Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Rwandan former pro Adrien Niyonshuti on helping Benin’s aspiring riders

The 36-year-old has been working with the Benin team since April 2022 and became the national team's head coach earlier this year.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

When Adrien Niyonshuti turned professional in 2009, he was one of the pioneers of modern African cycling.

Now, the Rwandan ex-pro is dedicating his time to developing the next crop of young riders from the African continent and he hopes to make their pathway somewhat easier than he found it over a decade ago.

Niyonshuti, who hung up his racing wheels in 2018, set up his own cycling school — the Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy — in Rwanda in 2013 and ran it until the end of 2022.

During that time, he worked with the Team Africa Rising organization, which was set up by Jonathan Boyer when he started working with the Rwandan national team, and this year he was appointed the head coach of the Benin national team.

The link-up with Benin started about eight months earlier, when he went to Benin as a consultant for the team. At the time, Niyonshuti didn’t know much about cycling in the West African country but he soon believed in what is a growing project.

“I got a connection to Benin through to Jock and Kimberly [Coats — Team Africa Rising CEO] because they are friends with the president of Benin Federation,” Niyonshuti told VeloNews. “Jock asked me if it’s possible I can go to Benin. I said yes. I like to go to help a friend and my brothers from Africa, so it’s no problem.

“I went there last year around April. I stayed with them for three weeks and the Tour of Benin and it was an amazing trip. I like the riders, the coaches, and the culture. It was all very nice, and I came back home to Lucca, and then they said okay, Adrien we want you to come back here and help us to grow in cycling here in Benin and I say yes.”

Niyonshuti is based in Lucca, Italy, where he moved when he joined the MTN-Qhubeka squad at the start of his career, and takes regular trips to Benin to help the squad. He recently spent a month there working with the team in the build-up to the Tour du Benin.

Cycling across Africa is enjoying something of a growth spurt after the efforts of riders like Niyonshuti in Rwanda, Tsgabu Girmay in Ethiopia, Daniel Teklehaimanot in Eritrea, and a raft of others.

More recently, the performances of Biniam Girmay have highlighted the largely untapped talent on the African continent.

Benin is not new to cycling as a sport, but the country has started investing more time and money into developing its riders over the last six years. Since 1992, the country has had a national cycling tour, though it has been only intermittently held.

After a two-year break, the race returned in 2021. With COVID still impacting the cycling calendar, it had a relatively small field, but it has grown since then and this year’s event saw 13 teams take part, including three from Europe.

Romuald Hazoumè, a well-known artist from Benin, has been the president of the national federation since 2017. Passionate about cycling, he has played a big role in pushing the sport on in the country, and taking on Niyonshuti is the next part in developing Benin’s riders.

Niyonshuti hopes that he can show persuade more people to take up cycling rather than soccer or running, which dominates the sporting landscape. It has been a steep learning curve for both he and the riders over the last few months — especially as Niyonshuti is learning to converse with the riders through French — but the 36-year-old already sees them taking big strides.

“I never knew anything about Benin but when I went there it was an amazing and lovely country with lovely people. I think there is a lot of potential and opportunity here because,” Niyonshuti said. “The president of the Federation is a good person, he loves African people, and everyone in the world who knows about cycling. He has a passion for anyone who wants to help cycling grow in his country.

“They’re showing their talent really quick they’re getting stronger and they finished Tropicale Amissa Bongo in January. They were in a breakaway and were riding on the front with confidence. It’s changing a lot and when I ride with them in Benin, I told them about cycling, how it works, and how you have to be confident, not be scared thinking about crashing and they will get stronger. They already understand quickly and they’re asking so many questions.”

Adrien Niyonshuti did his first European race in Ireland
Adrien Niyonshuti did his first European race in Ireland (Photo: Bryn Lennon – Velo/Getty Images)

As part of the project, Niyonshuti has been helping Benin riders to go to Europe to experience riding in larger groups, as well as over longer distances. Niyonshuti contested his first European race in 2009 when he rode the Tour of Ireland and it was an eye-opening experience for him.

Not only did it give him opportunities to learn new skills, it added to his self-belief. Though he would not finish the multi-day race, he saw that he could push himself further than he had before.

“It was really hard racing in the wind riding with a group of strong riders of about 120-140, it was a big challenge for me. It was my first time actually racing two stages over 150 Kilometers. When I go back home I say okay, now I know if I want to be strong, I’m not scared to train over 150 kilometers a day, it’s easy enough,” he said.

“Racing in France is a big difference to racing in a small race in Africa, or in Benin. They will learn more stuff about preparing for a race and feeling comfortable in the peloton because it’s a big challenge.

“I was in Ghana for African championships, and it was just 40 or 50 riders [in the peloton]. Some of the Benin riders had never been racing that a peloton of 40 riders and to get in the right position it was hard for them.”

Benin sent some riders to France for three weeks last year and plans to send some more this year, while another cohort will go to Belgium for a few weeks.

Sending riders to Europe to gain experience has proved worthwhile, but it is expensive and laborious with lots of hoops to jump through to obtain the correct visas. It’s a tale that most riders from the African continent has experience with and it makes the European scene hard to get access to.

Riders don’t have those same problems when they attend races in Africa, but there are far fewer major events to take part in at the moment. Niyonshuti dreams of a time when most African nations have their own national tours, which would give riders from the continent a bigger well of races to compete in without requiring visas.

He also believes that by upping the number of UCI points available on the African Tour more top teams would travel to race there and strengthen the pelotons.

“I would like it if all the countries can organize a Tour. I think it will be good for the UCI to also give more points for Africa, because there are no major races, there are no classic races like in Belgium,” Niyonshuti said.

“If you have 30 tours 25 tours in 60 countries, that is not going to be a bad thing. It would be really good if it can be 2.2, I’m not saying that organizers have to make a 2.1 or WorldTour classic race right now. It’s just actually helping more African cyclists to grow and to understand the racing because when you have the UCI races, you always have more Europeans they come down to chase points for the ranking and it makes a big challenge for Africa.”

One of the major goals for many African nations is the forthcoming world championships in Rwanda in 2025. Without visa issues causing trouble, there should be a very strong African representation at the competition, it’s also a chance for Niyonshuti to see his new team race in his home country.

“To have the world champs after 100 years in the history of cycling, it will to be amazing for all the countries in Africa and it will be a big opportunity for African cyclists,” he said. “It’s amazing because it shows all sacrifice that we have done for cycling is paying off.

“The dream goal is to have a good [Benin] rider to compete in the world champ in Rwanda.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.