Calm, soft-spoken and humble can best describe Adrien Niyonshuti, Rwanda’s only professional cyclist.
Perhaps these attributes engulf the shock and pain of the 28-year-old, who at the tender age of seven years witnessed first hand one of the world’s most tragic and horrific atrocities – the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda where over one million people lost their lives.
Among them were his six brothers and up to 60 members of his extended family. He survived after hiding between two mattresses for days before moving to the bush with his parents for a week with no food and water amidst the rainy season but he was alive which was what mattered.
They ran and ran for weeks, every other day posing a challenge to fight for survival against Hutu militia who killed men, raped women and sliced children’s heads off. Forests and swamps were hiding places but even then, the fierce killers reached there.
Born and raised in Rwamagana, Niyonshuti’s story has been one of courage, determination and defying odds on a journey that few have treaded.
Broken with a sense of no belonging, he found comfort from his surviving parents who gave everything they had in life to raise Niyonshuti and his brother Abdurwahabi.
They provided every possible basic need within their modest means and ensured their sons went to school.
At 16, Niyonshuti was given a second-hand bicycle by his beloved Uncle Emmanuel and just like any other boy his age, he was elated but little did he know that this combination of small metallic cylinders would change his life and destiny to build a foundation of hope and healing to a nation grieving a million lost lives.
Exactly 10 years after the horrific killings, Niyonshuti took part in the Tour du Rwanda and finished seventh.
Two years later in 2006, Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, the first American rider to compete at the prestigious Tour de France was invited to Rwanda by his friend Tom Ritchey, an American bike frame builder/designer, founder of Ritchey Design to organize a wooden classic.
Alex Stieda, the first American to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France was there too.
Ritchey had noticed that locals used wooden bicycles literally made of wood, even the wheels to tow farm produce of up to 180kg-200kg in the rural areas.
Ritchey saw the opportune moment to stage a Wooden Bike Classic in September 2006 in Kibuye, western Rwanda and in attendance to compete were local motor-bike riders and transport riders but the mastery with which Niyonshuti rode on a borrowed bike from his brother Abdurwahabi to eventually emerge eventual winner wowed Boyer who promised to return to Rwanda to start a national cycling team.
Years later as tests would be done; Niyonshuti’s body would prove to be stronger than that of the once famed and former world number one Lance Armstrong of USA.
His return culminated into the formation of Team Rwanda Cycling in 2007 where scores of riders from across the country were tested and 20 selected.
Of the 20, five were chosen to compete at the 2007 Cape Epic in the Western Cape, South Africa described by Bart Brentjens, 1996 Olympic gold medallist in mountain biking and former Absa Cape Epic winners as the “Tour de France of mountain biking” and is in fact beyond categorisation by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
The annual event attracts up to 600 teams but Team Rwanda would rely on Niyonshuti and Boyer, a long retired pro rider and they finished 33rd overall. The following year’s edition, Niyonshuti who was partnering with Nathan Byukusenge among others finished 23rd.
Niyonshuti who finished second in the 2006 and 2007 Tour du Rwanda editions had caught the eye of Douglas Ryder, the founder of MTN Qhubeka, the biggest and most successful pro team in Africa and the rest is history because he was offered his first professional contract in 2008 then called MTN Energade.
In August 2009, Niyonshuti competed at the Tour of Ireland becoming the first Black African to compete in a European race and in November, he finished fifth in the general classification of the Tour du Rwanda, winning the best Rwandan jersey in the year that the annual competition was included on the UCI Africa Tour.
At the Africa continental cycling championships, Niyonshuti finished fourth in the men’s individual time trial and eighth in the men’s road race competition. He was effortlessly trying to find a balance between mountain biking and road racing but the balance would pay off.
In February 2011, he finished in fourth position at the Africa Mountain Bike Continental Championships in Stellenbosch, South Africa securing a place to compete at the London 2012 Olympics, becoming the first Rwandan to compete in the mountain bike category at the world’s most prestigious sports event.
In the same year, he won the MTN Claren Ultra Marathon and at the Cape Epic the same year, he finished as the best African and was ninth in the General Classification.
Niyonshuti who made headlines world over was named as the Team Rwanda captain to the London 2012 Olympics at the age of 25 and to him, this was a big dream achieved.
In an earlier interview, Niyonshuti said, “I am very glad that I made my country Rwanda very proud. Qualifying and competing at the Olympics is not an easy achievement and it is a memory I will always cherish.”
Niyonshuti’s dream which was to finish the race was achieved as he finished 39th and it was in London that he attained the dream to start the Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy (ANCA) which is based in his home town.
From the money he earns as a professional rider and donations from friends abroad, Niyonshuti has managed to inspire riders across the country with a platform to help them get to where he is.
Results can be seen from the emergence of the reigning Tour du Rwanda winner Valens Ndayisenga whose talent was mentored at ANCA as well as two-time national female champion Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu who finished fifth at the Africa continental cycling championships in South Africa in February.
Recently crowned winner of the first race of the Rwanda Cycling Cup, Joseph Aleluya too was mentored at this centre. The centre brings together youth mainly from Rwamagana and Kayonza, trains as well as pays school fees for them to go to school.
Niyonshuti’s success on the international scene has inspired a generation of riders across the country and now riders like Ndayisenga, Janvier Hadi, Bonaventure Uwizeyimana and Jean Bosco Nsengimana believe that they can make it big on the international stage.
Niyonshuti continues to dream after the UCI recently announced that MTN Qhubeka had acquired a wild card to compete at this year’s Tour de France.
Niyonshuti alongside his other four Black African teammates including Eritrea’s Natnael Berhane, Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot and South Africa’s Jim Songezo have a chance to be the first Black Africans to compete at the world’s most prestigious cycling event – the Tour de France.
This will definitely keep alive his journey of inspiration guiding a whole generation to healing through a bicycle.
Courtesy of in2eastafrica.net