The inside story of Rwanda’s lost cycling generation

What could have been, were it not for the failings of Rwanda's cycling leadership? We will never know.

Kimberly Coats
by Kimberly Coats 05.09.2023 Photography by
Team Africa Rising and Cor Vos.
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In the aftermath of a series of bruising revelations about the poor state of the Rwandan Cycling Federation – and the possible implications for the 2025 Road World Championships – the country’s cycling establishment has been thrown into disarray. One of the people that knows Rwandan cycling best – Kimberly Coats, CEO of Team Africa Rising – put together this emotional op-ed about what she experienced from her eight years living in Rwanda, what was lost as a result of the Federation’s failings, and what the pathway is for the sport in the country. 

Over the last week, the cycling world and those of us working in African cycling have watched in dismay as one of the once-great nations of African cycling became mired in scandal for the second time in four years. The Rwandan Cycling Federation (FERWACY) secretary general, Benoît Munyakindi, is currently in jail facing corruption charges, and the president, Abdallah Murenzi, is under investigation as an accomplice.

Last Wednesday Murenzi, along with FERWACY’s Executive Director, Alphonse Nkuranga, resigned. There’s a bit of déjà vu here: in December 2019, Aimable Bayingana, then president of FERWACY, and his executive committee resigned amid allegations of abuse and corruption. Bayingana was never charged, which may have opened the door for Murenzi and his ilk to use the power of the position to continue in the same vein of personal access and agendas. 

Team Africa Rising (TAR) physically moved out of Rwanda in early 2017, but continued to offer financial assistance and access to human and equipment resources through 2020 and the early days of Abdallah Murenzi’s tenure. Within months, we knew there were inconsistencies and troubling behavior. There were demands for financial support with no accountability. Team Africa Rising relayed these concerns to the various heads of departments within Rwanda. By 2022, Team Africa Rising ceased all operations with FERWACY in a formal letter to the Rwandan government – including the Minister of Sport, Aurora Munyangaju – noting the challenges and concerns. TAR severed its Memo of Understanding with FERWACY almost six months early.

A team of Rwandan cyclists and support staff, arms around each others' shoulders in a circle praying.
Team Rwanda huddle at the Cascade Cycling Classic.

Walking away from something you built from the ground up, giving a country so much hope and pride, and providing opportunities on and off the bike to so many young, deserving people was gut-wrenching. By severing ties with FERWACY, we knew we were leaving people we loved behind with little support. Murenzi was banking on our love for the riders, but that was the exact reason we did what we had to do. We knew at some point everything would be exposed. That day is finally here. 

There is no joy in any of this, in the resignations or convictions. There is only immense sadness for all the promising careers of cyclists lost to the continuing scandals plaguing FERWACY and the lack of investment in the sport and its cyclists. The cost is incalculable. How do you put a price on the riders who left the country never to return? How do you put a price on the experience and positive attention brought to African cycling by people like Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu, Rwanda’s first female UCI World Championship road race finisher? This young woman is now working and living a quiet life abroad, out of the sport of cycling.

Then there’s a young man who inspired us all during his time coming up with Team Rwanda Cycling. Bonaventure Uwizeyimana was the first Rwandan to win a stage at the Tour of Amissa Bongo; he was a two-time national champion and raced for Team Qhubeka and Vendeé – U, then the feeder team for Team Europcar. He now works the line at a meat processing plant in America. 

Janvier Hadi & Bonaventure Uwizeyimana at the 2014 Tour du Rwanda.

A young man who rivaled the talent of Adrien Niyonshuti, Valens Ndayisenga, had so much attitude and was such a phenomenal cyclist. He raced for Team Tirol in Austria and Team Qhubeka. He was the real deal – won the Tour of Rwanda twice, in 2014 and 2016. In 2018 at the same race, he was 13th in the GC, right behind Henok Mulubrhan, who signed with Astana this week. Ndayisenga returned to Rwanda from the 2018 African Continental Championships in March and left everything the next day, got on a plane, and eventually landed in the US. Today, he is working and attending school, forever removed from his meteroic rise in Rwandan cycling. 

These riders, along with another teammate Janvier Hadi, left Rwanda between 2018 and 2019. Most recently, Samuel Mugisha, a cyclist for the ProTouch team, joined them in 2022 after leaving the airport in Maryland on a US trip and disappearing. He now tells the story of how, at a recent Tour of Cameroon, Felix Sempoma (the Rwanda national team coach until just recently, who with the currently-detained Munyakindi also owns and manages his own club team, ‘Benediction’ – a huge conflict of interest) instructed the Benediction riders on the national team not to ride for Mugisha as he wasn’t from his club and he didn’t want him to win the race.

Samuel Mugisha riding in the 2017 U23 Road Worlds in Bergen, Norway.

These rising stars left because they had no future riding in Rwanda. Over the years, we have reconnected, and the stories they told of life under Bayingana’s regime and, for Samuel, under both Bayingana and Murenzi, were ones of fear, intimidation, and lost opportunity. 

They gave up on the sport because FERWACY leadership discouraged and impeded their dream of becoming professional cyclists. It became about politics and teams rather than talent and opportunities. Five remarkable cyclists who could have grown in the sport and become the next generation of coaches and directors are forever lost to Rwandan cycling. What value do we place on the loss of such talent?

Handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard, reading 'God help Team Rwanda in this competition. Victory! Victory! Victory!'.
A sign at Tour du Rwanda.

When we left in 2017, some members of the original five cyclists (Adrien Niyonshuti, Abraham Ruhumuriza, Obed Ruvogera, Rafiki Uwimana, and Nathan Byukusenge) begged us not to leave. They said it would be bad. We assured them there were mechanisms and protocols to protect the program and, in the process, protect them.

They were right. We were grossly wrong. Over the years, Rwandan mechanics would message us saying FERWACY members stole items from the garage. They were so incredibly angry and frustrated. They even blocked the Africa Rising Cycling Center (ARCC) director from taking the key to the garage because they did not want anything else taken. 

Thousands of dollars of equipment and supplies are gone, never ending up on bikes or with riders. The cost of the items is calculable. The cost to budding cyclists who don’t have access to bikes because of it is not.

What could have been over these last six or more years? How many more Adriens, Biniams or Henoks could Rwanda have produced? We will never know. 

Abdallah Murenzi and Benoît Munyakindi ruled by threats of retaliation, fear, and intimidation. I know because they threatened me over the years. I was told I would be put in jail if I ever came back to Rwanda because I spoke out in defense of the allegations Murenzi lobbed on a local radio show in 2022. They disparaged me personally in the press. When people ask if I am going to the UCI Road World Championships in 2025, saying I must be so proud, my heart breaks. No, I cannot go. 

Coats and team at the Cascade Classic in 2017.

Six years is a career-making period for a cyclist. How many cyclists were lost in that window? What is the price for each one and for all the ones they would inspire in the next generation? Rwandan cyclists have only seen examples of flawed leadership since 2017, and they have paid the price.

Sports directors from several international teams that have raced the Tour of Rwanda in recent years tell stories of Felix Sempoma and FERWACY leaders gathering all the Rwandan riders (no matter what team they were on) to meetings before the races to discuss and agree for whom they will all ride. We know of only one Rwandan rider who defiantly ignored this and raced for his teammates on the international Pro Conti team he was actually employed by. He was made to do pushups in front of the national team he was not riding for. He, too, is no longer in the sport or in Rwanda. 

Adrien Niyonshuti and Nathan Byukusenge.

And what about Adrien Niyonshuti, Rwanda’s most successful cyclist ever? He now spends his days sharing all his knowledge and inspiring the next generation of cyclists – not in Rwanda, but in the fast-growing cycling nation of Benin. Adrien has raced at the highest WorldTour level, with credibility and contacts in the sport throughout Europe and the US. He could credibly lobby pro teams and the UCI to take a shot on his young riders, who would have had the true passion to see the Rwandan flag raised on podiums or being waved passionately by fans at races. He truly knows the sacrifices and dedication needed to make it in this sport. Surely he is a man the national federation would be begging to be a part of Rwandan cycling?

Unfortunately not. Over the last several years FERWACY wouldn’t let Adrien’s local academy team race in domestic Rwandan races. If his riders did manage to get on the startline, his club team’s name was struck off the startlist and replaced with ‘Unattached’ or similar. FERWACY tried to ban his team’s kit as it carried the Rwandan flag and this ‘broke regulations’. The same flag was sitting on the Benediction team’s kit with no sanctions ever leveled at that team.

Adrien Niyonshuti competes at the London 2012 Olympic Games – the first Rwandan cyclist to do so.

And in the biggest and most recent show of complete ineptitude, with Felix Sempoma’s contract not being renewed with the national team after years of declining performance and results, Abdallah Murenzi and Benoît Munyankindi signed a multi-year contract for a new French national team coach who has no professional racing experience, no local language skills, and for an astronomical amount of money. In contrast, their best coach and representative of Rwanda is building African cycling thousands of miles away. As Eric Muhoza (the only Rwanda rider currently on a ProTeam) said in a recent GCN documentary, “When I was young, I saw Adrien racing in Europe on TV, I thought: ‘I want to be like Adrien.’” 

These leaders did not lead by example. They gave no example of how to mature and develop as an athlete, or as a human. Leading sport development federations is not just about the sport – it comes with a huge responsibility as you are taking young people at the pinnacle of their personal development, many of whom are sacrificing or compromising their education in the pursuit of their sport. How do you put a price on a rider who might have been the next Biniam Girmay but never got the chance, due to the abject failure of these greedy men?

Last  week, President Kagame gave a powerful speech to the youth of Rwanda. He talked briefly about the situation with FERWACY, but what stood out, what opened the door for these youth, was his encouragement to speak out when they experience abuse, threats, fear, and intimidation. Everyone started to speak this week – riders, former riders, staff. They are telling the stories of the past six years. I can only imagine their relief and continual fears. 

Two Rwandan cyclists embrace.
Valens Ndayisenga and Patrick Byukusenge in 2015.

Bravo to President Kagame for giving these cyclists living in fear a safe space to speak. Bravo to these young cyclists for speaking out. Bravo to the Rwandan diaspora for speaking out. Bravo to all the brave people who shared information about what was happening at FERWACY.

Shame on all the people who kept FERWACY’s secrets. Shame on the ones who did not listen to the warning bells and alarms. When Tour of Rwanda’s organizer, Olivier Grandjean, resigned, no one heeded his warning in his extensive letter of resignation. When Team Africa Rising cut ties with FERWACY, no one listened. Shame on those in the Rwandan sport media who knew what was happening and refused to do their jobs as independent journalists. For an example of their failure, look no further than the article published in The New Times Rwanda the day after Kagame’s speech. It blamed the youth for not “holding federations to account” and suggested that their poor performances is due to their silence. No blame was laid at the feet of the perpetrators.

The price tag of financial loss is easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The price tag of the loss of human potential is priceless.

Yet, through all this turmoil, there remains goodness in cycling in Rwanda.  

Gasore Hategeka with his team of young cyclists, all of them visibly happy, some of them raising their arms.
Gasore Hategeka (left) with his club.

Gasore Hategeka, once Rwanda’s national champion, now 36, has a club of young riders he trains. He has no support and cobbles together whatever he can to help these kids ride. Gasore is an orphan who started with Team Rwanda Cycling in 2009 by following the team on the road up to Sashwara on his single-speed bike he bought selling potatoes. 

Rafiki Uwimana, one of the original five, is the national mechanic but, more importantly, has his own club, Rafiki Bikes. One of his junior riders, Kevin Nshutiraguma, was selected for the Glasgow Worlds. Sadly, he did not arrive in Glasgow on time because of FERWACY’s incompetence in securing his visa promptly. Rafiki also runs a remarkable touring company and takes cyclists from around the world up and down Rwanda’s famous Congo Nile trail. Rafiki was recently featured in the GCN documentary ‘Breaking Through: the Rise of African Cycling’.

Rafiki Uwimana and his young son, both of them with bikes.
Rafiki Uwimana and his son Jonathan at the Africa Rising Cycling Centre.

As Rwanda begins the process of rebuilding its federation once again, it would be impressive to see the country tap into the immense talent it already has in the sport. What if FERWACY was staffed by people who had passion and real cycling world experience in the sport? Rwanda has proven time and again it can make ‘big’ things happen. If Rwanda brought in former cyclists, they would know exactly how best to manage the current group of young up and coming talent because they were once the up and coming force that built Rwandan cycling. Rwanda would do well to surround itself with people at the forefront of the development of the sport: the people who know how it once was – the pride of African cycling.

It is time for Rwandan cycling to try and become the beacon of hope for other nations it once was. Whether this is possible rests entirely on who the Ministry of Sport chooses to now lead FERWACY. With less than two years until Kigali hosts the World Championships, where local riders need to be able to finish the road races, the eyes of the cycling world will be on Rwanda.

Team Africa Rising – of which Kimberly Coats is the CEO – is a non-profit working in African cycling development since 2007. Team Africa Rising began as Team Rwanda Cycling (TRC) which was founded by two American cycling legends: bike builder Tom Ritchey and Jonathan “Jock” Boyer, the first US rider to race the Tour de France. Coats joined TRC in 2009 and spent the next eight years living in Rwanda developing the national team and its infrastructure. Due to their success and the plan to hand TRC to Rwandan management, with additional countries asking for their help, the name was changed to Team Africa Rising in 2011.

Coats was recently named the cycling industry’s  ‘Woman of the Year’ by BikeBiz and features prominently in the recent GCN documentary The Rise of African Cycling. She now works primarily in West Africa, helping the up-and-coming Benin Cycling Federation, and several projects across Sierra Leone, Togo and many others.

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