Rwanda's Habimana Ready for Pro Breakthrough in Europe

Jean Eric Habimana came up riding bike taxis in Rwanda. Now, he's grown into a different type of professional cyclist, one who aims to prove himself in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans.

Jean Eric Habimana and a friend on a scooter

Written by
James Stout

Published on

Posted in
Features

Photos by Tomás Montes

Jean Eric Habimana learned to ride like many young men in Rwanda do, as a way to make some money. Everywhere you go in the small East African country, there are bike taxis hustling people and goods up and down the thousands of hills that give the country its nickname, “The Land of One Thousand Hills.” Habimana fell in love with riding his bike for fun as well as work, and found that the bike took him much further than he’d ever imagined it could. 

In his case it’s taken him to Europe for races, and allowed him to support his brothers’ full time education. At 21, and brimming with the sort of talent that you grow to recognize after years of hanging out with pro bike racers, it could still take him a lot further. 

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Wherever you happen to be born, talent is a great equalizer. Sadly, very little else in cycling is equal. Habimana is just starting his pro career now, without the chances and opportunities I had. He will still be better than I ever was, but he will have to be better than a white guy from the UK in order to be recognized in this sport. Despite that, when we caught up in late February he was feeling confident about his season. “I am ready” he told me, when I asked how he felt about 2022.

Jean Eric Portrait

In January 2020, I stepped off a plane in Kigali, received my first-ever COVID screening, and found that my bike, and the new bike I had brought for Habimana, had not made it. For a couple of days, I walked around Kigali with friends and anxiously checked the baggage tab of the Delta app. I hadn’t met Habimana aside from online, but everyone spoke highly of him. When his bike arrived, we got together over Kigali’s finest pizza to build it in a friend’s living room. 

There, he told me about how he began as a bike taxi rider. He quickly found that the sense of speed and freedom he gained on the bike was worth far more than the small income he made ferrying people around. Results in local races gave him the opportunity to ride at the Africa Rising Cycling Center. Since then, he has taken every chance given to him and now he is riding not just for fun, but to pay his bills and the school fees of his two brothers. 

He clean dropped me on his home roads in Rwanda — and then came back to check on me because he is as kind as he is talented.

On that January day two years ago, Habimana was excited because he had never owned a bike before, despite having competed at the world championships and the Tour de L’Avenir, a race widely considered to be the Tour de France for under-23 riders. His team was sponsored by a Belgian-owned brewery in Kigali, and they shared bikes and helmets, leaving them at the team headquarters when they went home. The bike, a gift from Shimano USA, allowed him to train at home, and the bikepacking bags it came with let him visit his family and enter races in Rwanda’s growing gravel and ultra-distance scene. 

Skol, that Belgian beer sponsor, doesn’t just support the team due to some kind of twisted Flemish neo-colonialism. Cycling is big business in Rwanda and the annual Tour de Rwanda is second only to the Tour de France in terms of in-person spectators. Habimana was in his final weeks of training for it when he showed me a clean pair of heels (incidentally, the heels of my old Shimano gravel shoes, and he proceeded to ride 100 miles in without even touching the cleats) on a hill somewhere along the border with Burundi. 

Jean Eric Habminana

From bike taxis to championship titles

Habimana is a student of the sport. He began racing as part of Rwanda’s talent identification program, which has sent riders to the WorldTour and made bike racing one of the primary passions of the small African country. Habimana trained with others at the cycling center in Musanze, a beautiful town known for its Gorilla safaris. 

From there, he earned a place on the Skol team based in the capital city, Kigali. In 2017, he won a national junior TT title; in 2018, he won both the road race and time trial, and in 2019 he won another TT jersey along with medals at continental games as well as a ride at the world championships. His rise to the top of the sport has taken less time than many folks take to build up to their first century ride, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. After two seasons where COVID made visas and travel hard, he is excited to see what he can achieve in 2022. 

"When you are born in country where cycling is not like Europe or USA, it’s hard to really show off his talent." — Adrien Niyonshuti

The first night we met, we stayed up late eating shockingly good Chinese food and watching clips of cyclocross on the wifi in the monastery/hotel we were staying. He loves Peter Sagan, and Mathieu van der Poel, he told me. His coach Adrien Niyonshuti has shown him that riders from Rwanda can compete at the global level, and Habimana believes he has what it takes to be competitive in Europe. 

The ex-professional Niyonshuti told me that he first saw Habimana’s potential at the 2017 Continental African Track Championship, where Habimana rode a fixed gear bike for the first time and went on to win six medals, only once forgetting to keep pedaling after the finish line.

"I could see his talent," Niyonshuti told me, but "when you are born in country where cycling is not like Europe or USA, it’s hard to really show off his talent."

This year, Habimana’s season didn’t start with the Tour of Rwanda like it normally does; instead he is training in Kigali. He can’t go home to his family, he explains. “Because it is too far from the road and it’s hard to start a training ride there.” Aside from the bike taxis, which gave him his start in the sport, there is nobody to ride with. 

Jean Eric Habimana and friends

So he stays in the small country’s capital and trains among the two-stroke motorcycles that form their own pelotons around the city. His life is very different from that of a typical a pro cyclist, especially based on the glamorous life you see on WorldTour teams’ YouTube diaries. Certainly, one does not imagine Wout van Aert encountering baby goats or cattle blocking his training routes. This is common in Rwanda. But in important ways, Habimana’s life is the same as many other racers. Every day he goes out and flogs himself, he comes home and eats, and he gets up early or stays up late to watch races he hopes to start one day. His surroundings might be different, but they don’t hold him back. 

Since the day he clean dropped me on his home roads in Rwanda — and then came back to check on me because he is as kind as he is talented — we’ve been in touch on WhatsApp. I’ve followed Habimana’s incredible progress. He’s raced the Tour du Rwanda twice, in 2020 and 2021, more than holding his own against WorldTour competition. He gave a good account of himself at junior worlds, and had already won a national junior TT championship in 2019. 

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An introduction to European cycling

Based on his performances, he earned a place at the 2021 UCI Cycling Academy in Switzerland, where riders from around the world live and train on the bucolic Alpine roads. It is an image of what the future of our sport could look like — if the sport’s governing bodies would start supporting talent in the global south and offer a clear pathway to the WorldTour for less-developed countries. Right now, the pathway isn’t obvious, but riders like Habimana are forging their own route nonetheless. 

On the UCI team, Habimana raced around Europe, gaining valuable experience in larger pelotons, on different terrain, and in the chaos of a big race caravan. Niyonshuti says Habimana learned a lot in those two years, and is continuing to learn quickly. African racing might have a robust fan base, but the tactics and skills are different from those in a 200-rider peloton. The adjustment to the European style of racing takes time. After his summer in Europe, Habimana was confident: “I know everything,” he told me.

Jean Eric Habimana and his bike

Often, riders from Africa get one season to adjust to a different way of racing, training, eating, and living before sponsors give up. With the support of the UCI, and his sponsors back home, Habimana has been able to take a few trips to Europe, learning to hold his own in an echelon and ride the bumper of a gaudily painted Citroen wagon back to the peloton after a flat. 

Following a 2021 season in which he spent months in Europe, but never quite found that breakout result, he came home to Rwanda, worried about what was next. His family, including two younger brothers, rely on him, and without a contract he was in big trouble.

“It costs $300 a [school] session for them, and there are three sessions a year” he explained to me. That’s a heavy burden for a young bike racer to carry. “They are intelligent,” he says, “So, seeing them in school is very nice for me, and I don’t like to see them stay home.” Making sure he has the money to pay for their schooling, he says, “means I can focus on my races, for only my cycling.” 

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His 2021 worries were compounded by his sponsor’s financial difficulties, a ban on public gatherings during Rwanda's lockdowns, and uncertainty over his team's sponsorship. Luckily, he still had the gravel bike to train on and he kept plugging away.

“It’s a great bike for training on all types of road," he told me. I’ve ridden Rwanda's Ikitaka, and it might be some of the best gravel riding on earth but it would be no fun on his team-issue rim brake Ridley with 23mm tires. 

Gravel cycling in Rwanda

A new beginning for 2022

In November, his tenacity was rewarded with a contract offer from Pro Touch, a South African Continental team. It had already been a tough year for African cycling. The continent’s only WorldTour team, Quebeka Nexthash, lost its UCI license. But for Habimana, 2022 is a season full of hope.

He’ll be racing in Africa, Asia, and Europe and has a serious winter of training under his belt. In January, he did his first training camp, over 10 days, “We got to know each other,” he said, and he learned the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. He came home with a new Time bike that he sent me photos of on WhatsApp. Between this and his gravel bike, and occasional trips to the roller rink according to his Instagram, he is coming into 2022 fitter than ever and excited to seize the opportunity he has.  

2022 will bring him new challenges and the chance to prove himself on a bigger stage.

He started his season with the Rwandan Epic, a mountain bike race that he won in 2020. This year, he again won the four-day stage race, setting himself up for spring racing in Europe. He says the team plans to race a lot, but they need to wait on invitations. That’s before visas have to be secured, which can take weeks or months. This makes it hard for teams to secure funding, and creates a climate where even the best organized and intentioned teams can struggle to get out of Africa and into the sport’s big leagues. 

Rwandan countryside

Habimana isn’t stressing over visas though, instead focusing on training: “I am working on my intervals,” he says. He’s a strong all-round rider, with victories on the track, the dirt, and the road. In February, he told me he was feeling optimistic about the season and his place on his new team. “I can climb, I am good on TT [he came 7th in the 2021 African Continental Championships] so, I can be the leader or an all rounder.” 

But 2022 will bring him new challenges and the chance to prove himself on a bigger stage. Hopefully, at some point this year, a director in Europe will look at Habimana disappearing up the road, like I did two years ago, and realize that the kid whose family lives too far from the road for him to train has what it takes to be a truly great road cyclist.

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