Rwanda's first cyclist will continue his journey in the peloton. The good news that Adrien Niyonshuti had extended his contract with Team MTN-Qhubeka (named Team Dimension Data in 2016) and will race for his eighth season with the African squad came less than a week before the start of the Tour of Rwanda.
He will be Mark Cavendish's team-mate next year and could soon be part of a WorldTour project. His contract was, indeed, unsure until his managers were confident that the team would be granted entry into the world's first division.
"I am glad to stay one more year and now I would like to show what I am able to do," Niyonshuti told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Rwanda, where he was supposed to compete before he broke his elbow last month at the Memorial Pantani, Italy.
His last two years at Team MTN-Qhubeka have been tarnished by some bad luck. The Rwandan rider suffered deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism after a flight in February 2013 and lost several weeks in his preparation. However, he came back to shape and could in 2015 enter into races such as Giro del Trentino, Bayern Rundfahrt and Tour of Utah, supporting his leaders like Louis Meintjes in GC or Gerald Ciolek in bunch sprints.
"This experience has been good to me and my country," said the 28-year old climber. "I learned a lot and enjoyed new style of races like the Three Days of Western Flanders. This is a Flemish course but I could cope with it, thanks to my mountain bike background."
In 2016, Niyonshuti would like to race his first Grand Tour. "He can do it, he is an endurance rider and he has a strong potential," says his mentor Jonathan Boyer, the ex-American pro cyclist and Team Rwanda National coach.
Boyer recalls how Rwandan cycling has grown up on the wheel of Niyonshuti, one of the main post-genocide figures in his country as the first cyclist to become famous when the national team was re-started in 2007. The pro rider also cast in 'Rising From Ashes' (2012, directed by T.C Johnstone). His personal story reflects Rwanda's tragedy and rebirth, from the loss of 60 members of his family in 2012 to the spotlight of London Olympics, where he rode the Mountain Bike event in 2012.
Niyonshuti's own path to success in sport is still inspiring young cyclists in his country, even if he's less on the media now, living in Lucca, Italy, and predominantly racing abroad. Some emerging leaders of the national team are even more popular than him at the moment, but he is still remembered and praised as a pioneer of cycling, the number one sport in Rwanda.
From Sunday to Tuesday he paid a visit to the Tour of Rwanda and helped the Team Rwanda staff, advising the riders, looking after them, providing some gels, water and bananas before and after the stages.
"I have become a kind of directeur sportif," he joked. Before flying to South Africa, in order to meet his doctor and monitor his elbow injury, the Team MTN-Qhubeka member had a ride on Thursday with his fans and protégés.
The Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy opened its doors in 2012, and hosts both local club of Les Amis Sportifs and the Junior National team's training camps. This first step to the African Rising Center in Musanze the home of Team Rwanda has already provided new talents to the national selections, included Valens Ndayisenga, the Tour of Rwanda victor last year.
The Academy is based in Rwamagana, in the east of the country, the hometown of Niyonshuti, in a team house, with living room as well as a workshop. Several maps (Rwanda, Africa, Europe and earth) stand on the walls. There's also a nutrition scheme, stating in English that riders must eat sugar before training and proteins after.
"I am very proud of the staff and the riders who work very hard here, almost every day in the week", Niyonshuti said on Monday, as the Tour of Rwanda finished in his town. The pro cyclist went to the team house to receive a donation of bikes and clothes by a French non-profit association, "Cht'ti-Rwanda". "Adrien needs more support to create new champions in the country", the association president, Erik Fourez, told Cyclingnews.
It seems some young riders are ready to follow the path of Adrien Niyonshuti and Valens Ndayisenga, and strengthen the national team, where Boyer says "the level is massively increasing". Janvier Rugamba, a 17-year-old cyclist from Rwamagana and member of the Academy, was so enthusiastic to see his idol again that he rode six for hours the following day to attend to the Tour of Rwanda's finish in Huye.
"I train usually two to four hours a day," he explains, wearing a Team MTN hat. "Adrien gives me a lot of motivation. He is a very special person, a great champion and I would like to do like him, join the national team, turn pro in Europe and, hopefully, race in the Tour de France."