Cycling has been undergoing a resurgence in the last few years, thanks to Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins et al, but my faith in the worldwide cycling community is still pretty shaken from Lance Armstrong's "misdemeanours", shall we say. Or, you know, his drug-taking, bullying ways.
But Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling Team by Tim Lewis has restored some of my faith. The story of how one of the poorest nations in the world became known for its cycling, and not just for the genocide there in the 1990s, is inspiring.
Lewis focuses his story on two people - Adrien Niyonshuti, a child of the genocide who in 2012 represented his country at the Olympic Games (and is currently at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow); and Jock Boyer, Team Rwanda's coach and a man trying to rehabilitate himself and his reputation. The American inventor of the mountain bike, Tim Ritchey, also plays an important part in the beginning of the tale, but its Niyonshuti and Boyer who provide the compelling narratives.
Land of Second Chances is bracketed by Niyonshuti's appearance at the London 2012 Games, the climax of the cyclist's career (so far). But Lewis takes us much deeper into the story of Team Rwanda than just its preparations for the Olympics. We get an overview of the genocide, with a focus on the Team Rwanda cyclists, and also of Boyer's life. I'd not heard of Boyer before, so there was a moment in the book that left me completely stunned. It did taint my view of Boyer's actions - he clearly, in my opinion, went to Rwanda to improve his image - but Lewis is good at not judging.
That non-judgemental attitude was frustrating at times for me. For example, Lewis addresses the issue of doping in cycling, and there are mentions of Armstrong at various points throughout. At times, I found Lewis's measured approach stifling - as someone clearly invested in cycling I wanted him to rail and rage against Armstrong's wrongs. But Lewis made the right decision in keeping fairly neutral - this is not a book about politics or the politics of cycling, and Lewis does well to keep the focus on Team Rwanda and not let it shift into other issues (no matter how many names I want to call Armstrong).
While Niyonshuti and Boyer are the focus of this book, the real narrative is about the creation of a team of cyclists. At times it's sad and frightening, hearing the stories of how the genocide completely changed the lives of so many people or how people live in fear from criminals. At other times the book shows how maddening it must have been, both for Boyer, who found the cyclists just wouldn't listen to him on some things, and for the cyclists, who I think found it hard to have someone come in and expect them to change culturally.
Mostly though, Land of Second Chances is beautiful and uplifting and heartwarming, a story of hope that reaches far beyond sport. It's a book that'll have you cheering for cyclists you'd never previously heard of, and will restore your faith in fair competition, and in the human race.
How I got this book: In a goody bag