Hailed as “the sports book of the year,” Land of Second Chances is the inspiring true story of four men who found a new hope for Rwanda. Meet Adrien Niyonshuti, Tom Ritchey, Jonathan Boyer, and Paul Kagame. In a land clamoring for heroes, they confront impossible odds as they struggle to put an upstart cycling team on the map—and find redemption in the eyes of the world. Land of Second Chances is an inspirational story of hope and victory for Africa.
Please enjoy this excerpt from Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team by Tim Lewis.
Scott Nydam worked with the Team Rwanda riders for three months in the buildup to the 2010 Continental Championship and the Tour of Rwanda shortly afterward. He was handsome, with pointed, elfish features, and he had a slightly squeaky voice. He looked like a cyclist, so I asked him about it. “I used to ride, but I was diagnosed with a TBI. That’s a traumatic brain injury. The doctors told me that if I had one more blow to the head, it could kill me.”
Nydam had ridden for BMC Racing, one of the most ambitious in North America. He was always a fearless racer, prone to spills. After a nasty crash at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, he woke up in a helicopter, concussed, one the way to a neurological trauma center in Texas. The doctors were anxious; it was the fifth time he had knocked his head, the fourth time he had been out cold. A few months later, he underwent tests at Stanford University in California, and his results placed him in the lowest 20 percent for brain function. That figure could bounce back, but the membrane protecting his brain, the meninges, was almost nonexistent. “You can’t afford to hit your head again; you could have another bleed,” Dr. Jaime Lopez told him. “We think you’re done racing.”
Scott took a sabbatical from competing for BMC Racing but continued riding. One day he went out with Tom Ritchey on the road and tracks near Tom’s ranch in Jenner, northern California. It was a cloudless afternoon, and after a sapping climb, they crested King’s Ridge and looked out over Highway 1 to an infinite Pacific Ocean. Scott couldn’t quite believe he was expected to give this up. When he got home, an e-mail popped up from Tom, one he had sent to others before. “Have you ever thought about going to Rwanda?” it read.
Nydam travelled to the land of second chances. He had an offbeat, questioning mind, and he wrestled to make sense of Rwanda. What really perplexed Scott was what drove the Rwandan cyclists. Soon after arriving in Rwanda, he went for his first ride, with Gasore Hategeka. Everyone who met Gasore developed a soft spot for him; he was gentle and humble, and his story—which emerged slowly, over months—seemed to encapsulate everything that Team Rwanda was about. When Gasore first turned up at the Team Rwanda base in June 2009, age twenty, they thought his name was Alex; he spoke no English or French, so the mistake went uncorrected for a few weeks. He had a decrepit Eddy Merckx bike that had been rewelded so many times that the brass at the joints resembled blobs of chewing gum on the frame. There was no electricity the afternoon he was meant to be tested on the Velotron and none again the next morning, so Team Rwanda’s coach Jock Boyer and his assistant Kimberly Coates gave him a road bike, a Scott CR1, on trust. It did not take long for him to prove that it was a smart investment. When the electricity returned, Gasore tested better on the Velotron than any Rwandan ever had. At his first race, two weeks later, he rode with the Team Rwanda veterans the whole way before crashing near the finish. “I knew from the second I saw him ride he was special,” noted Kimberly. “Physically he is small, extremely strong, very lean, and most importantly, he has the intensity. He has the ‘it.’”
Gasore couldn’t read or write a single word; even his Rwandan teammates found him introverted. On the bike, he was either lackluster or inspired, but Jock felt that if anyone had the potential to match Team Rwanda’s star rider, Adrien Niyonshuti, it was Gasore. In February 2010, Team Rwanda went to the Tour of Cameroon, racing against squads from Africa and Europe. On the third stage, Gasore was riding with the main pack when he got a puncture. It was repaired by the backup car, only to be followed by another. He fought back and rejoined the field; despite the mechanical problems, riding his bike that day felt like the easiest thing in the world. At the bottom of a steep hill, he accelerated away from the field and established a lead. Jock screamed at him to keep going. Gasore didn’t look back again until he crossed the line, becoming the first Rwandan to win a stage of an international race.
Bicycles were integral to the lives of many Rwandans, but for Gasore they were a lifelong obsession. His mother died when he was young, and his father was a heavy drinker who rarely came home. Northwest Rwanda, where he lived, was a Hutu Power stronghold, and after the genocide—when Gasore was perhaps six or seven—his family had fled for the Zaire border. Not long after they returned, Gasore’s father was beaten badly by government soldiers and died from his injuries. Gasore never found out exactly why and didn’t ask. He became a mayibobo, one of Rwanda’s legions of street children, and had to fend for himself. Initially, he would scavenge any food he could find; after a while, he picked up work moving huge sacks of potatoes. The pay was just a few coins, but he had a formidable work ethic, and he was a good saver. When he started to ride seriously, his shoulders and arms were too big from hauling the two hundred–pound bags; even years later, Jock fretted that Gasore was carrying an extra nine pounds of unnecessary muscle.
If anyone was proof that a bicycle could change lives in Rwanda, it was Gasore. It had taken him years of scrabbling to save up the 35,000 francs, around $53, to buy that first Eddy Merckx bike. His only extravagance when he was living on the streets was occasionally paying a bicycle-taxi rider so that he could borrow his ride for an hour. “When I was learning to cycle, I’d get three hundred francs and pay to hire a bike to try to improve,” Gasore told me one afternoon as we chewed on barbecued corn in his modest rented house in his hometown of Sashwara. “I never saved any money; everything I made would go into improving my cycling skills. Do you know the wooden bikes? I’d help someone who was pushing the loads, just so I could get a ride when they finished offloading. The same with the single-speed bikes. I’d push them for someone for free, and in return, when they had dropped off the luggage, I would get a chance to cycle and learn.”
Gasore continued, “When I was young, very small, I would look at kids of my age who could cycle and feel, ‘They are better than me.’ So I needed to learn and be like them. Then when I was at their level, I would see someone above me at the next level, and I’d want to be like them. Even now, I think that.”
On Scott’s first ride, as he and Gasore passed through Sashwara, they had a conversation in pidgin English about his victory in Cameroon. Then Gasore pointed to Scott’s bike, saying, “It’s a good machine, a good machine.” Scott was riding the carbon-fiber BMC on which he had won the Tour of the Battenkill, and at first he thought Gasore must be referring to that. Only later did he realize that Gasore hadn’t even looked at the frame. He was making a grander statement: A bicycle, in Gasore’s eyes, represented both work and freedom; it put food on his table and money in his pockets. A good machine, indeed.
The exchange had a profound impact on Scott. When he flew back to the United States after three months, he decided to leave his bike in Rwanda; he was done with serious riding. “It’s certainly one of the better decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “I feel very good about it. That bike’s still living; it’s still racing. If it was here with me, it would be sitting in a garage or on a wall. But now it’s on the Africa Tour; it’s in Eritrea.”
When Scott became a professional cyclist, he could see that there were plenty of gifted athletes who never made it. “In the U.S., a lot of guys come and go who just simply had it too good,” he said. “If you are sitting on a trust fund and you have all your basic needs taken care of, you’re not going to push yourself to the verge of death on these climbs to hold on to certain wheels. What I do know is that, if you want to make it, it’s going to take every bit of you as a rider, as a person, to apply yourself, and then, even then, you may not have it to make it to the finish line.”
In many ways, Gasore was an extreme version of what Scott was talking about. For years, he had dedicated every waking hour, directly or indirectly, to success on the bike. He had applied himself to it with such foresight and dedication that it was almost as if he had a premonition of Tom and Jock’s arrival in the country. When the Americans did finally come, he doubled his efforts. He joined his local bicycle-taxi association and ferried passengers and cargo all over the relentless hills of northwest Rwanda. He trained every morning on his own before work; then he came home, splashed some water on his face, and put the padded seat on the back of his bike for customers. Team Rwanda would often pass in formation close to where he lived, and he would attempt to keep up with them, even on his balloon-tired single-speed. He pestered them to find out when they were coming past next so he could ride with them for a little longer.
When he finally won a place on the team, he worked even harder. Gasore never missed a training camp and was typically the first to arrive on Mondays and the last to leave on Fridays. He helped wash the dishes and clean up around the house. Many Rwandans were scared of dogs, but he played easily with Zulu, Jock’s giant South African Boerboel. Gasore was learning to read and write, and the team’s English teacher described him as the most improved student. He was the only rider to apologize to Jock for not following his instructions.
“I had no one to look after me, so I had to look after myself,” Gasore told me. “I didn’t have the chance to go to school, but I realized that what I had was physical strength. I just had to use that strength to make a breakthrough. Some Rwandans want to relax; that’s their problem, but for me, I have to use the energy I have now to the full, so that when I’m old I don’t have any regrets.”
Yet here was the strange thing: Gasore’s career began to splutter and then stall. In March 2011, at the Tour of Cameroon, he looked set to build on his success of the previous year. He won an early stage, and as the race came to the final day, he was in fourth position. With a strong performance, he could finish on the podium. But on the last stage, he was completely listless, almost disinterested. Jock shouted at him from the team car to push himself, but it didn’t make a difference. Soon after they came back from Cameroon, Gasore was sent to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, for two months with Nicodem Habiyambere. There they would have the best facilities, expert coaching, and the opportunity to completely focus on riding. But Gasore actually deteriorated. “When they arrived at the center, Gasore is much better than Nicodem,” explained Michel Thèze, their coach in Switzerland. “But when they leave . . .” He crossed his arms, like lines on a graph, one rising, one plummeting. “I don’t know why—c’est bizarre!”
Scott, who knew exactly what it took to become a professional racer, could not make sense of it, either. “These guys are coming from Rwanda; they are coming from poverty; they should jump right on it,” he said. Scott shook his head: This was where the project lived or died. “The big question I have is: Do these guys want it? Rwandans are very communal. I don’t think their desire to succeed is as individually based as it is for cyclists in Europe or the United States. They want to look out for their families, and they want to make themselves stable financially. It’s not necessarily primarily winning bike races that these guys are getting keyed in to.”
IN THE EARLY DAYS of Team Rwanda, it might have been enough to turn up for races and for the riders not to embarrass themselves. But Jock, in particular, now expected more. Adrien, as usual, set an example that the rest found impossible to emulate. At the 2009 Tour of Ireland, Adrien’s first race in Europe with MTN Cycling, Lance Armstrong heard about the Rwandan genocide survivor and asked to start next to him on the first day. Photographers and television crews from ninety accredited press agencies recorded the moment for posterity. Armstrong even suggested they go for a beer, presumably not realizing that Adrien was a devout Muslim. In the men’s road race at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, Adrien spent the first half of a grueling race in a lead group of six riders before his front derailleur disintegrated and he was forced to abandon. Nathan and Abraham Ruhumuriza went on to complete the 104-mile course, while Gasore and Nicodem dropped off the pace and withdrew.
Adrien was recording his best endurance mountain bike results at the same time. He claimed his first international victory, the one-day Nissan Hazeldean race, against some of South Africa’s hardiest professionals in June 2010. At the 2011 Cape Epic, he and the Namibian Mannie Heymans took the jersey for best African team, finishing ninth overall. Then, with Max Knox, he won the Subaru Sani2c three-day event in May 2011 ahead of more than 600 pairs. Few riders anywhere in the world could shift so seamlessly between road and rough terrain. Studying the data from the SRM power meter on Adrien’s bicycle, Dr. Carol Austin, the director of health and performance at MTN-Qhubeka, found that he was developing an uncommon ability to ride just under his anaerobic threshold for hours on end. Put simply, Adrien would keep going when everyone else gave up.
Back at home in Rwanda, the race invitations kept arriving as the international fame of the team grew. As well as traditional haunts, such as Morocco and Gabon, the Tour of Rio in Brazil was added to the schedule in 2011 and the Tour of Eritrea for 2012. Riders continued to be dispatched for training at the UCI centers in Switzerland and South Africa, and also to the United States.
Victories, however, remained elusive. “We’re not here to make up the numbers,” said Jock when he arrived with six riders in Rio de Janeiro in August 2011. But that was exactly what they were doing. The veteran Obed Rugovera was eliminated during the first stage for failing to make the time cut, while the other riders rode with heart but were invariably off the pace on the harder stages.
Many of the Rwandans retained incorrigible technical weaknesses. There was, for example, Emmanuel Rudahunga, whom everyone called “Boy.” Emmanuel looked like a cyclist created by God, or at least by a team of aerodynamically fixated sports car designers. He was young and rangy with impossibly long, swooping legs. I recall pulling up alongside him during the Tour of Rwanda one day; he was alone powering up a steep hill, and we followed behind in a press car, wheezing in first gear. “Oh, my God,” exclaimed the ex-professional sitting next to me, “he’s in the big dog,” using Australian slang for the larger, more punishing chainring. Yet Emmanuel’s mouth was clamped shut; he barely seemed to be breathing. But here also was his big problem: He was afraid of riding in a pack, so day after day he would launch near-suicidal solo breakaways from the main field that were spectacular but invariably had the longevity of a firework.
Cycling had brought the riders, Gasore among them, relative comfort and prosperity. In early 2012, Jock and Kimberly found out that Gasore was engaged. He had not told them, perhaps mindful of their preference that riders should not get married until the end of their careers. Adrien’s girlfriend, as the Americans often reminded his teammates, was his bicycle. Gasore’s bride was named Marceline; she was also an orphan but had somehow managed to put herself through secondary school and now worked for the government. Gasore had met her at the Adventist church that they both attended. Gasore tried to keep their relationship a secret, but word got out because he had spent all his money on a bigger house and a cow, costing $600, which he gave to Marceline’s uncle as a wedding present. He had run out of money for food that month. “Forward thinking is not their strong suit,” wrote Kimberly.
This was a problem of running a competitive bicycle team that was also an economic development project. By the latter model, Gasore’s story should have been regarded an unqualified success. The former mayibobo was now a homeowner, with a wife and a well-paid job. By the end of the year, Marceline and Gasore had a baby, Anthony. But as a cyclist, his career was in danger of sinking fast. In the space of a year, he had gone from being the most promising rider in Team Rwanda to no longer making the first squad of six in 2012. It confused and saddened everyone involved with the program. “Do we want it more for him than he wants it for himself?” asked Kimberly. “Is this it—as good as it gets for his life?” There was discussion about whether they should suspend his salary until he performed better in races.
When he returned to the United States, Scott asked himself the same unsettling questions. “I’ve never had one Rwandan say to me, ‘I want to go to Europe and race my bike,’” he said. “It’s always been somebody else’s dream for them. It’s once removed. It’s Jock’s dream for them. Not one of those riders has ever been able to say that to me. They may parrot it back to you if you asked them, ‘Hey, what’s your dream?’ They’d pull the string on the back of their neck and they’ll tell you what they’ve heard maybe Jock say: ‘I want to race in the Tour de France.’ And that might be the difference with Adrien; he has his own personal ambition.”
Scott was right—the Tour de France did not exert a significant tug for the Rwandan riders. It was Jock’s obsession as an unhappy, bicycle-mad teenager growing up in California, not theirs. He could show them videos of iconic races from the past, but to the team, the races must have felt remote, even unreal. Their ambitions were smaller, closer to home. Gasore’s second-ever race was the 2009 Kwita Izina, an event that celebrated the naming of newborn baby gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. Again, Gasore had a puncture at an inconvenient time, and once more he raced back to rejoin the leading contenders, which included Abraham Ruhumuriza, Nyandwi Uwase, and the most experienced riders in Rwanda. When the race finally snaked through the streets of Kigali, he sprinted over the line in fourth place.
At the presentation, the emcee called the top three riders to the stage; Gasore stood to join them, and the organizers had to tell him to return to his seat. But he had done enough to win an envelope stuffed with prize money. He twirled it in his fingers for a few seconds and eventually sneaked a look inside. There was around $230, more money than he had ever held in his hands. He closed the envelope again, looked down, opened it once more, and checked that the money was still there. He rubbed the purple-and-brown banknotes with his fingers and finally took them out of the envelope and stashed them in his pocket. He could not have been any happier or more proud if he had just won the Tour de France.
Republished with permission of VeloPress from Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team by Tim Lewis.
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