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Rwanda's female cycling ace

September 26, 2016
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC), #Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu, #Niyonshuti Cycling Academy, #Rwanda
by:Bob Koigi
She is hailed to become the best cyclist Rwanda has ever seen. Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu is the first woman in the country's history to compete in the national championships and she also races internationally.

Her exceptional performances have sparked the interest of top European teams. It’s not because of her name that Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu is causing a stir in the international sports world at the moment, but rather because of her outstanding talent. Her story is being told all across her home country, Rwanda, and is already something of a modern fairytale: The 21-year-old is considered the biggest talent in women’s cycling in Rwanda.

This incredible story began in 2009, when Girubuntu heard of the Tour du Rwanda for the first time. She watched the competition stage that lead from Kigali to Nyagatare and heard everyone chanting Adrien Niyonshuti’s name. The Rwandan professional rider, who competes for South Africa’s MTN Qhubeka and also took part in last year’s Tour de France, grew up in the same town as Girubuntu: Rwamagana, 50 kilometers east of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

Several riders of Rwanda’s men’s cycling team have already made a name for themselves, even internationally. The success story of Team Rwanda and its most prominent athlete, Adrien Niyonshuti, was even made into a documentary, Rising from the Ashes,in 2012.

As for women’s cycling team, however, there was nothing much to say about it until the rise to stardom of Girubuntu early last year. There is no doubt amongst experts that Girubuntu is currently Rwanda’s leading sportswoman and is even in a good position to become the best the country has ever produced, should she keep the steady progress she has shown in the last couple of years.

Victory on her debut

Prior to committing herself to cycling in 2013, Girubuntu was a football and volleyball player for her school teams until she took interest in cycling as a professional sport. Once the spark was ignited, she started doing research on Rwandan cycling and how she could join the sport.

Four years ago, she was directed to Diane Uwineza. The former cyclist not only gave valuable advice to the young athlete but also connected her to Rwamagana-based Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy. There, Girubuntu, then a 17-year girl, was received with open arms.

“Thanks to John Rugambwa, head coach at the training center, it didn’t take me very long to adapt and learn all the basics,” she recalls.

Girubuntu started competitive cycling in 2014 and, on her debut, she emerged as champion in both the Individual Time Trial (ITT) and the Road Race. These results propelled her to the national limelight.

"At first, it was very challenging being the only girl at the centre."

After impressing the Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), Girubuntu was admitted to Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) in Musanze district, North of Rwanda in late 2014, effectively becoming the first and hitherto only female to join Team Rwanda Cycling.

“It was very challenging at the beginning, being the only girl at the centre and doing exactly the same training as men was not easy. But again I realised it was helping me grow very fast and I had to blend in very quickly,” Girubuntu recalls with a shy smile.

American-born Jonathan Boyer, the former US national team rider and the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France, is the technical director at ARCC. He revealed that ARCC and Ferwacy are working together on plans to start organising female-only cycling competitions as a way of detecting young female talent.

Racing instead of studying

To further pursue her professional career, 21-year-old Girubuntu decided to quit school for the moment and fully concentrate on cycling: “I was very fine at school and all was going well, but I had to drop out. I travelled a lot in 2015, I could not handle cycling and studies simultaneously. I will go back to school when the right time comes.”

Only a few months after joining ARCC and making a good impression on the center’s trainers, including technical director Jonathan Boyer, Girubuntu was named among Team Rwanda riders at the 2015 Africa Continental Road Championship in South Africa. It was her first international competition.

After 24 kilometers in the ITT she finished sixth (41:23 minutes), three minutes after gold medalist Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (South Africa) and only 19 seconds shy of a bronze medal.

These great results at the African Championships paved the road for the next steps in what could lead to be an outstanding career. First, she was invited for a month-long training camp at the World Cycling Center (WCC) in Potchesfstroom (South Africa). From May till August 2015, Girubuntu had the great opportunity to train at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle (Switzerland). That made her the first Rwandan female rider to train at the world’s best cycling center and the 1.000th trainee to be hosted in Aigle. Apart from finding first-class training facilities, the young athlete also received handy advice from former French professional cyclist Jean-Jaques Henry.

After her return from Europe, she was focused on preparing for the All Africa Games in Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo) and the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond (USA) later that year.

Split of a second

In Brazzaville, she missed the podium by a microsecond in the women’s ITT, the saddest moment in her professional cycling career thus far, she said: “Missing out on medals in Congo by microseconds was heartbreaking and, at some point, I had even an inner thought that maybe cycling is not meant for me and I am just forcing myself. Later after calming down, I realised finishing fourth was not a bad performance for a debutant.”

From Brazzaville, she headed to United States for the UCI World Championships in Richmond where she competed both in ITT and the Women’s road race, becoming Rwanda’s first woman rider in World Championships and the first female black African to race in women’s ITT at the competition. There, things didn’t go as she hoped, however.

She finished 44th in ITT and second last (87th) in the main road race. “I can’t say I performed well, but I don’t think there is anything I could have done better either. It was my first year on the international scene, it was mainly for learning and gaining experience. I am very sure I am a better rider today than I was last year”, Girubuntu said.

Jeanne d’Arc has a bright future ahead of her

In February this year, the young athlete finally raced to glory. At the Continental Road Championship in Morocco, she won a historic first medal by a woman cyclist in the African Championships. “That definitely was the best performance in my career so far. Seeing myself on the podium and my country’s flag flying high felt fantastic,” she said.

Despite having already made records at the age of 21, being leagues ahead of any local or regional female cyclist, Girubuntu is optimistic and eager to learn more, and believes she will become part of a professional cycling team in the near future: “In order to be a top cyclist in a professional team, I still have a lot of work ahead of me. But I am certainly ready for it. 2015 was a groundbreaking year for me.”

The German team Matrix already said they are interested in signing the young Rwandan. Other professional teams have also expressed their interest.

Jonathan Boyer at the ARCC is not surprised. He has been training Girubuntu ever since she joined ARSS at the end of 2014 and has seen her grow and make tremendous progress. “She is an exceptionally talented young woman and just gets stronger every year. We are looking forward to a lot of very good results from here in the future,” Boyer has been quoted as saying.

Everybody is looking eagerly at the upcoming Rwandan Championships. Kimberly Coats, logistics and marketing manager at the ARRC and a close friend of Girubuntus, however, is confident that “in one or two years, she will race for a top team in Europe or the US”.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Fastest Woman in Africa - Rwanda's First Female Cyclist
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