Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team, by Tim Lewis, Yellow Jersey, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
Amid the excitement of last summer’s Olympic Games, you could be forgiven for having overlooked Adrien Niyonshuti. A year ago this week, he came 39th in the men’s cross-country mountain biking – not, in itself, the most memorable result (there were only 40 finishers) but, nevertheless, the climax of a remarkable story.
For Niynoshuti is a Rwandan, and the first to have raced a mountain bike at an Olympic event. None of the great Olympic underdog stories – from the British ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards to the Jamaican bobsleigh team – can come close. Niynoshuti was seven in 1994, when 800,000 Rwandans, 10 per cent of the population, were slaughtered in 100 days. Six of his siblings were murdered, as well as 54 other family members.
But journalist Tim Lewis’s Land of Second Chances is not a story simply of personal dedication overcoming the odds. Niynoshuti is a product of Team Rwanda, a bold project led by two Americans eager to help the country, while also seeking second chances for themselves. Their attempts to import the Lycra-clad, precision-engineered world of the Tour de France into rural Africa form the heart of this absorbing book.
Tom Ritchey was a successful and wealthy bicycle designer, but had fallen into a midlife crisis after the end of his marriage. In 2005, aged 48, he left his Californian home and embarked on a bike tour around Rwanda. Delighted by the scenery and charmed by the crowds of people who came to greet him, he was soon thinking of ways to contribute. One project was designing a bike to transport coffee; another was creating a professional cycling squad.
His first step was to persuade Jock Boyer to become coach. Boyer had illustrious credentials (he was the first American to compete in the Tour de France) but he too had reasons to seek redemption. In 2002 he had pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a minor and served a year in jail. It was a high-risk appointment but Ritchey felt that Boyer deserved a second chance, and where better than Rwanda, where people “live side by side with murderers”.
Boyer moved to Rwanda in 2007 and soon the team was making progress. The book describes a training trip to the US, the riders wide-eyed as they drive along the Las Vegas Strip at 1am. Later, on a ride in the Utah mountains, they encounter a patch of snow for the first time, stopping to rub it on their arms, heads and legs.
But similarities with Cool Runnings, the larky 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsleigh squad, end there. Team Rwanda’s story could have been edited into an uplifting tale of unlikely success, with Niynoshuti’s Olympic appearance as the rousing finale. Instead this is a more complicated, darker, account. “Situations in Africa are rarely, if ever, neat,” writes Lewis.
As the book progresses, doubts, frustration and mistrust mount. Several star riders underperform or quit; there’s a growing implication that they are more interested in short-term financial gain than possible Tour de France glory. “It’s always been somebody else’s dream for them,” concludes one team helper.
The portrayal of Rwanda itself also changes, from a place of almost miraculous grace and resilience to a nation whose fate still hangs in the balance. Ritchey’s coffee bike scheme founders. Glowing reports of economic growth are replaced by a US warning of the country’s “elevated risk of becoming a failed state by 2030”. One young Rwandan even predicts “the fight” will return in 10 to 15 years.
The book ends with a downbeat post-Olympic coda. Following a shambolic team appearance at the Tour of Rio in September 2012, Boyer announced he would be leaving to coach in Ethiopia. There has long been a consensus in the cycling world that African success in endurance running events will inevitably be replicated at the Tour de France. That optimism remains, but Land of Second Chances shows some of the obstacles that have to be overcome to get there.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor