Genocide and sex offenders. Not really the first things that spring to mind when you think of elite cycling. Yet they sit side-by-side at the core of one of the more extraordinary stories I’ve come across in cycling, Tim Lewis’ remarkable book plotting the rise of the Rwandan cycling team from the ashes of the Hutu vs Tutsi genocide which devastated the central African nation in 1994.
The central characters are from very different worlds indeed. First and foremost are the Rwandan cyclists themselves, led by Adrien Niyonshuti who became the first Rwandan to compete – ever – in an individual cycling event at an Olympic Games in London. The project itself was driven by two American Baby Boomers. The first, Jock Boyer, was a former top American pro rider who finished 12th in the 1983 Tour de France (he rode the Grand Tour 5 times), finished 5th in the 1980 World Championship Road Race, won the epic RAAM twice and was inducted into the US Cycling Hall of Fame in 1998. Oh, and he also spent time in jail as convicted sex offender. The second was Tom Ritchey, the renowned American bicycle frame builder who earned millions pioneering mountain-bike design in the 1980s and 90s. In 1988 he was inducted into the MTB Hall of Fame and in 2012 he joined Boyer in the US Cycling Hall of Fame.
Not dissimilar to the long-distance running exploits by the Kenyans and Ethiopians, the two Americans wondered whether similar endurance achievements might be possible by Rwandans on the bike? They certainly possessed the right physical attributes. Of course, the cultural differences weren’t so simple to address, in a country where an entire generation had been effectively wiped out in 1994, and virtually all of those over the age of 15 bore terrible scars, both physical and mental.
This is an incredible tale which you really need to read to fully appreciate. It’s about triumph, and tragedy. It’s about seizing opportunities, and missing them. It’s about the best of human nature, and the worst. But above all else, it’s about hope. And it really puts our own, decidedly fortunate, lives into razor sharp perspective. This is a book about cycling. But it’s also one about humanity. And life.