Not even the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic could stop the 13th edition of the Tour du Rwanda.
Initially scheduled to run from February 21-28, it was postponed to May 2-9, and was a big success, going by the overall event organization, participation by both riders and spectators.
On race days, 75 riders from 15 teams spread through 21 nationalities hit the road for the 8-day race around Kigali. The distance covered is 913.3 kilometres, making Tour du Rwanda (Tour of Rwanda), one of the toughest annual cycling competitions on the UCI (International Cyclists Union) calendar.
At 2.1 UCI Category, Tour du Rwanda is one of the two best cycling races in Africa, with the other being La Tropicale Amissa Bongo in the relatively flat and tropical, Gabon at the same ranking.
But what most cyclists will tell you about the Rwandan tour, is that the hilly terrain makes it one of the most difficult races and the global attention it attracts is what makes it the most exciting races on the calendar.
This year, the race was bigger and better, attracting a higher calibre of riders considering the global circumstances it was being held under.
With the exception of Rwandan, Eritrean and Algerian national teams, the rest were continental and world tour teams from around the world.
Israel Start-Up Nation from Israel, a UCI World Tour team, Total Direct Énergie from France and Androni Giocattoli–Sidermec from Italy are some of the teams that are regular participants in UCI World Tours.
ProTouch from South Africa, Bike Aid from Germany, and Terengganu Cycling Team from Malaysia are some of the UCI Continental cycling teams that defied the odds of the Covid-19 pandemic to race in Rwanda.
The other teams, Tarteletto–Isorex from Belgian, Wildlife Generation Pro Cycling from the US, Medellín–EPM, a Colombian UCI Continental cycling team founded in 2017 and B&B Hotels p/b KTM, a French UCI Professional Continental team founded in 2018 are the only teams that were participating in Tour du Rwanda for the first time.
But make no mistake, these teams assembled the best personnel including riders who have participated and won some stages in the grand Tour de France —which made them favourites for the Rwanda tour.
Rwanda was represented by two more teams, Benediction Ignite and SKOL Adrien Niyonshuti Academy, both of which are UCI continental teams.
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, all riders were relatively at the same below par levels of fitness due to restrictions that limited their training. But the excitement on their faces to race again was evident after a long spell of confinement.
“PCR test getting off the plane, quick result. Reassuring anti-Covid policy,” as rightly put by Pierre Rolland, a French rider and two-times stage winner of Tour de France and stage winner of Giro d'Italia in 2017, was the order of the day.
Before the start of the first stage in Kigali, Eritrean rider, Tomas Goytom noted that they intended to defend the Tour du Rwanda Yellow Jersey won by compatriot Natnael Tesfatsion in 2020, “despite having limited training time due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” But it just wasn’t going to be their year.
Through the rains in the ice-cold northern districts of Musanze, Rulindo and Gicumbi, to the low-lying roads in the Easter province districts of Nyagatare, Gatsibo and Kayonza, the riders traversed the central, north, south and eastern corners of Rwanda in just eight days, except for the western province.
Western Rwanda was left out of this year’s circuit due to fears of exposing riders to the Covid-19 pandemic in the busy towns bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For the first time in the history of Tour du Rwanda, riders completed their daily stage races and returned in buses to sleep in the capital, Kigali to minimise Covid-19 infections.
And it paid off. No single case of Covid-19 was reported among the riders during the two rounds of testing done on the cyclists and the staff of the teams that took part.
The 2021 Tour du Rwanda was the closest tour to call, with riders going into the final two stages with no safe bet of who would eventually have the best time in General Classification (GC), including the 4.5km Individual Time trial (ITT) involving climbing the unforgiving cobblestone “Wall of Kigali.”
Ten top riders in the General Classification stood a chance to win the grand prize going into the final day of the race, being separated by just 10 seconds among them and the best-placed Spaniard Rodríguez Martin Cristian, 26, of Team Total Direct Energie at the summit of the GC ranking.
The final stage was among the shortest by the most difficult one by all measures. The 75.3km stage had 6x Cat 1 and the Hors Catégorie (HC) at the finish line at Canal Olympia, located at the top of Rebero Hill, in Kigali.
At the end of the eight-stage tour, Spaniard Rodríguez Cristian broke away at the last kilometre of the race to win the last stage and retain the coveted Yellow Jersey, consequently becoming the first European rider to win Tour du Rwanda, in 22 hours 49 minutes and 51 seconds on the road compared with the 22h50’08’ of Piccoli James of Israel Start-Up Nation, who finished second.
Rodríguez Cristian, who is now the 11th different winner of Tour du Rwanda, crossed the finish line 12 seconds ahead of James of Israel Start-Up Nation, who finished second in GC.
The Tour du Rwanda exploits marked Rodríguez’s first professional victory.
After the victory, Rodriguez said: “I hadn’t really planned to attack on the last climb but when I saw all the work my team had done, I told myself that I had to try something before my opponents. It was the best way to avoid losing my jersey. But I was still confident. It’s my first professional victory, and I will always remember it. "
Having successfully hosted a safe 13th edition of Tour du Rwanda, it is Rwanda’s strong statement that the country is ready to host the 2025 UCI Road World Championship.
The country is also bidding to host the 2025 UCI Road World Championship alongside Morocco.
The president of UCI David Lappartient who was in Rwanda to assess the country’s readiness to host the highly anticipated road race, acknowledged that the Rwandan “race is really perfect, well organised.”
To many professional riders and cycling experts, Rwandan roads offer the toughest test for any professional cyclist, compared with the flat desert terrain in Morocco. In addition, the high safety standards exhibited by Rwanda in the just concluded Tour du Rwanda is enough to convince those who will decide on the next host of the 2025 UCI Road World Championship. That jury is still out.