line. In a very patriarchal society like Sierra Leone, this requires an uncommon amount of confidence. Beneath that tough exterior, however, she is a compassionate teammate – often dropping off the front to help junior women with their pedalling technique. 

Ramatulai Kuyateh racing at the Tour de Lunsar (Image: Matt Grayson)

Ramatulai Kuyateh is house captain at her school, which is kind of like a prefect. Her studiousness and general responsibility means she’s sometimes jokingly referred to as the team’s ‘discipline officer’, responsible for calling out the lateness of her peers – and sometimes her coach. 

Ramatulai Kuyateh at home (Image: Matt Grayson)

She is a dedicated rider and, like the majority of Sierra Leoneans, she is a muslim. Throughout Ramadan – which finished on 9 April just 10 days before the Tour –  she fasted all day, including foregoing any water, while also attending school. After school, she routinely went to study club, before breaking fast at sunset and heading over to the the building where LCT conducts its Zwift training sessions. Typically these run earlier in the evening right after the school bell, but have to be moved later during Ramadan. On nights where no session was planned, Kuyateh would routinely call up the facilitator and ask them to switch on the trainer and iPad to let her do a ‘small-small Zwift’.

Kadie Kamara (Image: Matt Grayson)

Kadie Kamara is a little older than the others and has been participating in the Tour de Lunsar as a member of Lunsar Cycling Team since 2019. However, the big change in her life this season has been a move to neighbouring Liberia where she is now living with her parents. That means she has not raced in any of the events leading up to this year’s Tour, and she has also struggled to find people to ride with in the area she is now resident.

Kadie Kamara and Yainkain Sawyer (Image: Matt Grayson)

Kamara is trying to get onto a skills development course run by a large mining company in Liberia, involving three years of vocational training inside the company. This sort of opportunity represents a viable alternative to university for Kamara, whose parents would struggle to pay for university in Sierra Leone. She has already begun planning the foundation of a new women’s cycling club in her new home.

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