Meet The Only Woman On Rwanda's National Cycling Team

Photo by Dean Warren Photography

Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu is the only woman on the Rwandan national cycling team and last year became the first black woman from Africa to compete at World Championship Individual Time Trial in Richmond, Virginia.

"They are free."

That's how Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu remembers describing the pack of cyclists flash by the first time she watched a road race. She has fond memories of that moment back in 2009, when she stood in wonder among the millions who lined the Tour du Rwanda course. "I wanted to be like them."

Girubuntu is now 20 years old. She started training professionally three years ago and is already the only woman on the country's national cycling team. Last year, she became the first black female from Africa to compete at the World Championship Individual Time Trial in Richmond, Virginia.

She started riding a bike for fun when she was 7, she says through a translator via e-mail. Girubuntu was born in 1995, a year after the country endured one of the most devastating genocides in modern history, when members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered more than 800,000 Tutsi civilians and sympathizers.

Next week, she'll be competing in the annual Continental Championships Individual Time Trial in Casablanca, Morocco. Ahead of the event, here are 10 things to know about this inspiring woman.

1. When Girubuntu told her mother about her cycling ambitions, her mother bought her bunches of mini bananas, hoping the fruit might give her daughter a nutritional edge.

2. Girubuntu was an athlete most of her life -- she competed in soccer, volleyball and basketball growing up. It's not uncommon for Rwandan girls to play sports when they're young, but there are no official leagues for them, so Girubuntu's skills were self-taught. Women in her country typically leave athletics upon reaching adulthood because of reinforced gender norms.

3. She started cycling professionally at age 17, when Adrien Niyonshuti, now her teammate, suggested she undergo a riding test. Niyonshuti is from the same province as Girubuntu and was the subject of the film "Rising From Ashes," a documentary about genocide survivors building a national cycling team.

4. Girubuntu has paired with Team Africa Rising, the organization that's developing Team Rwanda Cycling. The nonprofit is also using its model for building a team in countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea.

5. Out of all the riders on Rwanda's national team, Girubuntu sets her bicycle seat the highest. Her long femurs are perfectly suited to cycling because they allow her to be extra efficient at pedaling. She also has a high red blood-cell count, making for fast injury recovery.

Photo by Dean Warren Photography

6. Girubuntu trains six days a week, two to four hours per day. Her team is coached by Sterling Magnell, a U.S. citizen and cyclist.

7. She became the first black female from Africa to compete in the World Championship Individual Time Trial in Virginia in September. While women from Africa have competed in the event before Girubuntu, they've been white, typically from South Africa. She finished near last place, but there were at least 40 other cyclists who did not complete the race.

8. Team Rwanda pays her about $1,200 a year, which allows her to support her parents and four siblings while she is able to focus on training.

9. Team Africa Rising is struggling for funding. It doesn't receive financial backing from the International Cycling Union, the sport's governing body. That means fundraising and equipment drives must be managed by Kimberly Coats, director of marketing and logistics. "With money and investment will come more equipment, better coaches, more races and more teams. Without money we continue to mish-mash things together and hobble along," Coats said.

10. Girubuntu wants to see more women cycling in Rwanda. Team Africa Rising wants to have more women's races in the country, but the International Cycling Union said Girubuntu is too strong of a competitor and other riders have too little experience to warrant a proper competition, Coats said.

In the meantime, Girubuntu is mentoring young girls and hoping to make women's cycling more respected and accepted in her country. "I want to show all the women in Africa -- the poor, black women -- that we too can race bikes, be successful, and make money," she said. "We do not need to follow the culture of getting married young and having children and working the fields." 

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