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Adrien Niyonshuti on Tour de France Diversity Issue: 'The Biggest Obstacle is Getting a Visa'

There are no Black cyclists from Africa at the Tour de France in 2022. On the sidelines of a mountain stage, former pro Adrien Niyonshuti from Rwanda promoted cycling on the continent with an unusual move.
Adrien Niyonshuti believes teams must do more to create a more diverse field at the Tour

Adrien Niyonshuti believes teams must do more to create a more diverse field at the Tour

Cycling enthusiasts were amazed. Alongside the many amateur cyclists from Europe, who this week tackled the legendary Tour de France climb up L'Alpe d'Huez on their expensive branded carbon bikes, was Adrien Niyonshuti. The Rwanda was cycling on a yellow single-speed bike.

Niyonshuti was applauded for his move. The former pro rider and Olympian, cycling for charity, needed an hour and 28 minutes to get to the top. The best pros of the Tour on the day reached the summit in just 39 minutes and 12 seconds. But Niyonshuti was cycling on a bike twice as heavy as the pros.

"It's as heavy as an e-bike, but just without the motor," the 35-year-old told DW with a smile. "As a pro I sadly never made it to the Tour, but it's great here," said Niyonshuti, who had clearly enjoyed his experience and was able to tell many Tour fans about cycling in Africa.

Cycling academy in Rwanda

In his home in Rwanda, Niyonshuti is a hero. In 2012, he was the flag bearer for his country at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He was the first Black participant in an Olympic mountain bike race. After his pro career at teams MTN Qhubeka and Dimension Data, he founded a cycling academy in his hometown. Around 40 riders are currently training at the Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy, many of whom are children and teenagers.

"It's not about whether they'll be pros later on, but about education. We pay school fees for the kids whose family can't afford it. We buy school books, and toys. It changes their lives," said Niyonshuti.

"In cycling there are so many things you can do. You can be a good masseur, a good rider or mechanic or coach. At the end of the day it's about helping to develop cycling culture in Africa."

To this aim, Niyonshuti is not just busy in Rwanda, but also in Benin, Sierra Leone and Togo.

The tipping point for his social and sporting identity was a bike as simple as the one he used to conquer the serpentines up L'Alpe d'Huez: a bike from the Qhubeka Foundation.

Bikes that can change lives

"When I took part in the Olympic mountain bike race in 2012, my MTN Qhubeka team manager asked what they could do for Rwanda. I told them 'I don't need money, I'm already a pro'," Nyonshuti remembered. Instead, he suggested that Qhubeka create bikes for kids who would usually not be able to afford them. In a number of containers, Qhubeka delivered around 600 bikes.

"These bikes made such a difference Rwanda," said the former pro – and even in his own family too. His son and nephew got bikes.

"My nephew became a great cyclist. He has twice ridden the Tour of Rwanda and he's just 21 years old. Last week he won a race in France."

Eric Muhoza is his name and Niyonshuti believes he will become a pro one day. He also believes that in the future one of the members of his academy will take part in the Tour de France. For talented cyclists in Africa though, the challenge is great, Niyonshuti told DW.

"The biggest obstacle is getting a visa, even if you have signed a contract with a team."

While European pros who want to take part in the Tour of Rwanda can buy their visa at the airport, African cyclists who want to take part in European competitions "have to queue in front of the embassy" according to Niyonshuti.

"You wait for three to four weeks and at the end of it all you don't even get a visa. Not even your team manager can solve the problem."

Stagnated development

In his career, that ended in 2017, Niyonshuti missed four races because of visa problems, including the Tour of Britain. He recalls that his teammate at the time Daniel Teklehaimanot also had visa issues. Teklehaimanot is an even bigger star in Africa. In 2015, the Eritrean took part in the Tour de France for the first time and even wore the polka dot jersey jersey at one point. But even he couldn't take part in some races in Europe, either because his residency permit expired or because he didn't get a visa.

Daniel Teklehaimanot is one of the most famous African cyclists

Daniel Teklehaimanot is one of the most famous African cyclists

In 2015, Merhawi Kudus joined Teklehaimanot on the Tour. In 2016, three Black riders from Africa took part in the race around France. After that, the development of diversity in the sport has stagnated. In 2017 and 2018, only Ethiopia's Tsgabu Grmay took part, while in 2019 his countryman Natnael Berhane was involved. In 2020, no Black rider from Africa competed and in 2021 only South Africa's Nicholas Dlamini was present. This year, no one is involved. Niyonshuti is sorry to see this, and sees the blame with the teams.

First championships in Africa

Niyonshuti hopes that the 2025 road race world championships in Africa will generate new excitement in African cycling. The championships will be held in Niyonshuti's home of Rwanda, and the 35-year-old has promised excellent organisation and a difficult championship course.

Many have reservations about Rwanda as a host because of the civil war and mass murder in the 1990s, said the former professional cyclist, who himself lost many relatives at that time. But that, Niyonshuti said, is in the past.

"Rwanda is a good country, a clean country. No war, no battles. You are free there. You can do what you want during the day and walk around all over at night. It's a safe country, just like some of the better countries in Europe."

In 2025, many of the current Tour de France riders will get to know Rwanda. Politically speaking, the first-ever championships in Africa are a huge milestone. One can only hope that it does not turn out to be as much of a flash in the pan as the few highlights of African cycling so far at the Tour de France.

This article was translated from German.

Courtesy: DW

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