It took a long time, 20 years to be exact, but at long last Rwanda has a cyclist who is good enough to represent the country at the Olympic Games. Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN/Qhubeka) made cycling history last weekend when he finished fourth in the elite men's cross country race of the African Continental Championship at Jonkershoek, near Stellenbosch. In doing so, Niyonshuti did not merely qualify for next year's Olympic Games in London, he was also the first Rwandan mountain biker ever to do so.
The last time that cyclists of Rwanda competed at the Olympic Games was in Barcelona in 1992, when a team of six road cyclists participated.
Niyonshuti has matured from a shy, young man to an internationally competitive cyclist. Much of that maturation has come while racing in South Africa - he is regular in the South African mountain bike race scene.
Doug Ryder, team-owner of MTN/Qhubeka, described Niyonshuti's progress as a mountain biker during the past two years as an amazing and gratifying achievement for him, as well as for his country. "Something that started out as a dream when we began to work with Adrien two years ago after seeing him at the African Continental Cycling Centre has now become a reality." Ryder credited Niyonshuti's work ethic as well as his team's sponsors and partners.
"In 2009, Adrien achieved two third places in mountain bike races. In 2010, he won not only three mountain bike races but also the Rwandan National Road Championships, and today he qualified for a spot in the 2012 Olympic Games for his country. Incredible development by a rider who keeps getting better and winning more races every year. The future is bright for him."
Niyonshuti is a firm believer in the principle that any cyclist is only as good as his last race and persuading him to talk about his cycling success is always a challenge. He is not boastful after victories because for him that amounts to tempting fate. At most Niyonshuti will, after a good result, say that he was grateful for the way the race played out and maybe, in a sudden rush of blood, he might add that he was happy to have won and that his victory was special to him. Niyonshuti prefers to let his legs do the talking.
Kevin Evans, a former teammate, can vouch for Niyonshuti's hunger to be one of the best. He experienced it first-hand during last year's DCM Cape Pioneer Trek. From the very first day of the tour Niyonshuti was racing flat out to achieve a stage victory. At first, Evans did not realize how important a stage victory was for his teammate.
At De Rust, Evans was caught napping in the sprint to the line by the two Swiss riders, Christoph Sauser and Sylvio Bundi. The stage was won by the Swiss duo, despite the fact that Niyonshuti was the first rider across the line.
The Rwandan rider was bitterly disappointed with the result, but he refused to give up and in the end he was rewarded with the stage victory that he so badly desired.
It was after the DCM Cape Pioneer Trek, in an unguarded moment, that Niyonshuti first hinted about how important it was for him to represent his country at the Olympic Games.
When Niyonshuti tells the story of his life, it becomes clear that this is a man who truly lives each minute of every day. The well-known saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough gets going" is certainly applicable to him.
In his 23 years, Niyonshuti has experienced unimaginable horrors, but these setbacks have seemingly just made him more motivated to train harder and push himself to the limit. He meets life's challenges head-on and, by doing so, he sets an example to each and every one of us.
The short version of Niyonshuti's life started in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda in which nearly 800,000 people (roughly estimated at 20 percent of the country's population) were killed in a period of six months. He lost seven brothers.
According to Jock Boyer, technical director of the Rwanda Cycling Federation, Niyonshuti's best friend, Godfrey, was run over and killed by a motorist while he was riding on his bicycle. Godfrey, an up-and-coming cyclist, was a young orphan who lived with his mentor, Adrien, in Rwanda.
The accident happened 18 months after Niyonshuti's father had died from an unknown disease. Niyonshuti lives with his mother in a town called Rwamagana in Rwanda. He has used his race winnings to make improvements to his mother's house which now has electricity, cement floors and running water.
According to Boyer, Niyonshuti is a rider with a remarkable talent. He also has a drive to succeed that surpasses that of most other athletes.
"When I met him almost four years ago, his perseverance soon became apparent. To take part in the Olympics is an important goal for him, but I sincerely hope that he will be able to continue with his cycling career until long after the 2012 Games. Through his cycling exploits, Adrian has become a symbol of hope for many youngsters in Rwanda."