All eyes are focused on Rwanda as the East African hilly nation hosts the 2021 Tour du Rwanda-a road cycling stage race which kicked off on May 2 and peddling through until the finish line on May 9.
The race is rated as a category 2.1 event on the 2021 UCI Africa Tour calendar, and is the 23rd edition of the Tour du Rwanda.
Taarifa has had an exclusive lengthy conversation with Sterling Courage Magnell, former head coach of the Rwanda national cycling team from May of 2015 until November of 2020.
In this enriched and insightful engagement, Sterling takes us through a host of issues within Rwanda’s cycling sport. We requested Sterling to pen down this article, and below is his story as told to Taarifa’s Senior Editor.
I am proud to have played my role in Rwanda cycling, proud of my associations, my team and honored to have served the institutions that govern our sport. The image of Rwanda is important to me.
Cycling doesn’t just belong to the national team, cycling is the crown jewel of Rwanda sports and it belongs to all of us. From every kid on a bike, to every fan along the journey, every bike taxi driver, our team chef, the guards at the gate who watch over us at night and watch us come and go on our training exercises.
To our drivers, to the receptionist at the many hotels we stay in, to our champions, our support crews, to each and every fan of the sport all the way to the cowboys in Kinigi that had gone from shouting after me “coach!” to knowing my real name calling out “Sterling!” by the time I moved away from my residence at ARCC permanently at the end of November.
Thanks to President Paul Kagame, our gracious leaders, the RNP and the RDF, Rwanda is stable, Rwanda is safe. Rwanda also possesses world class road infrastructure, high altitude and an ideal climate for training and racing bikes. It is, at least in theory akin to a Garden of Eden for cycling primed to nurture a bike racing culture phenomenon like the world has never seen.
My question today is directed to various cycling and sport leaders responsible for the management of our sport, where are you leading us? I personally believe that Rwanda houses a deep talent pool with all of the necessary potential to compete at the leading edge of the sport. Yet we consistently underachieve at a level so egregious that the public likely has no idea how far short of our potential we actually are.
For my part, I came to the conclusion some time before my post as head coach ended, that in order to truly develop cycling up to the potential level of impact it has the power to enact in Rwanda and beyond that I would have to leave the confines of my position to be effective.
Thinking in advance about the future of the national team, even as we were engaged in intense preparations for Tour du Rwanda 2020, I requested permission to bring in an intern, Jean Hubert as an apprentice to hopefully teach him as much as possible and potentially prepare him to be a candidate for my replacement.
The reasons why I believed Hubert was qualified to learn and possibly take over the coaching of the national team are many. However, the email communication I sent explaining my request was ignored, no reply was or has ever been sent, never so much as comment on my request.
But now we are in the middle of the story, not at the beginning. This request came in January, some weeks after my resignation letter which lasted only a matter of days before NOC vice president Festus Bizimana urged me to the negotiation table, calling a meeting that he brokered between myself and newly elected FERWACY president Abdallah Murenzi.
NOC chairman Valens Munyabagisha joined us as well for talks over dinner at L’Epicurien restaurant. Issues and terms were discussed that allowed us to reach consensus that night after which I committed to continuing to work in my role.
The events leading up to my resignation were having started training for Tour du Rwanda in camp on location at ARCC from November 1st 2019, the quarterly funding allocated to ARCC for functions including training camp had not arrived and would not arrive until after Christmas.
Staff salaries, including my own were delayed for the same period. ARCC was able to continue training camp operations on credit from our suppliers while staff held out patiently waiting for their salaries, staying dedicated to their roles regardless of the delay.
There was only one problem could not be solved in this manner, equipment shortages. A number of athletes cycling shoes were delaminating, a process where the sole falls apart from the upper construction rendering them useless.
Drive train parts were worn and badly needed replacing. Parts designed to fit an athlete properly to the bicycle were absent with no more component options remaining in our inventory to make changes.
Many small parts needed to adapt essential components of the bikes were lacking from inventory as well. The list was growing with each day of training, we were told each time for the asking that nothing could be done and to simply wait. The problem with waiting is that timing is everything when you are preparing for bike racing.
Blocks of training need to be laid meticulously and athletes monitored before the following refinement of fitness and physical adaptations desired can take place. When you lose time, you literally lose fitness. The level of form you have the potential to reach literally shrinks. Waiting is not an option if you want to win.
Flashback to summer 2018 during the initial months of my most recent contract term with FERWACY, ARCC found itself in a bind lacking enough of even basic equipment necessary to train let alone race.
At that time ARCC director Ruben came up with an emergency solution which involved my flying to Johannesburg courtesy of RwandAir to purchase equipment and bring it back on my person to ARCC. Felix Sempoma accompanied me on the trip as well, seeking equipment for his team Benediction Ignite.
I purchased directly Rwf6m+ worth of equipment, filling various orders from ARCC mechanics and a few of the technical coaching tools and pieces that would allow me to do my job. After our return, I assembled a basic word document along with receipts and submitted it to ARCC director Ruben Habarurema for review and reimbursement.
A short time later I was paid in full for the amount I had spent. While not best practice to use my own finances to buy good for the national team, it was the only viable and timely solution that I knew of.
So once again during the period of funding delay that stretched for approximately half of our Tour du Rwanda 2020 preparation training camps, Ruben created a request form and gave me instructions to fill in what we needed, promising that as soon as our funding arrived I would be reimbursed as I had the time before.
I also discussed this with FERWACY President Abdallah Murenzi whom instructed me to follow a procedure of 1. Request 2. Approval 3. Payment and submit it to Ruben.
I sought out the least expensive source for each item on the list utilizing vendors that included like Amazon and Ebay as well as my relationship with Pioneer to secure wholesale pricing for cycling power meters I needed to fit to a limited number of athletes’ bikes in order to collect and track their training data.
These materials that I purchased for the national team went into immediate use during preparation and were also used during the Tour du Rwanda 2020. Many of these materials are still in used by the national team or in ARCC inventory to this day.
In my endeavor to leave no stone unturned in our preparation, in addition the list that I submitted, I purchased goods for the team that I knew were beyond the reasonable threshold for Ruben to approve given the circumstances. Things like nutritional supplements in the form of vitamins and amino acids.
A wearable Whoop band to track one of my athletes sleep and recovery, limited socks, glasses and on the bike nutrition products (things riders eat while training or racing.) “Power bands” for strength and stability exercises, a batch of heart rate monitor chest straps, specific bike fitting materials for custom shoe adaptations, even a product called AmpHuman lotion that has been tested and proven to improve race times by up to 2% and used by many of the top World Tour teams.
I did not ask to be reimbursed for taxes paid to customs when the materials arrived, nor the handling fees of either the materials I purchased on behalf of ARCC or the ones I would donate.
One of the items was a batch of 20 Revitis mini two-way radios and matching ear pieces. This type of radio which fits easily into a designated pocket sewn into the bib shorts worn by the athletes resting midway up the back, is used in higher ranked races for communication between coach and rider as well as between riders when out of shouting range or when one does not want to broadcast what is being said as in the case of tactical discussion or instructions.
Most international teams coming to the Tour du Rwanda since its UCI 2.1 ranking arrive with these radios in their luggage and use them throughout the race. This ability to communicate is a massive aid in team function and a huge advantage over teams that do not have them.
I had raised this issue and made a request for them during a meeting with FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Murenzi and ARCC director Ruben Habarurema sometimes in the summer of 2019.
The request was granted with Emmanuel even laughing, saying that getting them would be easy and “not a problem.” Unfortunately, I have no proof of this meeting or its contents as I was not informed of the meeting schedule beforehand learning of it only after it was in progress and there was no
request for an official document made in regards to the need for radios. At any rate, the radios never materialized even though this is something that you would assume a “technical director” would be well aware of and even by now a year and a half later as Rwanda’s athletes compete in Tour du Rwanda 2021, they have no radios.
Unaware of the regulations in Rwanda limiting the legality of two-way radio type and frequency capability that civilians can own, I ordered these radios in January so that they would arrive in time before the start of the Tour.
I learned about the illegal nature of the radios the hard way when RURA seized the shipment, albeit after I had paid the taxes and duties. To date I have received no notification of the seizure, no refund and have been unable to locate the items in order to ship them return to sender.
However, my biggest disappointment was what this meant for the team and our chances in the race. Not having that ability to communicate left us at a disadvantage compared to other teams. Instead of being able to respond to tactical changes and moves in real time, the only way our athletes could speak with their coach was to drop to the back of the peloton and call for the team car, which in the fastest of cases means losing ground to the front of the race which must be regained after waiting for the car to reach them, often by which time the race has progressed while we are unable to react.
In fact, as I write, today mid 2021 edition I received a call from one of the coaches of the 3 Rwanda teams currently competing asking for assistance locating some radios, even 1 or 2 because there were moments in today’s stage where his riders lost crucial ground due to his inability to communicate with them. They ended up coming to the finish well behind losing ground as a result.
I now understand and fully respect the regulations regarding certain technologies, my question is, in the year between Tour du Rwanda editions, why hasn’t FERWACY addressed this and found a way to safely and legally provide a solution to its teams?
Another material issue of significance leading into the Tour du Rwanda 2020 was the matter of the national team “kit.” That January, athletes on the team informed me that they didn’t want to train using the national team bibs (shorts) because the elastic in them didn’t fit properly, causing paint and cutting off circulation when riding hard.
As you can imagine, in cycling where the legs are what really matter, this is a pretty big problem, unacceptable really. I was shocked to hear it and admonished the boys on the team for not informing me sooner. I alerted FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Murenzi of the problem, to which he assured me that new kit was on the way to rectify the issue.
However, when the race arrived, no new kit was to be had and the national team was forced to race with the old shorts.
Failing to provide radios for the team so that we could race on par tactically with the other challengers is one thing, but expecting the best riders in the national to represent Rwanda in our national tour with the handicap that these ill-fitting shorts represented was beyond unconscionable.
How can you enter your biggest crowning international event hosted in Rwanda to represent your country in a bike race wearing shorts that hurt your legs whenever you try to push hard on the pedals?
Post Tour du Rwanda 2020 having submitted all request forms and receipts for reimbursement totaling 5m, I followed up regularly awaiting reimbursement. Periodically throughout 2020 I sent messages to Ruben inquiring about the status of the case, 10 times that can be confirmed via WhatsApp conversation and many more times in person and email about the issue in the interim.
Finally, after continued delays, excuses or non-responses on March 10, 2021 a year on from Tour du Rwanda 2020, I submitted a certified letter asking that the bill be payed to FERWACY. The response from Abdallah Murenzi demanded additional paperwork consisting of: 1. Proforma invoices, 2. Purchasing order, 3. Bills, 4. Delivery notes.
On March 29, 2021. I met in person at FERWACY offices located at Amahoro stadium with SG Leonard Sekanyange to discuss the issue. He shared with me documents submitted by Ruben revealing an adjusted inventory which within its contents claimed to not be in possession or to have no information about many materials I had submitted in the forms and receipts for with a number of items unlisted in his evaluation at all.
This was the first time I had been made aware of Ruben’s evaluation, at no point earlier was I given notice in any form of his assessment or asked for additional paperwork. Both demand for additional documentation and Ruben’s evaluation came 4 months post cessation of my contract and I left my residence at ARCC.
Shortly after these exchanges a picture surfaced on Instagram of the national team training with one of the team members wearing one of the pairs of shoes on the list that Ruben claimed were never given to ARCC or they had no information about.
There are other materials I have witnessed in use during this year’s ongoing Tour du Rwanda edition as well claimed in his evaluation not to exist. I have since submitted a full account of the extent of my knowledge detailing how each item was used, for whom and where it is likely to be today to the best of my knowledge.
Of course, it is now impossible for me to verify with certainty which materials are where this far beyond my time at ARCC, as well as it is impossible for me to produce the full roster of paperwork FERWACY now demands.
Why has it taken a year of me asking for an update or information about the matter for these responses? Why was I not required by Ruben to provide these documents in 2018 when I assisted in procuring equipment?
Why now, is it my responsibility to provide proof that I realistically cannot obtain since I have left my post for such a period that I cannot be certain of the whereabouts of all materials? Why is the burden not on director Ruben for not following procedure as my superior? Further, referencing item 2.2.3 in my contract, why is the burden not on my employer, FERWACY for not providing the necessary equipment in a timely manner in the first place?
In August of 2020, aware that this could become a growing problem that I would not be able to act on or monitor after I left my post at ARCC once my contract ended, Irequested protocol guidelines from FERWACY technical director Emmanuel Murenzi.
At that time, I observed equipment being used or loaned to athletes seemingly at random without a set protocol for awarding access to equipment or bikes owned by FERWACY nor a protocol for keeping track of it.
Reference to Protocol request, reimbursements & non-response
Scarcity of equipment and means by which to develop cycling has always been a major sticking point for Rwanda’s cycling culture. In late 2018, along with Junior and Women’s coach Nathan Byukusenge who also served as my translator, we met with every club in Rwanda for interviews in Kigali.
There is no official record of this conference so I do not have proof that it occurred. We interview either the president or another representative from every club asking what their concerns, needs and requests were.
With the information I gleaned from those meetings which focused heavily on a need for bikes and equipment, I created a document entitled “Club Reform Proposal” which outlined a yearly subsidy program based on a budget equal to our expenditure related to our participation in the 2018 Innsbruck UCI World Championships. I officially submitted it twice to leadership. Via email and in hardcopy form on other occasions. I also shared it with various colleagues to get their input.
I have never been asked for follow up, refinement, implementation or further discussion regarding that proposal by anyone in cycling leadership despite submitting it multiple times and referencing it on various occasions.
Post Tour du Rwanda 2020, we anticipated preparations for the next competition, the African Continental Championships which was scheduled for late March in Maritious.
However, it was cancelled before we had a chance to assemble in training camp due to Covid-19 prevention measures.
Following that decision, I asked for an audience with FERWACY president Murenzi Abdallah which occurred on March 17, 2020 at FERWACY headquarters.
I used that meeting to impress upon him the window of opportunity that the postponed or cancellation of races presented us with. I reminded him that we were far behind in development of new riders, juniors and women and that we still desperately needed new equipment.
This was the time to formulate a plan and submit it with a request for funding to the Ministry of Sport and to then get caught up using the break in racing to our advantage I followed up on that meeting with an email detailing my frustration and questions of the moment.
Eventually that exchange led to another meeting which I had to press very hard for to discuss my future with FERWACY on July 21, 2020.
In that meeting I expressed my sense that he did not intend to continue the partnership based on our relationships thus far, that I also did not wish to renew my contract, that we should agree in order to anticipate how to best move forward.
He consented that we would not renew the partnership. I then expressed my desire to assist in any way possible in the search and/or briefing of a new coach to make the transition as smooth as possible. I further expressed a desire to issue a joint statement near the end of my contract to present a united front in support of Rwandan cycling and he agreed.
On September 9th I received official notice from FERWACY that they would not seek to renew my contract as per notification stipulations within its contents that notice be served within two months of its expiry.
Notice On September 22, 2020, I received notice from FERWACY that I was being given the annual leave as per my agreement with Abdallah in January, the extra 30 days in addition to the normally allocated 18 days.
This meant in effect that I was being put on vacation for the remainder of my contract. I immediately responded to the email communication in which form it came with a message detailing that because of the downtime created by Covid-19 measures that I had no need or desire to “take time off,” further detailing that I wished to forgo my annual leave if at all possible to make myself available for any and every method of assistance or contribution to the team or indeed cycling in general whilst still under contract. I received to reply. I followed up that email a few weeks later to reiterate my position.
Still there was no response. Finally, I sent another replay asking explicitly if it was FERWACY or ARCC policy not to reply to emails or communicate with me? I received no reply then either. Regardless, I continued to remain available for any mandate.
On November 2nd, The New Times published an article based on a press conference held by FERWACY president Abdallah Murenzi in which he is quoted as saying the following regarding me: “We will not extend his contract.
We need a coach who will be part of the process to unearth new talents, not just someone who works with ten (elite) riders in the national team. Until we find a new permanent coach, Felix Sempoma will step in as interim coach.” I was not contacted for comment by either the New Times or FERWACY before or after these events.
FERWACY & co. have proved themselves to be excellent hosts of international events including the well-organized tourism cooperation between ARCC, FERWACY and RDB. They do a wonderful job and no visitor or tourist should ever expect anything less than a stellar and unforgettable experience.
This is to their credit, the infrastructure, equipment, cooperation and coordination required to pull it all off successfully is a true testament to these organizations ability to get the job done when the mandate and goal is clear. What I don’t understand however, regarding the leaders of cycling, is what could possibly be unclear about mine and other communication regarding what is needed and required to developed the racing side of cycling?
It seems to me, increasingly so, that the custodians of bike racing have willfully neglected the development, infrastructure and nurture of the bike racing community on nearly every front. There is no new equipment coming in even for the national team, clubs flounder without means or access to affordable equipment. On good year there are little more than 10 national races in Rwanda.
Contrast this with the preparation required to host the Tour du Rwanda which takes months, even up to a year of planning in advance. The allowance given by the Ministry of Sport to FERWACY is ample in order to produce this event, I am uncertain of the exact number provided for the 2021 edition.
In one meeting I had personally with the former PS of the Ministry of Sport, when I pressed about the need for equipment, he confided in me that FERWACY was being given over 350million for Tour du Rwanda and that they should be able to spare something for equipment, the point being, they have budget, why doesn’t any of it go to development of our athletes and their needs?
Drawing an international field, hosting foreigners is a top priority for our sporting leaders, so why is the same or even a portion of that attention not allocated to the equipment and time needed to field, identify, select and train our own athletes?
On May 3, 2020 I was called into a committee meeting between head coaches of sporting federations and the RNOSC, the national Olympic committee of Rwanda.
The meeting, chaired by Vice President Festus Bizymana was to hear progress reports regarding preparation progress status for the games from each sport. (At that time, the games had not been postponed to 2021 yet.)
When it was my turn to give an oral report, I started with a question: What was the NOC’s goal for cycling in the games? Because the answer depended on what the aim was which had never been communicated to me despite being asked to give periodic technical reports which I did on athletes’ condition, training and readiness.
I proceeded to explain that there was no foreseeable possible scenario where any national athlete currently engaged in bike racing had even a small chance of finishing the event we would race in Tokyo. The explanation for why that is, is complex, but in a nutshell, no one is racing at the level that this race will be, 250K+ with the world best athletes to be found.
Nothing we do or have done would prepare them to reach the conclusion of the event. So, knowing from the technical side that we cannot hope to finish, what other goals did or does the NOC have regarding participation?
Following the meeting I wrote a report detailing the aspects I had outlined. My report, my email and my follow up received no response to this day. These are hard truths, sporting truths. Bike racing is a meritocracy, the best rise to the top.
If you want to compete, you need to understand the competition. By my account, there is not one leader of cycling that shows a true willingness or interest in understanding the true nature of bike racing competition.
Nowhere are these problems more evidenced than the flight of 4 of Rwanda’s all-time top athletes: Janvier Hadi whom qualified Rwanda for participation in the Olympic road race event for the first time in history ahead of the 2016 games in Rio, Brazil.
Bonaventure Uwizyemana, current national champion and victor of single day races too numerous to list and even the overall GC at the 2019 Tour of Cameroon. Valens Ndayisenga, 2 time Tour du Rwanda champion in 2017 and in 2014, the first Rwandan to take the crown during the races period of UCI sanctioning. Multi time national champion and darling of the cycling community and indeed the public.
Finally, Jeanne D’arc, Rwanda’s premiere female athlete, multi time national champion and silver medalist in the individual time trial at the 2016 African Continental championships. All four of these athletes have not only left the sport, but left the country in search of greener pastures.
These now former athletes are all brilliant, intelligent individuals their talent extending a broad spectrum placing them in the ideal position to contribute to the sport extending beyond their athletic careers as leaders, coaches and mentors to younger athletes.
In fact, Valens was one of the individuals that I felt most strongly, after years of working with him, was well qualified to take over coaching the national team. His Charisma and spirit are unparalleled in recent Rwanda cycling history and every athlete looks up to and respects him. The fact that all four of these cherished individuals have left our community is to my mind a failure by cycling leadership and on this count, I include myself in that number.
A final vignette that I will leave you with takes place during the short-lived training camp to prepare for the 2020 UCI World Championships in Imola, Italy. Ahead of the camp, I requested Covid-19 testing for all attending participants in order to create a safety bubble as per my best interpretation of best practice regarding avoiding the spread of the virus.
Training Camp Request for Testing
No testing was organized or required and the athletes arrived in camp with their status unknown. Mere days into the camp a number of individual athletes converged on my quarters at ARCC to inform me that they were being told to leave camp and return home immediately. No communication was sent to me by anyone at FERWACY previous to this decision.
I was not notified or consulted by anyone. I immediately instructed them to stay in their houses to await instructions from me and left my quarters to locate ARCC Director Ruben. I informed him verbally of my concerns, in particular that two of the athletes currently in the camp were suffering from Corona virus like symptoms for which they had come to me requesting mediation and there was no way of confirming whether it was Covid-19 related or not. I also reminded him that as head coach that riders should receive their instructions when in training camp from me, or at the very least I should be consulted.
The riders were pressured to leave regardless of my objections and they did so, after which I turned directly to email to express my concerns to FERWACY President Abdallah Murenzi. Exhibit #13.1 Post camp objections.
Many more instances of a failure of oversight by cycling leadership over my tenure as head coach have led me to write this letter, of which it would take much longer to detail and would be impossible or difficult to prove. This is why I, and I believe the Rwandan public should be asking; where exactly are you leading us?
Cycling leadership makes no small matter of their desire to host the UCI World Championships in 2025. One can be certain that if awarded the bid that Rwanda will do an exceptional job of hosting these championships, creating a spectacular experience for every participant, for all those that the event touches and a spectacle on display for the entire world to see that will make all Rwandans, indeed all Africans proud.
But what about the community? What about the athletes, the staff? What about young kids that aspire to enter the sport? What about those like myself dedicated to the mentorship of our racing culture and its community? The 2025 World Championships are now 4 years and 5 months away.
Where are the bikes? Where is the coach? Where are the new athletes? Do our sports leaders understand what is required for the task of preparing ourselves for these championships, or is the only priority to host outsiders in Rwanda?
Editors Note: The views expressed in this article are of the author and not those of Taarifa or its management