The ups and downs of cycling in Rwanda

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The Rwanda Cycling Cup, a now well-established annual series, has helped the country develop a national racing team strong enough to participate at the Commonwealth Games, currently underway in Australia.

Flashing a radiant smile and with arms raised triumphantly in the air, Didier Munyaneza crossed the finish line to win 2018's opening event of the 10-month, 11-race Cup in Kigali in late March.

His teammates, all wearing the distinctive red of Club Benediction, the country's most successful cycling club, finished second and third to complete a clean sweep, delighting the large crowd gathered along the 158-km route between Kigali and Huye, a town located south of the capital.

Munyaneza, and hundreds of other professional cyclists in this 'Land of a Thousand Hills,' have played a major role in the country's cycling revolution, a journey that began close to 10 years ago when the Rwandan Cycling Federation (FERWACY) was established.

Since then, the sport has undergone an almost miraculous transformation, with hundreds of young riders taking the sport seriously enough to spawn scores of professional cycling clubs.

Ever since veteran rider Adrien Niyonshuti, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, became the country's first rider on the UCI World Tour in 2009, the small East African country has been producing top riders, many chasing the dream of international competition.

"Rwandan boys and girls love cycling because it is one sport that can change your life," Niyonshuti, who represented Rwanda at the 2012 London Olympics, tells KweséESPN.

"In Rwanda, the sport is becoming bigger and bigger. It is a famous sport in Rwanda and the government is supporting the cyclists and the federation. With a team in the Commonwealth Games, you can see step by step we are getting there," Niyonshuti adds.

Rwanda's extremely undulating geography, where hills often peak at 1,800 meters (almost 6,000 feet) above sea level and valleys can lie below 1,300 meters (4,000 feet), makes for some tough race conditions - but is also great training fare.

The Tour du Rwanda received UCI status in 2009 and has since attracted some of the world's top cyclists -- which initially made the event tough to win for Rwandan athletes.

Then, Valens Ndayisenga became the first Rwandan to win the Tour, in 2014. In 2015, Rwanda won again through Jean Bosco Nsengimana. The former then clinched his second title in 2016, while Joseph Areruya won it last year.

Despite the four-year winning streak, Rwanda Cycling president, Aimable Bayingana, points out that the country's road to success has been almost as rocky as Rwanda is hilly.

He tells KweséESPN: "It was not easy at first because we started from scratch. We started a program to identify talent and looking for bikes to give the selected riders.

"Then slowly we began to participate in international races to let them learn, experience how it feels, to race at that level. Step by step, they became professionals and year after year, new riders came through."

For veterans such as Niyonshuti, the task now is to inspire new generations of Rwandan riders.

"We have young riders coming through and they always get knowledge from experienced riders who help them become better professional cyclers," he says.

Rwanda's performance in the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, where the country is represented in the road race cycling by Areruya, Ndayisenga and Munyaneza, and reigning national women's champion Beatha Ingabire, will be a good indication of whether the country's veterans and officials are getting it right.