Rwanda’s rising star

By: Dan Nicholl–Tue, 29 Mar 2011

In an event rich with narratives primed to evoke emotion, it was a man who wasn’t even riding who moved me to tears on Monday afternoon; just minutes before I was about to go on stage, it might seem poor timing. But it couldn’t have been better, in truth, for offered a vivid illustration of the story that will in all likelihood define this year’s Absa Cape Epic. The story of Adrien Niyonshuti.

It’s not a story I’m unfamiliar with, having seen the slightly built Rwandan emerge from an enthusiastic charity project to become a rider mixing it with the European aristocracy who headline mountain biking’s toughest challenge each year. But until I’d read the article that sparked the aforementioned tears, penned in this month’s Sports Illustrated by Angus Powers, I hadn’t quite realised just what Niyonshuti had dealt with leading up to an extremely special moment on Monday evening.

He was seven years old when Rwanda’s genocide exploded across a country the world didn’t have a great deal of interest in; 100 days and 800 000 lost lives later, and a small African country still carries the scars and nightmares of such a haunted past. Niyonshuti’s family ran from their home in the middle of the night, and stayed on the run; while he survived, Niyonshuti lost friends and family (including half a dozen brothers), and the reticence with which he speaks of the genocide in Powers’s excellent article, illustrates that survival came with a heavy emotional price.

Overcoming a shattered past

But dealing with such a shattered past has been eased by cycling. Starting on the wooden bikes that pepper Rwandan roads, graduating to a battered old bicycle, and then to a newer model given to him by an older brother subsequently a victim of tuberculosis, Niyonshuti was spotted by American Tom Ritchie’s philanthropic cycling project in Rwanda, one that led to the Project Rwanda team joining the 2007 Epic, with a young, wide-eyed Rwandan hopeful part of a team that won plenty of hearts, but certainly didn’t appear to be a platform for a new star to emerge.

Yet four years later, and after many more obstacles (including a hold-up in South Africa, and the death of both parents), and inspiring moments (cycling with Lance Armstrong in Ireland), Adrien Niyonshuti took to the stage after the first day of the Epic, and together with Namibian veteran Mannie Heymans, received the Absa African leader’s jersey for the continent’s best-placed team. It was an uplifting moment, a triumph for the race, and for mountain biking — but most of all, a triumph for a quiet, focused Rwandan who’s dealt with so much, and refused steadfastly to be cowed.

Niyonshuti’s ascension to the jersey came as a result of the demise of one of the favourites, South Africa’s Kevin Evans, his spirit as shattered as the collarbone that was operated on Monday night after a fall earlier in the day. Devastated as he is, though, Evans will be back, and if he needs any inspiration, it comes in the form of the man who’s now set to lead Africa’s challenge in his place. When Adrien Niyonshuti rides for Rwanda in the Olympics in London next year, his tale, as uplifting as it is searing, will be complete — but it’s the Cape Epic that can lay claim to the platform that’s seen a Rwandan kid with a flair for cycling reveal both his talent, and his strength of character, to a world that can only look in admiration.


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