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Land of Second Chances, by Tim Lewis

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Tour of Rwanda
Tour of Rwanda

Land of Second Chances, by Tim LewisTitle: Land of Second Chances - The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling Team
Author: Tim Lewis
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press (US: VeloPress)
Year: 2013
Pages: 284
Order: Random House (US: VeloPress)
What it is: A story about Team Rwanda and the search for a black African cycling star
Strengths: A striking story told skilfully and one which avoids the inspirational platitudes that fill many other accounts of the Team Rwanda project.
Weaknesses: All books about Africa tread a difficult path.

On the evening of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was on final approach to Kigali airport when it was struck by two Russian-made surface to air missiles and blasted out of the sky. All on board were killed. The first shots in a bloody and brutal campaign of slaughter had just been fired. Over the course of the next three months, as the world sat idly by and argued over semantics and the precise meaning of one word, more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans - from a population of eight million - were killed. French-supplied armaments - rockets, grenades, bullets - were used to kill many. Machetes, more than half a million of which had been imported from China in the previous year, killed most. Among the survivors millions had to deal with having been maimed or driven from their homes. One word sums up what happened in Rwanda in that Spring of 1994, the one word the Western world struggled so awkwardly to avoid uttering: genocide.

* * * * *

Over the course of the past month, as Daryl Impy and then Chris Froome donned the Tour de France's yellow jersey, much has been said and written about African cycling. It is a sign of how little regard there has been for the subject up to now that Chris Froome can erroneously be described as the first African-born rider to stand on the Tour's podium, or that Robbie Hunter is incorrectly cited as the first African to win a stage in the grande boucle.

For most cycling fans Africa doesn't feature much in cycling history. It typically makes its first appearance with Abdel-Kader Zaaf's snooze under a tree in the 1950 Tour, moves on to Fausto Coppi's hunting-and-racing trip to Upper Volta in 1959, sprints past Sean Kelly and Pat McQuaid riding the Rapport Tour in the 1970s and only begins to gather a head of steam with the arrival of Hunter, and then the Barloworld squad, in the early years of the new millennium.

Africa's cycling history is much, much older than that. From the very beginning of cycling's history, Africa has been a part of the story. It was Africa which provided the rubber that allowed the wheels of the earliest bicycles to go round and round more comfortably. During the reign of King Leopold II, the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State is said to have seen its population cut in half as Europe's new rubber barons went in search of their fortunes and found themselves the focus of a major humanitarian campaign.

In Africa's French and Italian colonies cycling began to develop as a sport. Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians all rode the Tour long before South Africa came along. Races such as the Giro d'Eritrea and the Giro delle Tre Valli (also in Eritrea) appeared in 1946 and 1947. Rwanda joined the party in the 1960s, and the 1970s saw the launch of the Tour de l'Est and L'Ascension de Mille Collines (Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills). In 1988 the Tour du Rwanda was added to the calendar, which only ran three times before being cancelled as the country crept closer to the edge of the abyss, and didn't re-appear until 2001.

In 2004 a seventeen-year-old called Adrien Niyonshuti rode his first Tour of Rwanda, riding a twenty-five-year-old Benotto that his uncle, Emmanuelle Turatsinze, had raced to victories in the Tour de l'Est and L'Ascension de Mille Collines on. Niyonshuti finished sixth. The following year he came back for more and finished seventh. A year after that he was second. The prize money for that just about bought Niyonshuti a new set of tyres. Cycling may have been popular in Rwanda. But it wasn't going to make you rich.

* * * * *

In December 2005 one of the pioneers of California's mountain bike craze was on a cycling holiday in Rwanda. Cycling had made Tom Ritchey a millionaire. Two years earlier it had cost him his marriage, when his wife of twenty-five years walked out on him. Pushing fifty, Ritchey was in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Some men deal with such things by buying a Porsche and finding someone half their age to hang off their elbow. Ritchey dealt with it by finding Rwanda. And coffee.

Rwanda, unlike some of its neighbours, never got into the rubber trade. Coffee was where its economy was at. Growing coffee is a complicated game, and one of the complications is that farmers have a narrow window of about eight hours between harvesting their crop of coffee cherries and getting it to the nearest washing plant where the coffee beans can be extracted. The length of time between harvest and extraction can impact the quality of the coffee bean, putting a premium on speed. For Rwandan coffee farmers the nearest washing plant could be twenty kilometres away, with hills and valleys in between. Rwanda's coffee farmers typically transport their crop on single-speed Indian or Chinese-made bikes, which have to be pushed up hills.

Relative to the money earned, bikes are expensive in Rwanda. Pretty much everything that has to be imported is. So Ritchey decided to invent a multi-geared bike that could cope with the local terrain, carry an awful lot of coffee and still be cheap. A hundred buck bike that would be tougher than tough, that was the plan. Rwanda's half-million coffee farmers, Ritchey figured, would all want one of these bikes once they saw they could get their crop to a washing plant quicker and thus charge more for it. A local NGO - post-genocide Rwanda was crawling with NGOs - would organise the sale of the bikes to farmers using micro-financing, the bikes being bought over three years. The bikes themselves would be sold at cost, Ritchey being rich enough to not need a profit.

To put some numbers on this for you, one coffee farmer Ritchey dealt with had six hundred trees which, between them, produced eight hundred kilos of coffee cherries, netting him at the time just under a hundred thousand francs. Ritchey's bike would cost around seventy thousand francs. He estimated the bike would enable a forty percent productivity gain which alone would cover the cost of the bike within three years.

In the first year, Project Rwanda supplied the country's coffee farmers with two thousand of their hundred buck bikes and the future looked bright for the scheme, with preparations in place to ramp up production. Ritchey himself strengthened his bond to the country, building some hotels and running organised cycling tours. Before being bitten by the off-road bug Ritchey had raced on the road in the States and trained with the Olympic squad. So in the same way that, say, Oleg Tinkov got involved with cycling sponsorship as a way to promote his brewery, Ritchey thought a cycling team might be a useful way to promote Project Rwanda. And to run that team Ritchey picked the first American to ride the Tour de France: Jock Boyer.

* * * * *

Over the last couple of years cycling has talked a lot about truth and reconciliation. In the years since the 1994 genocide Rwanda has had to live with truth and reconciliation. People who survived the mass slaughter live side by side with those who carried it out. Truth and reconciliation is not a choice in Rwanda. It's an absolute necessity, the only way the two sides of the slaughter can live and work together. Rwandans understand the need for - and the realities of - truth and reconciliation far better than anyone in the cycling community does. Well, maybe not anyone. Because Jock Boyer knows a thing or two about it also.

Boyer and Ritchey knew one and other from back in the day, when they were young Turks ripping the legs off rivals back in the States. Ritchey got a taste for dirt and went off down the mountain bike road but Boyer made it all the way to the big league. Cyrille Guimard signed him for the all-conquering Renault squad, where he domestiqued for Bernard Hinault. When Guimard selected him for the 1981 Tour team Félix Lévitan, the Tour's director and one of the key driving forces in cycling's mondialisation project, rewrote the rules and had Boyer ride in stars and stripes kit instead of the regular Renault team kit. From Renault Boyer moved on to Jean de Gribaldy's Sem squad, where the American rode alongside Sean Kelly. After that came 7-Eleven where Boyer was one of the old hands guiding the young guns like Andy Hampsten and Davis Phinney.

After 7-Eleven Boyer hung up his bike but stayed on in Belgium, in the bike trade, until that went sour and he returned home to the States. Where, in time, he became a convicted sex offender, a child molester who did gaol time. After which Ritchey offered him a second chance.

In 2006 Ritchey organised the Wooden Bike Classic race in Rwanda. Actually, it was a series of races, with the winners of each being rewarded with a new Schwinn mountain bike. Winner of one of those Schwinns was Adrien Niyonshuti. As part of the organising team Ritchey brought with him from the States were Alex Stieda - Canada's first wearer of the yellow jersey - and Boyer. Back in the States after the Wooden Bike Classic Ritchey pitched Boyer the idea of taking on the Team Rwanda project. The following February Boyer was back in Africa and Team Rwanda got rolling. Among its first intake of riders was Niyonshuti.

* * * * *

Fast forward five years. London 2012, the thirtieth Olympiad. Representing Rwanda in the mountain bike race was that kid who rode his first Tour of Rwanda on his uncle's beat-up Benotto, won a Schwinn at the Wooden Bike Classic and was in the first intake into Team Rwanda, Adrien Niyonshuti. Now twenty-six, Niyonshuti was a seven-year-old when the genocide took place. Like most people in Rwanda, he lost family in the slaughter: five brothers and a sister were killed. Nearly two decades on he was part of Rwanda's ten-man Olympic squad, the only cyclist to make the cut. No one expected him to win a medal in London - he himself simply wanted to finish the race - but many saw in him the future, looked ahead to Games in which Rwanda wouldn't qualify just one rider and wouldn't be there just to make up the numbers.

Twenty years earlier the eyes of Rwanda had been on three other cyclists at another Olympics, the Barcelona Games of 1992, where Faustin Mparabanyi, Emmanuel Nkurunziza and Alphonse Nshimiyiama took the line alongside one hundred forty-eight others in the road race. They had no support staff, no one to stand in the pits and hand them up food and drink. They were just the usual little-country cannon fodder at the Games, riding against amateurs like Fabio Casartelli, Erik Zabel and Lance Armstrong, who were all on the cusp of signing professional contracts. The three Rwandan's lasted nine laps before they packed. Blooded and now with a taste for the Olympics, they were already looking forward to the Games in Atlanta even before Casartelli got his gold medal. And then came the genocide.

* * * * *

Tim Lewis's Land of Second Chances is the story of how Tom Ritchey and Jock Boyer came to be in Rwanda and how, through their efforts and those of others, Adrien Niyonshuti came to represent his country at the London Games. Team Rwanda is at the heart of the story Lewis tells, the ups and downs Boyer has gone through over the last five years, the successes and the failures. Niyonshuti is one of the success stories, a talented rider given a chance by Boyer, then honed by Jean-Pierre van Zyl in the UCI's African Cycling Academy before being given a professional contract with Doug Ryder's MTN-Qhubeka squad.

Team Rwanda cannot be seen in isolation and Lewis takes the time to place it in the context of other initiatives, such as Nicholas Leong's African Cyclist project in Kenya. (A similar project also exists in Ethiopia.) Both the Rwandan and Kenyan projects survive on the contributions of donors, and thus both Boyer and Leong have garnered considerable media coverage over the last five years as they sought to get people to notice them and hand over their money. While it is the likes of Ryder's MTN squad - and the UCI's African efforts - which have actually got black African riders into the European peloton the stories they tell are very sport-centric, often not even exciting enough to be told on the sports pages. The stories sold by Boyer and Leong get the coverage because they come pre-packed with emotion. Sometimes, it would be fair to say, a bit too much emotion.

Here is one of my fears when I see a book like Land of Second Chances, that it's going to be just another cliché-riddled saccharine-soaked story of the triumph of hope over adversity, in sway to the exoticism of Africa, burdened by white man's guilt and all wrapped up with a fairytale ending. Tim Lewis - former editor of the brilliant Observer Sport Monthly supplement - doesn't fall into any of those traps, especially the temptation to wrap the story up with a fairytale ending.

Neither Project Rwanda nor Team Rwanda have quite worked out the way Tom Ritchey and Jock Boyer wanted them to (nor, for that matter, has Nicholas Leong's African Cyclist project). How Lewis handles the disappointments of the story, not just focussing on the successes, is one of the triumphs of Land of Second Chances. The fact that Lewis isn't able to wrap up his story with the ribbon of a pat ending makes for a wonderfully shabby story that's set in the borderlands between success and failure, a story that has all the rough edges of reality. As the book ends, early into 2013, Team Rwanda faces an uncertain future, with Boyer having ended his association with the team and turned his attention to cyclists from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

* * * * *

African cycling has come a long way since Ali Neffati rode the Tour in 1913 and since Marcel Molinès gave the continent its first stage win in 1950. UCI president Pat McQuaid has confidently predicted that a black African will stand on the podium of a Grand Tour within the next five or six years. Last year Eritrea's Daniel Teklehaimanot - who, like the Kenya-born Chris Froome, has had his talent honed by Michel Thèze in the UCI's World Cycling Centre in Aigle - became the first black African to start a Grand Tour, riding the Vuelta a España for GreenEdge (Europcar's Yohann Gène, from Guadeloupe, was the first black rider to start the Tour, in 2011). McQuaid is a man who is often wrong and very hard to agree with, but maybe he knows more about Africa than people give him credit for. And if his timeframe looks tight then just remember that only five years after Jock Boyer became the first American to ride the Tour Greg LeMond won it outright and had twice finished on the lower steps of the podium.

A century after the Race for Africa ended, a century after Imperial Europe carved up Africa into colonial enclaves, the race is on to find Africa's first black world-class cyclist. Land of Second Chances is an important chronicle of just some of the early stages of that race. It's not just a book about what has happened in the past, it's a book about what is just around the corner for cycling as the long, slow project of mondialisation approaches another milestone. If being a fantastic read isn't enough for you then that ought be a good reason to read Lewis's book.

* * * * *

Download an extract from Land of Second Chances, courtesy of VeloPress.

You'll find an interview with Tim Lewis on the Café Bookshelf.