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Discovering Africa's cycling obsession at the Tour du Rwanda

12 Sep 2019

Rwanda has launched an official bid to host the 2025 World Championships. The central African nation will compete against Morocco for the honour of being the first African nation to host the event.

Last year, journalist Laura Potter visited Rwanda and its annual stage race, the Tour of Rwanda, to discover a nation truly obsessed with cycling.

This article was originally published in issue 85 of Cyclist magazine

Words Laura Potter Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

At the Hilltop Hotel in Kigali, capital city of Rwanda, there’s one name on everyone’s lips: Didier Munyaneza. The 20-year-old is a rising star in a country where cycling is booming both as a participation and spectator sport.

‘Didier never looks as if he’s even struggling,’ enthuses Sean Belfast, Massachusetts-born head mechanic for the national squad, Team Rwanda. ‘He’s hands down the best athlete in Rwanda,’ agrees Sterling Magnell, the team’s California-born director.

‘He has no idea how good he is. He’s just having fun winning races. You would think all the success he’s having would go to his head, but not one iota. He’s stoked 24/7.’

Nation race

It’s 4th August 2018 and the air is thick with humidity and anticipation. It’s the day before the start of the Tour du Rwanda and Cyclist is here with staff and riders from the national team.

The car park is packed, but it’s not the same as at races on the European WorldTour circuit. Some of the team cars are as old as the riders themselves, with stickers slapped on the metalwork and two-bike racks strapped on the back.

The bikes being wheeled around range from Pinarello Dogma F8s to cheap models with nearly a decade of riding in them.

Many have mismatched components, with some sporting aluminum training wheels. Mechanics are cleaning road grit out of groupsets with knives. This is one tour that won’t be won by technology.

As races go it’s stripped back to the essentials and, according to Magnell, it will be won through strong riding and psychological warfare: ‘These teams are small armies.

‘They’re not in physical combat but it is violent and it engages a very primitive part of our brains.’

When ex-pro Magnell arrived in 2015 he had a tough time getting the best from his new squad. Back then, the Rwandan national team programme had as many as 20 full-time riders effectively on a salary. With no incentive to improve, some long-term team members didn’t even show up to training, yet still got paid.

‘There was a power struggle, so riders have had to go through a character rehabilitation,’ says Magnell. ‘There was a sense of entitlement among some, a lot of complaining, some bad attitudes, and a couple of times it threatened to tarnish our reputation [some riders went on strike], so I insisted on stamping that out.

‘Now nobody makes any money simply from being on the national team and no one is guaranteed a position on it.

‘It’s based on performance, merit, character and communication. Some individuals chose to make amends for their mistakes and to change. Others chose to call my bluff and they’re still outside because there’s no room on the team for selfish athletes.’

Young ones

All the riders on Team Rwanda are under 21. With only a few days to go to his 22nd birthday, Jean Damascene Ruberwa is a veteran, having ridden the Tour du Rwanda twice before.

‘I’m feeling good. I’ve been training hard,’ he says in the hotel car park after a gentle training ride. This will be my third time. The first time it was very hard – I was inexperienced – but the second time it was better.

‘This time I hope it will be better still. It’s very hilly, but we train in the hills so I’m ready. We wait for this race all year, and when it’s here it’s the best time in my life.’

His goals? ‘To win a stage, get a jersey and to help my teammates. ‘I want to be part of a breakaway and we’re really hoping for a place on the podium.’

The top of the podium has become a well-worn spot for Team Rwanda. Since Valens Ndayisenga won in 2014 no other nation has stolen the crown back, and everyone is hungry for more success.

‘Oh man, it’s going to be interesting,’ says Belfast. Magnell agrees: ‘The climbs are really going to test these riders. It’s a challenging course but it really favours our team. There are some new roads, but we got a chance to preview them in a race three weeks ago.’

One such hill is the now infamous ‘Wall of Kigali’, a 12% climb on cobbles that riders have to attack twice on the final stage.

‘It’s short and favours riders who have grit, a lot of power and bike-handling skills,’ says Magnell.

He has confidence in his team to win for the fifth year running, but admits it doesn’t get any easier.

‘It’s pure stress,’ he says. ‘I don’t bask in the joy of it – I’m always looking towards the next thing.’

And next, for today at least, is lunch. There are no team nutritionists to create individualised menus. Here, riders sit around circular tables in a huge dining room piling their plates high from metal vats at the self-serve buffet.

On the menu: fried rabbit, spiced chicken, goat stew, rice, yams and greens.

Rwanda’s great hope

Lunch consumed, Dider Munyaneza heads for a massage, giving us a chance to chat. The massage table is set up not in the privacy of a hotel room, but in a corridor. Not that it bothers Munyaneza. He’s everything you’d expect from the rider his coach describes as ‘stoked 24/7’.

A huge smile brightens his face as I greet him, and he reaches out his hand to shake (something germ-phobic WorldTour riders would never do).

‘I’m feeling good,’ he says. ‘I want to do something for my coach, for my team. I hope we win the Tour – that’s my goal.’

Munyaneza’s route into pro cycling has been a difficult one. The youngest in his family, he dropped out of school when his older brother died and became a bike taxi rider to earn money.

His neighbours, former national cycling team captain Janvier Hadi and former national champion Gasore Hategeka, saw his potential.

‘I watched Hategeka ride, so I wrote to him and he supported me,’ Munyaneza says.

He formally joined the sport in 2013, but a lack of money forced him to return to working as a bike taxi a year later. Hadi and Hategeka encouraged him back in 2015, helped by some local inspiration.

‘I went to watch the Tour du Rwanda and Jean Bosco Nsengimana, from my home town, won. I started training hard, then I went to the Africa Rising Centre to be tested and the coach was very happy. He gave me a bike.’

In 2016, Munyaneza finally sold his taxi bike to concentrate solely on pro cycling: ‘Last year I finished eighth in the Tour du Rwanda.

‘To be in the top 10 at my first attempt was very good. My goal is to race the Tour de France one day.’

Judging by his successes, including becoming the Rwandan national champion and qualifying for both the U23 World Championships and Tour de l’Avenir, it’s not an unrealistic goal.

Race time

The next day in Rwamagana, 45 minutes outside Kigali, the build-up to the opening stage is underway. The sun beats down on the ochre road, reggae blasts from huge speakers and crowds cram 30-deep at the roadside, atop buildings and nestled in tree branches.

One local fan tells me, ‘The Tour du Rwanda means everything. When it comes, everyone is happy, from the cyclists to small children watching.

‘We are in the middle of Africa, and the world is here. Bikes give you freedom, they help you clear your mind and they change people’s lives. Cycling for me is like breathing.’

With that, a lorry pulls up and the rear opens to reveal it is filled with bikes. Everyone lends a hand unloading them, including team directors, soigniers, mechanics and even race organisers.

Next, the buses arrive. They’re not like Team Ineos’s luxurious ‘Death Star’ bus – they’re more like yellow school buses, and it’s not one bus per team. Everyone piles in together.

The riders disembark, and there is not even a cordoned off area for them, so they get changed wherever they can in the street and head to the start line.

Munyaneza spots us and flashes his signature grin. If he’s nervous, he’s disguising it well. Magnell is philosophical, his sights set far beyond today’s 97.5km stage: ‘Four days after this we have the Tour de l’Avenir.

‘This is the first time an African team has been invited and if you finish on the podium you can get a WorldTour contract. Then we have the World Championships, where we’re ranked number one in the U23 category in Africa, so we can bring five athletes to Innsbruck, and it’s a course that suits us.

‘The goal is to win here, but judging by these riders’ progression, success on the world stage is not out of the question.’

Onwards and upwards

The opening stage, started by UCI president David Lappartient, is signed, sealed and delivered in two hours 12 minutes, won by Algerian veteran Azzedine Lagab.

Team Rwanda’s first rider across the line is Munyaneza. No one is quite sure where the buses are, so the riders stand on grass verges, stripping off sweaty kit among the fans and handing out their branded drinks bottles to small children.

Finally, word gets around that the buses are in the start area, and the race is whisked away to the next stage, leaving a town still resonating with the sheer thrill of it.

For the next few days, crowds will stretch the entire 948.6km course cheering, dancing and delighting in this travelling circus of bikes.

By the time it’s all over, Team Rwanda will have lived up to Magnell’s dreams, but not courtesy of Munyaneza, who will finish eighth. Instead, it’s teammate Samuel Mugisha who takes the title.

Munyaneza is still stoked, and goes on to finish 2018 as national champion, having been part of the Rwandan team that took silver at the men’s team time-trial at the inaugural Africa Cup, and having competed at the World Championships in the Under-23 Road Race (he didn’t finish).

Perhaps 2019 will be his year – the same year that the Tour du Rwanda is elevated to a UCI category 2.1 race. Then I can tell everyone that I once shook his hand while he lay in his smalls in a hotel corridor.