How cycling is helping to rebuild Rwanda

Adrien Niyonshuti draws the applause of a nation rebuilding itself after the Rwandan genocide. Cycling takes him around the world, including the London Olympics this summer, and takes him to his people via the Tour of Rwanda.

The race travels from Kigali to the east, Kigali to the south, to the west and to the north – coffee and tea growing zones – and the country screams his name. The people scream for Niyonshuti, who symbolises cycling’s birth and the Rwandan nation’s re-birth as a whole.

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Genocide ripped Rwanda apart in the 1994, Hutus killing Tutsis, Tutsis killing Hutus. Around 800,000 died in 100 days. The country was a blood bath, slashed by machetes, and – as a memorial in Kigali’s notes – the country was dead.

Rwanda rebuilt thanks to cycling. Bikes carried people, supplies and everything else over the rolling roads. The local children even begin to race, single speeds and wooden bikes. Niyonshuti was good, so good he caught the attention of Jock Boyer, who was the first American to race the Tour de France and was starting over in Rwanda.

“It would have been hard [without Boyer]. A lot of things have happened because of him coming to Rwanda,” Niyonshuti told Cycling Weekly. “You have to have a sponsorship, and if we didn’t have someone to speak for Rwanda and the federation, then I don’t think it would’ve improved like this. [Rwanda is] very happy to have someone who can for us and to help us out of this.”

Niyonshuti spoke surrounded by police officers at the start of the fifth leg of the Tour of Rwanda in Muhanga. He speaks quietly, but his English is at a good level and his face is welcoming. The police officers today, talking in Kinyarwanda, caught up with their hero, who they saw race the mountain bike event in the Olympics this summer.

It all began in 2007, though. After some testing, Boyer selected him as part of his first Rwandan team. He raced him in the Cape Epic mountain bike race, he taught him his training secrets and saw him become the most successful of the first crop.

The UCI’s cycling centre in Africa also had a hand in helping Niyonshuti. Boyer handed him off to J.P. Van Zyl, the centre’s director. He saw his gem polished to become the first Rwandan in a UCI-registered team in 2009.

“If you look how the recent African championships in Burkina Faso went, there were 20 to 25 very strong riders, and 15 of those are professional from Tunisia, Eritrea and blacks from East Africa,” Niyonshuti explained. “Cycling in Africa has really improved a lot thanks to the UCI centre.”

Boyer and Van Zyl helped Niyonshuti escape his past, the genocide deaths of his sister and five brothers. He pushes for more, even more reason for Rwandans to cheer his name and to forget. His MTN-Qhubeka team advances into the second division next year, embarking on a European journey that will see Niyonshuti and his team-mates move to Italy and race in several top events.

Tour de France organiser, ASO gave the green light to MTN’s participation in its Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman races in February. The races may provide a stepping-stone to the Tour one day. Niyonshuti would become the first Rwandan to race, which would only add to his country’s re-birth.

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