Nathan Byukusenge will compete for Rwanda in their first participation at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships on Saturday, September 5. As one of the original members of Team Rwanda in 2007, the 35-year-old rider is motivated to produce a good performance in Andorra, hoping for a spot at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"People still think about genocide when you say Rwanda," Byukusenge said in an interview published on the UCI website. "I want them to think cycling and what cycling means to our country and how it is changing our country and people within Team Rwanda."
Byukusenge was one of several original members of the team who was affected by the genocide in 1994. Team Rwanda's foundation was chronicled in the 2012 documentary, Rising from the Ashes, as American cycling legend Jock Boyer helped prepare the team prior to the 2012 London Olympics.
At 35, other pro cyclists might considering retiring from the sport but Byukusenge believes he is far from done with his professional career. Living near the team's base at the African Rising Cycling Centre, he trains at 2000 metres in altitude in the northern Musanze district of Rwanda.
"I am not a young man in the sport but to make the Olympics at 35 shows, that if you train and eat right, you can ride competitively for a long time," he said.
Byukusenge looks to Swiss rider Thomas Frischknecht for inspiration, a former UCI World Champion known as Europe's "older statesmen," due to his long professional career. "He is still very strong and a great mountain bike cyclist. Because I am older, I see I can have a future in the sport like Thomas. I rode his old World Cup bike at the Cape Epic in 2012."
Although he identifies himself as a road racer, Byukusenge has competed several times in South Africa's legendary mountain bike stage race, the Cape Epic, twice in the Swiss Epic, and most recently finished sixth at the African Continental MTB Championships in May.
"It was then that we knew he was our guy," Team Rwanda coach Sterling Magnell said. "Our focus shifted towards laying the groundwork to set him up for the ride of his life in Rio.
"He's eager and tremendously motivated. You can see his passion for the dirt, and I think a lot of people will be surprised at how much ground he might cover while focusing on his Olympic bid over the next year."
The Rwandan rider has since altered his training program in order to increase his core strength, along with working on his power and acceleration that all play a key role in succeeding in the discipline. Magnell complements this with short, intense interval training to mimic race tempo in cross country racing.
"I have a good training programme and I am adding in strength training to help me, especially with my starts," Byukusenge said. "I am very excited and thankful for the opportunity to see the competition I will face next year."
"His goal is to make up as much ground as possible and glean some knowledge for his campaign going forward," explained Magnell. "Above all he relishes the chance to race on the world stage. The man loves to ride his bike."