There's nothing like Rwandan genocide for getting the gentle reader to shift around on their bum a little bit wondering if they would actually prefer to read something else... but once you get going this is a very intriguing book.
Tim Lewis spent time in Rwanda to look at the story of the cycle team based there, headed by star rider Adrien Niyonshuti, coached by disgraced top American Jock Boyer, and funded by mountain bike innovator Tom Ritchey. If you read the American reviews posted here from Amazon.com, you'd think this book was a simple heartwarming and uplifting story of redemption and recovery in the face of atrocity, but I actually think it's much more subtle than that. It raises a lot of questions.
There is an uneasy path to be walked dealing with the Rwandans; in particular the issue of Hutu-Tutsi lines, and the profound questions of truth, forgiveness and reconciliation as managed by everyday people there. There is an unforgettable moment where Lewis meets Adrien's sister (who runs a café) and watches her dealing with a customer who was involved in the genocide. Some of these 'side stories' were amongst the best bits of the book for me - I also loved Daniel the 'could-have-been-a-contender' cyclist who now runs a barber shop, for economic reasons. And I particularly loved the Tom Ritchey chapter, light relief after the horrors of the genocide chapter- suddenly there are jokes! Phew!
There are a whole series in fact of other intriguing side routes - who knew that Chris Froome's bilharzia was simply the most currently famous of a whole series of tropically diseased cyclists? Actually it's a lesson in the fact that the African road cycling scene is nothing new - Fausto Coppi, I was fascinated to learn, died of malaria contracted racing in Burkino Faso.
Lewis is a uninterfering, watchful observer, and makes it clear exactly how ambiguous some of the testimony he collected seems to be! Disagreements over bike spare parts, treatment of the expensive European racing bikes, lateness for training - it's difficult to know exactly what the 'truth' is in any of these situations. And there are such questions over why the Rwandans don't WIN: is it lack of race experience, self-confidence, team feeling??? (And I should add that despite Lewis's reticence he very delicately hints at his own reactions - discomfort, shock, horror, and sometimes uncomprehension in the face of the genocide events and their continuing impact.)
Most of all I would say, the American reviewers' idea of this as an 'inspiring' story is almost laughable! SPOILERS, but Jock Boyer leaves Rwanda in the end because he can't get his team to win anything, and even the brilliantly well-intentioned coffee bike scheme goes wrong, much to my sadness. Nonetheless you are left with a beautifully nuanced picture of a country trying incredibly hard to deal with an almost imaginably bad set of events in the very recent past, and doing a pretty good job considering. Let's cross our fingers that the great showing for WHITE Africans in the Tour this year is closely followed by some black African success.
One thing I will agree with American reviewers about though: Great book, do not miss it!
on 5 August 2013
Land of Second Chances is focused on three intriguing characters: One of the founders of mountain biking, cycle manufacturer Tom Ritchey; the first American to ride in the Tour de France, trainer Jock Boyer; and Adrien Niyonshuti, a Rwandan cyclist who overcame the murder of his six brothers (and many other dreadful experiences) to become Rwanda's first professional sportsman - assisted by Ritchey and Boyer.
But this is much more than a tripartite biography. Lewis contextualises Niyonshuti's journey with a recent Rwandan history - concentrating on the genocide but also sketching political developments. We learn about Niyonshuti's contemporaries both in Rwanda and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa as Lewis rigorously deciphers the immense cultural dissimilarities between the West and Rwanda, including some insightful and sometimes comic anecdotes.
Middle- and long-distance running are dominated by athletes from Eastern Africa, and anticipating a change in the racial makeup of competitors in the Grand Tours, Lewis asks: why not cycling? He also attempts to unpick the will-to-win inherent in the Rwandan team, and analyses the difficulties of transplanting a Western training methodology into central Africa.
I found the panoply of names, dates and races three quarters of the way through slightly confusing, and the genocide means a sad undercurrent runs through the book, but despite the tragedy underpinning life in Rwanda I finished the book feeling hope and anticipation for the future of Niyonshuti and his compatriots. This is a vivid, sometimes shocking, always absorbing story told with the stolid journalistic dexterity and clarity one might expect from a Guardian and Observer feature writer.
on 5 November 2013
After all the "aren't we great" and then the "dirty laundry" cycling books that have emerged over the last decade, this is possibly the greatest cycling book ever written. Quite simply it transcends the sport. It has often been said that cyclists enjoy pain and suffering more than enjoyment itself, however no pain and suffering can equal that experienced by the key players in Lewis' remarkable recount of the rise of Rwandan Cycling - from the epiphany of Jock Boyer, the rise of Adrien, Abraham and Rifiki, the vision of Tom Ritchey. It really is up there with the greatest tales of human achievement in the face of adversity, I am thinking of a parallel to the likes of the story of the Argentinian rugby team that inpspired Alive.
This really is a book that willmake you sit and think things over in your head, raises so many questions and makes you realise that if these people can move on, reconcile and reconstruct their country and lives after such horror, then what have we to worry about, really?
Thanks so much to Tim Lewis and all those involved in Project Rwanda and Team Rwanda.
on 17 October 2013
I thought Tour de France riders like Bradley Wiggins had a tough life until I read this book. Then I discovered - to my amazement - that Rwanda has a strong cycling culture, but one that has been held back by the country's poverty. The author has written an accessible story that I found completely compelling, which tells the story of some amazing African cyclists, some complicated but well-meaning Americans, and gives a snapshot of the West's troubled attempts to help poor countries.
A must-read for anyone who likes cycling, drinks coffee (it plays a big role here) or is interested in Africa.
on 29 January 2015
Bought this book for a friend at Christmas who is traveling to Rwanda later this year to volunteer for three months. He is a cyclist fan, someone interested in learning about the future of Rwanda and keen to read stories of transformation. He recently told me the book was all that and more. So from his recommendation I think I need to order another copy for myself.
on 11 September 2013
An amazing story of endeavour against odds. Interesting, and contentious, personalities brought to life against a back drop of horrific genocide. A real mixing pot of personalities come together to drive a dream ... you decide whose dream it is! Recommended to sports enthusiasts, athletes (who want to understand hardship) and people looking for a great honest journey of success and failure.
on 20 August 2014
This is a fantastic book. If you have even a remote interest in Africa, development or cycling (I tick all these boxes) then you will find this hard to put down. Lewis does an excellent job of contextualizing the horrific events in 1994 and then conveys just how integral the bicycle is for the socio-economic progress of the country. Although I found the material about bike races, training etc interesting, Team Rwanda is ultimately about redemption and re-defining a nation, that for the majority of people, is remembered for the genocide. I strongly urge you to read this book.
on 4 September 2013
I bought this book after hearing the author on talksport. Great read.
Definitely recommend it and not necessarily just those interested in cycling.
on 6 August 2014
Excellent account of the Rwanda cycling team and the challenges experienced in trying to move these athletes forward. I found it especially interesting as I lived and raced in Northern California in the late '70s against Boyer and Ritchey plus my son went to high school with Damberger - small world! Well written giving good insights into the psyche of the African / Rwandan cyclists. The comparison to Kenya runners was also interesting. Found myself looking at MTN Qurekha more closely and also Nyonshuti and Teklehaimanot - and will do in the future
on 21 October 2013
Land of Second Chances by Tim Lewis is the kind of rare book that shows what sports writing can do. It's the story of the surprising creation of a national cycling team in Rwanda, but it's also a perceptive study of the unusual characters involved (and their complex motivations) as well as a deftly written exploration of the recovery of the country in the wake of genocide. In fact, to call it sports writing might be doing it something of a disservice given that it offers so much more, and definitely deserves a wider readership.
Observer journalist Tim Lewis - who edited the esteemed and much-missed Observer Sport Monthly magazine - does not give readers a neat fairytale (the inclusion of the word "impossible" in the subtitle should be a bit of a tip-off), but rather gives us a nuanced and extensively researched account of a seemingly noble endeavour that brings with it inherent - and sometimes troubling - questions. All in all it's excellent book for cycling enthusiasts and those interested in Africa, yes - but also fascinating reading for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of the world and the strange machinations of the human psyche.