In Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team, author Tim Lewis presents an inspiring story of persistence and determination to overcome obstacles more daunting than most riders of the Tour de France could imagine. Lewis discussed his with Bill Littlefield.

1219_oag_land-of-second-chancesHighlights from Bill’s Conversation with Tim Lewis

BL: It’s not possible to understand the stories you tell in The Land of Second Chances without at least a little historical knowledge of Central Africa in general and Rwanda in particular. You write that in the mid-1890s, “The fates of millions in Central Africa were decreed by men acting as children trading baseball cards.” Can the horror of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda be traced back to those men trading baseball cards?

TL: I think you’d have to say there is some connection there. Rwanda was given to Germany as a colony before a white person had ever stepped foot in the country. And then the Germans took it over for a period, and then after the first World War, as a spoil of war almost, it was given to the Belgians who were very wealthy at the time from rubber production in Rwanda’s next door neighbor: the Congo Free State. So, yes, I think everything kind of comes back, to a certain extent, to that time.

BL: Land of Second Chances is about how a modest culture of bicycle racing came to be in Rwanda thanks in part to various westerners. But bicycles of a sort were apparent there before the sleek machines of the 21st century appeared. Tell us about the country’s wooden bikes.

TL: If you go to Rwanda today, you still see the wooden bikes. You don’t see them on the main road anymore because they’ve been banned by the president because he feels that they send a — it isn’t the message that he wants a modern, progressive country like Rwanda to convey. But on any roads off the main roads you see people using these wooden bikes. They’re hacked out of eucalyptus trees.

People there love using them. They use them to haul anything they need to carry. They’re like the mule of Rwanda. People use them to carry bananas or goats on the back or live chickens. It’s quite sort of a scene. And part of the reason they’ve been banned from the main roads is that they’re so horribly dangerous. They have two speeds. One of them is not moving at all or kind of very slowly going up these hills. And the other of which is going downhill, and they’re so out of control that anyone in their path gets knocked over.

BL: In the chapter titled “The Dot Connector,” you mention Project Rwanda, the brainchild of Tom Ritchey. What was Mr. Ritchey’s goal?

Tom Ritchey is a real pioneer of bicycle design, in particular, mountain bikes. In 2005 Tom Ritchey visited Rwanda. And one of the things that really affected Tom was how much people in Rwanda loved riding bicycles. And so Tom thought, “Can I design a bike that would be affordable for Rwandans to buy?” and that could really change people’s lives there — in terms of coffee farmers being able to pick coffee in the morning and get them to a washing station to get it processed, which can make a big difference in terms of a farmer’s life, in terms of the quality of the coffee that he produced, and how much he’d be paid for it. At the same time an idea popped into his head which is, “You know, these guys look like amazing athletes. What about starting a bicycle team?”

Bill’s Thoughts On Land of Second Chances

Land of Second Chances is unusual among books set in sports because author Tim Lewis concerns himself with issues that transcend athletic competition.

In Rwanda, the presence of a bicycle can change lives. With a bicycle, a family dependent for survival on the coffee beans they grow on a small plot of land can get those beans to market quickly enough to ensure that they will bring a premium price. As a result, everybody in the family is more likely to get enough to eat. If some member of the family also uses the bicycle to train for the opportunity to earn a better living riding in races in Africa and elsewhere, that’s a bonus.

Because some of the people most active in bringing bicycles to Rwanda and training athletes there are from other countries, Lewis is also able to explore the complexities of that good-hearted effort. As he discovers, organization is at least as important as charitable intent. Without solid, continuous planning, parts meant for bikes that have broken down end up gathering dust on the shelves of warehouses rather than in the hands of the people who need them. European training methods sometimes don’t work in places where the athletes aren’t European. Assumptions that would be reasonable in England or Italy or the U.S. can be irrelevant, even counterproductive, in places like Rwanda.

Readers are bound to admire the riders Tim Lewis profiles in Land of Second Chances for their ability, their determination, and their triumphs. Some of them succeed against odds impossible for people living in relative comfort to understand. But beyond that, the book offers readers a sense of the enormous gulf between those who have plenty and those who have almost nothing, and it presents a case study in the challenges of addressing that shameful inequity in one particularly devastated nation, one bicyclist at a time.