The Observer, 21 July 2013

The Fast Track to a New Rwanda

Adrien Niyonshuti lived through the genocide, and 60 of his family died. The Olympic cyclist is one of a growing number of Rwandans whose talent for cycling is changing the way we view the country – and how it sees itself. Now the world is asking: How long before an African wins the Tour de France? By Tim Lewis

There have 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, a 19-year-old student, 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. 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 afterwards, he flew on an airplane 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 at the 2009 Tour of Ireland. 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 48 hours 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 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 10 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. Adrien first heard of the Olympics in 2007, when he was 20 years old and just starting out as a bike racer: “I asked the coach, ‘What means the Olympics?’” Few Rwandans have a television, and there is 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 and eventually he qualified for the cross-country mountain biking. Now, on Sunday, he would line up in an elite field of 47, including all the best riders in the world. During the question-and-answer session, 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.

***

Adrien could not be blamed for being cautious. His 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 is still synonymous with death. That is often the only thing that anyone on the outside knows. Geographically, the country is a tiny pebble dropped on the equator in the centre of Africa, the continent that the rest of the world finds easiest to ignore. The middle of nowhere then. Adrien’s homeland has not been blessed with natural resources, which makes it even less essential to external interests.

Experience told him that success did not come easily to people from Rwanda. All of its neighbours – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi – have an enduring cultural heritage of literature, dance, music and theatre, but Rwanda has an oral tradition and had yet to produce individuals of note in these fields. It has no famous entrepreneurs, fashion models, captains of industry or sports people. While dynamic, powerful West Africans have made their mark in every football league in Europe, no Rwandan has ever made it to a high level. The country has never come close to qualifying for a World Cup. Rwanda has never won a medal of any colour at the Olympics.

Cycling, however, is one activity that Rwandans do have a natural affinity for. Bicycles – what they call amagare – 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 first colonisers, who came initially from Germany in 1894 and, after the First World War, from Belgium.

Bicycles were a luxury, but locals who couldn’t afford the real thing took inspiration from what they saw and decided to knock up their own. Wooden bikes or icugutu 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 an American journalist Jason Gay, “They look like they were stolen from Fred Flintstone’s garage.” Adrien 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?”

Visitors are often surprised by the lush, Edenic look of Rwanda and, depending on how one feels about these things, the country is either the perfect place in the world to ride a bike, or the worst. It is relentlessly undulating and is well-named as le pays des mille collines, the land of a thousand hills. 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 Hawaii.

The greatest cyclist that Rwanda had produced before Adrien was a man called Emmanuel Turatsinze, who won every race going in the Seventies and Eighties, and who happened to be Adrien’s uncle. The family had local renown for athletic excellence. 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 6ft 7in. “My grandfather was good at hunting,” Adrien’s older sister Jeanne told me at her shop in Rwamagana, the family’s hometown in the east of the country. “And he was excellent at dancing.”

Emmanuel cycled mostly in Rwanda, but also made rare trips to Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya. That would have most likely been Adrien’s future, too. The last of eight children, he wasn’t particularly academic, but give him anything electronic and he could fix it or recondition it. He began to imagine a life for himself after leaving school where he would open a shop repairing radios, computers and televisions during the week, then ride his bike at weekends. And that might have been what happened if an American millionaire, halfway round the world in California, had not been gripped by an almighty mid-life crisis.

***

Tom Ritchey arrived in Rwanda in December 2005, a few days before his 49th birthday, close to rock bottom. Nearly two years before, Tom’s wife Katie had walked out on him without warning, ending more than 25 years of marriage. He had come to the country, on the advice of a friend, to see if he could make sense of his new circumstances. Tom was not accustomed to failure. In his teens he had been one of the most successful and ferociously competitive bike racers in the United States. Then in his early twenties, he was part of a crew in California that pioneered mountain biking. Over three decades he’d built a company, Ritchey Logic, which now had 50 employees and patented numerous innovations. It’s a safe bet that any bike shop in the world will have components Tom has either designed or directly influenced.

The country he found was changing faster than anyone believed possible. 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. In 2012, the World Bank returned to Rwanda and found that in the previous five years a million of its 11 million citizens – one in five of those considered “poor” – had been lifted out of poverty. “This rate of poverty reduction is the fastest ever achieved in Africa,” noted Paul Collier, an economist who is the director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, “and equals the best achieved globally.”

Back in 2006, Tom started to think how he could help. One of his ideas was to create a new national cycling outfit: Team Rwanda. There was talent in the country, he had seen enough Rwandans climbing up hills on arthritic single-speed bicycles or whizzing down them on icugutu to know that. They certainly looked like riders: athletic and rangy, with not a pinch of body fat. Initially, he would take a handful of riders, test them, train them, and see if they had the potential to be cycling’s answer to Kenya’s runners.

The man that Tom chose to run the show was a former professional rider called Jock Boyer. In one sense, Jock’s credentials were exceptional. In 1981, he became the first American to ride the Tour de France and he completed the race five times, finishing in twelfth place in 1983. But since his retirement in the late Eighties, he had badly lost his way. In 2002, Jock pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a girl when she was between the ages of 12 and 15. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, which was then reduced to five years’ probation and a jail term of one year. Details of the case are restricted, to protect the identity of the victim, but Jock never disputed the charges.

Tom was aware that Jock’s conviction made him a high-risk appointment, one that could distract from or even derail the new team. But Tom felt that Jock deserved an opportunity for a fresh beginning and nowhere in the world epitomised that more than Rwanda. “They live side by side with murderers,” he told me. “People had scars all over them that were perpetrated by someone in their community and I realised that they were an example of living beyond their pain, beyond their hurt, beyond their disappointments and living with second chances.”

Many would find it impossible to have such a forgiving response, but Jock certainly found that his crime carried less stigma in Rwanda, a country that had its own problems to deal with. He also inspired fierce loyalty from many of the riders that he worked with. “The first thing I can say is that I love Jock because he has helped me a lot,” Adrien said in 2010, when we first met. “If Team Rwanda had not come, I would not be riding a bike, because it was not easy. No spares, no bike, nothing. I remember that in 2005 I get a problem with the tyre and I could not get a tyre for my bike in the country. Sometimes I call him my dad, because if someone helps you for nothing, he looks after you all the time, you have to give him respect.”

The initial intake of Team Rwanda in 2007 was five riders. Jock had selected them purely on athletic ability but unwittingly he had chosen both Hutu and Tutsi – though no one uses those distinctions anymore: they are all simply Rwandans now. They were also a mix of the country’s regions, classes and religions. It was, in its way, a perfect representation of President Kagame’s new Rwanda.

Sometimes the riders would talk about the genocide, but not so often. It was too raw, it didn’t serve any purpose. It was impossible that they had not been affected by it – a Unicef study estimated that five out of six children who had been in Rwanda during the genocide had, at the very least, witnessed bloodshed. The five were in fact an intriguing cross-section of what the American author Philip Gourevitch has called “the interim generation”. Each of them had a vivid personal experience of the terror and they were not so young that it was purely a historical event. But equally, because they were still children when the killing was taking place – the oldest was 14 – they were not directly implicated in the killing.

Without question, however, all of the Rwandans dealt with a psychological toll. When Adrien and his parents were being evacuated to a safe zone, they walked along the main road for 10 miles and saw scores of Tutsi bodies, lying mangled in heaps. Adrien does not say very much about it now, but it was clear that the memories remain. At the 2011 Tour of Rwanda, the race went past his grandmother’s house – where the majority of his family were slaughtered – and he admitted that he pedalled a little harder then, so he didn’t have to think about it. On another day, I saw him after he had fallen off his bike; his shoulder was badly scuffed and he had abrasions all down his side. It was nasty, but fairly typical for a professional cyclist; riders couldn’t last a day in the job if they were scared of crashing. Yet he looked badly shaken.

“When I saw the blood on the tarmac, it reminded me of the genocide and how I saw the blood in the water, in the rivers, on the roads,” he said. “I don’t like this stuff. I told my mind, ‘I don’t have to think like that.’ Because if you think like that, you go crazy. You can’t think like that every time you see blood.”

***

The sun was high in the sky as Adrien – number 44 – waited on the start line at Hadleigh Farm, Essex, on 12 August, 2012. It was a Sunday, the final day of the Olympics, and there was an end-of-term feel among the spectators and even the organisers. After years of escalating local pessimism, the London Games had been a success beyond any rational expectation: more home medals won, less travel chaos; the nation had come together in a unity that it had previously reserved for defending its shores from foreign invasion. Now the pressure was off, and everyone could relax.

“The crowd should go wild now because this man has been the story of the Games: Adrien Niyonshuti,” said the announcer, introducing him to the 20,000 spectators being seared pink in the midday sun. “The man of Rwanda bringing hope to a country that 20 years ago didn’t have any.” Adrien was, for the most part, comfortable with his role as an ambassador for a reborn Rwanda. “Each time Adrien is riding, Africa rides with him,” said Aimable Bayingana, the president of the Rwandan Cycling Federation, before the race. “The whole continent will be on his side.”

When the starting gun popped, the riders shot off. It wasn’t long before Adrien realised that this was the fastest mountain-bike race he had ever been part of. Road riders have the Tour de France, but for cross-country mountain bikers, the Olympic Games are everything. For four years, all the riders save themselves for this day; all of them had brought their best form. With one lap to go, race officials decided that they needed to clear out some the stragglers because the leaders, Jaroslav Kuhlavy from the Czech Republic and Nino Schurter from Switzerland, were closing in fast. Two riders would be eliminated: China’s Weisong Tong and Derek Horton from Guam.

Adrien had made it. Not by much, but he’d done it. As Adrien completed his final lap, his eyes shielded by mirrored Oakley sunglasses, his face betrayed no hint of the pride he must have been feeling. Still, a crowd roar chased him round the course; as he sprinted up the final hill, the ovation was scarcely less intense than the one the leaders had received 13 minutes earlier. He had finished 39th. He could barely stand up when I spotted him just past the line. He was so tired that he would not even attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics that evening. “I’m just so thankful to finish,” he said. “I feel, like, broken. That was so hard.”

As Adrien spoke, I imagined hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of Rwandans, young and old, crowded round transistor radios tracking his progress halfway round the world in London, shrieking with delight every time his name was mentioned on the commentary. The message would have been unmistakable to all of them however scratchy the sound: Rwandans are capable of greatness.

***

The plan was always that the Olympics would not be the end of the road for Adrien, but rather the beginning. His racing team, MTN-Qhubeka recently became the first African team to gain Pro Continental status – a rung below Great Britain’s Team Sky – and their aim is to compete in the Tour de France as early as next summer. At present, their squad is 70% African and includes riders from Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Their hope is to eventually compete with a fully African team, with Adrien as one of their lead riders.

Adrien, now 27 and at his peak, was set to race in Europe this summer, but the day before he was due to fly to Italy, in February, he was diagnosed with a deep vein thrombosis in his right calf. Even worse, the blot clot had moved through his body to become a pulmonary embolism in one of his lungs. He spent 10 days in hospital and the treatment may have just prevented permanent disability or even saved his life. “They reckon he could have died on the flight,” says Doug Ryder, founder of MTN-Qhubeka. The team announced that they expected Adrien to be sidelined for six to nine months; it does not expect him to ride in 2013.

It must have been difficult for Adrien to extract too many positives from the situation, but the break did allow him to keep watch on the Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy that he set up in Rwamagana last year. The academy, which is paid for by the odd donation and his own personal investment, gives about a dozen young Rwandans – most under the age of 10 – a decent meal each morning on their way to school and then opens again in the afternoon for the children to pick up their bikes and go on a group ride.

Knowing his history, Doug Ryder thought only a fool would write Adrien off either in his cycling career or afterwards. “When he comes back I think he’ll be incredible, I really believe that,” he says. “We know his talent and his drive. Hopefully he’ll be in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in 2014. Anything he believes he can do, he will do it.”

This evening, barring disaster, Chris Froome will ride into Paris and win the Tour de France. Froome has an interesting, peripatetic background: he was born in Nairobi, Kenya, raised in South Africa, and rides for Team Sky and Great Britain. His victory is a clear sign that the sport, which was dominated in the 20th century by a small pocket of northern Europe, is changing, becoming more global. The list of countries whose riders have never featured in the Tour de France turns out to be surprisingly long: there are 500 million cyclists in China, but they have never produced a top-level professional. It is sub-Saharan Africa, however, that is a particularly glaring omission. Black Africans utterly dominate distance athletics: of the last 10 London Marathons, seven have been won by Kenyans, three by Ethiopians. Could they have the same effect on professional cycling?

As cycling wobbles unsteadily in the aftermath of Lance Armstrong’s drug bust, it is possible to imagine a reformed, more wholesome sport, one that is perhaps cleaner than ever. Teams would be forced to scour the globe for riders who naturally have the athletic qualities that previously could only be created with doping programmes. Then it becomes a numbers game, and Africa always wins: by 2100, there will be more 18-to-25-year-olds on the continent than even in China. It will be the biggest sporting mass population in the world.

The future winners of the Tour de France are in Africa. It might not be Adrien, it might be a boy from his academy. Perhaps it will take a decade, it could take longer. But it will happen. “In 10 years time world cycling will be very different,” predicts Doug Ryder. “The Americans had their time and the British are now having theirs, because Sky invested a lot at the Olympics, signing stars. But wait: Africa is coming.”