Rwanda cycling: An undisputed pillar in the rebuilding, transformation and rebranding of the country 25 years on

Riders line-up before kick-off in front of the City Hall in downtown Kigali. / File

July 4th, 2019, marked exactly 25 years when Rwanda was liberated from one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century; the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

More than one million Tutsi were killed in less than 100 days that were planned and perpetrated by the then regime backed by then army (FAR) and a militia known as Interahamwe. They were killed by neighbors, colleagues at work, in-laws, friends, schoolmates, teachers, students, and many others.

For the post-genocide leadership, restoring or actually rebuilding the country after this aftermath was such a daunting test. The entire socio-economic fabric was destroyed, the few Rwandans who remained were overwhelmed with trauma and depression over what they had just witnessed.

Hope for the future and determination to rise again was extremely imperceptible.

To put this into context, with more than a million lives lost in the Genocide, the already stagnating economy also shrank by 50% (average growth of 2.2% between 1985 and 1993); inflation rate was at 64%, poverty rate was at 78% with rapid population growth between 3.4% (between 1985-1990), a large number of displaced persons and more than 140,000 genocide suspects in prisons.

There were also huge capacity gaps and inexistent institutional frameworks where 96% of civil servants had no higher education.

Definitely, a complete start from scratch was required but the most critical thing was to build hope, determination plus unity and reconciliation.

A series of development strategies were initiated and fast-forward 25 years later, the poverty rate has reduced from 64% to 38.2% as of 2016/17, life expectancy increased from 49 years to 67 years among many indicators.

Team Rwanda rider Jean-Claude Uwizeye picks a bottle of water from the team’s car. / File

On the international scene, Rwanda ranks second safest place to do business in Africa, second-most competitive in Africa, 7th global most efficient government, among others according to globally-recognized indices.

The above mentioned modest achievements have been as a result of sheer commitment seen in almost every sector of the economy that has contributed to this fairy tale recovery.

Rwanda Cycling has been and remains one of the pillars in the rebuilding and transformation of the country through giving a platform and exposure to young, hopeful and passionate riders by providing them with an opportunity to chase their dream.

And in doing so, these youngsters have continued a story and selling the new image of the country.

Today, cycling is the most successful and arguably the most famous sport in Rwanda through its flagship annual race Tour du Rwanda, which has gone on to become the best cycling tour currently on the continent that it is currently.

Despite challenges that ranged from education, extreme trauma from Genocide for some riders, Rwanda Cycling Federation (FERWACY) led by Aimable Bayingana, have built a firm foundation for the sport to continue to flourish.

Bayingana is also currently the president of L’Union Francophone de Cyclisme (UFC).

In just 10 years, the sport has produced the most excellent and rewarding performances on both the local and international scenes than any other sport in the country.

Tour du Rwanda has grown from an amateur tour to a 2.1 UCI Africa tour, Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC), the home for the national team has been confirmed by UCI as a UCI Satellite Cycling Centre, a cycling tourism project is now under implementation by Rwanda Development Board to promote tourism not only on the highway roads but also throughout mountain biking.

With the sport having now become a culture in the country, we take a look at the fairytale and challenging journey that it has gone through and what the future holds for it.

The genesis

Just like other countries in the region that have excelled in other sports disciplines, Rwanda found its niche in cycling, where it not only tops the East Africa region by far, cycling is increasingly becoming more of a culture.

The genesis of cycling in Rwanda is to some degree unknown however according to Faustin Mparabanyi, the first Rwandan rider to compete at the Summer Olympics in 1992 which took place in Barcelona, Spain and a former Tour du Rwanda winner, Rwanda cycling stems from the fact that, way before the coming of the first car to Rwanda, bicycles were the most popular means of transport something that locals even went ahead to leverage through starting mini-bicycle competitions.

“I don’t know when exactly cycling begun in Rwanda but what I am sure of is that the current Rwanda Cycling Federation (FERWACY) became a member of UCI in 1978 and that was the first time that local competitions began to be organized in compliance with UCI rules and regulations,” said Mparabanyi who is currently a technical advisor in the federation.

Despite the then meager resources according to Mparabanyi, after becoming a member of UCI the then leadership of FERWACY facilitated the formation of what was then regional teams to compete in what were then mini-races across the country.

These mini-races would, ten years later – in 1988, become Tour du Rwanda and which has since grown in leaps and bounds, to become the most prestigious race on the continent of Africa.

“I remember the first race in 1978 that took place for three days, it started from Kigali to Kibungo (now Ngoma District) on the first day before proceeding to Rusumo on the next day and returned to Kibungo and headed back to Kigali on the third final day,” he further narrated.

This was approximately a 152.7km race, however depending on the nature of the roads, the bicycles that were used, it was a three-day race.

Currently, this is a mere stage race in Tour du Rwanda that normally does not go beyond three hours and a half of racing.

The birth of Tour du Rwanda

The mini-races were held around the country, including Tour du Kigali, Tour de l’Est (Kigali-Rwamagana), Ascension des Mille Collines (Kigali-Butare-Akanyaru) and Tour des Volcans (Cyanika-Ruhengeri-Gisenyi), which attracted various local cyclists.
 
In 1984, Tour de Kigali, that was organized and sponsored by Sulfo Rwanda Industries, became a popular race and this led to the formation of cycling clubs that included ACK (Association Cyclisme de Kigali), Kibungo Cycling Club, Huye Cycling Club (now Cycling Club for All), and Cine Elmay.

These races continued to grow steadily and the sport picked momentum under the leadership of the then Ferwacy president Dr. Evariste Mutabaruka and his deputy Anselme Sakumi decided to start what is today known as Tour du Rwanda in 1988.

The first edition then attracted riders from regional countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), Burundi and Kenya with Célestin Ndengeyingoma becoming the first winner of Tour du Rwanda, while Omar Masumbuko won the second edition in 1989, with Mparabanyi winning the third in 1990.

A historic debut at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona

In 1992, the national cycling team made a historic debut at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games that were hosted in Barcelona, Spain.

Rwanda was among the six African countries that managed to compete at the multisport event that included Benin, DR Congo, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Togo. A total of 451 cyclists from 76 nations competed.

According to Mparabanyi who happens to be among the first riders to ride for the national team, the team was first put together in 1987 when they made their debut at the 4th edition of All African Games that were hosted in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We were actually also supposed to compete at 1991 All African Games that took place in Cairo, Egypt but by then the political situation was tense here (Rwanda). However, in 1992, the federation organized races to select riders for Olympics and I was selected among the three riders,” Mparabanyi further narrated.

Joseph Areruya in the RDB jersey as the best Rwandan rider. / File

The others two were Alphonse Nshimiyimana and Emmanuel Nkurunziza and the trio competed in the road race, however, none managed to finish the race on their debut.

According to Mparabanyi, at the time Rwanda was already a cycling powerhouse on the continent, their rivals then were Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Ethiopia.

1994: From hope to despair

In 1994, the sport that had set a firm foundation and had become somehow emblematic suffered brutally from the genocide against the Tutsi as the tragic period befell on the country.

“The sport almost lost everything, right from the top leadership including the vice president Sakumi who was killed in the Genocide and the president who left the country,” Mbarabanyi noted.

Many were killed, those who survived had left the country as refugees, a big number of riders were killed and others were involved in the killings,” he noted.

“It was really starting from scratch. However, the passion and love of the sport came back and in 1995. We managed to put whatever we had left together to have a team that participated in the All Africa Games in Harare, Zimbabwe as a national team.”

New era

In 1999, the national team again participated in the All Africa Games that were hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa and for the first time ever, the team had a total of six riders and they managed to compete in both road race and team time trial.

The six riders included Jean Marie Vianney Gahemba (father to former La Tropicale Amissa Bongo and Tour du Rwanda and Tour de l’Espoir winner Joseph Areruya), Ngwijabanzi, Rukwavu, Seraphin Mugabo, Charles Musabyimana, and Faustin Mparabanyi.

Fast forward, Tour du Rwanda again picked momentum and was hosted annually from 2001 until to date.

Take off stage

In 2007, the leadership of FERWACY changed with the election of the current president Aimable Bayingana something that marked the turning point of the sport, according to enthusiasts of the much-loved sport.

The new leadership laid down a strategic plan that would in less than 10 years transform the sport from an amateur sport to a professional one with the national team winning medals on the international arena.

It did not spot there; local riders are now competing for a podium finish with globally renowned riders and many have joined both World tour teams, UCI professional continental teams, and UCI continental teams.

“At the time we came in, there was already a structure in place, the national team had been there and competing at a top-level for a long time and besides I had worked as an advisor in the committee that we succeeded,” said Bayingana.

According to Bayingana, after his election, priority was given to elevating the sport to a professional level where the ultimate goal was not only to provide a platform for young and passionate riders a chance to achieve their dream but also to make Rwandan cycling part of the country’s tourism sector.

This overwhelming ambition was graced by the coming of former American rider Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer whose contribution to the technical development of sport remains remarkable.

“We were lucky Jonathan came and we really worked together to see how the national team can get better because it was there but the level and the performance it used to put up while competing in international races was really not impressive,” he added.

The former Tour de France rider put much emphasis on building the technical aspects of the national team something that he did for a period of 10 years before relocating to the US in 2017.

“As someone who had such an experience in the sport, he was appointed by the federation as a technical director and this really helped us move forward smoothly,” he noted.

In 2009, Tour du Rwanda which had been an amateur race since 1988 become a 2.2 UCI Africa tour and this was in line with making it an international race, so that it can attract more experienced riders, give more exposure to local riders but also in the spirit of developing tourism and telling the story of a new country after the 1994 Genocide.

Fast forward, the upgrading of the sport attracted thousands of riders and by 2016, all continents of the world had been represented at the annual race. In 2014, following a six-year jinx, Valens Ndayisenga became the first local rider to win the race under the badge of UCI, a record that local riders maintained until last year in 2018.

Last year, yet again the race was upgraded to 2.1 UCI Africa tour same level as Gabon’s la Tropicale Amissa Bongo, and for the first time a UCI World Tour team (Astana from Kazakhstan) came on the African continent to compete in the 8-stage tour which was consequently won by the same team courtesy of Eritrean Merhawi Kudus.

A new brand of the country

Rwanda is currently ranked among the best five cycling nations on the continent, Tour du Rwanda is arguably the best tour on the continent considering it was the first tour on the continent to attract a world tour team.

Since 2009, local riders have won it five times and since 2017, the national team has won La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Tour du Cameroon, Tour de Espoir, competed at Paris–Roubaix as the first African team to do so not mentioning the number of medals that have been won at the African championships in men, women and juniors categories.

In August this year, Rubavu-based Benediction Excel Energy, the first UCI Continental in the country won their first international race; Tour de la Democratic Republic of the Congo courtesy of 19-year old Jean Claude Nzafashwanayo.

“The role of Rwanda cycling in a new story about the country is massive, today the country is shown on international televisions with riders from around the world racing Tour du Rwanda on good roads, people on the roads chanting and showing the passion for the sport, hotels, and nature among others, a totally different image compared to 1994,” Bayingana explained.

Cycling remains the most promising sport

As a result, in 2014, His Excellency the president after witnessing the heroics by Valens Ndayisenga winning Tour du Rwanda offered the national team the current premises of Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) in Musanze district.

This was later developed as a training hub for cyclists and used as a training camp for the national team. Last year, following a three-day visit to the country by the current UCI president David Lappartient, confirmed that Rwanda will soon become just the second African nation to host a UCI World Cycling Center, also known as WCC Satellite Centre which will be at the premises of ARCC after South Africa.

“This is now confirmed, ARCC will be a WCC satellite and we are now working to get things ready and the UCI team will be coming any time to validate it,” confirmed Bayingana.

On the other hand, a cycling tourism project has been launched and is under implementation by Rwanda Development Board where 42 mountain biking trails have been identified as potential to be developed for this new tourism activity.

“This is important on two in fronts, first as the main goal to promote tourism but on the other hand to provide job opportunities to retiring riders who will be working as guides,” he explained.

Last month, the federation adopted a new five-year strategic plan where among the key priorities is to increase the number of riders, increase facilitation to local clubs and continue to build the level of Tour du Rwanda.

“We are at about 100 and something riders currently and in the new strategic plan we want to have at least 400 riders, this a big target but we have laid down an extensive action plan and the whole team is focused at achieving this target,” Bayingana concluded.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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