While the South African team that had dominated the African Mountainbike Championships in Mauritius at the weekend were laughing and making plans on how they would spend yesterday, their final day in Mauritius, on the beach enjoying a few cocktails, Rwanda’s only representative, Adrien Niyonshuti, pulled on an ice vest, changed the rear wheel of his Trek bike and clipped it into a stationary trainer to go through his cool down.
“Man, this is too cold today,” smiled Niyonshuti, who had finished third in the elite race of the championships on Saturday after a storming come-from-behind ride. The vest had been sitting in his ice box, prepared by Nicole Allan, his team manager from Team MTN-Qhubeka, the South African team he has ridden for since 2009. His third place behind the winner, South Africa’s Phillip Buys, and Marc Bassingthwaighte, the runner-up had been manufactured from pain and sweat as he had ripped through the field from sixth to third. Everything Niyonshuti does now is focused on the Olympics, where he will be the first Rwandan to take part in the mountain bike event.
“This race was important for me to get some UCI points to go to the Olympics so I can get a good starting position,” said Niyonshuti. “That is my focus for the next few months. After the Epic this was the next big race for me. My partner, Jacques (MTN-Qhuebeka teammate Janse van Rensburg), got sick during the Epic and had to pull out when we were well placed for a top 10 placing, so I got no UCI points there. It’s very different because I have been focusing on the marathon and the road bike, so it’s a change to get into cross-country. But I’m happy with what I’ve done here. I finished third and that means points.”
Niyonshuti is 25 years old, but he has already lived a dozen lifetimes and his success honours the memories of the 800 000 killed in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Hutus turned on the Tutsis as the world turned its back. Niyonshuti lost his six brothers in the genocide. He has a scar on his leg from that time, he told Sports Illustrated’s Angus Powers in April last year.
“I was running. I don’t know what happened. In genocide, the people kill the people. I lost my family. I lost my grandmother. I lost six of my brothers. So... after that... genocide finished. It is a big story. I don’t know how I can say it in English. I don’t know. I am sorry,” he told Sports Illustrated.
He was discovered by Jock Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France, who first came to Rwanda with Tom Ritchey, the legendary mountain bike pioneer and equipment manufacturer, to ride the Wooden Wheel Classic. Boyer returned in 2006 to establish Team Rwanda, a programme to find the country’s best cycling talent and give them a chance. In 2007 Boyer rode the Absa Cape Epic with Niyonshuti and struggled to keep up with the kid as they rode to 33rd overall. It was his first time on a mountain bike. Boyer sent him to the UCI performance centre in Potchefstroom, where he was spotted by Doug Ryder from MTN-Qhubeka. He has now taken part in four Epics, winning the African Leaders jersey in 2011 while riding with Mannie Heymans, the Nambian legend who was seventh in the African Champs in Mauritius on Saturday. He is now focused on channelling his marathon, stage-racing Epic form into the shorter cross-country discipline.
“I think the Epic is very good for cross-country fitness. If you look at Burry Stander and Christoph Sauser they rode the Epic and they still do so well in the World Cup races. I think the fitness and power that I got at the Epic helped me to come up from sixth place to third in the African championships. “My technical skills are not good. I set tempo for the climb, and for the downhill I take it careful, and then make up the time on the singletrack and the flat.”
He is off to the Czech Republic with many of the rest of the South African team to ride in the World Cup there on May 13. Then he will compete in World Cups in France, Italy and the UK, before hopefully, heading off to Canada and then the USA. “We’re still working on getting the visa for the States because it is a little difficult to get from Rwanda. If I get it, I will go; if I don’t then I’ll be back in South Africa.” He’ll stay in Switzerland for a month before the Olympics to train and take part in small local races.
“We’re investing a lot of time and money in Adrien because we believe in him,” said Ryder. “He is so strong, so talented, so dedicated and to come from where he was ? a survivor ? to being of the best riders in Africa, and the world, is one of the great stories in world cycling. He’s only 25, there’s much more to come.”
Niyonshuti shook my hand and continued his cool-down on Saturday after we had finished talking. He watched his heart rate carefully, got used to the chill of the ice vest and spun the cranks of his Trek. His trek is not yet done.