Jean Bosco Nsengimana spent his teenage years working as a bicycle courier to support his penniless family, never imagining that he would one day win the prestigious Tour du Rwanda.
The cyclist, aged 30, stopped his studies at primary school after the death of his father and did odd jobs to take care of his mother and his siblings.
But as he cycles through his hometown of Musanze in northwestern Rwanda, about 70 kilometers from the capital Kigali, a dream slowly begins to germinate.
“Our house was on the side of the road and I used to see professional cyclists and admire them,” he told AFP.
In 2010, he modified his big bike – intended to transport goods and passengers – and began training in the hope of joining the national team which is participating in the Tour du Rwanda.
A few months later, Jean Bosco Nsengimana approached the team’s coach, Félix Sempoma, but it ended in disappointment: he was too thin.
It takes more to discourage him.
“I rejected him again and again but he insisted every time he wanted me to test him,” recalls Félix Sempoma.
“Honestly, I didn’t think he had what it took, but his passion is what made me give in,” he admits.
– “Very happy” –
Jean Bosco Nsengimana joined the national team in 2011 and finished in 6th place in the Tour of Rwanda. He rose to second place in 2014. The consecration came a year later, when he won the race.
“Cycling made me very happy. I got married, I built a new house for my mother and for me,” he says.
He appears in advertisements and uses the funds to open a small shop run by his wife.
This father of two children has since become a figure in Rwandan cycling and his journey inspires other young men from poor families who want to break into the professional world.
“He’s someone all young cyclists admire. It’s not easy to win the Tour du Rwanda but he did it. We’re all proud of him,” said Félix Sempoma.
The Tour du Rwanda, created in 1988 but which experienced several years of interruption due to the genocide during the 1990s, now attracts international riders and has helped to improve the level of cyclists in Rwanda.
The four-time winner of the Tour de France, the Briton Chris Froome, has just participated in the 2023 edition, won by the Eritrean Henok Mulueberhan who swallowed the approximately 1,130 kilometers of the course in 28 h 58 min 1 sec.
– “No regrets” –
Despite its popularity and its place on the international scene – Rwanda will organize the World Championships in 2025, a first in Africa – Rwandan cycling still faces significant challenges, including a lack of infrastructure and limited access to quality training equipment and facilities.
“International cyclists have better training facilities and more races to participate in than us,” laments Jean Bosco Nsengimana.
“We only have one race a month here in Rwanda, but we need more so that we can reach the level of international cyclists,” he pleads.
This year, no Rwandan cyclist entered the Top-10 and Jean Bosco Nsengimana finished in 40th place.
He recognizes that his best sporting years are now behind him: “I have no regrets. I had a very good career, and now I can become a youth coach,” he says.
And the cyclist claims to have a lot of advice to give.
“You don’t join cycling focusing on the money,” he argues, urging young riders “to be patient”.
“You have to love the work you do first; the rest will come later,” he philosophizes.