Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu was the first Rwandan woman and first black African woman to ride at the UCI Road World Championships this September, but many believe that this is just the start of her journey. The hope is that this 20-year-old woman from a poverty stricken nation devastated by genocide, could make it to the top level of cycling. If she does break through, Girubuntu would blaze a path not just for the female cyclists of her country, but for all black African women.
It’s only been two years since Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu took up cycling but since then so much has changed. It quickly became clear that she was head and shoulders above her competition in Rwanda, both literally and figuratively.
The gaps were so large at the end of a race against her Rwandan competitors that she’d slow down near the end just to make it a little more acceptable, just as she would stoop her tall frame so it was closer to the height of those around her.
It was obvious that she was leagues ahead of the competition in Rwanda when at 18, she became national champion, beating her nearest rival by almost 10 minutes. But her skills and mentality were still so far away from those battling it out in the top level of the sport and on the world stage.
The football mad-nation of Rwanda, where bikes are commonly seen as a means of transport for those who can’t afford a car, hasn’t in the past been a hotbed of competition for cyclists but Team Africa Rising has been working for years to change this, helping to develop cyclists from Rwanda as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea.
There are a number of male cyclists from these countries that have made their way into professional cycling but this is not the case for female cyclists, who face additional barriers. The Tour of Rwanda, where millions line the streets to watch, gives the men a chance to take on a strong international field in their home country, but the races and cycling culture just isn’t there for the women.
The staggering 64 percent of women in the Rwandan parliament tells a tale of female empowerment that hasn’t necessarily trickled down to other areas of society and the traditional, deeply patriarchal attitudes hold firm in rural Rwanda where the norm is still for women to marry young and perform the bulk of the labour in the fields.
When Ella CyclingTips asked Kimberly Coats, director of marketing and logistics for Team Africa Rising, how big the cultural gap was that Rwandan female cyclists had to overcome her response was: “Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon? That’s how big the gap is.”
“Culturally Rwanda doesn’t have a lot of women on bikes,” said Coats. “In the rural villages where we live the women still don’t have a lot of rights and they are still doing most of the work. But it can change and I can see it changing.”
And Girubuntu, who comes from a small town in the eastern province of Rwanda, is leading the way.
From a small town in Rwanda to South Africa, Switzerland and the world championships
Initially, Girubuntu’s habit of slowing at the end of a race, her slouched posture and deferential attitude had Coats wondering if this young woman really had what it takes to make it amidst the tough competition of the highest level. But her natural talent couldn’t be ignored and Girubuntu was invited to a training camp in Africa at the start of the year, ahead of the African Continental Championships. Her confidence and list of wins grew after the camp and her potential was obvious.
“It was a great moment for me in my cycling career because it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about cycling and I was able to meet other riders who are stronger than me,” said Girubuntu via a translator. “I was also able to compete in races in South Africa and ultimately I competed in the African Continental Cycling Championships, finishing in the top five which really showed me that I can make it.”
“It opened up an opportunity for me to train at the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland and that really changed the way I looked at cycling, that it could be my career,” Girubuntu added.
She arrived at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland in early May, the 1000th trainee but first Rwandan women to attend. Initially meant to stay for a one month talent identification training camp, Girubuntu ended up staying for three months to prepare for the African Games and the UCI Road World Championships.
Podiums missed but opportunities grasped
The road to developing as a top level cyclist, is never an easy one, and being a rider from a country where the culture is so far removed from Europe or the US makes it even tougher. Then there is the huge task of being a young, relatively new rider that began riding in a country with almost no women’s racing and limited skill development opportunities.
“The first important area we had to develop was her technical ability,” said Jean-Jacques Henry, coach at the UCI World Cycling Centre. “When she arrived she did not know how to ride a bike. Her skills were sufficient only for leisure cycling. She could not ride downhill and she almost crashed at every bend. Then she learned how to corner fast, to have the right technique and balance on a fast downhill road. At the same time, she learned how to keep her position in a peloton which was very new for her. After a few weeks, she had enough practice to start to fight for results in a cycling race.”
Girubuntu went on to the All Africa Games in September, missing out on the podium in the time trial by the slimmest of margins. Then she went on to become the first Rwandan women to race at the UCI Road World Championships later that month.
“This really made me very happy, especially that I was the first black woman to compete at the World Cycling Championships. Of course I was the only Rwandan female cyclist and did not expect to win because I did not have fellow country-mates to ride along with but I accepted this and said to myself that I should go strong,” said Girubuntu.
At the World Championships, Girubuntu was the second last rider to finish the road race, coming in 87th and rounded out the time trial results at 44th.
Since then Girubuntu has also raced the Momentum 947 Cycle Challenge, the first UCI sanctioned 1.1 race for women in South Africa. The race, run on the weekend, was won by South Africa’s national champion Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Bigla) and Girubuntu secured 15th place in a field that contained a truly international fields and top professional teams like Bigla, TIBCO-SVB and Liv-Plantur.
“She has the potential to be a great cyclist but still has a long way to go”
Girubuntu has come a long way quickly and shown strength in the mountains, in time trials and an impressive recovery capacity, but those around her know that some patience and a lot of work will be required for her to develop her skills far enough to reach the ranks of a professional rider on the world stage.
Coates is hoping that 2017 could be the year and the UCI’s Henry also sees it as a possibility but cautions that it is a process that will take time, expecting that she will need two or three years more of development.
“She certainly has the potential to be a great cyclist but still has a long way to go. Firstly, she needs a career plan and financial support over several years. Secondly she needs to leave her country and find a team who will take care of her, not for a few weeks but for the whole season,” said Henry. “Then she will need people around her willing to help and protect her.”
The plan for the year ahead is to keep exposing Girubuntu to the top-level competition and development opportunities that she can only find by leaving Rwanda. Coats hopes to find her a spot in a training development camp with a US team and the opportunity to take part in a couple of early season races in California.
Then she will head back to the UCI World Cycling Centre for months of training and racing. Girubuntu’s focus needs to be on her own development but she also hopes it will spur on others.
“I want to be a professional cyclist and ride on a pro team. I also want to help my fellow girls back home and form a girls’ team in Rwanda. At competitions I always ride alone but I know that it is possible to encourage more girls to join cycling and we can do wonders in the near future. It is possible,” said Girubuntu.
It has been a ground-breaking year for men’s cycling in Africa, with team MTN-Qhubeka picking up a number of victories and becoming the first African registered team to take part in the Tour de France. They also did more than just take part, with Eritrean cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot becoming the first African cyclist to wear the polka dot jersey. Teklehaimanot and teammate Merhawi Kudus were also the first black African cyclists to take part in the Tour de France. Now there is hope that there can be similar ground-breaking performances in women’s cycling.
“After the world championships we asked (Girubuntu) do you really want to do this,” said Coats. “This is going to be the hardest thing she has ever done in her life, but if she does it she will change a continent.”
Thanks to Usher Komugisha (@Pinkett888) for translating Girubuntu’s comments.