The name Jeanne D'Arc Girubuntu is synonymous with women’s cycling in Rwanda and rightly so as she is the only well-known female rider in the country.
She competed at the very highest level on the continent and at the World Championships.
Unlike men’s cycling where we have had several home-grown prominent riders such as veteran Abraham Ruhumuriza and the country’s only UCI World Tour cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti, there was nothing much to talk about female cycling until the rise to stardom of Girubuntu early last year.
There is no doubt that Girubuntu is currently Rwanda’s leading sportswoman and is even in a good position to become the best the country has ever produced should she keep her steady progress.
On her way up to the top, Girubuntu has had challenges and obstacles to overcome but has also had helpful and supportive people around her, who have kept her going. She sat down with Saturday Sport’s RICHARD BISHUMBA and spoke about her ambitions to fly the country’s flag high on the international stage.
Who is Girubuntu?
Born to Venant Gashagaza and Patricia Mukarunaya on May 6, 1995 in Rwamagana District, Eastern Province, Girubuntu is the fourth born in a family of six – four boys and two girls.
She attended Rwamagana-based Ntsinda Primary School before going to Groupe Scolaire Kabare for both her Ordinary Level (O’ Level) and Advanced Level (A’ Level) until February 2015 when she dropped out to concentrate on her cycling career. By then she was in Senior Five, pursuing a certificate in tourism.
“I was very fine at school and all was going very okay but I had to drop out. I travelled a lot in 2015, I could not handle cycling and studies simultaneously, I will go back to school when the right time comes, studying never ends,” Girubuntu told Saturday Sport.
Only last year, the 20-year old spent six months at a UCI Center training camp in Switzerland, competed at the Africa Continental Road Championship in South Africa and All Africa Games in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) as well as UCI World Road Championships in Richmond, United States.
Prior to committing herself to cycling in 2013, Girubuntu was a football and volleyball player for her school teams until she took interest in cycling as a professional sport.
She says her interest in cycling started back in 2009 when she heard of Tour du Rwanda for the first time, having watched the competition stage from Kigali to Nyagatare and heard everyone chanting Adrien Niyonshuti’s name, who is also a native of Rwamagana.
Since 2009, Girubuntu started doing research on Rwandan cycling and how she can possibly join the sport. Four years ago someone directed her to Diane Uwineza, a former cyclist.
She approached her seeking advice, and Uwineza did not only do that but also connected her to Rwamagana-based Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy. There, Girubuntu, then a 17-year girl, was received with open arms.
“Actually, it didn’t take me very long to adapt and learn all the basics, thanks to John Rugambwa, head coach at the training center,” she recalls.
Girubuntu started competitive cycling in 2014 and, on her debut, she emerged champion in both Individual Time Trial and Road Race, which propelled her to the national limelight.
But it was only the beginning of what is increasingly shaping as a successful career of a Rwandan girl, who only two years ago, so little, if any, was known about her.
Rise to fame
After impressing Rwanda Cycling Federation (FERWACY), Girubuntu was admitted to Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) in Musanze in late 2014, effectively becoming the first and hitherto only female to join Team Rwanda Cycling.
“It was very challenging at the beginning, being the only girl at the centre and doing exactly the same training as men, was not easy. But again I realised it was helping me grow very fast and I had to blend in very quickly,” Girubuntu recalls with a shy smile.
Few months after joining ARCC and making a good impression on the center’s trainers, including technical director Jonathan Boyer, Girubuntu was named among Team Rwanda riders at the 2015 Africa Continental Road Championship in South Africa, her first international competition.
At the African Championships held in February 2015, Girubuntu finished sixth in Individual Time Trial (ITT), 3 minutes behind gold medal winner, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of South Africa, and 19 seconds behind bronze medalist Aurelia Halbwachs of Mauritius, who used 41 minutes and 4 seconds in a distance of 24km.
Having previously had a month-long training camp at the World Cycling Center (WCC) in Potchefstroom, South Africa, due to her strong performance in African Championships, Girubuntu was invited to train at the UCI World Cycling Center in Aigle, Switzerland (May-August).
That made her the first Rwandan female rider to train at the world’s best cycling center and the 1000th trainee to be hosted at the center.
After four months of training with WCC professional technicians, including world class Jean-Jacques Henry, in Switzerland, Girubuntu returned to the country to prepare for the All Africa Games in Congo-Brazzaville and UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, US.
In Brazzaville, she missed the podium by microsecond in Women’s ITT and says it is her saddest moment in her professional cycling career thus far.
“Missing out on medals in Congo by microseconds was heartbreaking and, at some point, I had even an inner thought that maybe cycling is not meant for me and I am just forcing myself. Later after calming down, I realised finishing fourth was not a bad performance for a debutant,” she says.
From Brazzaville, she headed to United States for the UCI World Championships in Richmond where she competed both in Individual Time Trial and Women’s Road race, becoming Rwanda’s first woman rider in World Championships and the first female black African to race in Women’s ITT at the competition.
She finished 44th in ITT and second last (87th) in the main road race. “I can’t say I performed well, but I don’t think there is anything I could have done better either. It was my first year on the international scene, it was mainly for learning and gaining experience, I am very sure I am a better rider today than I was last year.”
Recently, the 20-year old Girubuntu stepped up to win silver medal at this year’s Continental Road Championship in Morocco, a historic first medal by a woman cyclist in African Championships. She also finished 13th in road race.
“I regard my performance in Morocco as the best in my career so far, seeing myself on the podium and my country’s flag flying high was the greatest feeling for me.”
Despite having already made records at the age of 20, being leagues ahead of any local or regional female cyclist, Girubuntu is optimistic and eager to learn more, and believes she will get a professional cycling team in not so distant future.
She notes, “I still have a lot of work to do, to be a top cyclist in professional cycling requires a lot but I am ready for it. 2015 was a groundbreaking year for me, I want to be a professional cyclist and ride for a Pro Team, and I also want to be part of the development of female cycling in Rwanda.”
According to reliable sources at the Africa Rising Cycling Center and FERWACY, Girubuntu has been invited by International Cycling Union (UCI) for the second training stint in Aigle, Switzerland.
According to ARCC head technician, Boyer, already a couple of professional cycling teams in France and United States have shown interest in signing the youngster.
What does Boyer say about her?
The American-born trainer has been training Girubuntu ever since she joined ARSS and has seen her grow and make tremendous progress. He is one of the people best placed to give a verdict on her standing in the sport.
“Girubuntu is an exceptionally talented young woman, she just gets stronger every year, we are looking forward to a lot of very good results from here in the future,” Boyer told Saturday Sport.
The former US national team rider and first American to win a stage in Tour de France, Boyer also revealed that ARSS and FERWACY are working together on plans to start organising female-only cycling competitions as a way of detecting young female talent.
Word from Kimberly
Kimberly Coats is the Logistics and Marketing Manager at the Musanze-based ARCC; she is also a close friend to Girubuntu at the center, perhaps because she is the only other woman at the center.
“We just started to scratch the surface with her potential; she has got a really long career ahead of her, she is only 20, turning 21 in May. She has the ability to race professionally in Europe or America, I believe in one or two years, she will be a member of a professional team out there,” Kimberly said.
Asked about what she thinks is Girubuntu’s strongest point and weakness, Kimberly said, “Her strongest point is that she is just really strong, she can ride with men and does the same training as them while her weakness is lack of experience, but the more races she participates in, the more experience she will gain.”
Girubuntu says she has met a lot of people along her short cycling journey that helped her to be where she is today. Among others, she singles out Diane Uwineza, John Rugambwa, Adrien Niyonshuti, Valens Ndayisenga, Jonathan Boyer, Kimberly Coats, FERWACY president Aimbale Bayingana and her parents.