While the pavé of Paris–Roubaix is legendary in Europe, the cobblestones that pave the Wall of Kigali are on their way to achieving similar status in Africa. This year, they spiced up the queen stage of the Tour du Rwanda’s ninth edition. After six stages and 698 kilometers, a road with an ascent at 12 percent becomes a wall. But pushing your bike is not an option…at least, not a serious one. The main roads of Rwanda are in great shape, but it is not for nothing that the country is known as “the land of a thousand hills.” The weeklong stage race is a relentless uphill-downhill sequence. To put it bluntly, as Sven Krauss, sports director of the German-based team Bike Aid, said: “It was just really hard for all of the riders.” Krauss is a former pro with the Gerolsteiner team who rode the Tour de France in 2008. So he knows what he’s talking about.
While the majority of the European peloton was enjoying the off-season, the most prestigious race in African cycling kicked off November 12 from Amahoro Stadium in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Despite being just south of the Equator, the rainy season provides pleasant temperatures in the upper 70s Fahrenheit at this time of year, and the international teams were ready for a challenging seven stages.
Until 2008, the Tour du Rwanda was a regional cycling race. It brought together
Rwandans with riders from neighboring countries, including Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Since obtaining a UCI sanction in 2009, it has become more and more international, and is now one of the most popular cycling events on the African continent.
Expectations were high for Rwandan domination this time. But there were riders from other countries who hadn’t shown up just to shake hands with the winner. One of them was a certain Nico Holler, fresh from his victory at the Tour du Cameroon. The experienced climbing specialist from Germany led Bike Aid‘s roster in the quest for victory. When it came to the Rwandans, Jean Bosco Nsengimana was one of the hot contenders. For this rather shy member of the Rwandan national team it was almost a matter of honor to win the race a second time after his 2015 success. “I have not stopped dreaming. I have that goal in mind and I believe that we can achieve it as a team,” Nsengimana said. Having worked as a bicycle taxi driver for years he was more than familiar with the climbs, steep roads and doglegs along the route.
The history of contemporary Rwandan cycling dates from 2006, when America’s first Tour de France competitor, Jonathan Boyer, moved to the country and formed Team Rwanda with his wife Kimberly Coats. Since then the sport has become more and more professional, especially after Boyer established the Africa Rising Cycling Center in 2014. One of Boyer’s recruits, Adrien Niyonshuti, twice won his national tour, earned a pro contract with the South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka team and became the first Rwandan cyclist to compete in the Olympics (in the 2012 mountain bike cross-country) and the UCI WorldTour.
While the bicycle is still perceived first and foremost as a means of transport by Rwandans, when it comes to racing, it’s a whole different story. Hundreds and thousands of spectators along the Tour du Rwanda race route cheered their heroes every day. On the final stage, a circuit race in Kigali, the numbers increased to more than a million.
Following its first successful chapter, the 10th Tour of Rwanda will turn a page later this year, when it’s set to move to an August time slot before upgrading its UCI status to 2.1 in 2019. Finally, to the delight of the local crowd, it was a Rwandan who claimed victory in the 2017 edition. Joseph Areruya, riding for UCI Continental team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, took the honors in front of his Eritrean teammate Metkel Eyob and the Bike Aid team’s Kenyan Suleiman Kangangi. Former winner Nsengimana was fourth.