Rwanda finds sporting niche in cycling

20-year-old Rwandan rider Samuel Mugisha celebrates on crossing the finish line outside Kigali Stadium in Nyamirambo. File.

Samuel Mugisha, a twenty-year old Rwandan won the Tour du Rwanda cycling championship that ended on Sunday. He follows a growing list of Rwandan winners of the event going back to 2014. The other winners are Joseph Areruya, Adrien Niyonshuti, Valens Ndayisenga and Jean Bosco Nsengimana.

In a way Rwandans are making Tour du Rwanda their own special event.

The success of Rwandan riders is not limited to this premier national event. Areruya has in the past won the Tropicale Amissa in Gabon and the Tour de l’Espoir in Cameroon.

Cycling has become truly a national sport, with Rwandans across the country taking to it like no other new sport. It has a massive following in every part of the country, urban and rural. Huge crowds gather along the route of the race to cheer the riders on.

There are a number of reasons for cycling being very popular and for its adoption as a national sport.

One reason is perhaps because it is a free spectacle—you don’t have to pay to watch.

A second is that riding is something most people can easily identify with. They do it all the time, and the riders are ordinary people from among them.

Spectators have become very knowledgeable about the sport. That does not come as a surprise because they follow it keenly. You hear them discuss tactics. They will talk about why so and so who had been expected to do well did not. They will say he attacked the race too early and burned out. Or that he got isolated from his team and so lacked tactical support. They know who will do well when climbing our hills or who will speed downhill, and the advantages each brings to the race.

True, all sports excite animated conversation among the fans, and everyone seems to be an authority. But this is usually among the urban fans who frequent tournaments, not rural folk who experience cycling once a year. That they have become some sort of experts is testament to the popularity of cycling.

Thirdly, the cycling federation is largely free of corruption, which is the scourge of a number of sports federations. It has largely escaped mismanagement and administrative wrangles, theft of funds or outright neglect we notice in other sports. 

For the moment cycling in Rwanda has not suffered from limited ambition and lack of personal or team discipline. It is still free from the stardom syndrome. Stardom, even if only just a possibility, has sometimes gone to the heads of sports people and blunted their performance.

Lovers of the sport pray it remains this way, safe from the ills afflicting some other sports associations in the country.

Again, this country’s terrain is singularly suited to cycling. The steep hills and winding roads, and corresponding descents, and long stretches of flat plains provide a unique variety of racing landscape that present opportunities for riders with different abilities. Obviously growing up in such varied terrain and practicing on it should give Rwandans some advantage, which they have taken so far.

Now, that is not to say that Rwandan riders can count on the terrain to win races. Cycling is more than that. It is not about getting on a bicycle and pedalling away, climbing hills and hurtling downhill at breakneck speed. As we have observed since Tour du Rwanda started attracting professional riders from other countries, it involves planning and strategy, tactics and teamwork, and, of course, individual skills. It requires stamina, perseverance and discipline.

Rwandan riders are doing well in cycling, especially in the Tour du Rwanda. But they need to succeed even beyond our borders. Indeed some have already done so. To sustain this level of success and even raise it to a higher level will require a lot of investment in the sport.

There must be a system of spotting talent early and providing competitive training facilities to match those of the more successful sporting nations. Cyclists must be exposed to more and varied competition in order to hone their skills and test themselves against the best.

Investment in sports, however, should not be left to Government alone. The private sector also should, either as part of their corporate social responsibility or even marketing. They can only gain.

In the meantime, we want to see more success in the different sports, and indeed other aspects of national life.

It has become clear that Rwandans are not satisfied with being less than the best. They are competitive and love to win and must excel. This is the mentality that has brought the country to its present level. It can still take it higher and farther.

@jrwagatare

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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