If there was a ranking of the most influential people in Rwanda cycling community, late Jean Baptiste Rugambwa would come at the very top. The former coach and founding president of the country’s most successful cycling team – Les Amis Sportifs de Rwamagana.
Rugambwa died on spot after getting involved in an accident in Rulindo District when he was on his motorcycle from Rubavu to Rwamagana.
The sad news was a blow; it was hard to imagine how riders would cope with life at the club, and many people thought it was over for them. Few days following the passing of former coach, the team held a meeting and made a decision not to lose hope in the pursuit of what he stood for and the club’s vision for Rwandan cycling.
Beatha Ingabire, 21, has been in the team for six years, she told Saturday Sportthat changes were visible in the team after that terrible event.
“It seemed difficult for us to cope in the beginning after losing someone who meant a lot to the team, but later on we sat down and decided that we should not lose hope, we bounced back and trainings went on,” she said.
Rugambwa was “very dedicated to the team.”
“John (Rugambwa) was a like a parent for us, he visited us very often at our homes to know how our life was going when we were not with him here [in trainings],” she recalled.
He motivated every young person in the team, reminding them that there is hope for a better tomorrow, according to Ingabire, the most experienced girl and the reigning national champion.
Currently, the club team has four female riders.
Seth Hakizimana, 22, said Rugambwa left them with a lot of memories, including his teachings and the materials that were not there when they came to the team for the first time.
“He was beyond a coach, he was our friend,” he declared.
“Though he is not with us anymore, we want to keep working harder so the team does not collapse,” he added.
“Our team has many professionals now riding for professional teams abroad, and that is what we want too – to grow and reach that level,” he pointed out.
The stars produced by Rugambwa at the club include Joseph Areruya and Valens Ndayisenga who have three Tour du Rwanda titles between them.
The new coach is supportive, Hakizimana declared, and he helps solve different problems like the late boss used to do it.
Yussuf Sebugwiza, 57, the new coach, told this publication that he was compelled to take over the responsibilities as a person who was with Rugambwa in the club all along.
“We had been working together as club founders who knew it from the roots,” he said, adding that both of them knew the ambitions of the club, which he kept working on.
“We founded it together, we were together, one was president when another was vice president, and one was head coach when the other was assistant coach; we both knew the club,” he said.
Some people thought it was over, but Sebugwiza said, “It cannot end, because a team is made of many people. Besides, we also had to keep his legacy,”
However, the new coach admitted that losing Rugambwa was – and still is – a huge blow.
“Everyone at the club was devastated – I was devastated even more,” said Sebugwiza who explained that now he is doing what two people used to do together.
Shortly after his death, however, the team decided to work harder to honour him.
“We train normally, we go in competitions, and recently we performed well in Kivu Race from Musanze to Rubavu,” he stated.
Sebugwiza pointed out that the junior team won the race and their senior counterparts came second despite the absence of its main riders due to sickness, among other reasons.
Now the team is preparing to race in Karongi on October 28.
To promote cycling professionalism and to strengthen Les Amis Sportifs, the club plans to conduct a talent detection competition – on December 8 – to bring in new young riders, both boys and girls.
With some positions vacant, they are also organising elections for a new committee in coming days to make the team even stronger with new committed members.
The club sponsors are; Rwamagana District, Cogebanque, and Rwandan Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), and have kept supporting them even after the death of their success mastermind, according to Sebugwiza.
He said every week they receive training schedules sent by Europe-based Adrien Niyonshuti, and both the coach and the captain make the riders adhere to it. Rwamagana-born Niyonshuti is a two-time Olympian and Rwanda’s first cyclist to ride for a UCI World Tour team.
Niyonshuti – whose career was massively supported by Rugambwa – also helps Les Amis Sportifs financially, especially the junior team that is named after him, Sebugwiza stated.
With other professionals still adapting to life in their respective clubs abroad, they support their former club in advisory roles to their younger brothers and sisters, and when they come back in their hometown, they train with them to boost their morale.