A week ago, 20-year old Valens Ndayisenga became the first Rwandan to win the Tour du Rwanda since its inception on the International Cycling Union (UCI) Africa Tour six years ago. He not only wrote his name in the history books but that of his teammates, coaching staff, federation and nation at large and laid a foundation for a bright future of cycling in Rwanda.
Times Sport reporter Usher Komugisha, caught up with the Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy) president Aimable Bayingana for a detailed account on the journey that has seen Rwanda stand out on the African continent and beyond as an emerging cycling nation.
Qn: Briefly take us through how you started out after being elected president of the Rwanda Cycling Federation in 2007.
A: We were elected into office in December 2007. When we started there was nothing. The federation did not even have an office, a computer or anything. It was like the federation did not exist before. There were no files or documents or even staff so it was more like creating a new federation.
There was Team Rwanda running independently that was led by Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer so there was no linkage between the federation and Team Rwanda management. So we got in touch with Jonathan and we told him that cycling as a sport will be under the direction of Rwanda Cycling Federation.
So we started to work together with the federation at the helm. He was happy to see things changing and in good hands. We started to work together to set up some programs to detect young talent because at that particular time we only had eight riders in the national team.
Across the country, there were some clubs that tried to organize themselves but I can say that we had only eight riders that we could say could represent the country.
We started to look at ways of providing clubs with bikes because there were no bikes. So we approached the Ministry of Sports and Culture (Minispoc) and we told them our problems and they agreed to give us an office and a computer. Some friends also gave us computers.
I remember, I think it was someone who gave us two computers. Minispoc then accepted to pay one staff then we started to make some contacts in Italy. Some friends of ours started to collect some bikes.
I remember, they sent us 50 used bikes in a container so we provided the bikes to the different clubs and the clubs started working with the talent identification program we made, we started to identify some talented riders.
We organized some races. I remember we organized the Kwita Izina cycling tour with the Rwanda Development Board and at the time it was on the International Cycling Union (UCI) calendar. It helped us to identify some riders like Janvier Hadi, Jean Bosco Nsengimana and Gasore Hategeka.
We continued with our program of identifying talent across the country and then after we identified Bonaventure Uwizeyimana and Valens Ndayisenga and many, many riders that are not in the national team. Some gave up and some are now rising on the African continent.
Qn: Cycling is a common means of transport in Africa, how did this help you to recruit riders?
A: You know, by the time we started to travel to represent Rwanda with the riders we had, like Adrien Niyonshuti and Abraham Ruhumuriza, so young people started to see that this sport can give someone some means of living.
So they started to practice because they noticed that those riders when they go abroad they return with some money and whenever we organized races, we gave them cash prizes.
And because of this, many young people started following them to see if they can also do what they were doing. It is from then that some awareness was created.
Qn: What was your strategy to increase the number of clubs across the country?
A: We actually had clubs in Kigali but they were inactive and it was the ones upcountry like Benediction and Rwamagana that were very active.
It was these clubs that implemented our talent identification plans and gave out bikes to the riders and started training and following up on the riders. That is why most of the young riders come from Rubavu, Nyabihu and Rwamagana. The other clubs did not make a lot of efforts to detect young riders.
Qn: What did Ferwacy do about increasing the technical capacity across the country?
A: We came up with programs and UCI helped us to train coaches. We have some coaches who went to Switzerland but we also had coaching programs here because UCI sent us specialists to coach people here.
We also did coaching for mechanics. We took all these aspects together and we started to build on them because you cannot have cycling without coaching, masseurs and mechanics. Those are very important.
Qn: Tell us about the transition of former riders to mechanics and masseurs and the role it has had in your success story.
A: They are among the pioneers of the national team, the eight I was telling you about earlier who started with Jonathan. We could not let them go away without utilising them in one way or another.
When riders get older, we have to keep them close because we still need specialists in different areas like in the mechanics and masseurs departments.
So we sent them abroad for training for example Obed Ruvogera was sent to the USA to learn everything about a massage specifically a cycling massage and we sent ‘Rafiki’ Uwimana to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland to learn how to be a good mechanic.
We plan to continue doing this with other retired riders who are disciplined. We shall train them to do something else that will help them to continue their involvement in cycling.
Qn: Cycling in Rwanda now has a home, a high performance centre. How did you come up with this idea and why?
A: The idea originally was Jonathan’s who alongside Kimberly Coats (director of logistics and marketing for Team Rwanda) were renting two houses in Musanze where the riders would camp and train.
So in partnership with Minispoc and with help from UCI, we decided to build the Africa Rising Cycling Centre. In this region, it is the only high performance specialized centre.
When the riders are in Musanze, there are no disruptions and they can train everyday at the centre which is fully equipped with a garage, kitchen and experts in coaching, mechanics and every other detail is taken care of.
So we were not only thinking to train Rwandans but also to pass on our experience to our neighbours. Other riders from across Africa can come to the centre and use our resources for a small fee ($30 per day).
As you know, Musanze is a tourist hub in Rwanda. Many tourists like to ride bikes to see mountains and lakes so the idea was to benefit from this tourist area and to also invite other countries that will come to use the centre and pay for it. That idea was basically to help us raise funds and also to people who want to hire bikes.
Qn: What does it take for someone to rent a bike?
A: We are yet to start properly. Maybe now some can come and rent a bike but the project has not started very well. We still need some infrastructure; we are still building some stores. To be very effective, we are not yet there. So maybe they can rent some bikes but we are yet to start.
We are going to work hand in hand with Rwanda Development Board (RDB) because it is Cyclo-tourism, a new product of tourism and we are still coming up with the circuit which the tourists can use. Someone can ride maybe for 30 minutes, an hour, two or three hours depending on what they want.
Some people are not as strong as others. So we are still studying all those aspects so that we can start to make serious marketing plans for this new cycling product of course with RDB involved.
Qn: There is a growing trend of riders training abroad, how important has this been to the growth of cycling in Rwanda?
A: Everything has to have a start. I think as I told you earlier, before 2007 or 2006 when Jock came, it was more like cycling was non-existent in this country. Everything has a start.
So I was telling people who were asking me, ‘why are you not winning the Tour du Rwanda? This is the sixth edition.’ I asked them, I win from where? Let me lay a foundation then we shall start winning.
Those people started many, many, many years ago before us! The Moroccan cycling federation was formed in 1912 so they have been in existence for 102 years! The first Eritrean to go to the Olympics participated at the 1954 in Melbourne, Australia. It was Italians who introduced cycling in Eritrea.
We opted to put the Tour du Rwanda on the UCI calendar so that we could compete against the best riders in Africa and some from Europe, North America, Oceania and Asia.
We could have opted to invite only those countries that we know we can defeat but no, we did not do that because we wanted to learn from those that are stronger than us so you cannot ask us to win an international cycling race with people who did not have experience.
We opted to compete with people who are stronger than us so that we learn from them and that was our choice.
That was our vision. Our cycling does not have a long history. It is now that we are writing the history of our cycling.
We have been able to send riders across the world for training like Valens Ndayisenga and Jean Bosco Nsengiyumva got scholarships to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland and Bonaventure Uwizeyimana trained with team Vendée U, feeder side of Team Europcar in France.
Janvier Hadi was invited as a guest rider at this year’s Tour of Alberta to join Team Garneau-Quebecor and Patrick Byukusenge also got an opportunity to train at the Africa Continental Centre in South Africa and of course Adrien Niyonshuti is still riding for MTN Qhubeka in South Africa and now he is competing in Europe.
This has given the riders a lot of experience and exposure
Qn: How have you managed to attract sponsorship here in Rwanda and internationally?
A: First of all, sponsors are business people, so if you want to attract a sponsor you will show them the exposure that they will get in return of their investment so it is this visibility that will help him to decide whether he will come on board or not.
With sponsors, cycling is known as the most exposing sport. If you prepare it well as we have prepared Tour du Rwanda, you can see that there is no other sport that can bring in more sponsorship.
This is because Tour du Rwanda goes across the country and that way the sponsors get visibility. That is how we work.
We tell them the money they can bring and we give them assurances that for example this is the visibility you will get on the finish line or from a point to another. It is how this sport is conceived that attracts sponsors.
We also have international sponsors like Louis Garneau in Canada, Sidi for the riders’ shoes and Reynolds for tyres.
However, they did not know that somewhere in Africa there is cycling. We went to Interbike, the biggest saloon of bikes and everything that relates to the bike in the world and it is in Las Vegas, USA.
It is Jonathan who started contacting them because he is famous. You know he was the first American to ride in the Tour de France and he met so many people that he knew when he was still a cyclist. The relationship started like that.
He went to many stands telling people that he was promoting cycling in Rwanda and they said they would help him. It started like that. (laughs)
Qn: After the Tour du Rwanda, Ferwacy announced that all the riders from the three teams (15 riders) will share the money equally amongst themselves, why?
A: The slogan for Team Rwanda Cycling is ‘Team is Team’. They ride as a team. That is what I was telling people that you cannot build up a team in less than 10 years and say that ‘I will win an international cycling race’.
It is a process to see how we achieved the success of winning this year’s Tour du Rwanda.
There was a big improvement in our performance, how they were riding, it was strategic, how they led the race.
After achieving this, we shall now continue to improve and go ahead. It is a good thing and they are a team.
In the past, they were riding individually and not as a team but this has changed because of the many training sessions they have had outside Rwanda. Now they understand what it means to ride as a team. They returned home with new ideas on how they should ride as a team and that is very important.
Qn: Finally, what was the role of Adrien Niyonshuti’s participation at the London 2012 Olympics?
A: First of all, Adrien Niyonshuti became the first Rwandan mountain biker to actually qualify to the Summer Olympics. He came fourth at the Africa cycling continental championships.
It was the first time that people got to know that Rwanda is a cycling nation. It was good and another achievement for us and that was in 2012.
It inspired many of the young riders and last year for the first time we participated in the UCI World Championships and we also won our first medal at the Africa cycling championships in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
This year for the first time ever we competed at the UCI U-23 World Championships in Ponferrada, Spain and we also competed at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland this August.
So you can see that everything we were doing was for the first time. This shows you that our cycling is still young and that is how it is continuing to amaze people because they did not know Rwanda as a cycling nation.
Qn: World over, people know Rwanda for the dark history that is the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, how has cycling helped to change this image?
A: This was one of our objectives when we started to present a country that is not related to killings and bloodshed.
In 2009, when the Tour du Rwanda joined the UCI calendar, that was among our objectives to change the image of Rwanda, to make people see that Rwanda is a country of good roads, good hotels and beautiful hills.
I remember one journalist from the BBC said, “This country is not just Rwanda, it is Rwandaful.” This is because the image they had was a bad image.
So with the Tour du Rwanda, they moved from one town to another for an entire week touring the country, so it enabled them to see the country and to know it and when they go back home they can tell people about it.
Now they fight with their colleagues to come and cover the Tour du Rwanda every year because they love Rwanda.
Qn: Thank you so much for giving us this wonderful insight on your journey to success. We wish you the best of luck in the future as you continue to seek unlimited success in Africa and beyond.
A: You are welcome. Thank you too.