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Interview: Tim Lewis

Tim Lewis's Land of Second Chances is, arguably, not just the best cycling book released this year, but the best sports book of the year. And even at sports it doesn't stop, for while it is a book about a cycling team and the hunt for a black African cyclist capable of beating the best, it's also a book about a country with a compelling story: Rwanda. Lewis popped into the Café to talk about his book, and some of the people whose stories it tells, along with the future for African cycling.

Adrien Niyonshuti competing for Rwanda in the 2012 Olympics
Adrien Niyonshuti competing for Rwanda in the 2012 Olympics
Phil Walter

Land of Second Chances, by Tim LewisPodium Café: Let's open with a bit about you: you were editor at the brilliant Observer Sport Monthly, so you're obviously a fan of a lot of sports. When did you become a cycling nut and start spending July with your feet up watching the Tour?

Tim Lewis: I've always ridden here and there, but I started cycling more seriously when - for reasons that escape me now - I signed up for the 2002 L'Étape du Tour.

It was a similar story with watching the sport. Like a lot of people, I've fond memories of the Channel 4 coverage, but I started following it more obsessively in the early 2000s. Back then, I'd try to go to France for a week each July and cycle in the morning and watch the TV coverage of the Tour in the afternoon, all while my (now-ex) girlfriend sat by a swimming pool.

It only occurs to me now what a really terrible holiday companion I must have been.

PdC: You went to Rwanda to report the national tour there in 2010. Two, three years earlier Bicycling had done their Jock Boyer story and the African Cyclist Project people had put out their Alp d'Huez story - was that what took you to Rwanda?

TL: You mentioned Observer Sport Monthly and actually the magazine ran a story on the newly formed Team Rwanda back in May 2009.

Steve Bloomfield, a fantastic journalist who was based at that time in Nairobi wrote it, and it was this really intriguing, offbeat and smart article. I remember that his original pitch mentioned Cool Runnings and it did have exactly that feel: very unlikely characters, doing something unexpected, but at the same time the central premise wasn't completely ludicrous when you thought about. By that I mean, why shouldn't black Africans, who utterly dominate distance running, make an impact in pro cycling as well?

Steve's story was comic in parts: the Rwandans were always showing up hours late, missing flights and so on; Jock, their coach, bought them watches but it didn't make any difference. But the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 - when at least 800,000 citizens (one in ten of the population) were slaughtered in a hundred days - lent the whole enterprise a more intense, but potentially inspiring undertone.

It seems to me that a recurring narrative with a lot of the best cyclists is struggle; many of the greats have had tough starts in life - whether it's Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil or even Bradley Wiggins - but the Rwandan situation was obviously particularly extreme. In 1994, Rwanda was the poorest country on earth, no one could work out how it was going to recover; Adrien Niyonshuti, one of the first intake of riders, had lost 60 family members in the killings. They were, in a sporting sense, the ultimate underdogs.

Anyway, Steve's article stayed with me and I decided to follow it to see if it would wind up being more like Cool Runnings, or closer to the Kenyan runners.

PdC: What hooked you on the story? Was it that Cool Runnings notion, that team of underdogs playing with the big boys, or was it from the beginning the redemption theme, the notion of second chances, both for individuals and for a country?

TL: From really early on, it became clear that it was not going to be a straightforward, Hollywood fairytale. I remember speaking to William Fotheringham, the Guardian's cycling writer, about it. Steve's article had just come in and I happened to mention to William that Rwanda were developing a cycling team and that one day they hoped to compete in the Tour de France. He hadn't heard about that, but when I mentioned Jock Boyer - who was the first American to ride the Tour in 1981 and was now the coach of Team Rwanda - his ears pricked up. "Oh, the sex offender," he said.

I didn't know this, but I went away and looked it up, and it turned out that yes, Jock was convicted of lewd acts with a minor and served eight months in prison in 2002-2003. Jock's background immediately raised lots of questions: Why had he wound up in Rwanda? Was he there to do penance? Can you ever make amends for a crime that many people find impossible to forgive?

It was a similar tale when I started to investigate other strands of the book. One character who isn't directly connected to the cycling team but looms over the action is the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Kagame is just fascinating. To many in the West, he is the supreme African statesman. Tony Blair called him "a visionary leader"; to Bill Clinton, he was "one of the great leaders of our time". He was the mastermind of Rwanda's recovery from absolute despair in 1994 to the place that I first visited in 2010: which was the cleanest and safest country in all of Africa, with a whole stack of progressive policies, including national health insurance and ambitious schools. But Kagame was a deeply compromised figure, too. He could be despotic, thin-skinned and had obvious anger-management issues. He was strongly implicated in the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the bloodiest conflict since World War Two.

All of this fed back to the cycling team, in some form or another, and that's what got me really excited about the book. It was a book about a cycling team, but hopefully it's a book about Rwanda, a country that I find completely compelling.

PdC: There are three men Land of Second Chances revolves around: Tom Ritchey, Jock Boyer and Adrien Niyonshuti. Let's talk briefly about each, starting with the money man, Ritchey. There's parts of the story it's hard to talk about without giving away spoilers, but if I could I'd like to ask you about Ritchey's coffee bikes project. That sounds like a great idea - sturdy, hundred buck bikes that tap into micro-finance initiatives to get them to the farmers - but the practicalities of it all seem to have proved to be too much. Did Ritchey just walk away from it all in the end, or does the project still exist in some form?

TL: Sadly, tragically even, the coffee-bike scheme does not exist anymore. And actually, no one is more upset about this than Tom Ritchey; there were tears in his eyes when we spoke about it.

In brief, Tom - who a lot of people will know as a pioneer of mountain-bike design - went to Rwanda in 2005 and decided he wanted to make a bike for the coffee farmers there. He built a brilliant, quirky machine that he could produce for around $100, but he got stung by the cost of shipping the bikes to Rwanda. Rwanda is a land-locked nation in the centre of Africa and it turns out to be the second most expensive country in the world to import goods into - the first being Antarctica. With those charges added to the cost of making the bike, it became too expensive for the average Rwandan - who earns around £1 a day - to afford.

That, anyway, was the situation as Tom saw it. When I went to Rwanda I met a bunch of coffee farmers and they told a different, contradictory and utterly surprising version of events. It was another moment - and there were many in the three years I worked on the book - where I was left scratching my head, thinking, "Who do I believe here?" They couldn't both be right... In your review, you called the book "shabby" and I think that's exactly right - my hope, however, is that it's not exactly confusing and more like an intriguing detective story that you have to unravel.

PdC: Let's talk about Jock Boyer next. Like Ritchey he's a big-C Christian. Back in 2007, 2008, after the Bicycling story appeared, mention of Boyer's name - as it did with William Fotheringham - invariably brought up the sexual abuse story for a lot of people and that negated any good he could do. Do you think that has changed, that people's attitudes have softened somewhat when you look at responses you've had to Land of Second Chances?

TL: Not exactly. There are still two very distinct reactions to Jock: a lot of people just don't want to hear about what he's doing now, they think what he did was unforgivable, it's as simple as that. But there are definitely many others who think he deserves a second chance and, indisputably, there are a group of riders on Team Rwanda whose lives have been changed beyond their dreams by him arriving in the country and the work he's done there.

It sounds like a cop-out, but I'm glad that I don't have to adjudicate between the two sides. I felt that my place within the narrative was to present my interactions with Jock as simply and honestly as possible, and let readers make up their own minds.

But Jock is certainly aware that a lot of people don't like him. One time he said to me, wryly, that even insects steered clear of him.

PdC: Finally, Adrien Niyonshuti - what was it about him that stuck out when compared to the other Team Rwanda riders?

TL: No question, Adrien is the stand-out success of Team Rwanda. He was one of the original group of five riders that Jock selected in 2007, aged twenty, and he made it all the way through to the 2012 Olympics, where he competed in the cross-country mountain bike event. He got a lot of attention in London, because - as I alluded to earlier - he had a harrowing personal experience of the genocide and he has gone on to become a fantastic ambassador for his country. He is a quiet, gentle presence, but on the bike - both road and mountain bike - he is a formidable, single-minded competitor. He's signed up to the ambitious MTN-Qhubeka squad and you can expect to see him riding in Europe in 2014.

I was particularly interested in Adrien because I wanted to know why he went to the next level and his compatriots - who came from equally tough backgrounds - did not. I assumed the explanation must be mostly athletic, but the physiological tests didn't back that up. It's impossible to offer a definitive explanation, but I did find it revealing that Adrien was the most conventionally educated of all the Team Rwanda - he finished secondary school, whereas a lot of his team-mates left when they were very young, aged ten or even before. Many of them went to work as bicycle-taxi riders - a really hard job that doesn't pay very well at all - and they tended to treat cycling as something that paid the bills, so to speak. Whereas for Adrien is was clearly a passion. He was the best, partly at least, because he loved doing it.

PdC: It's hard to escape the genocide when you mention Rwanda, and you've already mentioned it a couple of times. You use the stories of a couple of cyclists from the generation before the slaughter to trace how the genocide unfolded and how harrowing and brutal it was. At the other end of the story, you're talking to people who were on both sides of the slaughter and now have to live side by side. How difficult was it for you to get your head around the matter-of-fact way the whole thing is handled by Rwandans today?

TL: You're right, Rwandans can be very matter-of-fact in talking about the genocide. It would be inconceivable, for most of us I'd guess, to live side by side once again with people who had been responsible for killing members of our family or friends. But that is the reality of Rwanda, less than twenty years after the genocide came to an end.

But the longer I spent in Rwanda, the more I wondered how much of the story I was getting to hear. I'm certain that most Rwandans would never speak to an outsider like they would talk to each other. On the rare occasions I felt I was having completely open and honest conversations about the genocide, it was with people I'd spent a lot of time with, and gained a measure of trust. Also, it had to be completely private: they would never say anything if they thought they could be overheard.

PdC: African-born cyclists - from Richard Virenque to Chris Froome - have done well in cycling. Cyclists from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have all done well in cycling. Cyclists from South Africa have all done well in cycling. Yet when most people talk about African cycling they imagine it doesn't have any history at all, that it's still that dark continent. One story that struck me in Land of Second Chances was the way you showed Africa's links to the birth of the sport, the role played by the rubber barons. Can you briefly explain that for our readers?

TL: Yes, there is a direct connection between central Africa and the growth of cycling in Europe from the 1890s onwards. From the moment that John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in Belfast in 1888, there was a huge boom in the activity and an unquenchable desire for rubber. Much of this came from the Congo Free State, a Belgian colony, and it instantly became an incredibly profitable industry. (Rwanda, its neighbour, didn't have the right climactic conditions for growing the plant.) Harvesting wild rubber from vines in the rainforest was an arduous task and the Belgians were infamously brutal. That period was called the "Rubber Terror" and the population of Congo was reduced by almost half - perhaps ten million inhabitants - in the space of around twenty years. This is the background, in fact, to Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness.

PdC: That cycling will soon see a world-class black African champion I think is accepted by most. There are different initiatives going on to unearth that talent, from the UCI's work with the African cycling centre, through indigenous teams like MTN-Qhubeka, stuff like the Marco Polo project and the African Cyclists Project - now re-branded as Kenyan Riders - as well as Team Rwanda. Do you see the continent as being a hotbed of talent in the short term, or does the sport need to develop at grass-roots level first - develop its own culture - in order to blossom at the top?

TL: This is such an interesting question and really, it's where the book ends. We now just have to watch how it unfolds.

Most of Land of Second Chances is about the Rwandan cycling team, but I do spend a chapter looking at equivalent schemes in Kenya and Eritrea, and there's a lot of people thinking hard about the best way to bring the most talented athletes through. In the short term, MTN-Qhubeka is the most established and ambitious set-up. Last year it gained Pro Continental status - a rung below Team Sky et cetera - and their team boss Doug Ryder is committed to riding with a seventy per cent African line-up. This currently includes Adrien Niyonshuti from Rwanda, three Eritreans and a fantastic climber from Ethiopia named Tsgabu Grmay. Ryder has also set up an all-African feeder team based in South Africa that's bringing through the next generation of riders.

But there's a bigger question about the best way to develop young talent - and there's a lot of conflicting views here. Jock and Doug pursue, broadly speaking, a Western agenda: they use the best equipment and pride themselves on following the latest thinking on tactics and physical conditioning. There is, however, a very different attitude in Kenya. Here, the Kenyan Riders have decided that the most effective approach is a philosophy they call "Africanisation": in short that it is a huge mistake to treat African cyclists like they are Europeans or Americans.

Thus Kenyan Riders believes that it can create cycling champions by following the principles that have made the country's runners so successful: they are much less focused on high-end equipment and more interested in core athletic exercises off the bike. They don't care how Alberto Contador trains; they want to learn from how the 800m champion David Rudisha does.

It's a complex, sprawling subject, but in the next couple of years we will see a black African competing in the Tour: it will most likely be an Eritrean, probably Daniel Teklehaimanot, who rode for GreenEdge this year and has recently signed to MTN, or Europcar's Natnael Berhane.

PdC: There's one more question I'd like to ask - which should probably come with a spoiler warning because it impacts how the story you tell ends - did you attitude to the Team Rwanda project change during the time you were following it? While I don't think you went in to it wide-eyed and full of hope, or came out of it disillusioned, you do have to end the book with everything facing an uncertain future.

TL: I imagined - and I'd guess that everyone involved in Team Rwanda thought this too - that it would be easier and quicker to bring through cyclists than it has been. Cycling can look like a simple sport: it seems like you should be able to take a brilliant natural athlete, stick him on a bike, give him some coaching and watch him fly. The experience of the Rwandan cyclists shows that isn't the case. There are a bunch of factors that you'd never think of in a million years that all contribute to being successful.

You can see that in the way that the goals of the project have evolved. At the start, Jock wanted to have an all-Rwandan team in the Tour de France. He thought that they could have a winner of the race in five or ten years. Now it's obvious that it would be a massive achievement for one Rwandan just to make it to the start line.

And once again, there are intriguing parallels with the country as the whole. Despite the dramatic improvements that Rwanda has experienced in the past two decades, it remains precariously balanced. Overpopulation is a huge concern and the country is still very dependent on foreign aid. Last year, an American government agency produced a report that predicted that the country was at risk of being a failed state by 2030. I'm sad to say that no one can confidently predict how the situation is going to develop for either the country or its bicycle team.

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Tim Lewis's Land of Second Chances (2013, 284 pages) is published in the UK by Yellow Jersey Press and the US by VeloPress.

You can read an extract from Land of Second Chances, courtesy of VeloPress.

You'll find a review of Land of Second Chances on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Tim Lewis for taking the time to participate in this interview.