KIGALI, Rwanda (VN) — The Tour of Rwanda raced away from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the conflicts over the border on Saturday. Refugee camps gave way to banana trees and screaming children lined route of the seventh stage to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and its largest city. It was one of the trickiest days in the race, and South Africa used it to crack rising star Kudus Merhawi of Eritrea and put South African Darren Lill in the overall lead.
“It was a risky move, but it paid off, good for him,” J.P. Van Zyl told VeloNews as Merhawi sat in the team car, sulking, in the race leader’s jersey that was no longer his.
Merhawi is racing in his first international, UCI-registered event. The 18-year-old represents the cream of the crop for the UCI’s World Cycling Center. Van Zyl worked with his riders for the last three months in South Africa, teaching them the basics of the elite racer’s life — eating, sleeping, using the Internet — and training methods. It has paid off, so far, with three stages and nearly the overall win.
After composing himself, Merhawi looked over and gave the thumbs up. The race ends on Sunday, but overnight he will have a chance to think about his next opportunities. Van Zyl recommended him to travel to the UCI’s headquarters to complete his training at the Swiss cycling center.
“This kid, 18 years old, he’s going places,” Van Zyl said earlier in the week. “He’s a born cyclist, he was born with a brain for cycling.”
The man who succeeded him as race leader, Lill, is competing in his last UCI road race after a career that took him to the United States to race with Navigators, BMC, Team Type 1 and Fly V.
“It’d be a good way to go out on top,” the 30-year-old told VeloNews. “I came here to help the younger guys, so I’m actually surprised to be the one winning. It was unexpected.”
Team South Africa hammered the UCI development team on the first climb out of Rubavu. They eventually broke Merhawi and his companions and placed three riders in the winning escape. Merhawi tried to get organized and pull back, but other teams were not interested.
The Tour of Rwanda is in its fourth year. The race is helping develop its cyclists and lift its citizens after the 1994 genocide. Lill was pleased to be racing it, his first UCI-level tour north of South Africa.
“Their racing is currently better than what we have in South Africa,” he said. “You can just see how big of a sport it is with the amount of spectators and some good sponsors involved. It’s fantastic to see. It’s like doing a big European race with the amount of crowds on the side of the road and all the TV coverage.”
Lill goes home to Cape Town next week to celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary with Lychelle. Next year, he will run his own mountain biking team while Merhawi embarks on his European journey.