With two category one climbs and the majority of the day at 1,700 metres and higher in elevation, stage 4 of the Tour of Rwanda promised to be a decisive day in the battle for the overall. And so it proved after 120 kilometres of hard-fought racing to force the first significant reshuffle of the general classification.
In Nyamata, it was Dimension Data for Qhubeka coming up trumps with its third stage win and the second stint in the yellow jersey. It was a collective aggressive showing by the Rwandan teams assisted the South African squad to end Simon Pellaud's reign in yellow.
The last two overall winners, Valens Ndayisenga and Jean Bosco Nsengimana were billed as the pre-race favourites but it is their younger companion Joseph Areruya who now firms as the rider to beat. With plenty of racing still to come, Ndayisenga's 2:50-minute deficit and Nsengimana's 1:44 time gap to Areruya are not insurmountable. Although the 21-year-old has proven himself as the strong rider in the race thus far, he admits it will be a difficult task to hold on for the win.
"Now we have the yellow jersey but we have a big job as we can't take it easy tomorrow. We have riders behind me who want the yellow jersey. That is why we have to work hard," Areruya said.
Areruya now leads teammate and stage 4 winner Metkel Eyob by 38 seconds with Kenyan Suleiman Kangangi (Bike Aid) third at 1:16 minutes. For Dimension Data for Qhubeka sports director Andrew Smith, the only thing that went wrong on stage 4 was the team car breaking down, forcing a change of vehicle, before the first climb of the day. With the yellow jersey back in the team, Smith et al will be hoping future problems are also car and not bike related.
"I think the next few days really suit us and Joseph is really strong on the short steep climbs. Who knows? Maybe we can do something special after this as well," Smith said.
The rider closest to the Dimension Data for Qhubeka duo is 28-year-old Kangangi who made his move up the GC via his presence in the select breakaway on stage 4. Kangangi made his debut at the race in 2011 with tenth his previous best position and in position for his best UCI stage race result to date.
"A stage win would be fantastic but for the podium, I have seen some people who [can challenge that] are not so strong for the climbs," he told Cyclingnews. "But I will see if maybe on stage 6 we can put them into difficulty. We still keep on trying."
With just two teammates to call upon at the race, Pellaud was realistic about his chances for the overall the moment he rode into yellow. Having worn the jersey for longer than expected, he explained his time loss today was due to the combined efforts of the Rwandan teams.
"Finally the Rwanda riders were able to race together," he told Cyclingnews after finishing stage 4. "They did what they had to do to kick my arse. Congratulations to them. I don't know exactly the time gap at the end but with just three riders here, it was hard to control the race."
For Pellaud, the slide down the standings could also be a blessing in disguise for the team's stage ambitions.
"We are here with Edwin [Avila] and he is so fast," he said of the Colombian. "He is getting in better shape day by day and for sure, tomorrow we will have a good opportunity to win with him so let's see what tomorrow will bring. It might also be better for us to lose the jersey so we can focus on the stage wins and maybe on the last stage we try something more."
Although Pellaud wouldn't discount his overall chances, the 2017 Tour of Rwanda is shaping up as a fourth straight win for the home country. With five riders in the top ten, Rwanda is again dominating the general classification but there remains the outside chance of an upset win to silence the local fans. Particularly with the treacherous Muur de Kigali to come on stage six in the capital.