Rwanda is known as one of the main cycling countries in Africa since the national team was rebuilt with riders who survived the genocide. However women's cycling might be the next big thing in the country, after Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu went second in the individual time trial of the African Continental Championships, held on Tuesday in Benslimane, Morocco.
The Rwandan athlete, aged 20, lost the gold medal by one second to Namibia's Vera Adrian while South Africa's Samantha Sanders takes third place.
"I am very, very happy," Girubuntu told Cyclingnews. "I was 4th in the African Championships and 5th in the African Games last year, so I can see I have improved a lot."
Former pro rider Jock Boyer, now Rwanda's national coach, said Girubuntu "is inspirational and paving way to women in Rwanda."
Rwanda has already a role model for men cyclists in Adrian Niyonshuti, 29, a rider at Dimension Data and London 2012 Olympian in the Mountain Bike event. The main character of "Rising From Ashes" documentary movie, became a national hero through sport after he lost 60 people in his family during the genocide, inspired the young generation in Rwanda, including Girubuntu.
Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu comes from the same town of the pro rider, indeed, Rwamagana, east of the country, and she decided to turn into cycling in 2009 after she watched the Tour of Rwanda, a 2.2 UCI race which is one the most popular in Africa. She joined the Adrian Niyonshuti Cycling Academy and then the national team in 2014.
"Jeanne d'Arc will open the door to women riders in the same way as Adrien did," Boyer says. "She can be very popular with her results but also her style and her name – Joan of Arc – who suggests some fight for freedom."
The Rwandan rider brings hope not only to Rwandan but black African women, as she was the first black African athlete to compete in the World Championships, last year, in Richmond, where she went 44th in the time trial and 87th in the road race.
"I want to show all the women in Africa – the poor, black women – that we too can race bikes, be successful, and make money," Girubuntu recently told ESPN. "We do not need to follow the culture of getting married young and having children and working the fields."
In charge of nine people in her extended family, Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu trains most of her time in the Africa Rising Cycling Centre, Musanze, with men's Rwanda national team. "My new responsibility is to tell as many women as possible that cycling is a beautiful sport," she says. "I want more women to be involved."
Girubuntu will train for four months with the World Cycling Centre, Switzerland, before possibly joining an UCI squad, as her management has already some offers and considers "she will be mentally and physically ready for that in 2017".
If she leaves Rwanda for most of the year, Jeanne d'Arc can be the first of a few women, though. The national cycling federation, the Ferwacy, will intensify scouting in 2016 and develop more female riders in 2017. In the country where women MP are predominant (there are 65%, which is the world record), Ferwacy President Aimable Bayingana says he wants "men and women to be equal in cycling too."
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