Tour of Rwanda: From cycling race to tourist bait

The fifth edition of Tour of Rwanda cycling race starts today at Amahoro stadium and for the next eight days, riders will crisscross 805kms of the country’s road network in nine stages.

The fifth edition of Tour of Rwanda cycling race starts today at Amahoro stadium and for the next eight days, riders will crisscross 805kms of the country’s road network in nine stages.

One out of 70 riders from 14 teams will lift the crown held by South African Darren Lill, who won the 2012 competition.

If you consider the earlier editions before the tour became an International Cycling Union (UCI) race in 2009, this year’s is the 16th edition. The inaugural competition in 1988 was strictly a Rwandan affair. It was won by Célestin Ndengeyingoma. 

The race was then organized for three straight years until 1990 when it was suspended for 10 years due to the liberation struggle and the devastating 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that damaged the human resource and infrastructure.

In 2001, the Tour of Rwanda was re-introduced, and this time, in an expanded form, allowing in riders from the region. Bernard Nsengiyunva was the winner and from 2002 up until 2005 Abraham Ruhumuriza was the reigning champion. He was deposed by Kenyan Peter Kamau in 2006.

This year’s edition will be Ruhumuriza’s 13th tour, a record for the Huye-born rider whose last win was in 2007. He holds a record five wins, although all came before tour become an International Cycling Union event.

The last Rwandan to win the Tour was Adrien Niyonshuti in 2008. Since then Moroccan Adil Jelloul (2009), Eritrean Daniel Teklehaymanot (2010), American Kiel Reijnen (2011) and a South African Darren Lill (2012) have been the winners.

For many non cycling enthusiasts, the Tour of Rwanda is just another competition, but in reality, it’s a major road race with a UCI ranking of 2.2, the equivalent of fourth level in international races.

For the last four years, the tour has evolved into a very competitive race and the biggest competition of all 2.2 category races in Africa. Other races in this category are; Tropical Amissi Bongo Tour of Gabon, Tour of Eritrea and Tour of DR Congo.

However, what makes Tour of Rwanda stand out is because it involves more climbing and attracts more spectators. Some estimates put last year’s spectators at three million even through the tour did not cover the entire country due to logistical and financial limitations.

Turning the Tour of Rwanda into an international race has been a team effort led by Rwanda Cycling Federation chairman Aimable Bayingana and the federation’s technical director, Jock Boyer.

Boyer, who was the first American to compete in Tour de France, the biggest cycling competition in the world, is the brain behind taking Rwandan cycling to where it is right now. 

In this rather expensive sport of skill, power and endurance, Rwanda is ranked highly on the continent, alongside South African, Eritrea, Morocco and Ethiopia. 

“Tour of Rwanda has made, and it is still making important progress. We are doing our best to entertain people living in different parts of Rwanda by bringing the race to them. We are also promoting the image of Rwanda through cycling,” Bayingana said in a statement on the Rwanda Cycling Federation website.

This year, Team Rwanda will field three teams (Kalisimbi, Akagera and Muhabura) each made up of five riders.

Tour of Rwanda has consistently attracted over ten foreign teams from the US, France, Belgium and African countries including professional South African teams, MTN-Qhubeka and UCI Continental Center.

“We are happy that this year’s Tour of Rwanda is going to visit, for the first time, the districts of Kirehe and Nyamagabe. It will continue to visit new places with improved infrastructure,” Bayingana said.

Before Jock Boyer and his friends Kim Coats (Team Rwanda director of marketing and logistics) and Max Darcel (chief mechanic) camped in Rwanda in 2007, not many Rwandans saw cycling as a professional sport. The number of cyclist has more than tripled from just about 10 in mid 2000 and the country produced an Olympiad in Adrien Niyonshuti, who became the first black African to compete in the Olympic Mt. Bike race at the 2012 London Games. 

Unlike other sports, cycling, specifically the Tour of Rwanda, which traverses several parts of the country, finds spectators near their homes. 

And with international media giving the Tour considerable coverage, it goes without saying that this is a priceless way of promoting Rwanda’s tourism.

 

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