What We Can Learn From The International Women’s Cycling Tour of Burundi

By Megan Flottorp

At the end of last year, Burundi hosted the first-ever women’s cycling competition in Africa. Five nations participated in the five-stage inaugural International Women’s Cycling Tour of Burundi, with riders from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi present.

The participants covered 358.5 km through the country’s provinces over the course of the five-day race that saw plenty of enthusiasm from both fans and riders. Despite the limited experience among many contestants, the competition presented an opportunity for the women to show their ability and prove to the world that they intend to go places. So, as we look to a new year of exciting women’s racing ahead, what can we glean from the success of this trailblazing event?

There is a huge amount of untapped cycling potential in developing nations

Over the last several years, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the cycling community to provide opportunities to riders in countries where the infrastructure and support apparatus simply isn’t as advanced. This event shows that those initiatives are well-directed. There is serious enthusiasm for the sport, and the talent is there – just waiting for the chance to compete. As Annick Kaneza, a Burundian cyclist who participated in the race, stated: “I am very satisfied. I started biking in 2020 when I was in 8th grade. In the days to come, I’m dreaming of continuing until I reach the world level.”

These riders are also uniquely positioned to excel at endurance sports, due to the physically demanding routine chores many of them have been doing since they were young. As reported by Reuters, for 19-year-old Burundian Adelphine Nimfasha, regularly carrying more than twice her own weight in rice on her father’s bicycle proved to be excellent – albeit unusual – preparation for becoming a professional cyclist.

Nimfasha ultimately came in sixth in the competition, after a fall cost her the lead she had held for most of the way. “I didn’t give up but rose up, took my bicycle, and proceeded to finish the race,” she said. Nimfasha has also finished in the top three in national competitions in Egypt and Nigeria before the latest international competition, held in her home country.

The bike continues its legacy as an instrument of women’s empowerment

Nimfasha went on to explain that cycling has been a big part of her life since she was a child. “My parents would send me to fetch water and carry rice from the fields at the harvest, and I could pack up to 150 or 120 kilos of rice. During that season, my father could not hire other workers. It was me who ensured the transport,” she said.

Now she is cycling on her own terms, and she dreams of being an internationally celebrated athlete like Francine Niyonsaba, the Burundian runner. The latter won silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics and broke a 2,000-metre world record in September of last year.

“Now I want to become for cycling what Niyonsaba is for athletics,” she told Reuters.

There is an appetite from local fans for racing

In addition to being a powerful means of advancement for the riders themselves, the further accessibility of cycling will always be a good thing for the sport in general. It will help cultivate new fans, greater support, and a more prominent place on the world stage. As reported by Africa News, the spectators at the event were clearly delighted by the action and cheered energetically for the athletes.

“It’s a good show. I am very happy. My girls have a future, and they are here. I wish them victory,” a spectator said.

Tapping into a whole new audience of fans could help breathe fresh life into the cycling community and contribute a great deal to enhancing the diversity of those who participate in and identify with the sport.

Cycling initiatives in developing countries require our support

It is also essential to note the work that has gone in, both at a local grassroots level and from the international community, to make this event a reality. This first-ever international women’s cycling competition in Africa, for example, came a couple of months after the UCI World Cycling Centre organised a training camp at the Cairo Velodrome for 28 juniors from 12 African nations: Algeria, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda.

The training camp was organised ahead of Cairo’s UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships and was a part of the UCI Solidarity Programme to develop cycling worldwide, particularly in regions with fewer opportunities available.

The fact remains that although bicycles are already an essential part of life for many in this part of the world, resources are limited.

“The bicycles [available] are not suitable. There is also a financial problem – organising training requires huge financial means to accommodate and feed participants for three or four months,” said Prosper Ngenzirabona, a coach in Burundi.

Yet, the local cycling community is hopeful that Burundi’s move to host a more visible event will help change that. There is no doubt that cycling, particularly women’s cycling, is growing in Africa. These women have now had the chance to glimpse the possibilities that lay before them and are eager to compete with the world’s best – and it is up to the international community to help them on this journey.

You can learn more about the UCI Solidarity Programme here.