A long, rainy day leads to discovery in Rwanda

From Gabonese riders suffering and thinking of university to promising young female riders, Gregor Brown finds African cycling in west Rwanda

HUYE, Rwanda (VN) — Kigali to Muhanga to Huye, Eritrean magic, Gabonese suffering and, yes, girls; it all happened today, over two stages in west Rwanda.

Pouring rain greeted the riders on the way to start the morning stage of the Tour of Rwanda. It did not let up. The riders lined for the start and raced ahead, the journalists watched from the press car. Not wanting to be upstaged by his UCI center teammate and fellow Eritrean, Kudus Merhawi, Amanuel Meron went to take a stage win for himself.

“Two-in-a-row,” said JP Van Zyl, the team’s director. “I’m proud of you guys.”

Meron escaped with a small group over the short morning stage heading south and west of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. It went off like a firecracker, with a climb immediately and then two others. Meron maintained 35 seconds with his two companions over the final climb and held on to sprint for the win in Muhanga. He made his father proud.

“I quit school to work in my dad’s shop at 10 years old,” Meron said. “My dad said, ‘No, you must devote your whole time to resting and racing.’”

The 66 riders, the journalists and everyone else involved in the fourth edition of the Tour of Rwanda enjoyed a pasta party and coffee between the stages. The Gabonese riders looked particularly exhausted. They have been suffering since day one, the prologue in Kigali, even if they came to Rwanda’s hills for two weeks ahead of the race to train. The sun had come out to dry their kits, but they appeared unready for the afternoon stage to Huye.

“Look, the speed was fast in the morning and this afternoon, I flatted and crashed,” Gabon’s Junior Limgombe Bongo explained. He arrived late, after the podium presentation finished, and had little to smile about. “I made the time cut, though.”

Limgombe Bongo, 23 years old, studies at the university in Gabon. The Tour of Rwanda, Africa’s most important stage race and ranked 2.2 by the UCI, may have made him re-think his professional career. Teammate Leris Moukagni, who studies geography, said he is considering full-time university studies.

Even if the dreams of the Gabon riders are close to being shattered, Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu and Benitha Uwamarayika still dream. The two 15-year-old Rwandan girls rode both stages today ahead of the race and took in the views of the banana trees and rice fields, and the warmth of the roadside fans.

Uwamarayika said that her friend is the better of the two. Local clubs and a generous Italian support both girls. Carlo Scandola traveled to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide in 1994 and helped at an orphanage. He fell in love with the country and discovered its passion for cycling.

“During a trip [in 2002], I saw one of the early editions of the Tour of Rwanda,” said Scandola, who raced as an amateur over 40 years ago. “I thought, ‘Ah, they’re racing here.’ Later, I discovered they need bikes and I wanted to help.”

Scandola started by making trips to Rwanda, bringing about 10 bikes with him each time. Then he paid for a container and shipped 60 bikes. The Rwandan cycling federation agreed to foot the bill on the next container, which is being filled now, while Scandola keeps finding bikes near his home in Verona.

Girubuntu and Uwamarayika smiled after their effort today, proud of the fans’ acknowledgement, of the federation’s support and of Scandola’s Italian bikes. Kigali to Muhanga to Huye — it was a long double day that revealed much about African cycling.