The 13th edition of the Tour du Rwanda will begin on May 2 in Kigali. The eight-day stage race is the most prominent UCI event on the continent of Africa, and has for many years been held up as the exemplar for other similar endeavours around the continent. It was moved this year from a February calendar slot because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rwanda is bidding to host the UCI Road World Championships in 2025, and the UCI will be sending a technical team to assess Kigali’s bid in May, according to Rwanda Cycling Federation (FERWACY) president Abdallah Murenzi.
As such, the global attention on Tour du Rwanda has never been higher. With a truly brutal queen stage and four passages of the iconic Mur de Kigali (one of which comes in the time trial) it promises to be an edition that rises to the occasion.
If he resolves his issues with the team and deigns to ride, Moise Mugisha looks to be the strongest rider in the field. If he doesn’t, Kent Main will be the only rider from the 2020 podium to start and looks good value for a victory. Jhonatan Restrepo may struggle to keep up with the climbers, but he seems a shoo-in for a stage victory or three after his exploits last year.
Course and conditions
The most striking thing about the Tour du Rwanda compared to European one-week stage races is the amount of time spent at altitude. Rwanda is a high country, so it’s not unusual to see cols topping out at 2,000m above sea level classified as ‘cat 3’ in the road book. This presents unique challenges to European racers, most of whom are not altitude natives, and has led to a period of dominance by riders from Africa, and particularly those from Rwanda and Eritrea. Indeed, a non-African has not won the GC in Rwanda since 2011 when Kiel Reijnen, the American rider for Trek-Segafredo, took the victory.
Stage 1 (Sunday May 2) sees the race kick off with a punchy 115km, including a ten-lap city crit in Rwamagana. Stage 2 (Monday May 3) begins once again in Kigali, and heads south to Huye. It’s a stage route that has featured often in the Tour du Rwanda, with Merhawi Kudus (Astana) taking a solo victory (and the yellow jersey) on his way to overall victory in 2019.
Stage 3 (Tuesday May 4) is where things get really nasty, with an epic 3,680m of climbing packed into 171 kilometres of racing. Riders must tackle the Ruyenzi (cat 3), Kanyinya (cat 1) and Umurenge (cat 2) climbs in the space of 30 brutal uphill kilometres with only the briefest of respites between. Umurenge tops out at 2,145m above sea level – so we should see some riders’ hopes of GC contention tumble away on its upper slopes. The finale HC climb to Tetero is a real punch in the gut, reaching 2,251m above sea. Whoever wins this stage will be in the driving seat for overall victory.
More climbing is on the menu for Stages 4 and 5, (Wednesday May 5 & Thursday May 6) with some serious tests for the peloton to drag itself over. After the rigours of Stage 3, it will be interesting to see if the breakaway is allowed some leeway on either of these days – with lumpy course profiles that will entice those of an attacking disposition.
Stage 6 (Friday May 7) is a summit finish on Mont Kigali, the mountain overlooking the capital city from the east. The ascent is 5.9km at 6% gradient, and it finishes at a height of 1,748m above sea. This could well see a few GC riders drop out of contention, after a brutal first five days of racing. Expect the customary massive crowds that Rwanda is famous for along the roadside.
Time trials, easy right? Not in East Africa. The ITT on Stage 7 (Saturday May 8) is only 4.5km long but it finishes with an ascent of the iconic Mur de Kigali climb, which packs 400m of cobbles and an average gradient of 8.3% into the last 1.2 kilometres.
Stage 8 (Sunday 8 May) is a real barnstormer of a finale, with three ascents each of the Mur de Kigali and Rebero climbs in the capital city. As mentioned, the Mur has 400m of ‘pavé’ in it, but Rebero tops that with a further 1,100m of the bumpy stuff. Any riders whose fillings haven’t vibrated out of their heads after three passages of the main circuit will duke it out for the stage win on the Canal Olympia climb, a long uphill drag race for glory. It’s not really steep enough to force any big gaps, so expect the attacks to come beforehand on the circuit.
Last year’s yellow jersey, Natnael Tesfatsion, will not be defending his crown. He is expected to make his Giro debut later in May riding for Androni Gioccatoli, and so doesn’t feature in the Italian team’s Rwanda roster. The Italian ProTeam team does, however, send Colombian ace Jhonatan Restrepo – who won a staggering four stages of the 2020 Tour du Rwanda.
Also from the ‘second division’ of the UCI structure, B&B Hotels p/b KTM brings perhaps the most recognisable squad to Tour du Rwanda with their journeyman climber Pierre Rolland the standout name, backed up by Cyril Gautier, Quentin Pacher and Jonathan Hivert. Israel StartUp Nation is the only WorldTeam to send a squad to Rwanda this year, with James Piccoli perhaps their best shout for a stage win or two.
Benediction Ignite, Rwanda’s biggest cycling team, bring a predictably strong squad – with Joseph Areruya among their best riders. Areruya won the GC here in 2017, a result that helped him gain a contract with French ProTeam Delko Marseille Provence. Didier Munyaneza, just 23, is another prodigious talent lining up for Benediction.
The Rwandan federation will field a national team and the host nation will also be represented by a team of riders from the SKOL Adrien Niyonshuti Academy. Adiren Niyonshuti was himself one of the trailblazers of the Rwandan cycling project, riding in the WorldTour for Qhubeka Assos when they were known as Team Dimension Data. These days, Niyonshuti’s focus is on developing young riders in Africa, through his academy. Moise Mugisha would have been the standout name among the team’s roster, but he was reported in March as having threatened to sit out the event over a dispute with the team.
Samuel Mugisha is the standout name on the Rwandan national squad, he won the GC here in 2018 but has struggled to replicate that same sort of form in the three years since.
From elsewhere on the continent, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Algeria all send national squads, while the strongest African threat to the recent East African domination of the race comes in the form of the South African Continental-level squad, ProTouch. Their leader Kent Main came third overall last year, and after a decent run of results this season so far, he could go all the way to the top of the GC this year.