Well, not new exactly. The national tour of this French-speaking West African country was first organised in 1953. But it did not take place every year, and in 1998 it disappeared completely. The country was suffering an economic, social and political crisis, and cycling was not high on the list of priorities.
It could well have spelt the end of a cycling chapter. But that was without counting on the determination of the National Cycling Federation which was convinced that the country needed its national cycling tour. Hence the re-launch in 2012 under the name Tour de Côte d’Ivoire – Tour de la Réconciliation. In 2014 the seven-day stage race joins Africa’s UCI Continental Circuit.
New name says it all
The event’s new name speaks volumes about the ambitions of the cycling federation in a country where, in 2011, more than 3000 people had been killed during a political crisis. But the conviction and enthusiasm of Yao Allah-Kouame, President of the Ivoirian Cycling Federation, are infectious.
“We asked ourselves how, in this context, cycling could play a role in the reconciliation,” he says. “Sport is a factor that brings people together, not only geographically speaking but also sentimentally and psychologically. People crowded along the roadsides applaud and encourage their athletes without caring about their political, sociological, cultural or religious leanings.”
In theory it works, but the reality is not that easy. Staging a tour requires considerable financial investment and the Côte d’Ivoire is by no means a rich country. However, the idea of reconciliation sparked the imaginations of potential sponsors.
UCI Consultant and Africa Adviser Laurent Bezault explains: “To start with we didn’t have a great deal. We approached one partner and, instead of saying ‘if you give us so much, we’ll give you this in return,’ we simply proposed that he join us in our quest for reconciliation. He agreed and others followed suit.”
Campaign in towns
The Tour de Côte d’Ivoire was on its way to revival under a new name. And the Federation was determined to pass its message on to the widest public possible. This was achieved through advertising, media coverage, banners, posters, the organisation of various activities connected to cycling and, perhaps most importantly, visiting different towns with the caravan to emphasise the message of reconciliation through sport.
“In 2013 we visited 10 towns, and in 2014 we would like to increase that to 14,” says Mr Kouamé.
He would even go as far as creating “Tour Villages” in the largest cities in order to encourage an exchange between athletes and the local population. The idea is to organise different activities that will enable the populations to mix and meet. The Tour Villages are inspired by neighbouring Burkina Faso, host of the established Tour du Faso.
Burkina Faso Cycling Federation President Alassane Ouangraoua understands entirely the Côte d’Ivoire’s motivation: “Cycling can help stabilise and calm the population,” he confirmed at the recent UCI Sharing Platform for Africa, held in Egypt.
The President of the Rwanda Cycling Federation agreed: “The African population does not have a great deal of diversion. Cycling can unite them and allow them to forget the things that have disappointed them.”
Final event on UCI Africa Tour calendar
The Tour de Côte d’Ivoire – Tour de la Réconciliation has already taken steps to achieve this. In the process, it has been recognised by the UCI and earned pride of place as the final event of the 2013-2014 UCI Africa Tour.
For Mr Kouamé this is an important step towards breaking down barriers that exist in his country: “Through cycling we can show that it is possible to go anywhere in our country: north, south, west or east. Cycling can produce the same sentiments in everyone by showing them that they are part of the same country, supporting the same athletes or teams…”
The Tour de Côte d’Ivoire – Tour de la Réconciliation: September 6-12, 2014.