The sport of cycling is fast becoming synonymous with Rwanda. The sport is increasingly getting popular in this famously hilly country.
According to the latest International Cycling Union (UCI) national ranking, Rwanda is sixth on the African continent only behind Eritrea, Morocco, South AfricaAlgeria and Ethiopia.
In East Africa, cycling is generally less developed.
In Rwanda, the sport is relatively popular in large part due to the famous Tour du Rwanda, an annual cycling competition that has taken place since 2001. In 2009, the race was incorporated into UCI Africa as a 2.2 category race.
By 2016, a total of 19 editions had been staged attracting riders from across the world.
In April this year, Rwanda Cycling Federation revealed to Times Sport in an exclusive interview that, effective 2019, Tour du Rwanda will be upgraded from a 2.2 to 2.1 road race category.
That will make the annual cycling competition the second biggest tour on the continent after the Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo.
According to Aimable Bayingana, the president of Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), the plan is to make Tour du Rwanda the best race on the African continent by 2020 and one of the best cycling races in the world.
But what exactly is the origin of Tour du Rwanda?
SATURDAY SPORT’S GEOFFREY ASIIMWE recently put this question, among others, to JEAN SAUVEUR NTIYAMIRA, a Tour du Rwanda commissioner, who has closely followed Rwanda cycling since 1984.
He explained the origins of cycling in Rwanda and how Tour du Rwanda has evolved over the years.
The roots of cycling in Rwanda can be traced way back to 1970’s, Ntiyamira said. In 1978, the then Ministry of Sports organised the first cycling race around Kigali and subsequently elsewhere in the country.
“The first competitions were organised by the Ministry in charge of Sports and I remember the races used to be sponsored by Lottery Rwanda,” he recalls.
The first race started from Kigali to Rusumo (in Kirehe District, Eastern Province) covering a total of 152.8 kilomtres and then back to Kigali, a stage that would last five days, according to Ntiyamira.
The riders would have a night stopover at Rwamagana and Ngoma before reaching Rusumo and then back to Kigali.
“These stopovers were mainly because of the conditions that riders were racing in which were not good and the bikes were the usual ordinary bicycles which could not complete the race in one day,” he said.
Later, several cycling competitions were held around the country, including Tour du Kigali, Tour de l’Est (Kigali-Rwamagana), Ascension des Milles Collines (Kigali-Butare-Akanyaru) and Tour des Volcans (Cyanika-Ruhengeri-Gisenyi), which attracted various local cyclists.
Formation of clubs, Tour du Rwanda
In 1984, Tour du Kigali, that was organised 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.
With these competitions growing steadily and the emergence of clubs, some officials in charge of sports decided to organise a nationwide cycling competition bringing together ‘elite’ local cyclists.
In 1988, the cycling event went regional attracting riders from Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), Burundi, and Kenya; hence the birth of Tour du Rwanda.
According to Ntiyamira, Tour du Rwanda had six stages that were consistent in routes and the first stage would start at Kamembe (Rusizi town) through Nyungwe forest with the finish line in Huye town (then Butare) covering a distance of 140.7 kilometers.
This was the toughest race and its winner was always the favourite the win the whole tour,” he added.
The second stage would start from Akanyaru at the Rwandan border with Burundi and finish at Stade de Kigali in Nyamirambo, Kigali, covering about 131.2 kilometres.
The third stage would start from Kigali and end in Gisenyi town (now Rubavu), a distance of 144 kilometres, while the fourth would start from Gisenyi and end in Kigali.
The fifth stage would start from Kigali to Ngoma, a 124.8km distance, and the final stage from Kirehe and end in Kigali, covering a distance of 143.6 kilometers.
In1988. Célestin Ndengeyingoma became the first winner of Tour du Rwanda, while Omar Masumbuko won the second edition in 1989, with Faustin Mparabanyi winning the third in 1990.
“People had started to fall in love with the sport, Tour du Rwanda was being aired live on Radio Rwanda.”
Mparabanyi, currently a commissioner for Tour du Rwanda, holds the record of the first Rwandan rider who competed in the Olympic Games when he competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona-Catalonia, Spain.
With the deteriorating political system in the country that eventually culminated into the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Tour du Rwanda was not organised between 1991 to 2000.
“The Genocide against the Tutsi devastated everything and killed many popular riders such as Ndengeyingoma; and it took nine years for the race to return,” he recalled.
When Tour du Rwanda returned in 2001, Bernard Nsengiyumva won the fourth edition, setting the record of the oldest rider to have won the race. He was 51, Ntiyamira recalls.
From 2002 to 2005, now retired cyclist Abraham Ruhumuriza was the king of the race, winning it four consecutive times.
In 2006, Kenyan Peter Kamau became the first foreign rider to it win before Ruhumuriza reclaimed it in 2007 to set the record of most individual wins in the race’s history. Adrien Niyonshuti won the 2008 edition.
In 2009 following the arrival to Rwanda of Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, a former US professional cyclist and his wife Kimberly Coats, Rwanda cycling dramatically changed.
The 61-year-old first arrived in the country in 2006, and, a year later, with support from the President’s Office, he started the ‘Team Rwanda’ project whose objective was to turn Rwanda into a cycling powerhouse.
Boyer joined hands with the Ministry of Sports and Culture and, in 2009, Tour du Rwanda was registered as a UCI Africa Tour (category 2.2) and has since grown by leaps and bounds.
The race has also produced some elite riders, including; Adrien Niyonshuti, the first Rwandan professional cyclist, who’s currently riding for UCI World Tour Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka of South Africa.
Others include Valens Ndayisenga, who became the first rider to win Tour du Rwanda after incorporation in UCI Africa Tour more than once (in 2014 and 2016), and Janvier Hadi (now retired), who won the 2015 All African Games road race gold medal in the Republic of Congo, among others.
Ferwacy says that the plan is to turn Tour du Rwanda into a 2.1 road race (from the 2.2 race it is today) by 2019.
To meet the rigorous UCI requirements and regulations for a road race to be considered a 2.1 race category, Ferwacy had several challenges to fix including changing the timing of the competition to allow for pro-teams to participate, and increasing the prize money.
Normally, Tour du Rwanda is held in November when most World Tour Teams are in summer break. While unveiling the 2017 Tour du Rwanda roadmap recently, Bayingana said the two issues had since been sorted out and everything was in place to ensure that 2019 ushers in a new era for the Rwandan cycling flagship race.
This year’s race will be the last to be held in November, he said. The 2018 edition is scheduled August 26 to September 2 to allow Ferwacy ample time to prepare for the 2019 edition, which is scheduled to run from February 24 through March 3.
The Ferwacy head said: “We believe that, depending on its organization and participation, Tour du Rwanda will soon become the most famous, toughest and competitive cycling race in Africa.”
According to UCI regulations, for a road race to be considered a 2.1 race category, it has to attract a certain number of UCI World Tour Teams, UCI Professional Continental teams as well as national teams.
During last year’s edition, the total prize money was US$23,860 (about Rwf19.7 million) and, according to Bayingana, this will increase at least five-fold in 2019.
This year’s edition is scheduled to start on November 12 and run until November 19.Follow https://twitter.com/jeffasiimwe92