cover

CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

List of Illustrations

Dedication

Title Page

Epigraph

Prologue: A Long Ride

1 Amagare

2 One Hundred Days

3 The Dot Connector

4 Coach

5 The Five

6 Ikinamico

7 Black Magic

8 Boys On Tour

9 The Most Famous Rwandan

10 A Good Machine

11 Spare Parts

12 Africanisation

13 The Race

Epilogue: A New House

Picture Section

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Book

Where there is hope there can be redemption.

Meet Adrien Niyonshuti, a member of the Rwandan cycling team. Adrien was seven years old when he lost most of his family in the 1994 genocide that tore Rwanda apart. Nearly twenty years later he has a shot at representing his country at the Olympics.

Meet Jock Boyer, the coach of Team Rwanda. One of the top American cyclists of all time, Jock recognises the innate talent for endurance that the Rwandans possess. A man with a dark past, Jock is in need of a second chance.

Meet Tom Ritchey, the visionary inventor of the mountain bike and the U.S. money man looking to recover from a profound personal crisis.

In Land of Second Chances, Tim Lewis charts the incredible true story of the Rwandan cycling team as they confront impossible odds to inspire a nation.

About the Author

Tim Lewis is a feature writer at the Observer and contributing editor of Esquire. He has previously been the editor of the Observer Magazine, Observer Sport Monthly and the Independent’s Sunday Review. He lives in London.

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For my parents

‘You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.’

Rwandan proverb

Prologue
A LONG RIDE

There had been a lot of odd moments in Adrien Niyonshuti’s life recently. Most of them started when a group of Americans arrived in Rwanda and put on a bicycle race in September 2006. Adrien won and, as his prize, he was allowed to keep the mountain bike he had borrowed from the visitors for the event. It was a Schwinn, nothing that special by Western standards, which meant it was exponentially more advanced than anything that little, landlocked Rwanda – about the size of Wales, but with four times as many inhabitants – had ever seen. He actually didn’t ride it very much. He was nineteen years old and no one else in the country had a mountain bike to go with him, so it was dull on his own. But the bike was definitely the beginning of something.

From this point on, new experiences arrived at a rattle for Adrien. Not long after, he flew on an aeroplane for the first time. In South Africa, he slept on a bed between sheets, after a couple of nights of just lying on the top because he did not dare to disturb them. He learned to use flush toilets, again after some initial confusion. He raced on his road bike against Lance Armstrong. He saw snow for the first time, high in the Colorado Rockies.

But, for those who have followed Adrien’s life for a few years, one Friday lunchtime in London in August 2012 set a new bar for incongruity. The Criterion Theatre, a Victorian-era West End playhouse that usually hosts a long-running production of The 39 Steps, had been commandeered for a salon called When Clive Met Adrien. Adrien was Adrien, who in exactly forty-eight hours’ time would become the first Rwandan to compete in the men’s mountain bike event at the Olympic Games. Clive was Clive Owen, the glowering British film star who had a Golden Globe and a Bafta on his shelves at home.

Adrien knew next to nothing about Clive, but it quickly emerged that Clive knew pretty much everything about Adrien. The actor strode on stage, wearing a crisp slate-grey suit and open-necked shirt, and immediately broached the question we’d all been chewing on: what was the guy from Closer and Children of Men doing hosting a talk with a Rwandan cyclist? He was, he explained, an ambassador for the Aegis Trust, a UK-based charity that raises awareness of genocide and has particularly strong links with Rwanda. More than that, though, Clive was mad about sport.

‘There are thousands of athletes who have come here to compete in the Olympic Games and all of them will have extraordinary stories of dedication and commitment to their sport,’ he said, glancing at diligently prepared notes. ‘But I really think that Adrien Niyonshuti’s story is one of the most extraordinary.’

Adrien was seven years old during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when at least 800,000 of his compatriots – one in ten of the population – were slaughtered in a hundred days. He only escaped death by running and hiding from the Hutu mobs that were assigned to kill every last Tutsi. Sixty members of his family, including six of his siblings, were brutally hacked down in those three months. But now, just two days before the biggest moment of Adrien’s life, wasn’t a time to dwell on those tales of horror. The week before, Adrien had carried his country’s flag at the London 2012 opening ceremony, nervously but proudly leading a delegation of seven athletes. And, as he often said, one of his dreams was that cycling would finally give the world a reference point for Rwanda that was not the genocide.

At this moment, Adrien joined Clive on the stage. He was a quiet, gentle presence – that was obvious even from the cheap seats – and he walked stiffly, like he had forgotten to remove the coat hanger from his clothes. He was not quite five and a half feet tall and slim, full of sharp angles. His hair was shaved to a stubble, as Rwandan men invariably have it, and he had finely drawn features with precipitous cheekbones. He wore a Team Rwanda gilet in the national colours of sky blue, green and yellow, black tracksuit trousers and running shoes. He didn’t look out at the audience once as he took his seat.

Adrien’s voice was soft and he spoke rapidly; the audience leaned forward as one to catch what he said. He ran through the creation of Team Rwanda, the racing squad that was formed not long after he won that first race in 2006. It started with five riders, but in five years had grown to nearly twenty; the country now had its own professional road race, the week-long Tour of Rwanda, and it had become one of the strongest cycling nations in all of Africa. The inspiration for the project initially had come from a Californian called Tom Ritchey, one of the inventors of the mountain bike back in the late nineteen seventies. It had been taken on and knocked into shape by a former professional road racer called Jock Boyer, who in 1981 became the first American to ride the Tour de France. Both men had complicated – some would say compromised – reasons for becoming involved in Rwanda.

Adrien first heard of the Olympics in 2007, when he was twenty years old and just starting out as a bike racer: ‘I asked Jock, “What means the Olympics?”’ Few Rwandans had a television, and there was only one station, but the following year he managed to find a screen and he watched the opening ceremony from Beijing and some of the events. Adrien half-smiled, ‘I say, “One day I’d like to be there.”’

He spent two years training, pushing, fixating on his goal. He found out that there were three cycling events for which he could qualify: the men’s individual time trial, the road race and the cross-country mountain biking. His first opportunity came in the African Continental Championships in November 2010, which doubled as a selection competition for the Olympics. By coincidence, the event was being staged in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, and the time trial course was an undulating twenty-mile loop around streets that Adrien used to cycle on to get to his secondary school. He was competing against the best riders in Africa: the top guys from South Africa, the champion from the unlikely cycling powerhouse of Eritrea, a Namibian contracted to a team in Europe; riders from twenty countries in all. The racers set off one after another, riding alone against the stopwatch. Adrien knew that a top-three finish would send him to London. He came fourth. He shrugged. ‘The rider from Algeria beat me by one second.’ Adrien was exaggerating: in fact, it was only 0.11 of a second.

The next opportunity came in the road-race qualification two days later. Over a hundred African riders lined up in Kigali, the range of abilities and equipment quite something to behold; from the sleek carbon-fibre bicycles of the leading contenders to those from Burundi, which were held together just by wire, tape and the prayers of the riders. Before the start, a minute’s silence was observed to commemorate the death of a Rwandan boy who had wandered onto the road in front of the Ivory Coast team car a few days earlier. Then the competitors were off, for fourteen laps of a seven-mile circuit, knowing again that the top three riders would book their tickets to London.

Everyone knew this was Adrien’s best chance. Weighing just sixty-eight kilograms, he was not really built for a sustained power effort like the time trial, while his inexperience on a mountain bike would be a daunting handicap in that discipline. On a road bike, however, he was smooth and powerful, and his capacity for self-punishment when the going was really tough had become legendary. He started well and when a group of twelve favourites broke clear after ten laps he was perfectly placed among them. Then, suddenly, as he attempted to attack on a steep slope, he stood on his pedals and his chain broke. Not slipped off, but shattered – cyclists could ride for years, a lifetime even, without this fate befalling them. For it to happen in the most important race of Adrien’s life was freakishly unlucky.

His rivals disappeared into the distance. Adrien stood on the side of the road, hopping from leg to leg like he needed to pee, waiting for one of his Rwandan team-mates to catch up. A minute passed, then ninety seconds – it felt like hours, he said afterwards – and finally he switched bikes. His new ride wasn’t the right size, but he adjusted the seat with an Allen key as he pedalled and he raced wildly, impulsively, to make up lost time. It was to no avail: he finished eighth, exactly one minute, thirty-one seconds behind the winner, the Eritrean champion, Daniel Teklehaimanot.

As Adrien told this story, there were audible gasps in the theatre. This was despite the fact we were in London, he was in London: we all knew there was a happy ending to this part of the story. Still, somehow, his dream remained an outrageous long shot. It was actually two weeks after this pair of disappointments that I met Adrien for the first time, during the 2010 Tour of Rwanda. He explained back then that his last chance to qualify for the London Olympics was the African Continental Championships for mountain biking in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in February 2011. At the time, I mistook his quietness for lack of confidence, even vulnerability. I wouldn’t have bet someone else’s money on his making it. But the more time I spent with Adrien, the more I appreciated his resilience: he got neither too high when the going was good nor too low when it wasn’t, which had presumably been a useful trait throughout his life.

In Stellenbosch, the first three nationalities, rather than just the first three riders, would be allocated places in the Olympics. In the days before, Adrien, a devout Muslim, spent a lot of time in prayer: ‘I say, “God, you know everything, tell me what to do,”’ he recalled. Race day itself was almost anticlimactic after what he had been through before. He rode hard, there were no mechanical dramas and he finished fourth, behind two South Africans and a Namibian. ‘You did it!’ exclaimed Clive Owen. Impromptu cheers filled the auditorium.

During the question-and-answer session, conversation turned to the race on Sunday; one woman asked Adrien if he thought he might win a medal. ‘My goal for this Olympics is to finish the race,’ he replied. Everyone laughed, but for the first time Adrien looked out into the stage lights, confused. He was serious.

There was something unsatisfying, even defeatist, about this goal. This was a fairytale after all, the kind that only the Olympics could produce, and it demanded an iconic ending. Adrien’s answer was partly a statement of uncompromising fact: mountain bike races are run on short loops of a track little wider than a set of handlebars; if a competitor lags far behind the leaders, the organisers do not hesitate to yank him off the course. But his response was revealing about the psyche of his nation, too. Nearly two decades after the genocide, Rwanda was still synonymous with death. That was often the only thing that anyone on the outside knew. Geographically, the country was a tiny pebble dropped on the Equator in the centre of Africa, the continent that the rest of the world found easiest to ignore. The middle of nowhere, then. Adrien’s homeland had not been blessed with natural resources, which had made it even less essential to external interests. It didn’t produce iconic writers, musicians or sportspeople. Rwanda was, in short, desperate for heroes. It craved a new identity.

Adrien could not be blamed for being cautious. Experience told him that success did not come easily to people from Rwanda. But the country was also changing faster than anyone believed possible, and Adrien had become a conspicuous part of that. From being ranked by the World Bank as the poorest country on earth after the genocide, Rwanda was refashioning itself under its ambitious leader, President Paul Kagame, as a progressive, middle-income hub determined to graft its way out of poverty. An African Gorilla to take on those Asian Tigers. These developments were driven by an unwavering faith in technology and a twenty-first-century belief in entrepre-neurialism, the Internet and environmentalism. It was not just whiz-bang developments either: public resources, including aid money, had been effectively directed towards providing services, reducing inequality and keeping corruption low. In 2012, the World Bank returned to Rwanda and found that in the previous five years a million of its eleven million citizens – one in five of those considered ‘poor’ – had been lifted out of poverty. Paul Collier, an economist who is the director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, noted: ‘This rate of poverty reduction is the fastest ever achieved in Africa and equals the best achieved globally.’

But, while the country had started to buzz with talk of biotech investments and Java programing, there was one object, more than any other, that encapsulated Rwanda’s past, present and future. It had a long history in the country, from the colonial days onwards, but also a dynamic modern relevance. It symbolised hope, unity and prosperity for many; it represented progress, though not fast enough for some people’s tastes, and often favouring men more than women. Still, its fortunes mirrored Rwanda’s own; its story shone a light onto the lives of all its citizens. It was the bicycle.

1
AMAGARE

When I think of cycling in Rwanda, I picture a boy, no more than fifteen years old, riding his bike down the hill to the grand lakeside resort of Gisenyi. From the highest point on the road, more than a mile and a half above sea level, it’s a swooping descent of fully thirty miles and this kid was blowing down it as fast as a car or nearly a motorbike. It was a stunning, cloudless day and, when I took my eyes off the tarmac, Lake Kivu sparkled and shimmered seductively in the distance. To the right, the anything-goes border city of Goma, beneath the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, occasionally flashed into view. It last erupted in 2002, lava sweeping into the city, forcing the evacuation of 400,000 people and the loss of forty-five lives. When the molten lava set, Goma’s citizens returned and simply rebuilt on top of the ink-black rock.

But mostly I was transfixed by the boy. It is a winding road and he carved elegant, plunging arcs around the bends with little heed for oncoming traffic or indeed his continued existence. I was driving a belching Land Rover rental car and when I pulled close it was clear that his bicycle was older than he was. Two large cloth sacks tethered on the back bulged with freshly picked potatoes and probably added eighty kilos. It would have been gruesome going uphill but, this way round, he must have felt like he was flying.

It was a couple of miles before I realised that his bike had no brakes. He was riding forty miles an hour with no brakes. When he wanted to slow down, he would languidly lower his right flip-flop from the pedal onto the road and its rubber sole would hiss and burn and his speed fractionally reduce. When the road levelled off a little, I pulled alongside the boy. I yelled something idiotic like ‘Courage!’ and he looked back at me blankly. It occurred to me that this was how, at some point, most of us fall in love with cycling: we get buzzed, then a little scared, but we want to do it again; later we will be confronted by the intense suffering that comes with serious riding, but that too becomes addictive. It could be that I was watching a future Olympian, but more likely I was seeing a kid doing his job, earning a couple of thousand francs – around £2 – for an afternoon hauling spuds.

Adrien Niyonshuti started much the same way. He grew up on the other side of the country, in the Eastern Province, where the terrain is less dramatically mountainous, and he never had to haul goods for money, but he too recalled the early pleasures of careering down a long descent so fast that his eyes filled with tears. It is not an experience that you have to travel very far to find in Rwanda. This is, after all, le pays des mille collines, the land of a thousand hills, and anyone who has ever chosen to cross it on a bicycle will have wondered who was responsible for such a patent understatement. It has every kind of peak: spiky volcanic ones, strung-out torturous ones, creep-up-on-you spiteful ones; at the top of each of them is a vista that is reminiscent of Tuscany or Switzerland or sometimes New Zealand. Depending on how one feels about these things, it’s either the perfect place in the world to ride your bike, or the worst.

‘All this climbing … It’s just bullshit,’ Arnaud Ontsatsi, a rider for the Gabon national team, complained early on at the 2011 Tour of Rwanda. ‘It’s just too hard. We have hills at home, but nothing like this. How are we supposed to train for this?’ Ontsatsi and the whole Gabon sqaud went home after just three days of competition.

The lush Edenic look of Rwanda comes as a shock, particularly to visitors from other parts of Africa. Kigali, the capital since the early sixties, sits in the middle of the country, a sprawling, modern-ish city of around one million people. From there, a handful of decent paved roads radiate out like spokes to Congo in the west, Uganda in the north, Tanzania in the east and Burundi in the south. Nine out of ten Rwandans are subsistence farmers and they compete over the most densely populated land in all of the continent. Not so long ago most of the country was forest, but now even the steepest slopes are planted, ploughed and harvested. Bananas, tea and coffee all grow well here, while copses of silver eucalyptus trees lend rural areas the smell of bath-time. Scrawny goats cling on to slanted grass and herdsmen bully long-horned Ankole cattle with wooden staffs. Despite being on the Equator, the altitude ensures it remains temperate between the two seasons of unrelenting rain. Every possible variation of green – from the dazzling chartreuse of a tea plantation to the exotic limes, olives and emeralds of the rainforest – is represented somewhere. Rwandans say that God visits other countries during the day, but always comes back at night to rest there.

Bicycles – what they call amagare, or igare in the singular – are the dominant mode of mechanical transportation in Rwanda, an organic part of life, commerce and sometimes even recreation. They would have arrived in the country not long after the white man. In fact, from the earliest days there were strong links between central Africa and the growth of cycling in Europe.

The velocipedes of the 1860s and 1870s, known evocatively as boneshakers, then high-wheelers, had wheels made from solid iron. These became extinct overnight in 1885 with the arrival the Rover Safety Bicycle, a creation of the English inventor of James Starley. With its direct front-wheel steering and selection chain rings and sprockets, it was not far removed from the modern bicycle. Its only shortcoming was the tyres: smaller wheels were less forgiving than oversized ones and the solution of the day – solid rubber strips tacked to the wheel rim – was brutally groin-numbing. John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinary surgeon who lived in Belfast, came to the rescue of cyclists everywhere with the invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888. When a doctor advised remedial cycling for his sickly nine-year-old son, Dunlop had a flash of inspiration: he fixed linen sleeves to the wooden wheels of a tricycle, inserted simple inflatable rubber tubes and pumped them with air. He knew immediately he had made a significant discovery; his first advertisement promised ‘Vibration impossible’.

Cycling had already been popular in Europe but, now that the machines could be comfortable and fast, it boomed. This was where Africa, and particularly Rwanda’s neighbour Congo, came in. King Leopold II of Belgium made his claim to the region in 1880 through his agent, the rapacious British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and the Congo Free State was confirmed as his personal domain at the Conference of Berlin in 1884. Rwanda’s fate was determined a few years later in 1890 in Brussels when it was decided that it would now belong to the German Empire, along with Burundi, in return for the Germans handing over Uganda to the British. Curiously, no European had even set foot inside Rwanda when this decision was passed down: Stanley had been peppered with arrows when he tried; it was left to Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen, a German, to take the first steps into the country in 1894. In this way, like children trading football stickers, the fates of millions in central Africa were decreed.

King Leopold II, a megalomaniac with acute small-country syndrome, was initially interested in securing a trade route for ivory, but Dunlop’s invention changed his priorities and there was now an unquenchable desire for rubber. It was first exported from the Congo Free State in 1890 and soon it was the colony’s most profitable industry. Harvesting wild rubber from vines in the rainforest was an arduous business, particularly for inhabitants who were not being paid and were forced to do it because the women of their village had been taken hostage, as was often the case. The chicotte, a razor-sharp whip made from sun-dried hippopotamus hide, became the instrument of enforcement and so began the ‘rubber terror’ that would see the population of Congo reduced by half – perhaps ten million inhabitants in all – during Leopold’s rule. (This was the reality of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and his murderous ivory trader Kurtz. Although Kurtz is said to have been modelled on a renegade Belgian called Leon Rom, Conrad gave him English and French ancestry and noted in the book: ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.’) The European demand for rubber for bicycles, increased by the development of motorbikes and then the automobile, only seemed to intensify the brutality. Rwanda might consider itself fortunate that it did not have the right climatic conditions for rubber production. The Germans instead plundered Cameroon, another of their colonies; one of the leading companies back then was Continental, which began making bicycle tyres in the town of Korbach in 1892 and, more than a century later, still produces them for many of the world’s top cyclists.

Rwanda may have been close to the source of the cycling boom at the turn of the century, but it would be a long time before amagare were a common sight on its rutted byways. It soon became clear that the territory contained little in the way of mineral deposits, so the Germans decided not to waste money on roads and infrastructure. After the First World War, Belgium took control of the country – then known as Ruanda-Urundi, and including both modern-day Rwanda and Burundi – on the orders of the League of Nations. In this period, bicycles were mostly limited to use by Roman Catholic missionaries. These zealous individuals covered the ground assiduously enough, however, converting Rwanda into the most Christianised country in Africa. The Church’s influence on the country has been chequered – the clergy were heavily complicit in fomenting division between Hutus and Tutsis in the colonial period; then, during the genocide, churches were the sites of some of the very worst massacres – but the beliefs have stuck. In 2006, the last time anyone counted, more than half of Rwandans were Roman Catholic and a quarter were Protestants (with significant Seventh-Day Adventist and Muslim minorities). Less than two per cent said they had no religious beliefs.

Bicycles were a luxury and there were few signs of prosperity in Rwanda during colonial times. The country was hit by a drought and a severe famine in the late nineteen twenties, and then by the same one-two in the early forties. The latter Ruzagayura famine led to the death of around a quarter of a population estimated at two million. Meanwhile, with the help of their colonisers, internal divisions between Rwandans were becoming more entrenched. In 1933, the Belgians began a census that would lead to the creation of identity cards on which ethnicity was marked. On these, it was codified officially that the country was made up of three distinct groups: Hutu (eighty-five per cent), Tutsi (fourteen per cent) and Twa (one per cent).

These distinctions formalised a hypothesis put forward in 1863 by John Hanning Speke, a British Army officer turned anthropologist who stumbled upon and named Lake Victoria and proposed it as the source of the Nile River. On his travels in the region, Speke was badly wounded by a spear attack in Somalia; later he’d go blind and a little mad, attempting to gouge a beetle out of his ear with a knife. In his journals, he was dismissive of the ‘negroes’ he came across, by which he meant the squat, stockier, darker-skinned Africans who tended to have flat noses, full lips and prominent jaws. The only hope for the continent, he decided, was a ‘superior race’ who typically herded cattle rather than worked the fields and had straighter hair, lighter skin and longer limbs. Speke determined that the latter group, which included Tutsis, should be considered ‘Hamitic’ peoples, descended from modern-day Ethiopia and before that from Noah’s son Ham, of Genesis legend, who was cursed for seeing his father naked and afterwards became the progenitor of black skin. Their deep-seated Christianity offered crumbs of hope for ‘barbaric’ central Africa.

It will surprise no one that Speke’s theories have not stood the test of time. Historians and ethnographers do not now believe that Hutus and Tutsis should be considered separate ethnic groups. It is possible that two distinct peoples wandered into Rwanda at different times and from opposite geographical directions – everyone agrees that the Twa, itinerant pygmies, were the country’s original settlers – but no one can confirm it. What is clear is that Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side for centuries and shared land, a common language and religion; Mwami, their chiefs and quasi-deities, could be either Hutu or Tutsi and the two groups would fight side by side. They inter-married, sometimes swapping ethnicity in the process, and a Hutu who owned cows might become known as a Tutsi for that reason alone; it is estimated that a quarter of modern Rwandans have great-grandparents from both groups. There are no reports of systematic ethnic violence before colonisation.

During Belgian rule, particularly with the introduction of identity cards, ethnicity came to define Rwandan life. Scientists arrived to measure the width of Hutu and Tutsi noses, bestowing the exercise with the cut-price credibility that psychologists now lend to reality television shows. Perhaps the distinction felt natural to a colonial power that had its own messy conflagration of Walloon and Flemish cultures. Still, it did not take long for Rwanda to start to unravel. With Tutsis favoured by the Church-run education system and given preference for political appointments, Hutus were reduced to a second-class existence. Forced labour on projects such as road construction often turned abusive and the policies were unpopular enough for tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of resentful Rwandans, mostly Hutus, to flee the country for Congo or to affluent, British-run Uganda.

As Rwanda tottered towards independence, the stakes were raised and the situation turned violent. After decades of Tutsi dominance, there had been a gradual but perceptible shift in power towards the Hutu masses during the nineteen-fifties. This was in part because the country had become a trustee of the United Nations, but also because of an influx of Flemish priests who perhaps sympathised, as a majority themselves back home in Belgium, with the treatment of the Hutus. In 1957, a group of Hutu thinkers unveiled the Hutu Manifesto, which asserted their right to rule Rwanda. Two years later, an uprising called Muyaga – ‘Wind of Destruction’ – made the case in a less academic way; Tutsi houses were razed by Hutu mobs and hundreds killed. The Belgian administrators did not intervene and indeed began the formal transfer of power. In early 1960, Tutsi chiefs were swapped for Hutus and the following year the position of Mwami was abolished and Rwanda was declared a republic. In 1962, the country gained full independence; its first president, Grégoire Kayibanda, was one of the authors of the Hutu Manifesto. Around this time, there was an exodus of around 130,000 Tutsis to neighbouring countries.

When I have come back from spending time in Rwanda, people often ask if it is easy to spot the difference between Hutu and Tutsi. Not only do identity cards no longer exist now but talking about ethnic distinctions is often awkward or at worst a criminal offence; such talk is labelled ‘divisionist’. They are all Rwandans. Of course, it is possible to recognise physical archetypes. Adrien, for example, is classically lean and fine-featured; he looks like a typical Tutsi and he was indeed raised as a Tutsi. One of the other riders on Team Rwanda, Gasore Hategeka, is a tank: strong and muscular with a round face and darker skin; he lives in the north-west of Rwanda, the most fertile area for growing crops in the country. He looks like a Hutu and, true enough, he is – or used to be. Mostly, however, it was impossible to tell. Many times, I spent hours interviewing a Rwandan with one of my interpreters, Liberal or Ayuub, both of whom had lived in the country since shortly after the genocide, and neither of us would have a clue if we had been speaking to a Hutu or a Tutsi.

Ayuub, in fact, summed up the dichotomy when we were driving one day. His father was Ugandan, his mother was a Rwandan Tutsi; he had been raised in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. When he came back to Rwanda for good, he married a Hutu woman. ‘What would that make my kids?’ he asked. He was relieved he didn’t have to decide any more.

Back to the bicycle. The nineteen-sixties saw modest improvements for many Rwandans; the gross domestic product nudged up by around five per cent each year and the newly independent country was boosted by foreign aid, mainly from Belgium, with Switzerland another generous donor. Paul Rutayisire, a lecturer in history at the National University of Rwanda, grew up in the east of the country and he remembered as a child, in the sixties, that well-to-do people from his town would save their money, disappear to Uganda or Tanzania and return with three things: a petrol lamp, spectacles and a bicycle. ‘A bicycle was a sign of civilisation, big social status,’ he recalled. ‘They were so proud when they came back with those objects. They would have the petrol light on, even during the day! Ah yes, it was very funny.’

In Uganda, bicycles had become indispensable as ‘boda-bodas’, border-to-border bicycle-taxis. These were first seen in the sixties, and proliferated in the seventies, owing to a need to transport people, contraband goods and animals between Busia, in the south-east corner of the country, and neighbouring Malaba in Kenya. There was a no man’s land of a little less than a mile but, if a person went by bike, they did not need the paperwork required by motor vehicles. So young men, typically on bulky black Indian or Chinese single-speed roadsters, accessorised with plump cushions over the back wheel for passengers to sit on, would shout ‘Boda-boda!’ and turn a nice profit from picking up fares. Over time, they would pimp their rides with anything that might catch the eye or ear: sparkling reflectors made from tin lids, melodious bells, framed religious images and pendants from English football teams like the ones that captains exchange before cup finals. Bicycle-taxis remained popular until the nineteen-nineties when motorbikes began to take over.

The east of Rwanda, which borders with Uganda and Tanzania, was a natural spot for cycling to catch on. It is the flattest part of the country and the bikes that were coming in were cumbersome steel monsters with one lonely gear. It is also a little hotter, maybe a fraction less rainy. The other area where bicycles were taking hold was Butare in the deep south. Butare was the most urbane town in Rwanda and, if the Belgians had to stop anywhere, it was the most tolerable option – even now its restaurants serve fantastic, crisp frites. When the national university opened there in 1963, expatriate European teachers and the most affluent Rwandan students pootled on their bicycles along the main drag to the campus, one mile south of the town centre. On Sundays, after church, they would venture further, maybe thirty miles to Burundi and back.

Rwandans who couldn’t afford a bicycle took inspiration from what they saw and decided to knock up their own. Wooden bikes, icugutu in local parlance, are – in a not especially strong field – perhaps Rwanda’s signature innovation. They are scooters really, hacked crudely with machetes from eucalyptus trees; some have seats, but most do not, and the only concession to comfort is a thin strip of rubber around the small wheels. In the words of one American journalist, ‘They look like they were stolen from Fred Flintstone’s garage.’ (Adrien Niyonshuti tried to explain them to Clive Owen at the event in London: ‘It don’t have pedals, it don’t have crank, it don’t have cassette, it don’t have chain, it don’t have brakes.’ Clive looked blank: ‘So what does it have?’) There is basic steering, but the rider’s comfort is definitely a secondary concern. They are central Africa’s mules and, at this task, they are surprisingly effective: they can be loaded high with bleating goats, chattering children or kilos of bananas, tea and coffee.

A visitor to Rwanda has to look a little harder to find wooden bikes these days: President Kagame has banned them from main roads. The message is that an ambitious country such as Rwanda – which considers itself the cleanest, safest state in Africa – is no place for prehistoric scooters. (That detail always reminded me of Muammar Qaddafi ordering all of the camels within Tripoli’s city limits to be shot because he thought they made Libya look backward. In a similar vein, Kagame has also ordered an ‘eradication campaign’ of thatched roofs on houses and Rwandans are fined on the spot if they are not wearing shoes.) But, on one point at least, it was hard to argue with the president, whose own first bike half a century ago was a icugutu. They are suicidally dangerous and a magnet for accidents. They have two speeds: scarcely moving and amusing-home-video out of control. Still, wander into small villages anywhere in the country and these renegade bicycles are being put to work as no-tech pick-up trucks. There are some in Congo, a smattering in Uganda, but nowhere has adopted them as enthusiastically as Rwanda.

As soon as proper bicycles became available in Africa, people raced them. These competitions were most firmly established in Italian and French colonies. In Eritrea, the inaugural Giro d’Eritrea was run in 1946: it had five stages and thirty-four riders, although Eritreans themselves were actually barred from competing. The next year, the country, which had been colonised by Italy but since 1941 had been a British protectorate, was distracted by a guerrilla war and staged a shorter event, the Giro delle Tre Valli, the ‘Tour of the Three Valleys’. Eritrea would remain cycling-obsessed, but it would be more than fifty years (during most of which it was in conflict with Ethiopia) before organised racing was resurrected.

On the other side of the continent, there was similar interest in cycling in French Upper Volta. Upon independence, in December 1959, the country that would later become known as Burkina Faso decided to show off the new republic by hosting a pair of criteriums – short, fast, spectator-friendly races – in the capital Ouagadougou. New president Maurice Yaméogo invited some of the most famous European cycling stars of the day – including Jacques Anquetil and a past-his-prime Fausto Coppi – to compete against local riders and then go hunting for big game. In the first race, Anquetil sprinted in ahead of Coppi; in the second, which finished in front of the presidential palace, Coppi allowed a local amateur Sanu Moussa to take first place and win a Citroën from a sponsor. The group then flew south to Fada n’Gourma where they shot a gazelle, bought elephant tusks as souvenirs and saw local children taunt crocodiles with a dead chicken hung on a string. These would, in fact, be the last races of ‘Il Campionissimo’, as Coppi contracted malaria – more salacious reports claimed he overdosed on cocaine – dying on the second day of the new decade back at home in Italy.

In North Africa, meanwhile, there was a slow drip of riders into the Tour de France. The Tunisian champion Ali Neffati became the first African to compete in the race in 1913 and rode again the following year. In 1950, a pair of Algerians Abdel-Kader Zaaf and Marcel Molinès made a memorable impression on stage thirteen, a 217-kilometre run between Perpignan and Nîmes. They broke clear from the main pack and built up a lead of twenty minutes; they were helped by home-from-home temperatures of 40°C and the rest of the field stopping en masse for a dip in the Mediterranean. But with just a short distance to the finish, a long day in the sun took its toll and they stopped for a drink. Zaaf was offered a bottle of wine by spectators and, as a Muslim, this was his first taste of alcohol. He began acting erratically, eventually finding the shade of a tree and deciding to take a nap; a photograph showed him passed out, surrounded by Frenchmen mugging for the camera.

When Zaaf woke up, he had a couple more glugs of wine, climbed on his bike and headed back the way he had come, away from the finish. The organisers caught him, sent him to hospital and, against his protests, disqualified him from the race. Molinès, meanwhile, became the first African stage-winner of the world’s most prestigious bicycle race, coming in five minutes ahead of the bunch. (The story doesn’t end entirely tragically for Zaaf: he competed in five more Tours de France, finishing the race once, in 1951, and he profited from his new infamy by featuring in an advertisement for a wine producer.)

Rwanda, in cycling as in many other respects, lagged a few years behind the rest of the continent. Most of the bikes in the country were owned by European expatriates, civil servants or visitors involved in construction, and they were a status symbol beyond the dreams of most citizens. When I first arrived in Butare, I asked around for the oldest cyclist that anyone knew. An hour later, I was sitting in the grounds of a primary school with a driver called François Rudahunga. Born in 1956, he trained as a carpenter and in the eighties he had been one of the best racers in Rwanda. We sat on children’s chairs outside a sparse classroom and he explained that, when he was growing up, a ‘pneu ballon’ – or ‘fat tyre’ – bicycle would cost about a year’s salary. A car was more money than he believed he’d ever earn in his life. ‘The first thing a young man thought of buying was a bicycle,’ said François. ‘I bought mine from an old man who worked at the university who couldn’t keep up the instalments he was paying. It showed everyone, particularly young women, that you were doing well, that you were impressive.’

The first races in Rwanda in the sixties were between muzungus – ‘white people’; from the Swahili for foreigner, though a more evocative translation is ‘aimless wanderer’ – and were old-fashioned endurance tests: a challenge would be set to reach a far-flung corner of the country and an intrepid bunch of riders of differing abilities would set out to achieve it. For Rwandans to compete, they needed a benefactor. In Kigali, this would likely have been Emmanuel Mayaka, who arrived from Congo in the sixties and set up the first (and, until recently, only) cinema in Rwanda, Ciné Elmay; it offered a choice between VIP seats or ‘general happiness’ places and screened a mixture of Nolly-, Holly- and Bollywood films. Mayaka cycled a little himself, but mostly he sourced bicycles, which he distributed to promising youngsters to compete on. If they needed more time in the day to train, he would give them a job collecting ticket stubs in the cinema at night. In Butare, there was also a pair of Belgians who would help Rwandan hopefuls: one was a teacher and the other owned the construction company that built the university. Again, they would offer basic coaching and bring along a bunch of bananas to refuel the riders.

More serious racing in which Rwandans could compete came with the roads in the nineteen-seventies. When a rudimentary stretch of tarmac opened in 1977 between Kigali and Rusumo on the Tanzanian border, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture held a bicycle race to celebrate. It was a 185-mile round-trip – later named the Tour de l’Est – and a rabble of around fifty riders completed the course over two days. In addition, there were regular sprints around Kigali, and a longer event between the capital and Butare called Ascension des Mille Collines. But a pattern soon emerged in the races: whatever length, however hard, a skinny man from Rwamagana in the Eastern Province was winning them all. In the beginning he competed on a bulky steel roadster, while his rivals rode comparatively lightweight sports bikes loaned from the Europeans. Still he thrashed everyone. His name should have been a giveaway: Emmanuel Turatsinze; his second name meaning, in the local language Kinyarwanda, ‘We are victorious’.

Emmanuel was Adrien Niyonshuti’s uncle.

Emmanuel came, as his family likes to remind you, from a long line of distinguished athletes. His father – Adrien’s maternal grandfather – excelled at Rwanda’s two national sports: archery and wrestling. In the latter, he defeated the penultimate monarch Mwami Mutara Rudahigwa, who was said to have stood six-foot seven. The family were Tutsi and during the first Hutu attacks in 1959, Emmanuel’s father and grandfather were chased out of Rwamagana. Near the border with Uganda, they reached a river; they stopped, looked at their pursuers, took a few steps back and both men cleared the water in a single leap. The Hutus, unable to swim or find a canoe, could only watch. ‘My grandfather was good at hunting,’ Adrien’s older sister Jeanne told me. ‘And he was excellent at dancing.’

Emmanuel was born in 1952, as well as anyone can remember. Initially at least, he had the privileged life of a Tutsi. His father was on friendly terms with the Mwami, and the family had a farm with a few cattle, an indicator of significant wealth in Rwanda. But, when the Belgians began favouring the Hutu majority and then with the full transfer of power at independence, his opportunities diminished. He had basic schooling but was now not eligible for further education. Emmanuel went to work as a market trader and, with slick patter and hard work, he earned well. When he had saved enough, he bought a single-speed bicycle and that was what he raced on until a Kigali entrepreneur, Jacques Rusirare, the owner of Ameki Color, Rwanda’s answer to the paint company Dulux, stepped in and paid for a proper racing bike. It was a royal-blue Benotto, which had long ago come out of their factory in Turin. Emmanuel was practically unbeatable in Rwanda through the late nineteen-seventies and much of the eighties too, a multiple winner of the Tour de l’Est and Ascension des Mille Collines. He trained by riding with Adrien’s father buzzing alongside him on a motorbike. He competed in Burundi, Tanzania and, at the age of thirty-five, in Kenya at the 1987 All-Africa Games, but it was hard not to think that he was born a generation too soon.

In early 1987, as Emmanuel’s career was winding down, his sister gave birth to her tenth child on a farm a few miles outside of Rwamagana. It was a boy and his Muslim parents named him Niyonshuti (inherited family surnames are not used in the country); it roughly translates as: ‘He’ – meaning God – ‘is the friend.’ Later he would be given the Western first name of Adrien. They didn’t really call him either of those, though. As the last born – his eldest siblings were already in their late twenties – he was spoiled, so they took to calling him ‘Machoncho’ after a Burundian folk song about an indulged child. And his mother teasingly gave him the nickname ‘Dessert’. ‘After all of them you have the dessert, which is the special one,’ she explained to me. ‘And he turned out to be the special one.’

Adrien never saw his uncle compete, but all the old-timers at cycle events in Rwanda today agree there are uncanny similarities between the two of them. Emmanuel had a quiet humility and generosity off the bicycle, but he showed little compassion when he was riding. Adrien has that, too. Both were natural leaders. But mostly Adrien has inherited his uncle’s fierce sporting intelligence. Cycling can sometimes seem a simple, repetitive sport but in any race there is intense strategising. The ability to apportion your efforts is a defining characteristic of successful riders; Emmanuel and Adrien were without peer in Rwanda in this regard. They might not be the most powerful riders in a race, but they were the smartest and they found a way to win.

Adrien’s birth and his uncle’s declining days – as well as the construction of a new network of excellent roads, subcontracted by the government to a Chinese company – coincided with the Rwandan cycling federation organising longer races at home. In 1988, it staged a forerunner for the Tour of Rwanda, inviting six-rider squads from Emmanuel Turatsinze’s Rwamagana team, François Rudahunga’s Butare and Emmanuel Mayaka’s Ciné Elmay, plus a selection of riders from the rest of the country; around fifty in total, all Rwandan. It was a haphazard event that mostly stuck to the western highlands, but there was enough take-up to run a more refined version of it in 1989 and invite guests. The inaugural Tour du Rwanda (the French title was preferred in those days) had three select teams from Rwanda competing against the national outfits from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it has been known since 1997). The standard of racing was wildly variable but local riders dominated and the outstanding performer was one of Mayaka’s young protégés from Kigali, Omar Masumbuko. He won the Tour du Rwanda again in 1990, too.