land of second chances. the impossible rise of rwanda's cycling team. tim lewis. yellow jersey press hardback. 285pp illus. £16.99

land of second chances

'Forward thinking is not their strong suit'

it seems there may be a terrible sense of guilt lurking within every human carnivore, one that only finds an outlet when encountering someone of the opposite persuasion. i've been a vegetarian since i was fourteen years old, and it's a dietary choice that, aside from the occasional attempt at whimsy, i have rarely if ever, attempted to impose upon others. yet almost every time, in polite company when the subject is brought to the surface, the meat eaters in my company feel honour bound to point out that they no longer eat as much/any (delete as applicable) red meat, constraining themselves to either chicken and fish. in fact, they will protest, "i'm almost a vegetarian myself."

that is rarely a true statement.

in this instance, there are valid comparisons to be made with cycling. apart from a few years at college in my late teens/early twenties, i have been a cyclist of one form or another since i was nine years old (i was a late starter). the early years on islay were entirely car free, interrupted only be a period of car ownership demanded by the needs of a young family. now that they are older and virtually independent, the car is once more absent from daily life, and all my island transport needs are satisfied by two wheels. contrary to my lack of vegetarian imposition on others, i am more than happy to be a pain in the neck and berate car owners at every available opportunity.

they never know whether i'm kidding or not.

but such anti-social admonishment mostly has a similar outcome to that of the meat-eating fraternity. though i can sense their subsumed outrage at my moral righteousness, almost all will protest that, as youngsters, they undertook quite a substantial amount of cycling. unfortunately, that can be said of a large proportion of the uk population, and my faux indignation usually continues in my pointing out that circumstances were the same for me too, but yet i continue to this day, despite entering my late fifties.

what's their excuse?

with the recent tour and olympic successes, cycling may well be entering a new resurgence in british daily life, but there is little doubt that it is a distinctly western phenomenon, particularly any sporting aspirations or pretensions on behalf of the country's youth. our worldly mistake is perhaps to have emulated the early christian missionaries, intent on visiting most corners of an uncivilised african continent to spread the christian word. very much a case of imposing western ideals on a populace who shared not their enthusiasm. it is a methodology that we may still be guilty of today.

many of the african states are all but unrecognisable from the days of those missionaries, particularly by way of their names. i am insufficiently well-practiced in the field of geography to reel off a list of the country formerly known as..., so i will refrain from doing so. tim lewis, however, author of land of second chances is undoubtedly far better qualified to guide you thus in the nature of african intricacies, stretching from interstate politics to the formation of the rwandan cycle team at the hands of tom ritchey (yes, that tom ritchey) and jock boyer, an american former tour de france rider.

though the book's excellent cover displays a team rwanda cyclist standing behind his campagnolo-equipped look carbon fibre bicycle, this book is considerably and commendably so much more than the title promises. though the historical differences between hutus and tutsis may be lost on many of us, the genocide practiced in that country during the 1990s undoubtedly shaped the international opinion of those less intent on following each twist and turn of the countries internal politics.

though lewis makes it perfectly plain that the many unspeakable acts perpetrated during those terrible years have not been forgotten, his many well-researched facts and interviews are at pains to demonstrate that contemporary rwandan society has little option but to peacefully co-exist. but he is also sufficiently aware of his subject to strongly hint that the rwandan view of cycle sport does not necessarily coincide with that prevalent in the west.

the germ of team rwanda was nurtured by one of mountain biking's originators, tom ritchey, who travelled to rwanda as a means of distancing himself from a personal crisis that affected his life in the usa. becoming aware of the tenacity and athletic capabilities of many rwandan youth, who used bicycles and variations thereof to transport self and goods across a largely underdeveloped and mountainous landscape, he left behind the bicycle with which he had arrived and made plans to supply a more sophisticated fleet.

to head up this quest for future sporting development, he recruited former professional cyclist, jock boyer, whose sensibilities and organisational skills sought out young rwandans with the potential to eventually compete on the international cycling stage. in theory, these factors offered great promise, getting off to an excellent start in the persona of adrien niyonshuti, a rider who not only showed the potential for which boyer was looking, but seemed as intent on a professional career as were his guardians. however, such ambition and dedication rarely came in twos.

'(Boyer) became infuriated by the inability of his riders to accept responsibility for their mistakes. There would be a touch of wheels, two of them would crash, and both riders would swear blind that it was not their fault. Rwandans called it 'ikinamico'.

when the genocide ceased, rwanda found itself under the presidential guidance of paul kagame, a man who showed little favour or enthusiasm for the founding or aspirations of the cycling team. however, as tim lewis astutely pointed out, if he had had designs on its failure he was in the perfect position to put a stop to it at anytime. though not a man praised by all his subjects, lewis portrays him as a president with the best interests of his country at heart and some commendably modern ideas on how to improve the lot of its population. his 'uncompromising discipline' was echoed by that of boyer, leading to the posting of a quote on the team rwanda website which could easily have come from either man.

"People have to be pushed hard, until it hurts. I push myself, many days until I almost drop dead. There is nothing to be complacent about. We are poor, and being poor is bad. If being pushed hurts, it cannot hurt as much as poverty, as much as being hungry, as much as being sick. I make no apologies for pushing people hard. I wish I had even more energy than I have to puch them. It hurts them, but they come up in the end as winners."

the words are those of paul kagame.

however, while the young, ambitious cyclist born of western tradition may clearly see the path ahead of him, it is something of a naivety to apportion the same to his/her opposite number in africa. even those of us who have no desire to pin a number on our jerseys are aware of the hierarchy that ultimately leads to a ride in a grand tour such as the tour de france. rwandans often seem oblivious to this career path. "Speaking with Daniel, however, it occured to me for the first time that maybe not all Rwandans wanted these life-altering experiences. They were Western aspirations, not Daniel's own".

lewis's excellent narrative gives credence to this cultural and sporting difference as something of a stumbling block to team rwanda's future. though riders such as niyonshuti may raise may be periodically encouraging, many rwandans appear to view engagement as a professional cyclist as a short-term goal, one that will raise them well above mundane society, but one that seemingly leads often to a suffocating complacency and an inability to view the bigger picture of which they may potentially form a part.

though briefly alluded to in a later chapter, i had almost expected land of second chances to be the cycling equivalent of cool runnings, the story of the jamaican bobsleigh team, a misapprehension for which i must apologise to mr lewis. other than an all too superficial resemblance, this book is several orders of magnitude greater than the latter. for not only has tim lewis provided a perceptive insight to this specific aspect of cycle sport in a small african state, he has cleverly managed to place it all in geographical, social and historical context without ever descending to rhetoric or over-complication. nor does he ever display a westerner's arrogance or disdain for the efforts of his subject. this is no comedy.

there is little doubt that the fast changing face of african politics demands a book (or several) devoted to the subject, but it would have been impossible to offer any context at all to the efforts of ritchey and boyer without imposing some political background to their story. that lewis has managed to do so with such clarity, while engaging the reader's interest through some complex detailing is testament to his considerable abilities as a writer.

this is not a book solely about cycling. it is a book that combines hope with tragedy and success with failure. but ultimately it's a book that holds a mirror to our western sporting ideals. whether you find that reflection disturbing or otherwise, depends greatly on the width of your perspective.

team rwanda website

saturday 27th july 2013