By the 4th of July, 1994, a day that officially marked the end of the Genocide and liberation of the country by RPA, the army wing of RPF Inkotanyi, there was no hope with almost nothing to start over from as far as cycling was concerned.
While everything seemed urgent and important in the rebuilding of the country from ashes, sport was also not left behind. But, still, it was not until 2000 that the then amateur Tour du Rwanda would be held for the first time since 1990.
“Everyone [in the cycling fraternity] was in shock and had no hope that cycling would bounce back and one day thrive like it has today,” says retired cyclist Faustin Mparabanyi. “But, good leadership and the liberation spirit inspired us, and that was the starting point – believing again.”
“It has been an incredible journey and the future of the sport is bright.”
Mparabanyi, 50, has been working with Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy) as a technical adviser since his retirement from competitive cycling in 2003, having represented the country in several international events such as the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain as well as the 1995 and 1999 All-Africa Games Zimbabwe and South Africa, respectively.
After the liberation struggle was won, Mparabanyi says, there was political will to support sports – including cycling – get back to their feet, and serve as a tool to reunite the society.
Today, cycling is one of the country’s most popular sports and certainly the best performing. For last six years, Rwanda has consistently featured among the top five cycling nations in Africa and at one point was ranked second, only behind powerhouse Eritrea.
Cycling is also credited for solely using homegrown talents, mostly from humble backgrounds, and turning them into household names.
Adrien Niyonshuti is arguably the most successful cyclist the country has ever produced.
The 33-year old, who was part of the inaugural five-man national cycling team ‘Team Rwanda’ assembled by American tactician Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer in 2007, enjoyed a professional career at the highest level of world cycling hierarchy for nearly ten years – the first and only Rwandan to ever make it to a World Tour team.
The original Team Rwanda also comprised Abraham Ruhumuriza, Obed Ruvogera, Jean de Dieu ‘Rafiki’ Uwimana and Nathan Byukusenge.
Niyonshuti says that it is a big motivation that everyone acknowledges Rwanda cycling and what it has achieved but that it is all thanks to RPF-Inkotanyi’s bravery in liberating the country, without which the game’s success and fame would have never seen the light of day.
“Very few people – in any – believed that cycling would be this popular in Rwanda. But with good leadership and enabling political atmosphere, it was realised that cycling had great potential and things slowly started to change and, like they say, the rest is history,” Niyonshuti recalls.
He further added: “The sport has since changed lives of hundreds of young riders, and it has also played a big role in rebranding the country on international scene. All this could have never happened without the sacrifices of our liberation heroes.”
In February 2019, the Tour du Rwanda – regarded as the biggest annual sporting event in the country – was upgraded from 2.2 to a 2.1 UCI category race, making it only Africa’s second race with 2.1 badge, after Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo.
The race was amateur for over 20 years – since its 1988 inception – until it was incorporated into the Africa Tour calendar in 2009. Five years later, in 2014, Valens Ndayisenga became the first Rwandan to win the race as a professional international competition.
To reward Ndayisenga and his teammates’ effort, President Paul Kagame donated high quality professional bicycles to the national team and a training hub – the Musanze-based Africa Rising Cycling Centre – in the Northern Province.
Last year, following a three-day visit to the country by the world cycling governing body (UCI) president David Lappartient, it was confirmed that the centre would be developed and turned into a UCI World Cycling Center, also known as WCC Satellite Centre, with Rwanda becoming just the second African nation to host such facility after South Africa.
Until recently, the government financed fully the organisation of the Tour du Rwanda, but the its contribution has since reduced to 40 percent of the event’s budget thanks to the coming-on-board of private corporates such as Skol Brewery, Rwanda Tea and Cogebank to name a few.
Abdallah Murenzi, the Ferwacy president, hails the government’s efforts in giving the game of cycling a lifeline and, opportunities for young boys and girls to chase and achieve their dreams.
“The rebirth and thriving of Rwanda cycling was a result of strong leadership and efforts from government to support its young people. We are happy that the sport and riders also did not disappoint, and in return became good ambassadors of the country.”
For Murenzi, the investments that the government put in cycling have not gone to waste not only because of the positive impact it has had on riders and the country’s image globally, but also because the sport helped in rebuilding hope and unity in Rwandans, and shaping the new Rwanda after the gruesome events of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Hope for 'bright' future
In the latest ranking, Rwanda is fifth in African cycling and 46th on global scene. Murenzi is convinced that there is still room for improvement and Rwanda Cycling will keep going higher.
“Our target is to be among the top two cycling nations in Africa. We want cycling to be a culture, a profession and a touristic attraction and, most importantly, a country home to big international cycling competitions,” he vowed.
Jean Eric Habimana, 19, is one of Rwanda’s promising riders after making his Tour du Rwanda debut this year.
The youngster says cycling has proved that that it can bring joy to Rwandans and contribute to nation building than any other sport.
“The majority of those who liberated the country were youths [our age], their bravery inspire us to put the same efforts in showing to the world – through cycling – that Rwanda cannot be reduced to its dark past,” Habimana said.
“Their sacrifices will never be in vain, we [young people] owe it to them.”
Rwanda is bidding to host the 2025 UCI World Road Championships having submitted its application to the UCI last September.
If successful, Rwanda would be the first African country to host the world’s most prestigious and biggest cycling event since its inception in 1921.
Habimana believes the nation has shown sheer determination to make the history.
“It is incredible to see a country like Rwanda, which went through the worst of times just 26 years ago, bouncing back this fast and daring to host one of the biggest sporting events in the world. We put on the national colours with great pride while representing the country.”
For Jacqueline Tuyshimire, who rides for Ignite Benediction Club, the future of Rwanda cycling is even brighter because doors have also been opened for female riders to be part of the game.
“When we see our brothers shining at international stage, it inspires us to work a bit harder so we can as well achieve big things. The future is bright.”Follow https://twitter.com/@Eddie_250