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Pedal power to the rescue of Rwanda survivors

Documentary tells incredible story of professional cycling team seeking to change image of country tainted by genocide.

Last Modified: 14 May 2013 11:31
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Adrien Niyonshuti is leading the race to change Rwanda's cycles of division [Team Rwanda]

London, United Kingdom - Adrien Niyonshuti is quietly spoken, naturally unassuming, and not a man to seek the spotlight - which only makes the circumstances of his past two visits to London all the more remarkable.

Last year Niyonshuti carried the flag for Rwanda at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, in recognition of his becoming the first cyclist from the African nation to qualify for the Games.

And on Thursday night, a London crowd gave him a standing ovation once again, this time inside a Leicester Square cinema at the European premiere of Rising From Ashes, a feature-length documentary that tells the extraordinary story of Team Rwanda, a professional cycling team that is challenging preconceptions of a country still traumatised by the genocide of 1994.

Then aged seven, Niyonshuti lost six brothers and 60 members of his extended family in the ethnic slaughter, when approximately 800,000 people - mostly of the country's Tutsi minority - were killed by Hutu gangs, within just 100 days.

After the genocide, cycling helped me to keep looking forward, and it took a weight off my mind for all the bad things that happened.

Adrien Niyonshuti, cyclist

"After the genocide, cycling helped me to keep looking forward, and it took a weight off my mind for all the bad things that had happened," he told Al Jazeera.

The film touches lightly on the events of 1994 and the riders' memories and experiences, focusing instead on the team as a microcosm of a country finding hope, purpose and unity in the prospect a brighter future, rather than being trapped by its history.

Niyonshuti has walked out of interviews when asked about the genocide, preferring to see his achievements on a bike as a means to escape the past, rather than to be constantly dragged back to it.

"Everybody knows Rwanda's bad history, but that happened 20 years ago and now we are together," he said. "We are fighting and working so hard to beat our history and build something new."

Niyonshuti's determination to look forward is echoed by Robert Bayigamba, the president of the Rwandan National Olympic Committee, who flew to London for Thursday's screening.

"Sincerely speaking, I watched this film for the first time and I was amazed," Bayigamba told Al Jazeera. "It rebrands the country. As Rwandans, we want to show the world that, yes, we went through a genocide, but we can also stand up and be a country in the world right now in many different fields, including sports."

Bayigamba believes sport can continue to play a crucial role in the country's recovery by bringing people together, regardless of ethnicity: "One of the things that sport brings to reconciliation is unity, because when you play it is just about your capacity, not about your ethnicity or origins."

Pedalling redemption

Filming Team Rwanda over six years, director TC Johnstone stumbled on their story in 2005, after a fortuitous meeting in Kigali with Tom Ritchey, a famed US mountain bike racer and builder.

"They had been riding mountain bikes with a few riders who called themselves the national team, though they didn't have any equipment," Greg Kwedar, the film's producer, told Al Jazeera.

Somebody joked: 'What if one of them made it to the Olympics?' And somebody else said: 'And what if we made a movie about it?'

Greg Kwedar, movie producer

"And over dinner that night, they were saying: 'What about if these riders had actual resources? How far would they go?' And somebody joked: 'What if one of them made it to the Olympics?' And somebody else said: 'And what if we made a movie about it?'"

Yet, just as central to the redemptive theme of the film as the riders' stories, is that of their coach, Jock Boyer, who in 1981 was the first US cyclist to ride in the Tour de France. Boyer had fallen on hard times, even serving a prison sentence for lewd behaviour, when he accepted an invitation in 2006 to put the novice riders through their paces.

In one of the most gripping scenes of the film, Boyer movingly describes his realisation that he could not abandon the young hopefuls as his own father had once abandoned him.

"That story, for me, really unlocks the heart of this movie," said Kwedar. "He had this gap without a father figure, and when he met those riders, he was able to become that for this fatherless generation."

Having intended to stay for a few months, Boyer now calls Rwanda home. As the next step in Team Rwanda's development, he is currently looking to establish similar projects in other conflict-scarred regions, with the eventual goal of leading an all-African team to the Tour de France.

Stepping up a gear

Perhaps grand predictions of African sporting glory should be treated with caution. The continent, after all, is yet to send a football team beyond the last eight of a World Cup, some 45 years after Pele predicted that an African nation would win the tournament before the end of the 20th century.

Niyonshuti believes an African team will compete at the
sport's top levels [Photo: Team Rwanda]

But Niyonshuti has no doubt there is raw talent out there, just waiting to be clipped into a pair of pedals and pointed towards the nearest mountain. Later this month he will return home to launch his own cycling academy for boys and girls up to the age of 16, though he said encouraging them to study would be as important as teaching them to handle a bike.

"I don't know how long it will take and it's not easy because cycling has been a white sport for 100 years," he said. "But if you take runners, all the best runners are from Africa. So why shouldn't Eritrea, Kenya or Rwanda produce cyclists as well?"

The dream of an all-African team may not become a reality in time to serve Niyonshuti's career.

Currently riding with the South African MTN-Qhubeka team in the second tier of professional cycling, he already holds the distinction of being the first black African to ride in a major European road race at the 2009 Tour of Ireland, and has a three-year plan to ride the world's most famous race.

Though set to miss the entire current season as a consequence of deep vein thrombosis suffered on a flight in January, Niyonshuti has moved to Italy as the team targets elite-level events in Europe, with the hope of earning entry to one of the sport's grand tours.

"Road biking is much more technical than mountain biking, and more tactical as well, and I am still learning," he said.

"But we are looking to do some big races in 2014 - and if it's possible to do the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France in 2015, I hope we can be there. After that, if I can stay in good condition, I am sure I can be competitive for the 2016 Tour de France."

The makers of Rising From Ashes, meanwhile, have a different kind of grand tour in mind for the next chapter of the film's story.

"We want to create an opportunity so that any Rwandan who wants to see this film is going to be able to do so," said Kwedar. "We are looking at technologies that would mean we could have a self-contained screening system that we could operate off a Land Cruiser and take it around the country. It's our responsibility to do that."

A cinema in the back of a truck touring the vertiginous cloud forests of the Virunga massif? It sounds like an excellent idea for a documentary.

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @HooperAJ

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Al Jazeera
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