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American Timothy Rugg wins Tour du Rwanda stage, receives hero’s welcome

The 32-year-old Embrace the World rider is suffering from a chest cold and doesn't know how far he can ride into the eight-day race.

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The third time was the charm for American Timothy Rugg on Stage 4 of the 10th Tour du Rwanda on Wednesday. After two failed breakaway attempts left 32-year-old Arizona native Timothy Rugg “disappointed,” the former Bike Aid and Lupus Racing Team rider left it all on the line considering he does not know how long he will last in the eight-day UCI 2.2 Africa Tour road race.

Already suffering from early symptoms of a head cold prior to the opening stage in Rwamagana on Sunday, Rugg’s health went downhill fast, moving from his sinuses to his chest by the early morning start in Musanze on the fourth day of racing. Although Rugg’s health has gone from bad to worse, he swears he is not bluffing despite his Rwandan rivals claiming otherwise after three straight days in the break — the latter of which stuck for a third career stage win at the tour.

“I’m not bluffing, you can tell I’m already losing my voice because I have nothing left,” Rugg assured VeloNews following the finale of the 135.8-kilometer stage from Musanze to the Lake Kivu shoreside community of Karongi. “I knew today was my last chance because tomorrow we’ll see if I can even finish, but I gave it everything today — I had to.”

As a previous two-time stage winner while racing for Canadian Continental team, Rugg has ingratiated himself within the Rwandan community over his previous starts. The ailing American received a response one would expect for a national victor.

“It’s so special,” exclaimed Rugg, who after bridging across to a three-man break before pulling away at the base of the initial climb around 22km into the stage opened a seven-minute lead over the field before being reeled in to 2:10 by Rwandan national rider Samuel Hakiruwizeye at the finish.

“Having my results from 2016, and the way I have approached the press the way Rwanda has received me has just made it better for me now because I get encouragement from every town I visit, and without that I don’t think I could continue the way I did today.”

At more than 44 minutes down in the general classification standings behind leader and Rwandan national rider Samuel Mugisha, Rugg is no threat to take the yellow jersey. Therefore the gravel grinder aficionado, who is headed to Lincoln, Nebraska next week for the “unofficial” world championships, is happy to throw his support to German teammate Julian Hellmann, who won Stage 3 after Rugg suffered a severe leg cramp on the second of four categorized climbs toward the end of the 200km stage that featured 4,600 meters of elevation gain.

Hellmann backed up Rugg’s victory with a second one of his own on Thursday to give the ETW team three straight.

“We weren’t expecting this,” admitted Rugg. “I think now we turn our attention to Julian for the rest of the time. We will see where we are on the mountains classification, but we know the Rwandans are the real kings.”

Rugg joined Embrace the World in 2018, a German club team started three years ago by a group of friends who were working, studying, and cycling just for fun. ETW raises funds for social project with every kilometer the team rides, with each mile documented on Strava. Team sponsors also kick in and contribute per each and every pedal stroke.

“I have a really cool team and I think we can really do something here,” claimed Rugg. “They have a good mission. It’s not just about racing, it’s about coming in and embracing the culture they visit and giving back to the communities in any way they can by donating to local teams and such. It’s really good to be a part of a program that’s doing more than just bike racing — just like Bike Aid.”

As far as what keeps Rugg returning to Rwanda? It’s as simple as the reason he chose ETW — love of the sport.

“The biggest thing about this race is how much it’s spectated,” explained Rugg. “They really turn out. You talk to people and they have two favorite sports — football or cycling — and for most it’s actually cycling.”

Aaron S. Lee is an Olympic sports journalist for Eurosport and a guest contributor for VeloNews.