How high has the maiden 2.1 Tour du Rwanda set the bar for Rwandan riders?

Merhawi Kudus. Courtesy.

Rwandans and cycling fans across the country were in for a treat earlier this month as Tour du Rwanda marked 11 years since going international and its maiden edition as a UCI 2.1 category race.

The eight days of thrill – for spectators – and distress – for riders – cemented the race’s rightful status as the country’s biggest sporting event.

Tour du Rwanda has become Africa’s biggest and most followed cycling event despite being only 11 years old, and having been a 2.2 UCI Africa Tour race until last year.

Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo has been a 2.1 race since 2006, but it is yet to attract a UCI World Tour team after 13 editions staged so far.

Rwandan outfit Benediction Excel Energy finished sixth on the 16-team table at this year’s Tour du Rwanda. Courtesy.

Kazakhstan’s Astana Pro Team became the first UCI World Tour team to discover the terrain of the Land of a Thousand Hills, and the only team at such level to participate in any African race. And as anticipated, they lived up to their world tour eminence by winning the coveted yellow jersey courtesy of Eritrean cycling marvel Merhawi Kudus.

In the 16-team peloton of this year’s edition, there was also four UCI Continental Pro teams, five UCI continental teams – including Rwanda’s Benediction Excel Energy – and six national teams.

With the strong field of riders, it was certainly expected that this could mark the end of dominance for Rwandan riders since 2014, when a then-young and promising Valens Ndayisenga rose to stardom as he became the first home cyclist to win Tour du Rwanda since being incorporated into the UCI Africa Tour in 2009.

Joseph Areruya, who finished ninth in general classification, was the best Rwandan rider at this year’s Tour du Rwanda. Courtesy.

Ndayisenga’s victory opened the door for what would be five years of supremacy for the hosts as Rwandans won back-to-back the next four editions through Jean Bosco Nsengimana (2015), Ndayisenga (again in 2016), Joseph Areruya (2017) and Samuel Mugisha in 2018.

Despite the prior anticipation that the Rwandan affair could not be seen again this year, the least that was expected is a few stage wins from Rwandans, which didn’t happen.

During the eight days, from February 24 to March 3, millions of Rwandans lined the streets and storeyed hills chanting and cheering on their local heroes but hopes to see even a single stage win ended in vain.

Twelve Rwandan riders were part of the 78-man start-list, featuring in four different teams namely; Team Rwanda (5), Benediction Excel Energy (5), Dimension Data for Qhubeka continental team (Mugisha) and Delko Marseille Provence (Areruya).

Celebrated star Areruya, the 2018 African Cyclist of the Year, was the best Rwandan as he finished in ninth place, 7’10” behind eventual winner Kudus who posted 24h12’37’. Two-time winner Ndayisenga was the second best Rwandan coming in 13th position, while then defending champion Mugisha settled for 18th spot, a whopping 15’19’’ off the summit.

From a layman’s perspective, this was a disappointing performance from Rwandan riders who had made Tour du Rwanda their own for five years. However, it’s very important that we look at their performance from an informed technical point of view before casting stones.

It’s worth noting that the coming of a UCI World Tour team and four UCI continental pro teams for the first time ever unambiguously set the bar very high for the home hopefuls, well knowing that the country only has one rider, Areruya, who competes at the UCI Continental Pro level.

With the view to dissect what this means for cycling in Rwanda and the lessons that could be learnt going forward, Saturday Sporthad a chat with Team Rwanda head coach Sterling Magnell this week.

A true bike race

The American tactician, who has been at the helm of the team since August 2015, believes what Rwandans witnessed during this year’s Tour du Rwanda was what he termed as ‘a true bike race’, and ‘smart riding’ was the missing component for Rwandans to retain the crown.

“What we saw a few weeks ago this year, in our maiden 2.1 running of the Tour du Rwanda was a true bike race, truer than any prior editions,” he stated.

“What I mean by a “true” bike race is not about the calibre of teams and athletes, although that is also contributed a lot, but specifically, the manner in which the tactics fell into place and how some teams held their heads up,” he explained.

For instance, while each team was supposed to be a five-man composition, Astana and Delko Marseille had four riders apiece, but still managed the most stage wins.

Low (or lack) of ‘smart racing’ for Rwandans

Magnell further stressed that for the level of a race that Tour du Rwanda has reached, motivation and strength are absolutely not enough to push a rider to victory. Smart riding is the way to go.

“The reason why every year, in every race, I push my team to race “smart” and use their heads, is precisely to prepare them for this kind of competitions. At the higher echelons of the sport, things happen much more emphatically, if you make a mistake or waste energy in the wrong place, there is no second chance. It’s just over for you that day, and often your general classification prospects go with it,” he enlightened.

“What I saw from our team was the motivation, strength and certainly the ability to win, but never the right timing. It would come too early, or would take them too much energy because they hesitated to make the move when it was needed the most

In the most decisive moment of the race, we were simply beaten by a stronger man stepping down to this tour from seasons of World Tour level competition.”

Magnell noted that it will take time and great effort to develop the ability to gauge their (riders) bandwidth against the race, but tipped them for victory again not in a so-distant future.

2.1 or not, Tour du Rwanda is twice the race Amissa Bongo is!

This was not the first time Rwandan riders were competing at 2.1 level, as a matter of fact, they have raced at bigger races, including the Colorado Classic (2.HC) and Tour de l’Avenir (2.Ncup) among others.

Besides, Areruya – while riding for Team Rwanda – won the 2018 La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, the first African 2.1 race, and had won a stage there before through Bonaventure Uwizeyimana in 2014.

So why the failure to manage a single stage win on home soil?  

“2.1 or not, Tour du Rwanda is twice the race Amissa Bongo is. It’s notorious, it carries great wealth with it, reputation, and success here really matters. Having this level of racing at home is by far and a much better learning tool than sending a rider in Europe for a season. That adaptation is cruel and not fun. I’ve been there myself,” he asserted.

Areas of focus

According to Magnell, the Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy) has done a tremendous job in building the sport, and the 2.1 upgrade has set the bar high for Rwandan riders, hence the need for new programs to develop a larger pool of young talents if Rwanda is to cope with the new level of the race.

“Technically speaking, our shortcomings highlight the exact points we’ve been trying to make from the coaching side for years. We lack programs and support to develop young athletes. To bolster our clubs while ensuring our athletes get an education as well,” he pointed out.

“The shortfall can be measured from the top and the bottom. The top riders have reached their potential and may not hope to compete against the best in the world. On the other hand, the number of youngsters coming up through the ranks is very small. Sincerely.”

Currently, all training, education and talent detection programs are conducted by Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC), located in Musanze District. But, with the pace at which the sport is growing globally, a clear long-term development strategy looks relevant now than ever if Rwanda is to keep her status as the cycling powerhouse – in the making – on the continent, and beyond.

“We need more professionals, and the only way is to start from the grassroots – at youth and junior level. Same for the women. There is no short term strategy that will change our team and performance over night.”

Rwanda Cycling Cup ‘not enough’

In a bid to prepare Rwandan riders for international competitions, Ferwacy established Rwanda Cycling Cup, a national championship that runs throughout the year, normally comprising of 11 races.

However, tactics used in such races, with a the peloton ranging from 25 to 40 riders, can’t apply in gruesome races like Tour du Rwanda has become, hence the need to develop riders and clubs that can raise the intensity of the championship.

“We have smart athletes in Rwanda. The problem is that, normal racing tactics don’t apply when the peloton is 40 riders or less. Our bright stars are too isolated, in comfortable zone. To compete with the best in the world, we will have to grow our cycling family,” he urged.

Nonetheless, according to Magnell, the fact that strong riders and teams have now picked interest in Tour du Rwanda is an opportunity to leverage on if the local riders are to step up their game. 

“But if we truly, truly want to see our racing culture rival that of the best, we will need not only well-funded development programs and support for clubs, but we will also need to keep inviting stronger teams and riders that can challenge us. Iron sharpens iron.”

“Going up against someone who can beat us is the surest step to improving our game. It’s going to be tough, the public may not understand, but we will win again if we pull together for the future of cycling in Rwanda and look beyond Tour du Rwanda,” he emphasized.

Need for paradigm shift

On the final day of the eight-stage event in Nyamirambo, Ferwacy boss Aimable Bayingana also conceded to the fact that a paradigm shift – is obviously needed – in terms of how Rwandan riders are prepared for big races if they are to shine at the new Tour du Rwanda level.

“This was a new learning curve for our teams and the federation, there must be changes in how we prepare our riders if we are to improve the performance,” said Bayingana.

“The 2.1 upgrade for the race brought new (good) challenges for our boys, we have to take note and be better-prepared next year.” 

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