Along the roadside, hundreds of spectators squint against the sun awaiting their heroes.
Suddenly, the crouched figure of Samuel Mugisha comes into view. Sweating, teeth clenched, the Rwandan wins the second stage. The twenty-year-old is riding this year’s 10th edition of the eight-stage Tour du Rwanda (August 5-12), which attracted 16 teams from 11 nations. Three of the teams were from Rwanda.
Mugisha is one of the riders the locals pin their hopes on. “On Team Rwanda we are cyclists only,” explains the withy athlete. “There are no more Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa.”
Mugisha pronounces these simple words with a penetrating look that leaves no doubt about his clear statement. For many Rwandans it is as if the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 happened just yesterday… but the unity of Team Rwanda shows that reconciliation works. And that is something they are proud of. The youngster wins stage two and pulls on the yellow jersey.
This year there was a bunch of riders capable of winning a tricky stage race like the Tour du Rwanda, not least the Ethiopians, who had dominated the 2018 African Continental Road Championships in February. Rwandans Valens Ndayisenga and Jean Bosco Nsengimana, both previous winners of the tour, were also competing for a place on the podium.
Then there are those who come from beyond the African continent to be part of this increasingly popular stage race. American Timothy Rugg won the prologue and stage three in 2016, and came back for more this year… “against my judgment and knowing that it is unlikely that I could have another tour as magical as I did in 2016!”
Incidentally, Rugg went on to win stage four to finish second in the overall mountains classification.
The cheering of the spectators is hugely appreciated, particularly in villages like Sashwara, perched at the top of a grueling climb. The riders give it their all. They have no choice. The land of the thousand hills is a relentless uphill - downhill sequence.
Close to the home of mountain gorillas, the riders overcome a difference in height of 900 metres in less than the time of half a football match. Muscles burning, Samuel Mugisha crosses the finish line of stage six in 20th place. For the “King of the Mountain” that was not quite what he had expected. But he retains the yellow jersey.
Until 2008, the Tour du Rwanda was a regional cycling race. It attracted Rwandans and also riders from neighboring countries such as Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Since obtaining UCI 2.2 status in 2009, the race has become increasingly international, and is now one of the most famous cycling events on the African continent.
To meet UCI requirements and regulations for the race to be considered for 2.1 category, the Rwanda Cycling Federation (FERWACY) has to change the timing of the competition to enable professional teams to participate. They will increase the prize money. The federation has assured that everything is on course to start a new era for the Rwandan cycling flagship race in 2019.
Back to the 2018 edition, the seventh stage, from Musanze to Kigali, packs a punch. Mugisha tries to pedal through the pain, more determined than ever. He finishes in fourth place. He can keep his yellow jersey.
Efficiently supported by the Rwandan team, Mugisha holds strong on the last day and wins the overall classification of the 2018 Tour du Rwanda beating closet rival, fellow Rwandan Jean Claude Uwizeye (Team Cote de Lumière).
Mulu Hailemichael (Ethiopian National Team) finished third, Algerian Azzedine Lagab (Groupement Sportif de Pètroliers) fourth, and Spaniard David Lozano (Novo Nordisk) fifth.