Team Karisimbi’s Valens Ndayisenga has become the first Rwandan ever to win the annual Tour of Rwanda cycling competition.
The 20-year old romped to victory after a consistent display over the seven stages of the tour. Thousands of Rwandans who turned up to watch the finish in Amahoro National Stadium. saw him triumph ahead of his country mate Jean Bosco Nsengimana, who put in an equally solid display.
Ndayisenga, who began the 7th stage with 1 minute and 27 seconds between him and his closest foreign competitor, finished the day in 6th position, enough for him to retain the coveted jersey with 58 seconds ahead of Nsengimana.
Cycling in Rwanda, as in the rest of Africa, is growing as a sport, and the Tour of Rwanda was put on the international calendar in 2009. Rwanda is known as the land of “a thousand hills”, and experts say the tour of is one of the toughest races in Africa, and is gradually gaining a place as a key race on the continent. The Tour covers over 934km (580 miles) and climbs some 19,500m (4,000ft) with peaks rising to 2,500m 8,200ft.
American Jonathan Boyer became the first coach of Team Rwanda in 2006. “We started with five riders and five-speed cycles from the 1980s, but most of the gears were not working, they were wrecks,” Boyer explains.
Cycling in Rwanda “grows gradually,” said Boyer, explaining that many racers are former bicycle taxi drivers, who transport of people and goods, building strong muscles pedalling up the country’s rolling hills.
The Rwanda Cycling Federation has around a hundred members. “Cycling in Rwanda is still very young,” said federation president Aimable Bayingana. “We don’t really have a long history of cycling, we are building the sport, evolving at the same time as the Tour of Rwanda.”
In June, the country opened a training centre in the northern town of Musanze with modern equipment, which is hoped to become a regional training centre for African cycling.
The race’s reputation is growing, with 14 teams taking part in the 2014 Tour, and participating cyclists from across the continent – including Algeria, Burundi, Morocco, Eritrea, Ethiopia – as well as from Europe too. Organisers estimate over two million spectators will see the race, nearly a fifth of Rwanda’s 11m population.
Yves Beau from the team Bike says the sport is becoming more organised with increasing number of competitions held each year across the continent.
But while at present African cyclists are sometimes hampered by a lack of often expensive kit and the best cycles, Beau believes things will improve in the future. Boyer points not only to Rwanda, but to Ethiopia and Eritrea, which have a large pool of talent, although tapping that will require serious training and investment.
For many Rwandan cyclists, it goes beyond just the sport, providing a different image of the country abroad than just the memories of the 1994 genocide.
Head over to the Tour of Rwanda’s official website to find out more about the race.