Despite being one the top-ranked nations by the World Economic Forum for gender equality, and with a female majority in parliament, women's cycling in Rwanda has so far lagged behind its male counterparts. A lack of opportunities for racing in Rwanda has been a contributing factor but there is change in the air.
With no UCI women's stage races taking place in Africa, the professional pathway for Rwanda’s female cyclists has largely consisted of national, African and world championship events. The South African Telkom 947 Cycle Challenge is the only African race on the women's professional calendar.
Despite the limited access to racing, in 2016 Jeanne D'arc Girubuntu made history for Rwanda as the 22-year-old won silver in the time trial at the African Continental championships. In 2015, D'arc Girubuntu also rode the Telkom 947 Cycle Challenge. The same year she became the second female Rwanda to race the World Championships.
With the nation currently hosting the Tour of Rwanda, questions in Kigali have been asked of the federation (Ferwacy) and the possibility of a women's race in the future.
Ferwacy has secured government and sponsor funding to elevate the men's race to UCI 2.1 status from 2019. Ferwacy president Aimable Bayingana says that for a women's Tour of Rwanda to succeed, the event needs the backing of African and not just Rwanda.
"It is possible. We have to plan it in the future but we have to discuss it with other federations in Africa who are willing to participate," Bayingana told Cyclingnews in Kigali after stage 6 of the Tour of Rwanda.
"There is still a problem with women in the whole continent of Africa, we don't have any races for women. We don't have any stage races for women. We just have the races during the African championships so we prepare our women for this race. Or maybe the world championships. Also, we prepare them for the local races but we still have the problem there is no tour in Africa for women."
D'arc Girubuntu, 18-year-old Esther Muhabwampundu, and dual national champion, 21-year-old Beatha Ingabire, have been the standout riders in 2017. Xaverine Nirere, 15, also announced her potential with two silver medals in the national championships.
Kigali will host the African Continental championships for the first time since 2010 next February. At the U23 level, Rwanda has previously won medals with Janvier Hadi in the road race, and in the time trial with Adrien Niyonshuti and Valens Ndayisenga. Along with D'arc Girubuntu's silver medal.
With Tarah Cole working as the national women's coach to prepare the riders for the championships, Bayingana and Ferwacy have shown their commitment to women's cycling. In 2018, Rwanda will also a women's team at the Commonwealth Games for the first time. A further sign of the growing equality.
Although the focus, for now, is squarely on success at the continental championships, Bayingana also has one eye on the future and securing the support of fellow African federations to ensure Rwanda's gender equality extends into cycling.
"The support is there but the challenge is not having enough races at international level in Africa," he said.
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