Land of Second Chances, by Tim Lewis
Sunday 28 July 2013
Rwanda, a tiny, landlocked country in the middle of Africa, is known primarily in the West as the scene of a genocide in 1994. It seems an unlikely place for a couple of Americans to choose to build a national cycling team, but then they were unusual men: Jock Boyer, a former top professional who once finished 12th in the Tour de France; and Tom Ritchey, who had become wealthy after pioneering mountain-bike design.
The project, which culminated in one team member, Adrien Niyonshuti, becoming the first Rwandan cyclist to compete in an individual event at the Olympics when he took part in the mountain bike cross-country at London 2012, has had its highs and lows. While he did extraordinarily well to get there in the first place, Niyonshuti finished only 39th in London, and other members of Boyer's hand-picked squad either drifted away or failed to live up to their early promise.
As Tim Lewis points out perceptively, while many of them had ideal physical attributes – slim build, impressive stamina as a result of living at altitude – their ambitions did not always coincide with Boyer's. He pursued a Western agenda, using hi-tech training methods, trying to instil a will to win and to produce a team capable of competing in major road races around the world.
In contrast, many of his riders' primary aims were to earn enough money from racing to buy a plot of land and build a house in order to support their family. Once this was achieved, they saw less point in continuing to compete.
There is no neat end to the story; last year Boyer, frustrated by the team's shambolic showing in the Tour of Rio, announced he was leaving to work with the Ethiopian cycling federation. In an interesting coda, Lewis points to another national squad, the Kenyan Riders, whose low-key approach is based on a philosophy of "Africanisation", in essence that treating African cyclists as if they are Westerners is a huge blunder.
Which model will achieve the most success remains to be seen, but it's clear that, one way or another, the Africans are coming.
Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £16.99
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