19 November 2012

Rwanda: Could This Be the Year?


Every year, the number of sponsors for the highly billed Tour of Rwanda keeps growing. This year, sponsors include the ministry of sport and culture, Western Union, SKOL, Cogebanque, Cogear, EWSA, Rwanda National Lottery, Europcar, Inyange, Brussels Airlines, CANAL+, Radio 10 and TV5 Monde.

This is very impressive considering the fact that sports is one area that does not exactly appeal to most potential sponsors in the country.

That said, results have not gone Rwanda's way since 2009 and the big question is for how long do we have to wait before we see one of our own walking away with the coveted yellow jersey?

Only Adrien Niyonshuti and Co can answer that question.

Since the race's incorporation into the UCI Africa tour back in 2009, Rwandan cyclists have played second fiddle to the likes of Morocco, Eritrea and most recently the USA.

In 2009, Morocco's Adil Jelloul was simply untouchable. The following year, Eritrea dominated proceedings and it was no surprise when Daniel Teklehaimanot claimed the yellow jersey. However, last year, things took a new twist as USA's Kiel Reijnen reigned supreme to become the first none-African to win the tour.

Reijnen, who was riding for USA's SANOFI Team Type 1, won three of the seven stages en route to winning the 787km tour.

Nathan Byukusenge, who was riding for Team Karisimbi emerged as the best Rwandan in fourth place followed by fellow teammate Abraham Ruhumuriza in fifth position and Niyonshuti (MTN Qhubeka) in sixth place.

For Niyonshuti, the performance left a lot to be desired and it is left to be seen if the 25-year-old has what it takes to win the 876km race. The South African based rider is fresh from Burkina Faso where he struggled to cope with the sweltering heat during the Africa Continental Cycling Championship.

Niyonshuti finished inside the top ten in the Individual Time Trial and Elite Men Road races but will need to double his efforts to stand a chance of winning the tour which got under way yesterday with a 3.8km prologue race.

Fresh from winning the Africa Cycling Championship, Eritreans are overwhelming favorites to win the tour. 2010 champion Teklehaimanot together with Natnael Berhane are expected to lead Eritrea's surge.

That said, Morocco, South Africa and USA's Team Type 1 are also genuine contenders.

Some believe that the weight of expectation on Niyonshuti's shoulders could be the reason why he has struggled in the tour since 2009. He is by far Rwanda's best cyclists and as expected, the country expects a lot from him.

Well, that's the difference between a good rider and a great rider. How good is he to perform under pressure? How well can he lift up his teammates? All this has a huge bearing on how well he performs.

There is no doubt that he has become a better rider since joining MTN Qhubeka but the best yardstick to prove this is when you can grind out performances and stand out when it matters most.

He has not done that in the last few years but let's hope this is the year when he finally puts one in the bag.

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