KIGALI, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Cyclist Samuel Mugisha clinched victory in the Tour du Rwanda on Sunday with a punishing cobblestoned climb known as the “Wall of Kigali”.
That earned the 20-year-old $2,000 in prize money and made him the youngest winner of the contest that the tiny central African nation hopes will make a mark on the global professional cycling map.
Near neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya have produced scores of long-distance runners who regularly dominate the world’s top athletics contests. Rwanda wants its Tour and band of riders to make its name in another endurance sport.
Local competitors have now won the Tour du Rwanda five years running, beating a growing roster of international challengers.
This time, cyclists from a dozen other countries including France, South Africa and the United States rode through the “land of a thousand hills”, cheered on through villages, towns and farms by large crowds. Sixty riders finished according to the race results.
“You get a lot of spectators in every part of the race, so that makes it really special,” said Spanish rider David Lozano from Team Novo Nordisk after winning stage seven on Saturday.
The government says it plans to push the sport further by sponsoring the eight-stage Tour, now in its 10th year, and by exempting imported professional bicycles from taxes. One target is to get its riders into the Tour de France, the pinnacle of competitive cycling.
Organisers says next year’s Rwandan Tour will be upgraded by professional cycling’s governing body (UCI) to the 2.1 road race category, enabling it to host even more international competitors.
“Rwanda (will) host big teams, world teams, those who are in big races in Europe. It means that in the presence of those teams, Rwanda will be on the map of cycling,” said Aimable Bayingana, President of the Rwanda Cycling Federation.
“It’s very important because it attracts many people to visit our country,” said Thompson Mushimiyimana, one of the fans who watched the tour pass through the Northern Province of Musanze over the weekend.
Tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner in the country, which is trying to lay to rest memories of a 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists. (Reporting by Cecilie Kallestrup Editing by Maggie Fick and Andrew Heavens)