They have not won the Tour de France but they have had a fair share of global competitions, sometimes performing incredibly well.
Behind their sporting heroics, however, the boys behind the national cycling team commonly known as Team Rwanda have extraordinary tales to tell.
The astonishing stories behind some of the names bearing the Rwandan flag during the eight-day Tour of Rwanda this week are as remarkable as their endurance to overcome odds to make it into the international cycling world.
When Rwanda Today caught up with some of the cyclists shortly after they returned from the African Continental Championships in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, they were making the final preparations for Tour of Rwanda. The gruelling competition, which is in its fourth edition, winds up on November 25.
The boys were in high spirits. They included Abraham Ruhumuriza, the winner of the 2012 KwitaIzina.
Although he was involved in an accident in the West African country, sustaining injuries, Ruhumuriza says that will not deter him from participating in one of the two international cycling events that are hosted by his motherland.
“It could have been disastrous because we were at a section where cyclists were moving at a high speed when my foot slipped off the pedal, sending me to the ground,” says Ruhumuriza, exhibiting fresh wounds on his right arm, sustained during the crash.
The 33-year-old recounted how he narrowly survived a crash that would have seen other cyclists pile on him as he lost balance and smashed his head on the tarmac. Luckily, they somehow dodged him, but he was not able to continue with the race.
“There is always a thin line between being involved in a disastrous crash and getting away with it,” said Ruhumuriza. “Somehow I sustained slight injuries that only affected the body.
“As long as I did not fracture a bone, I’m able to recover quickly and take part in Tour of Rwanda.”
The Butare-born cyclist is part of the team that has made cycling one of the favourite sports in the country, with every race attracting hundreds of people who line the roads as long as there is a big competition. Slowly, the sport has been gaining the adrenalin rush that comes with endurance sports of such nature.
The likes of Adrien Niyonshuti, Rwanda’s first ever Olympic cyclist, and Ruhumuriza have become household names. Even children scream their names when they are scaling the steep hills in Northern Province during competitions.
The success of the sport is the result of hard work by the Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy) and the head coach, Jonathan Boyer, who has been behind the development of the team and the sport. He also scouts for raw talent, transforming the boys into global cyclists.
Status will grow bigger
The 25-year-old Niyonshuti, the team’s flag-bearer, is likely to see his status grow even bigger for at least another five years but Ruhumuriza still believes that at his age he can also continue for a few more years.
“At 33 you are definitely not growing younger but that does not mean that I’m retiring soon,” says the former boda boda bicycle rider in Butare Town.” I will still be able to compete at all levels and inspire young blood to carry the team forward.”
The veteran rider started competing in rural cycling races at an early age, using a single-speed bicycle – the one he also used to ferry people from one place to another for a measly Rwf1,000 a day if not less.
In 2000 he started competing at the district and national level, having acquired his first 10-speed bike the previous year. In 2002, he was on the national team, surprisingly emerging fourth in the Tour of Rwanda on his debut appearance.
The short and stout rider hasnot looked back since, representing Rwanda along with Niyonshuti and scooping several accolades at the continental level while at the same time shining at the international level.
“I have been able to construct a house for myself, start a small business for my wife and take my children to school,” says the once widowed cycling star who has since remarried.
Ruhumuriza recalls that, prior to joining the sport, and having not had an education, he was languishing in poverty. His life has certainly changed for the better.
But what is really compelling is not the cyclists’ sporting exploits but rather their death- and poverty-defying rags-to-riches experiences with Niyonshunti’s perhaps being the most fascinating, the rider having survived the 1994 Genocide at the tender age of seven.
During the interview, the rider did not want to dwell on his past, particularly the genocide, which claimed dozens of members of his extended family, but said he would rather concentrate on the sport and his future ambitions.
Born in Rwamagana District, Eastern Province, in 1987, the South Africa-based rider survived with just a handful of his family members, including his mother and his sister.
Example of human resilience
His moving story has made him an example of human resilience and he has been nominated for this year’s CNN Human to Hero series.
On a bad day he will not talk about his family but would rather keep the conversation “professional”, pointing out that his devastating past has not deterred him from pursuing his childhood dream.
“When you are young and determined to pursue your dream, no one can get in your way. In 2001, when I was 15, I developed an interest in the sport and I have not looked back since,” says the cyclist, who believes that young dreamers can follow his path.
Unlike the Ruhumurizas and others who started off ferrying passengers on bicycles, locally known as abanyonzi, Niyonshuti was lucky enough to begin his career on a sports bike, a gift from his uncle.
“In 2006 I was spotted by Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, who introduced me to competitions between 2006 and 2007. In 2008 I joined the professional ranks,” says Niyonshuti, who competed in the 2012 London Olympics.
He attributes his success to the Team Rwanda coach and Kimberly Coats, the logistics and marketing manager, who are behind the training and logistics for the team.