Team Rwanda set for biggest race to date in Colorado

Team Rwanda will compete in a 2.HC race for the first time this week when the Colorado Classic rolls out of Colorado Springs for stage 1 on Thursday.

The start in Colorado Springs will be the culmination of several years of work to bring the African team back to the States after it competed here in two national calendar events in its inaugural year, 2007, at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico and the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic in Oregon.

The Continental team was made famous in the 2012 movie 'Rising from the Ashes,' which depicted the Rwandan national team's determination to rise out of the 1994 genocide and compete in the 2012 Olympics road race.

Five years on from that effort, the team and its 35 riders have grown to the point that they can compete internationally, Adrien Niyonshuti riding in the 2012 London Olympic Games in mountain biking, and, most recently, Joseph Areruya (Dimension Data for Qhubeka) winning a stage this year in the U23 Baby Giro.

The six-man squad in Colorado includes Jean Claude Uwizeye, Jean Bosco Nsengimana, Jean Paul Rene Ukiniwabo, Bonaventure Uwizeyimana, Gasore Hategeka and Didier Munyaneza.

"We've been working for the last four years with Colorado," team manager Kimberly Coats told Cyclingnews last month at the Cascade Cycling Classic in Oregon, where the team raced as a warm up for Colorado.

"We have a sports marketing group in Colorado that really helps us," she said. "The timing was just never right. The money was never there, etc., etc. And then this year it all came together. They found a sponsor for us, Thorne Research, and here we are."

The team wanted to compete in the Cascade Classic, the 38-year-old national calendar event that was on the UCI America Tour this year as a 2.2 race, to get a the riders' feet wet in American racing, including bigger fields and US-style criteriums.

"In Africa, we race in fields of like 80, max," Coats said. "And here it's 200, so day one was frightening. We had a really bad crash on the first stage. Jean Claude Uwizeye actually ended up on a spare bike and rode 90 miles. He ended up having stitches in his hand and road rash everywhere. He started the TT but he was just too sore.

"He's the only one who didn't finish," Coats added. "Everyone else has made the cut and done well. We made it through the crit, which for us, we don't do crits in Africa. There's just nothing. But they actually looked like they were having fun out there."

Ukiniwabo was the team's best-placed finisher in 55th, more than 13 minutes behind winner Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel). Nsengimana scored the team's best stage results with 30th in the time trial.

Coats said the team's best chances for success in Colorado will likely come during the climbing stage in Brecknridge, where the peloton will climb Moonstone Road at altitude multiple times during the circuit race there.

Results in Colorado will be appreciably harder to come by, but Coats and the team are happy knowing the program has grown to the point where riders are able to race at the highest level.

"I was just talking with Peter Stetina after he won on stage 3 and congratulated him; he had sent us some things to Rwanda," Coats said last month at the Cascade Classic. "He said, 'You know what, your guys are the real deal.' Coming from somebody like Peter, that was huge. He goes, 'They were throwing attacks. They were there. They were in the mix.'

"So I think for us, we like the publicity and everything to our program, but more importantly, I want the world to see that they are the real deal. The only things we lack are just opportunity and equipment to races to travel, etc.," Coats said.

"That's exactly what we're hoping, and, you know, just Bend has been huge for us. We've gotten a lot of publicity. And Colorado has been really good, and we're hoping for even bigger things, too."

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