On the eve of the 2017 Tour of Rwanda, 19-year-old Samuel Mugisha lost his mother in a tragic traffic incident. While the Dimension Data for Qhubeka rider could have been excused from lining out at his national tour, Mugisha pinned on his race numbers in memory and honour of his late mother.
Late last month, Mugisha won the longest race of the 2017 Rwanda Cycling Cup, 180-kilometres from Nyanza to Rubavu, dedicating his victory to his mother who "always encouraged me to ride my bike and work hard" he said at the time.
With Dimension Data for Qhubeka's dual threat of Joseph Areruya and Metkel Eyob for the Tour of Rwanda, the duo would finish one-two overall, Mugisha's role in the race was to support his teammates.
Born in the western province town of Mukamira in Rwanda, Mugisha rose to prominence at the 2016 edition of his national race with victory in the king of the mountains classification. Having claimed the Rwanda Cup win, Mugisha explained to Cyclingnews his role at the national tour was to support his teammates and continue to honour the memory of his mother.
"I feel strong and I feel good to help my teammates. Sometimes in cycling you feel shit or good but we are ready to help Joseph win here," said Mugisha, whose skinny frame hints at his potential in the mountains.
"Two months ago I lost my mum who was helping me with everything. Also when I come to this race she comes here with me. When I lose her I don't think I stop cycling. I focus on what I can do and what I can change. It is the life and I keep focused on riding hard to be a professional. I think next year can be good."
The eldest boy, and third born, in a family of nine, four boys and five girls, Mugisha left school in 2013 to focus on his cycling career after his first experience of the Tour of Rwanda.
"When I was maybe 13 or 15 I was standing on the road and watched the Tour of Rwanda. Then I thought I have to do this sport," he said of the third stage of the race that year which was won by Louis Meintjes ahead of Eyob.
Former rider, Innocent 'Rukara' Uwamungu, who lost an eye due to a cycling incident, became Mugisha's first training partner with the duo hitting the road most days with the memories of the race still fresh. Quickly sensing his young training partner's talent, Uwamungu convinced Mugisha's parents to buy him a bicycle. Samuel Kadari and Agnes Mukabutera obliging.
Mugisha's career took off in 2014 as he explained to Rwandan newspaper News Times with Felix Sempoma of Club Benediction de Rubavu paying close attention to his training regime alongside Jock Boyer and Sterling Magnell. Impressing his coaches, Mugisha made steady progress and in 2016 was selected by the national team to race the Vuelta a Colombia, a career 'lowlight', and RideLondon.
Mugisha's 2016 helped secure his first Continental contract with the Dimension Data feeder team and a season primarily of Italian racing. He also made his Worlds debut, making the major break of the U23 road race before finishing with a DNF against this name.
As a first rider with the team, Mugisha explained for the Tour of Rwanda,"I focus for next year. This year I have to help my teammates," he said, adding that crowds each day "give us more energy. Some of the places we go, everyone is saying 'go, go' and it gives you the emotion to go hard."
Another Rwandan supporter of Mugisha's is the country's first WorldTour rider Adrien Niyonshuti who wasn't racing the Tour of Rwanda this year but instead getting married.
"He is one who pushes me for who I am now. He supported me with his cycling academy and he gives me a bike, kit, everything and then I started to think I could ride my bike. I am thankful for Adrien," he said.
Of the Rwandan professional riders, Niyonshuti has been a pioneer. Demonstrating the sacrificed required to make it as a professional cyclist in Europe. For Mugisha, who is aiming high, he also understands the necessary sacrifices, which he is willing to make to live his dream
"My dream is to work hard for a big team in Europe and also to win some stages in Europe. My dream is to ride the Tour de France one day," he said.
"When you change languages, it is going to be hard but you know some English and it doesn't take me long to feel what I can say. Sometimes it is going to be hard but it is life and we have to change.
Mugisha's sports director at Dimension Data for Qhubeka Andrew Smith has overseen "a breakthrough year" for the climber and believes he has a bright future in the sport.
"Sammy has shown us that he is really smart. He has a lot to learn but he also realises that," Smith told Cyclingnews. "With Sammy, we are seeing that he is developing as a cyclist very slowly but he has really taken to the taken. He picks up languages and phrases very easily, even if it is a little mischievous. He is a good guy and I think if he continues on the trajectory he is on, he can make it for sure."
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