The bright African sun took a day off on the first stage of the 2019 Tour du Rwanda. But spectators paid no heed to the grey and menacing sky as they jumped over puddles to see their heroes line up for the 11th edition of the Tour.
They turned out in mass for their love of the Tour and for the joy of the change they perceive after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi – exactly 25 years ago.
The Rwandan riders of this year’s Tour share that joy “In our team we live together as brothers,” explains Valens Ndayisenga. The 25-year-old, winner of the Tour in 2014 and 2016, relished riding for the Rwandan national team.
Riders line up at the start-line for Stage 2 of Tour du Rwanda 2019 in front of the City of Kigali Hall on February 25, which was won by Merhawi Kudus who also went on to win the whole race. Plaisir Muzogeye.
The Rwandan cycling family was nevertheless aware that their riders were unlikely to dominate this year’s race. Therefore, they were not shocked by the success of Merhawi Kudus, who kept his grip on the yellow jersey from the second stage. With six grand tour starts, the Eritrean, member of the Astana Team, was one of the most experienced riders in the field.
Longer and tougher
This year was the first time the Tour du Rwanda was raced as a Class 2.1 event.
And although over the years it has become more and more challenging, it has not lost its colourful charm. The smell of tea, the joyful spectators in the villages and the rolling hills all have their part to play in the Tour du Rwanda.
The relentless uphill downhill sequences have become a tradition that the riders love and fear at the same time. You cannot defeat the hills. You can just climb them.
The Federation Rwandaise de Cyclisme (FERWACY) was unable to make the well-paved roads steeper, but they could make the stages longer and harder. And that is exactly what they did to pep up the race. Stage three was the obvious example: the riders faced a gruesome 213.1km ride from Huye to Rubavu, the longest stage in the history of the event.
But it was not just the distance that made it tough. The stage included three category one climbs and another two of the second category. In total, the riders had to master an altitude of 8792 metres. Kudus was unperturbed, winning the stage and extending his lead.
Unlike in previous years, when Rwanda was represented by three teams, the hosts fielded only two teams in 2019; the Rwandan national team and UCI Continental Team Benediction Cycling Club, from Rubavu.
The organisers welcomed this development: “The upgrade is a good challenge not only for the organisers, but also for Rwandan cyclists,” explained FERWACY President Aimable Bayingana.
“It will motivate us to stay out of the comfort zone.”
The rise from a regional race
Until 2008, the Tour du Rwanda was a regional cycling race, bringing together Rwandans and riders from neighbouring countries such as Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Since obtaining UCI status in 2009, it has become increasingly international. This year, 83 cyclists from 14 nations contested the victory.
“I’m very excited about the upgrade,” enthuses Bayingana. “It fills me with pride.”
Thanks to his success in developing cycling in the East African country the 48-year-old was recently elected President of the Cycling Union of French-speaking nations.
“There are people willing to learn from us,” he says with a smile. And the Federation aims high. Rwanda and Morocco are the two African nations bidding to host the UCI Road World Championship in 2025.
Kudus under pressure
Kudus was good, but it was not an easy road to victory. Before the last stage, his lead dwindled to just seven seconds over his immediate pursuer Rein Taaramäe from the French team Direct Energie. Sometimes just a few seconds are crucial. After eight stages, 953.6km and 24h12’37” Kudus came off victor with a mere 10-second advantage over his fellow Grand Tour cyclist.
The best Rwandan was Joseph Areruya from the French team Delko Marseille, in ninth place. Valens Ndayisenga finished 13th and was content with his performance: “It’s my first race in 2019 and I like to compete with strong riders.”
Watching the race at the side of a cobblestone road Pacifique Niyonshuti wraps it up: “The upgrade is not bad. You have to compete with the strongest. Then you figure out how strong you really are.”
One thing is certain for the hotel employee. He will again be on the roadside to cheer the international peloton during the 12th edition of the Tour du Rwanda in 2020.
This article was first published on the International Cycling Union (UCI) website