How did the Rwanda story come about for you?
It really started around 2008, when I was editor at Observer Sport Monthly and we ran an article by Steve Bloomfield, who was based in Nairobi, and he had met Jock Boyer in a coffee shop and heard about the project. He pitched the story to me and I thought it sounded great. We ran a story on it in 2008, which was really when the project was just starting out. It really was a ‘Cool Runnings’-type story, of random guys trying to get to the Tour de France. That was the appeal of the original story. After that, I thought I would keep an eye on it, then it moved forward again in 2010 when I went over for the Tour of Rwanda.
How much contact did you have with Jock or Tom Ritchey before heading to Rwanda?
A bit with Jock. There wasn’t a lot of coverage around that time, so Jock was very keen to get some publicity. The 2010 tour ended up being probably the biggest it has ever been; the African Continental Championships were held in Rwanda as well that year, so teams from across the continent stayed on to ride the tour.
Presumably you have been to the Tour de France and other major races in Europe. There must have been some striking differences in Rwanda.
A lot of the aspects were exactly the same as you would find in the big European races, from the leader wearing a yellow jersey and the best climber wearing polka dots, to the prologue and the stages. They have borrowed a lot of the structures of bike racing as we would know it, but equally there are lots of elements that are incongruous. You would find riders with really good quality carbon bikes, particularly the South Africans, and then you would have people from Burundi who were riding bikes I wouldn’t even commute to work on. They were a good 20 or 30 years old, they weighed a ton. And the disparity between abilities was huge. Most European bike races, you are used to seeing the peloton sticking together for the majority of the stage. At the Tour of Rwanda, first hill and the whole bunch would split apart, with some finishing hours behind the winner.
The title ‘Land of Second Chances’ seems to apply equally to the Westerners in the book. You refer to them seeming to be escaping from something back home.
There was this element where the people there were, at that time in their lives, looking for something wildly different from what they had experienced previously, so there was a ‘second chances’ theme. I always thought the title was slightly corny-sounding, and should be spoken in the voice of the man who does the trailers for Hollywood films!
Cultural differences are obviously an interesting theme in the book, timekeeping being a persistent bone of contention. If a European team says the ride leaves at 10, it leaves at 10: five minutes late and you have missed the boat. You refer later in the story to the ‘Africanisation’ approach successfully employed in Kenya with distance runners; adapting to the African way of life rather than trying to shoehorn athletes into Western constraints.
Jock is one of the most disciplined people I have ever met. When I was out there with 12, we were talking about what it would take to make it coming from a different culture. Don’t forget what a massive achievement it was for Jock to be the first American to make it onto a European pro squad and ride the Tour, as a domestique on Hinault’s winning team.
Part of his make-up was to be disciplined and hard working. He is completely formidable. My concern was that, when someone like that becomes a coach, they risk being incredibly disappointed and let down by the people they are looking after. Not everybody is going to have his discipline and his motivation, and be able to make the same sacrifices. I think that has been as issue on Team Rwanda. He was really frustrated by it.
The one rider who really excelled, Adrien Niyonshuti, was the one most like Jock. In fact, Jock always said he saw a lot of himself in Adrien. A South African rider who lived with Adrien at MTN-Qhubeka said he really is the perfect athlete. All he does is eat, sleep and train. People would ask him to come to the cinema and he didn’t understand why you would want to do that. He is so focused.
What does the future hold for Team Rwanda?
Jock and [marketing and logistics manager] Kimberly are still involved with it, but they did decide to broaden the outlook. Just as [MTN-Qhubeka’s] Doug Ryder has a dream of having an African team in the Tour de France, Jock shares the same ambition. He realised he wouldn’t be able to do that with an exclusively Rwandan team, and he would need to broaden it out and make connections with Eritrea and Ethiopia.
In Jock’s mind, the Ethiopians especially have great natural potential. Doug and MTN have a great level of organisation and contacts, and are obviously now racing in Europe, so that does seem like where the best African rider will come through.
I have been told by someone who has worked extensively in Rwanda that one little spark could return the country to the horrific events of 1994. Did you have any sense of underlying unease?
It is a difficult one to gauge, and I certainly don’t want to be sensationalist about it, but I did meet people out there who said the same thing to me. You have genocide which is so recent. President Kagame’s way of working through reconciliation was to bring everyone back into the country, have them live side by side, and you feel on a human level it would be impossible for there not to be tensions. Superficially, there is a great level of order and discipline – I think it is the safest country in Africa; things work, you don’t have to pay bribes. There are so many great and positive things, certainly as a visitor there.
But you do feel like there are cracks in the veneer of order. Kagame keeps a tight rein at the moment, but he is due to stand down in 2017 and people wonder what is going to happen after that. I feel that the story of the Rwandan cycling team was a microcosm of the country itself. There are so many positive aspects, so many good things you can highlight, but it would be an incomplete story if you didn’t also highlight the aspects that made you feel slightly more ill at ease.
It is not a straightforward story of success and hope and triumph over adversity. It is complicated, both for the team and the country.
Land of Second Chances by Tim Lewis is published by Yellow Jersey. Tim speaks at the London Sports Writing Festival on October 20th.
How did the Rwanda story come about for you?