Cycling has grown from scratch to become the country’s best performing and most celebrated sport, at least for the last five years. Cycling has overtaken football as the country’s most popular sport. There are calls to make cycling the country’s first priority in sports.
The fast-rise to the top is no coincidence; it was thanks to great efforts from Rwanda Cycling Federation and strong commitment to advancing cycling from American-born Good Samaritan Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, who initiated Africa Rising Cycling Centre – ARCC in Musanze district.
Not only did former Tour de France rider Boyer establish ARCC, he also played a pivotal role in putting in place the national cycling team, which was later named Team Rwanda Cycling.
The original team of five pioneers included; Abraham Ruhumuriza, Nyandwi Uwase, Rafiki Uwimana, Obed Ruvogera and Nicodem Habiyambere.
Over the years as Jock realized how much cycling talent there was in Rwanda, a new generation of cyclists emerged, celebrated veteran riders such as Adrien Niyonshuti and Nathan Byukusenge came up and went on to represent the country in several international competitions, including the 2010 and 2016 Olympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.
Since turning international in 2009, no Rwandan cyclist was able to win Tour du Rwanda until Valens Ndayisenga in 2014.
Ever since, no foreign rider has been able to defy the home boys for the highly coveted title. Jean Bosco Nsengimana claimed it in 2015, Ndayisenga won it for a second time in 2016 and Africa’s top-rated Joseph Areruya clinched it last November.
While Areruya is only 21 and already has the continent on his feet, he is not in a generation of his own—he comes from a new wave of charismatic youngsters who are determined to fly high the Rwandan flag and take Rwandan cycling to a whole new level, in Africa and beyond.
Today, Saturday Sport profiles Didier Munyaneza, 20-year old youngster and already Team Rwanda’s shining star.
The young rider has been nicknamed “Mbappe” by local media for the energy he rides with and fast-rising to the top at a young age, just like French football international Kylian Mbappe, who plays for Paris-Saint-Germain.
Who is Munyaneza?
Born to Patrice Havugimana and Viridiana Uwizeyimana (RIP) on January 1, 1998 in Nyabihu district, Northern Province, Munyaneza is the last born in a family of six (six girls and two boys). He is the only professional cyclist in the family.
He attended Groupe Scolaire Kora before continuing his ordinary level studies at the same school. However, life got tougher after the passing of his elder brother and he was forced to dropout from school while in senior one, in 2012 and ventured into riding a bicycle as business for survival.
Since childhood, Munyaneza and his family have been neighbours with former national cycling team captain Janvier Hadi and former national champion Gasore Hategeka.
After he dropped out of school, the two cyclists helped him to take on professional cycling as a sport.
Described by his coaches and teammates as talented, open to learning new things and a humble boy, Munyaneza formally joined cycling as a sport in 2013.
After one year, what the future held for him in cycling still looked unclear and he gave up, and went back to transporting people on a bicycle for money.
“It was a tough time, probably my worst dilemma to date. I would train in cycling and return home only to starve. After one year, I felt I could not do it any longer.
“I stopped but Hadi and Gasore kept encouraging me to come back, which I did in June 2015,” Munyaneza recalls his early days in cycling.
After returning, he regularly received kits from Hadi and Gasore, two riders who played a pivotal role in his integration into Rubavu-based Benediction Cycling Club. He raced in his first competitive event in January 2016 from Kigali to Musanze where he was among the last finishers, but at least he finished.
Munyaneza was a part-time cyclist as a sport and after, he would go back to transporting people to sustain himself in case cycling as a career did not work out. In June 2016, he decided to sell his bicycle and solely concentrate on professional cycling.
He admits that, “It was a hard decision to make, and I only gave it three months. I said to myself if it did not work out I would once and for all give up on cycling and do something else, which was most probably to be a street boy since I had sold my bicycle.”
National championship 2016, way up
After a few months of hard work, Munyaneza competed in the National Road Championship and defied odds to finish second behind the winner, Bonaventure Uwizeyimana.
“After the national championship, everyone was amazed. I was equally shocked. Stunning stronger and more experienced riders to finish second came as a surprise, but, it was also a starting point to believe in myself. Ever since, I never looked back or doubted myself,” he explained.
After several impressive performances in different competitions, local and international, Munyaneza made his Tour du Rwanda debut last November where he finished in the 8th place in general classification.
Major international events
In a space of just 12 months, Munyaneza has represented the country in more highly-rated cycling events than most senior cyclists.
The latest came last month in African Continental Road Championship staged in Kigali where he scooped bronze in the U23 category, and 9th overall in the elite men’s road race.
In March 2017, Munyaneza and fellow youngster Jean Eric Habimana travelled to South Africa for a specialised training camp in Track Cycling (indoor cycling) where they also both competed in African Continental Track Championships 2017.
In April 2017, he made his debut in Tour of Eritrea but abandoned the race mid-way due to illness.
Three months later, Munyaneza was part of the team that travelled to the United States for two races, Cascade Cycling Race in July before taking part in the highly rated 2.HC UCI Colorado Classic race. He was one of Rwanda’s top performers in both competitions.
Earlier this year, Munyaneza made his debut at the Africa’s biggest cycling event, La Tropicale Amissa Bongo where, after Valens Ndayisenga and Bonaventure Uwizeyimana crashed out in stage four, he helped teammate Areruya to win the 7-stage prestigious race.
A few weeks later, the fast-rising cycling star helped Areruya to win the inaugural UCI Africa Tour de l’Espoir in Yaoundé – Cameroon, a race reserved for Under-23 national teams.
Team Rwanda finished top to qualify for this year’s Tour de l’Avenir scheduled to take place in August, in France. Tour de l’Avenir is described as the junior version of the famous Tour de France.
Idols and hope for the future
Asked who his idol(s) in cycling is (are), Munyaneza responded, “Right now the people I want to reach their level are; Niyonshuti, and Areruya. After I achieve that, then I can think of aiming higher.”
Born and raised in Nyabihu district, Munyaneza says he wants to keep working hard and stay focused so he can get a professional team, preferably in Europe.
Call for action
“There is so much cycling talent in Rwanda as a gifted hilly country; unfortunately youngsters lack mentors and equipment to realize their dreams.
Our cycling clubs have an average of 20 riders while they would ideally have over 100. A lot has been done, but, there is still a lot more to do for Rwanda Cycling Federation and partners,” the youngster noted.