The Stunning, Wildly Underrated Tour du Rwanda

With millions of roadside fans cheering on the Tour du Rwanda every winter, it's surprising this tough, hilly race isn't better known worldwide. With World Championships coming in 2025, that should soon change.

The Stunning, Wildly Underrated Tour du Rwanda

Written by
James Stout

Published on

Posted in
Features

Photos courtesy Tour du Rwanda

There’s a road in Kigali that they call “the Mur.” The Mur is so steep, that one poorly timed shift can force even the most seasoned pros into the indignity of walking, the pavement is so choppy that even if you don’t shift, your chain might shift for you. At any given time on any given day, for the minute or so of maximum effort it takes as you battle your friends to the top, random people will stop what they are doing, put down their shopping, and shout encouragement. 

But if you’re there toward the end of February, you’ll have to fight for every inch of space to watch some of the best pros in the world battle each other on this legendary climb. This patch of broken pavement has seen the agony of defeat and the ecstasy of victory, but you have probably never heard of it. 

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Every year since 1988, Rwanda has hosted the Tour du Rwanda, an eight-day UCI 2.1 stage race complete with storied climbs, millions of screaming fans, and a long history of unlikely victories and unfortunate defeats. Yet this might be the first time you’ve heard anything about it. While many spend February weekends searching for feeds of dull stage races in Spain or Oman, you could have been watching world-class riders battle on the endless hills and varied terrain that make Rwanda an incredible cycling destination. Heck, if you have the money for a flight, standing on the Mur de Kigali is every bit as exciting as the Mur de Huy, considerably less cold, and there’s still an ample supply of Belgian beer thanks to Amstel, one of the race's main sponsors. 

Mur de KigaliTour du Rwanda racers climb the Mur de Kigali.

You should know about the Tour du Rwanda, and you should care about it too. Not only is the racing as exciting as anywhere else in the world, it offers an important chance for the cycling world to find new talent from a previously neglected cycling scene. In 2025, Rwanda is hosting the UCI World Championships, and the eyes of the cycling world will be on the small bike-mad country, but there are still three editions of the Tour du Rwanda for you to watch before then. You’ll surely impress your riding friends with your knowledge of Rwandan climbs and riders before Worlds begins in earnest. 

A hidden cycling gem in the heart of Africa

Rwanda, the tiny country that calls itself the “Heart of Africa” and also “the land of one thousand hills” is as cycling mad as Flanders. All around the country, bike taxis with pillion seats for passengers jostle for business and old-fashioned upright town bikes ferry people to and from their jobs. This means that when pro racing comes to town, people can understand a little of the pain they see in the riders faces as they compete on the finishing circuit in Kigali. Perhaps that's why the crowds are every bit as excitable as those on Alpe d’Huez, and considerably less intrusive toward the riders. Also, unlike the Tour de France, you don’t have to compete with VIP tour groups and high-strung French cops to get a front row seat, but you might have to push past a dozen Rwandan kids who stopped on their way to school. 

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The race might not be televised in the U.S. — although video highlights are available on YouTube — but it’s second only to the Tour de France in terms of live spectators. The race attracts over 2 million roadside fans. That’s one in every seven Rwandans. In fact, Rwanda is densely populated and there’s a village every few kilometers, which contributes to the crowds of fans. Riding through each town, racers can expect cheering fans packed along the sides of the roads, and even on the rooftops. While some of the racers in Rwanda might be headed to the Tour de France in a few months, the Rwandan terrain plenty challenging. The race’s parcours takes in a good number of the nation’s thousand hills, but for riders who drift off the back, there’s an endless supply of pushes, high-fives, and kids who will run alongside them for a humiliatingly long time. Some of those kids will grow up to be bike racers themselves, and perhaps one day they will compete for the Best African and Best Rwandan jerseys that the race offers. 

Riders at Tour du Rwanda Finish

Jean Eric Habimana, a local young rider who managed to use the race as a springboard to a pro career, might not have had the chances at success he has without a major international race in his country. Racing for the now-defunct Skol team in 2020, he meticulously reconned every stage, and when we pre-rode one the week before the race he told me when and where he planned to attack. For him, the Tour du Rwanda was the most important race on the calendar. Not only could he show off his talent to WorldTour directors, he could also show the fruits of his hard work to his family, who often can’t watch his races abroad. 

There’s an endless supply of pushes, high-fives, and kids who will run alongside racers for a humiliatingly long time. Some of those kids will grow up to be bike racers themselves.

You might think of Rwanda through the lens of something terrible that happened there 28 years ago, but modern Rwanda isn’t defined by its past. Rather, it’s defined by the fact that there is seemingly not an inch of flat road, or a face without a smile in the whole country. With the World Championships coming to Rwanda in 2025, the race’s hors categorie climbs — Mount Kigali, Itetero, and Rebero — might be making their way into the pages of cycling magazines, but for fans of the Tour du Rwanda, they’ve been legendary for years. With the 2022 edition having just wrapped up, now is the perfect time to mark your calendars for next year’s race and get to know just what makes the event so special. 

A sport for the people

American Kiel Reijnen, who won the race in 2011, says that the eight-day tour was unforgettable. More than a decade later, his fond memories haven’t faded: “I think anyone who's gone to that race, including myself, has been blown away by the experience,” he said. “Probably the first thing I noticed is that everybody there is using bikes for transportation, and yet they’re still excited about using them to create a spectacle as well.” 

“As an athlete, you feel embraced, and lifted up and supported by the people who are cheering you on.” — Kiel Reijnen

The excitement of the fans was something that Reijnen noticed: “Part of what made the trip so special was just that the people, I mean, they were excited, legitimately excited to have us there.” In Europe and the U.S., racing has to compete with other entertainment and sports events on any given day. In Rwanda, the race coming to town is a big event and people look forward to it for weeks. Reijnen says that sense of excitement translated to the peloton. “As an athlete, you feel embraced, and lifted up and supported by the people who are cheering you on.” 

Tour du Rwanda fans

Another thing Reijnen noted was the incredible display of unrecognized cycling talent. “It's hard to even describe how much talent there is, you know, is in Rwanda specifically, but all of Africa. I mean that the Eritreans just beat the shit out of us!” This year’s race was won by Natnael Testafsion, a rider from the African cycling powerhouse of Eritrea which has turned out world class riders for almost a century. 

In 2010, Eritrea national team rider Daniel Teklehaimanot won the race. He went on to sign for WorldTour team GreenEdge in 2012, and then for Africa’s only WorldTour team, MTN-Quebekha. In his career, he went on to become the first African rider to wear a leader’s jersey at the Tour de France when he took the polka dot jersey in the 2015 edition of the race. In 2015 and 2016, he won the king of the mountains competition in the Critérium du Dauphiné. Without big races in Africa, riders like Teklehaimanot don’t get a chance to show their talent to a global audience and make the leap to racing in Europe. 

The race continues to attract more world-class talent from outside Africa every year, such as Chris Froome’s Israel-Premier Tech team. According to Kayishema Tity Thierry, one of the race’s directors, “Since 2009, Tour du Rwanda has grown quickly due to the success of Rwanda riders and the enthusiasm of Rwandans.” In 2019, Astana was the first WorldTour team to enter the race. She hopes to attract more in the coming years, but admits that “Organizers of races in Africa will have to work hard to attract those big teams and names.” 

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A pathway from the Thousand Hills to Europe

While locals might be excited to see familiar faces from the classics and the Tour, Reijnen was most impressed with the riders trying to push from the African scene into European racing. Those riders are forging a pathway that hasn’t really been clearly defined despite years of effort from teams like Quebekha Nexthash. 

“It takes so much more courage to create something that doesn't already exist rather than participate in something that it's already created,” Reijnen said. 

But make no mistake, despite spotty efforts by European teams to recruit there, there is a flourishing cycling scene in East Africa. Even riders and teams who compete at the biggest races in the world can expect to have to fight for every podium in Rwanda. The race's eight stages are all hilly, but some offer long downhill run-ins to the finish in which sprinters marshal their teams to the front to catch the break. Others finish atop the volcanic mountains that give the country its incredible topography, and the race’s GC it’s equally impressive time gaps. The final stage takes in the Mur de Kigali three times, forcing GC contenders to fight for their places in front of huge crowds in the country’s capital city. 

Tour du Rwanda countryside

Of course, this is far from the only stage race in Africa. From South Africa to Morocco, cyclists test themselves against the fierce sun, steep climbs and incredibly diverse terrain that the continent offers. We don’t always watch, or hear about these races, not because they aren’t worth watching but because cycling has traditionally been a very European sport. 

With global connectivity expanding, opportunities for spectators and racers are growing. Young riders in Rwanda today might take on the Mur de Kigali on their old clunkers, while pretending to be racing up the cobbled climbs of Europe they’ve seen on YouTube, but perhaps one day young riders all over the world will dream of dropping their rivals in front of thousands of adoring fans in the capital city of one of the most cycling-mad countries in the world. Thierry says that although she is excited about hosting Chris Froome and other top level rivers in 2023, what she most hopes for is a Rwandan winner. With talented riders like Habimama who grew up watching the race competing now, it’s only a matter of time before that happens. 

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