Rwanda is one of the countries, globally, where the sport of cycling is steadily on the rise, thanks to the establishment of Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) a little over a decade ago and a generation of inspiring riders – such as two-time Olympian Adrien Niyonshuti.
Since 2009 when Tour du Rwanda became an International Cycling Union (UCI) Africa Tour category 2.2 road race, Rwandan cycling has grown from strength to strength, increasingly winning over millions of fans in the country, continent and beyond.
Over the same period, the sport has produced some elite riders including two-time Tour du Rwanda champion Valens Ndayisenga, Jean Bosco Nsengimana, Africa’s top-rated Joseph Areruya, Bonaventure Uwizeyimana and fast-rising Samuel Mugisha to name a few.
Today, Saturday Sports focuses on youngster Eric Manizabayo, a youngster that is tipped by many as one of country’s future cycling superstars.
The 21-year old proved his trailblazing skill – and more – as he defied odds last Saturday, outpacing experienced contenders to win this year’s Kivu Race in Rubavu District.
The former Club Benediction de Rubavu rider was among the six Rwandan cyclists that made their debut appearance at this year’s Tour du Rwanda in August. He finished in the 21st position, 21 minutes and 40 seconds behind Italy-based Mugisha (24:26:53) who won the race.
Who is Manizabayo?
Born on January 28, 1997 in Jenda Sector of Nyabihu District, Western Province, Manizabayo is the first born to Alphonse Batesa (RIP) and Christine Nyirasafari. He hails from a family of four, three boys and one girl.
He went to Jenda Primary School in his home village but dropped out after grade 4 to help his mother who – single-handedly – raised him and his siblings following the death of their father when they were very little.
After dropping out of school, Manizabayo acquired a bicycle and started transporting people and produce for a living at the age of 12 till he was 17 – in 2014 – when he joined Club Benediction, a renowned amateur cycling club in Rubavu, Northwest of the country.
With the help of former national team captain and a long-time family friend, Janvier Hadi, Manizabayo ditched the bicycle taxi business for professional cycling. Hadi also bought him his first road race bike when he introduced him to Club Benediction.
A few months after embarking on his cycling journey, he caught the attention of former Team Rwanda’s technical director Jonathan ‘Jock” Boyer who invited him – along with Mugisha – to train at Musanze-based Africa Rising Cycling Center, the base of Rwanda’s cycling.
“We went to the center and passed trials for a few days, after which we were gifted professional bikes and assigned to national team’s assistant coach Felix Sempoma for special mentorship. That marked the start of our cycling journey,” recalls the youngster.
Boyer, 63, was the first American to participate in the Tour de France, in 1981.
Meaning serious business
The young rider’s first official race came in May 2015 when he finished in 15th position, in junior category, during that year’s Race to Remember in Rwamagana District – one of Rwanda Cycling Cup’s 11-race series on its annual calendar.
The following year, he put on a strong fight to finish second in Farmers’ Circuit, also part of Rwanda Cycling Cup, in Nyagatare District, before claiming the top honors of the second edition of Race to Remember at Amahoro Stadium – both in juniors’ category.
Last year, while enjoying his final season in junior category, the then 20-year old retained the Race to Remember title in May before clinching his maiden Central Challenge title in September.
The cycling sensation is regarded as the most decorated rider, in junior category, on domestic scene since the inception of the national cycling championship, also commonly known as Rwanda Cycling Cup, in 2015.
Kivu Race – first victory in elite category
Last Saturday, Manizabayo stunned a strong field of riders to win this year’s Kivu Race in Rubavu District after outsprinting Seth Hakizimana and Gasore Hategeka in a photo-finish.
The aspiring cycling star claimed the race just days after being involved in a car accident while on national team duty with Team Rwanda at this year’s Grand Prix Chantal Biya race in Cameroon.
He covered the 120.7 kilometers from Musanze to Rubavu (plus a 7-lap circuit in Rubavu town) in 3 hours, 15 minutes and 54 seconds.
This is the rider’s first victory in senior category, just seven months after his debut race with Lambert Byemayire Memorial Race in March this year.
Manizabayo rides for Nyabihu Cycling Club since April this year, when he parted company with club Benediction.
Tour du Rwanda 2018 – first international race
After a series of impressive performances in local races, the national team’s technical team called up Manizabayo in July among 18 riders that comprised the provisional roster to prepare for this year’s Tour du Rwanda. After five weeks of intensive training, the youngster was named on the final 5-man Club Benediction squad that took part in the race from August 5-12.
It was Manizabayo’s first international race, and at the same time, his first Tour du Rwanda appearance. He finished in 21st position out of sixty riders who managed to complete the race.
He was seventh among eighteen Rwandan cyclists in the UCI Africa Tour race.
His first race overseas, and first outside Rwanda, came just a few days after Tour du Rwanda when he was named on a six-rider Team Rwanda’s U23 roster that represented the country at the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir in France. The latter is the world’s biggest cycling event for U23 cyclists.
Manizabayo, along with three teammates; Samuel Hakiruwizeye, Jean Paul Rene Ukiniwabo and Eric Manizabayo, bowed out of the race after Stage Three – leaving only Mugisha and Areruya in the 10-stage race. The two went on to finish the race in 73rd and 76th spots, respectively.
Tour de France dream
After making his Tour du Rwanda appearance in August and racing a couple more international competitions in less than two months, Manizabayo has set his goals very high and is optimistic of securing a slot on Team Rwanda’s roster at next year’s Tour du Rwanda when the race gets upgraded to a UCI 2.1 category race in March.
The Nyabihu District native is also keen on winning the famous cycling event in future and landing a contract to ride for professional teams overseas.
He further noted that: “My ultimate dream is to race Tour de France one day. As crazy as it sounds, I believe my dream is valid and achievable.”