It all started around 2008 when one Jock Boyer – a former American cycling star – realised how much cycling talent there was in Rwanda that he thought about nurturing the next generation of local riders. Officials would later discover the potential this sport has in the country. And the federation was quickly established, from scratch. Fast forward to 2018, cycling has become the most prized sporting discipline in Rwanda with local riders claiming their place in continental elite races and the country’s popular annual race, Tour du Rwanda. The New Times’ Athan Tashobya sat down with Rwanda Cycling Federation president, Aimable Bayingana, to discuss the journey of cycling in Rwanda, the upcoming UCI African Road Race Championship that starts tomorrow, challenges and the way forward.
Cycling is fast becoming the most popular sporting discipline in Rwanda. How has been the journey like getting here?
It has been a great experience but not short of challenges. 10 years of hard work, resilience and some valuable lessons.
The journey of cycling in Rwanda started in 2008 when Rwandan Cycling Federation was established. We started from zero literally; without an office, no riders, no coaches let alone having professional bikes – because those are very expensive.
But there was passion for cycling within us at the federation and, of course, very inspiring political will which has got us where we are today.
Jock Boyer had initially set up a cycling academy in Musanze and our job was to try and consolidate our effort to make the sport more professional.
There were challenges of trying to make riders focused and professional, trying to change the mindset here and there but everyone involved at the managerial level was passionate about this sport and it wasn’t so long before we started seeing some positive attitude.
Tour du Rwanda was initially a local race and was not recognised by the International Cycling Union (UCI) and we had to register it and got the confirmation in 2009. That’s when Tour du Rwanda became internationally recognised bringing in regional cyclists too who swept everything for about five years without having a Rwandan rider coming close.
But our target was to make our local tour a learning experience for our riders and the lessons were not in vain.
From the beginning, South African, Moroccan and Eritrean and other international riders would sweep all the medals but our riders never gave up until 2014 when Valens Ndayisenga became the first Rwandan to win Tour du Rwanda since it was recorded as part of UCI African road race tour.
We have never looked back since that time. Jean Bosco Nsengimana won it in 2015, Ndayisenga won it again in 2016 and Joseph Areruya won it last year.
In 2015 Team Rwanda’s cyclist Janvier Hadi clinched gold medal in 150km men’s race at the All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. This year, Areruya again won two major international races; La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon and then the inaugural Under-23 UCI Tour de l’Espoir on the African soil.
There is still a lot to do and we are still growing so to speak.
Many observers say cycling is making other sports discipline look out of place. What do you do differently that others can learn from you?
I really don’t know what happens in other federations and I think it is unfair to judge what is happening in other federations because we have different tasks. But to answer your question, from the beginning I knew the potential of cycling in Rwanda because of our terrain as a country and of course following Tour de France regularly gave me an impression that the sport would be a success in Rwanda.
There was passion not only in some managers but also in veteran riders and we based on that to nurture a generation of future riders – which includes the crop of young professionals we have now such as Valens Ndayisenga, Joseph Areruya and the rest of the team – most of whom are below 24 years.
I think the future is way too bright for all these young riders.
Fresh from winning La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon to claiming the inaugural Under-23 UCI Tour de l’Espoir in Yaoundé, Cameroon. What is your team’s biggest target going forward?
Our team’s immediate focus is on the UCI Africa Road Championship starting on Tuesday (this week) through Sunday.
But our intention is to make sure that we become as professional as possible, in every way round; from management to the riders. We hope to host world Championship too in future because our “a thousand hills” make Rwanda tour one of the toughest in the world.
The tougher the race the bigger it becomes and our hills are sort of an advantage in that respect.
We are taking one step at a time but are very positive about the possibility of having our riders securing professional contracts and hopefully taking part in Tour de France. National Teams do not take part in Tour de France but professional teams and that is why we think it’s important to develop our young riders lead them to a point where these teams can come calling for their signatures.
From your conversation with the players, what do they say about the Tour de l’Avenir, the world’s top-rated U23 cycling?
Our boys want to win everything in their way. They know that good performance at Tour de l’Avenir will increase their chances of getting scouted for professional cycling teams and they are buzzing about that.
This is a race that has a number of professional riders from across the world and we have faith in our coaching team to prepare Team Rwanda very well to deliver.
You can see the pride on our riders’ eyes when they pull on the national colours and of course we can’t ignore the fact that that race also has bigger rewards in terms of money. Every team out there speaks highly about Rwanda cycling and our riders definitely want to perform very well at that level.
It will be the second time Rwanda is hosting UCI Africa Road Championship. How prepared are we in terms of hosting and the team?
We first hosted UCI Africa Road Championship in 2010 and having it again this year is something we are surely proud of.
Our team has been training hard and everything is in place to make this race a success. The advantage we have as a country is the goodwill from the government and somehow every citizen out there relates to the bicycle in one way or another which makes this game entertaining throughout the country.
You will see people lining up on the roadside and this gives our race more coverage.
Are we going to see more major international races in Rwanda?
Yes it is very possible. For instance Tour de l’Espoir is a privately organised race which takes place every after two years and we told organisers that we are interested in hosting the race. Hopefully, they will consider our request.
Cyclists are believed to not get the same amount of money in allowances as other sports personalities representing the country. What is your take on this?
I don’t know what other sports personalities receive in terms of allowances but I know what cyclists receive. And I remember the Ministry of Sports and Culture moving to consolidate the package given to sports personalities representing Rwanda.
For instance, when the team wins Tour du Rwanda every member gets Rwf3 million but I don’t know if the package goes up when they win an international race like La Tropicale Amissa Bongo or Tour de l’Espoir.
Recent media reports suggested that there is an issue of cyclists not getting their allowances for over a year. What is the matter?
The government committed to pay Tour du Rwanda allowances, we also asked for the package for those who took part in La Tropicale Amissa Bongo and we will soon request for Tour de l’Espoir package too because it has just ended.
They were promised to get Tour du Rwanda package but they haven’t received it. It is a process but, in principle, they will get it.
What is the future of Tour du Rwanda?
Initially the race was fully funded by the Government. Over 90 per cent of the funds would come from Government and it wasn’t much but we ensured it was well managed. Efficiency was key, and slowly we got sponsors coming on board who are now covering about 70 per cent of the budget for Tour du Rwanda.
Government has been really supportive and, of course, President Kagame’s contribution, including world class bikes, a car and permanent lease of the premises of Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC), home of Team Rwanda, in Musanze district have been a great boost to cycling sport in Rwanda.
Our target it to make Tour du Rwanda 100 per cent self-sustaining in terms of finances and then we can look up to government for other kind of support but not finances.
Starting next year Tour du Rwanda’s upgrading to 2.1 classification will enter into force making this race the biggest in Africa, alongside La Tropicale Amissa Bongo (Gabon).
What we stand to benefit in this is that we will have more professional teams and international media interested in taking part and, of course, more sponsors coming on board making the race more sustainable and better.
This will definitely improve our rankings and the rewards involved for the riders.
In March last year when you met with President Kagame together with Boyer and Sports Minister, you discussed a 10-year blue print that seeks to position Rwanda as a top cycling destination. Give us an insight into that project.
Basically, our goal is to make the federation self-sustaining. We also want to bring on board more international partners and promote cycling tourism, together with Rwanda Development Board, this is an ongoing project – where we can have professional bicycles that can be rented by tourists from our Musanze-based centre.
We hope that this will also promote cycling sport in the country and bring in revenues to buy more equipment for our players in the future.
We also want to engage grassroots leaders to organise local races and promote cycling from where we can base on to scout young and talented riders. There is still misjudgment on what cycling can offer for this country but I am sure that with full support from everyone this sport can raise the national flag higher than we could imagine.
The main challenges are the mindset and resources. People are still glued to traditionally popular games such as football and athletics, but cycling can deliver optimism to our country too. My plea to everyone is to join us on this journey to make Rwanda cycling a success in Africa and globally.