The fairytale recovery and rise of Rwanda cycling from Genocide devastation

Adrien Niyonshuti with Team Rwanda founder Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer during the early days of the national cycling team. File.

The remarkable rise of Rwanda cycling in the last two decades is a fairytale story, especially putting into account how the sport was hugely devastated by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The Genocide claimed, among the over one million lives, a number of then-star cyclists, coaches and administrators of cycling, which left the sport in ashes with almost nothing to start over with, and it was not until 2000 that the first amateur Tour du Rwanda was held.

The sport eventually returned to its feet and everyone involved had to do their very best to put Rwanda on the cycling map, a dream which – with no doubt – has been realised given the country’s status as one of Africa’s cycling heavyweights along with the likes of Eritrea, South Africa and Ethiopia.

Today, cycling is one of the Rwanda’s most popular sport and certainly the best performing discipline. Despite the various challenges it had to overcome along its renaissance journey, the sport was able to produce some of the most outstanding athletes the country has known.

Two-time Olympian Adrien Niyonshuti is one of them. The 32 year-old currently plies his trade with South African side Sampada Cycling Club. He holds the record of the first and only Rwandan rider to ever feature for a UCI World Tour Team – Dimension Data for Qhubeka.

At 16, Niyonshuti was given a second-hand bicycle by his uncle Emmanuel Turatsinze and just like any other boy of his age, he was elated but little did he know that this combination of small metallic cylinders would change his life and destiny to build a foundation of hope and healing for a nation grieving a million lives.

Exactly 10 years after the horrific killings, Niyonshuti took part in the Tour du Rwanda and finished seventh.

Two years later, in 2006, Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, the first American rider to compete at the prestigious Tour de France, was invited to Rwanda by his friend Tom Ritchey, an American bike frame builder/designer and founder of Ritchey Design, to organise a wooden classic.

Boyer was working in Rwanda on a project to import cargo bicycles for coffee farmers but later dedicated his life to cycling in Rwanda for 10 years, after he realised Rwanda had talents during bike races organised by Ritchey.

Niyonshuti, seen here during the 2018 African Continental Road Championships in Kigali, won the Tour du Rwanda 2008, the year before it turned international. File

While some cycling talents were Genocide survivors who were still experiencing difficulties as a result of slaughter, Boyer insists getting the riders motivated was never a problem.

“It was more challenging to teach them things they did not know. For all of them, the bike was their passion and it also helped them deal with the horrible past they all had experienced,” he told said.

“The challenges were mostly related to the lack of education and the ability to think critically. Being able to figure out race tactics, how to eat while riding, going fast downhill and things they had never experienced were difficult to teach,” he added.

Niyonshuti caught Boyer’s eye during the first Wooden Bike Classic who then took him to the Africa Continental Training Centre in South Africa where he was later offered a contract by Douglas Ryder, then Sports Director and Founder of UCI Continental Team MTN-Qhubeka, the biggest and most successful pro cycling team on the continent, which later turned into Dimension Data for Qhubeka.

As they say, the rest is history. Well, he was in good hands.

Niyonshuti would later enjoy a successful career. He became the first Rwandan cyclist to ride in the European professional peloton where he started his first UCI European road race in August 2009, representing his club at the 2009 Tour of Ireland.

He later qualified to represent Rwanda in mountain bike at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and then in road race at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

When Boyer assumed the role of coach for the Rwandan national cycling team, commonly known as Team Rwanda, Niyonshuti was his key man in Tour du Rwanda and other major races.

Niyonshuti had a dream to start the Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy (ANCA), which is based in his home town Rwamagana. The facility is used to equip and nurture young talents.

From the money he earned as a professional rider and donations from friends abroad, Niyonshuti managed to inspire riders across the country offering them with a platform to reach their full potential.

The centre brings together youth, mainly from Rwamagana and Kayonza, both districts in Eastern Rwanda, trains and pays school fees for them to go to school.

Niyonshuti, seen here during the 2018 African Continental Road Championships in Kigali, won the Tour du Rwanda 2008, the year before it turned international. File

Tour du Rwanda winners Valens Ndayisenga, Joseph Areruya as well as two-time national female champion Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu were mentored at ANCA. With her silver medal in Individual Time Trial, the latter made history at the 2016 African championships, in Morocco, when she became Rwanda’s first female rider to win a medal in any international competition.

Niyonshuti’s success on the international scene has inspired a generation of riders across the country and now riders like Areruya, Samuel Mugisha, Didier Munyaneza and Moise Mugisha believe that they can make it big on the international stage.

Despite having had a successful career, Italy-based Niyonshuti can’t forget his six brothers and up to 60 members of his extended family who were killed during the Genocide.

He survived after hiding between two mattresses for days before moving to the bush with his parents for a week with no food and water amidst the rainy season, but, he was alive, which was what mattered.

 “To be honest, it is hard to explain how I survived. It’s been 25 years, but some days – like during the commemoration period – it feels like it was yesterday,” says Niyonshuti.

Niyonshuti, who is regarded as the greatest cyclist Rwanda has ever known, still wonders where Rwanda would be today if RPF-Inkotanyi had not stopped the Genocide.

He was part of the five-member Team Rwanda that Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer started with in 2007, along with Abraham Ruhumuriza, Obed Ruvogera, Jean de Dieu ‘Rafiki’ Uwimana and Nathan Byukusenge.

The latter, who represented Rwanda at the 2016 Rio Olympics in mountain bike, has now embarked on a coaching career, and is currently the head coach for men’s junior national team and women’s national teams.

The riders’ beginning was a hustle but that it did not stop them from going forward until their contribution was made known in registering Tour du Rwanda as an international race and being incorporated into the International Cycling Union (UCI) Africa Tour calendar back in 2008.

Boyer is proud and trusts Team Rwanda ‘originals’ such as Niyonshuti, Byukusenge and Ruhumuriza can be vital for the growth and success of Rwanda cycling as they are vastly experienced and warns their contribution should not be overlooked.

“They have shared their experiences to the youth and helped them succeed to even higher levels than themselves. They are all aware of the challenges they faced, and understand how important teamwork is in cycling.” 

Ten years since Tour du Rwanda was held as an international race in 2009, the race has grown by leaps and bounds to attract a big number of professional riders from across the globe, and is regarded as the biggest cycling event on the continent.

In February this year, Tour du Rwanda marked its first edition as a UCI 2.1 category race, making it only the second race with that badge on the continent after Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. It also ended Rwandan riders’ five-year dominance, with Astana Pro Team’s Eritrean Merhawi Kudus taking the coveted yellow jersey.

With what started as a humble and undermined sport some fifteen years ago, the level and status of local riders has remarkably grown, and France-based Areruya is the reigning African Cyclist of the Year.

However, Boyer suggests more investments should be injected in youth if Rwanda can go all the way and challenge at the biggest cycling competitions across the globe.

“I think if Rwanda invests in its youth and women in cycling, it will continue to grow and become not only a cycling force in Africa but also a talent pool for European teams. It is critical now Rwanda works closely with its East African allies and cycling powerhouses Eritrea and Ethiopia to raise the level of cycling in each country.”

At the moment, the country has three cyclists featuring for different teams in Europe, with Areruya riding for UCI Continental Pro Team Delko–Marseille Provence, Jean Claude Uwizeye at Pays Olonne Cycliste Côte de Lumière, both in France, while Samuel Mugisha plies his trade with South Africa’s Italy-based Dimension Data for Qhubeka feeder team.

According to Aimable Bayingana, the president of Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), his institution and partners are committed to continue establishing talent detection programmes and, nurture and accompany them in their pursuit for professional cycling.

“The recovery of Rwanda cycling after the Genocide is a mesmerizing story,” a joyful Bayingana told this publication on Thursday.

Bayingana, 48, who is the Ferwacy head since 2007, further noted: “It has been a long journey to where we are today, and certainly there is a lot more work to do ahead. But, at least, we have all the basic necessities now, compared to when we started from scratch almost two decades ago.”

In the latest UCI rankings, Rwanda is fourth in Africa behind South Africa, Eritrea and Algeria, while Rwandan side Benediction Excel Energy top the club classification on the continent ahead of Algeria’s Sovac and ProTouch, of South Africa.

Through Ferwacy, Rwanda plans to bid for hosting the 2025 UCI World Road Championships, which would make it the first time that the world’s biggest cycling event comes to Africa.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

 

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