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Book Excerpt: Tom Ritchey, The dot connector

  • By Tim Lewis
  • Published Dec. 23, 2013
In Rwanda, Tom Ritchey found a new frontier in bicycle development — and himself. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Editor’s note: The following excerpt appears in Tim Lewis’ new book, Land of Second Chances, available now from VeloPress. For more details, visit VeloPress’ website today.

Tom Ritchey had been cycling in Rwanda for a week when he came across the old man and his wife standing by the road. He had ventured all around the little country, pedaled up and over most of its “thousand” hills. He never thought he’d go anywhere more spectacular than his backyard of northern California, but this place — with its mist-topped volcanoes, towering waterfalls, glassy lakes, and monkeys hanging out like belligerent teenagers by the side of the road — certainly came close. He imagined that this was what the whole unspoiled planet had looked like a few thousand years ago.

As he traveled around on his bike, he saw children — it felt like millions of them, most of them smiling, indomitably cheerful. They were entertained by nothing and everything; Tom wasn’t sure which. They ran alongside him barefoot or in cheap rubber sandals until they collapsed in the dirt, breathless but gasping for air to keep laughing. Then, out of nowhere, another group of kids would appear, as if arriving for their designated spot in the relay, taking their turn to sprint up the track behind his back wheel screaming, “Muzungu!” White man! Relentlessly, “Muzungu!” Not a greeting as such, more an instinctual outburst of shock and curiosity.

Wherever Tom stopped, a crowd would form. What they made of him is anyone’s guess. He stood a few inches over six feet tall and wore skintight Lycra and reflective sunglasses. He had an impressive shock of black, backcombed hair and an exuberant mustache clipped somewhere between handlebar and Fu Manchu. Back home, he looked like someone whose fashion clock had stopped ticking in 1975, but in Rwanda, they didn’t have many white men to compare him to. He could mangle a couple of words of Kinyarwanda, and he spoke no French, the other useful language in the Rwandan countryside, but he chattered away obliviously in a mellifluous Californian drawl that no one even vaguely understood. He thought they might be interested in his bike, which he had designed and welded himself from aerospace titanium and should have looked like a rocket ship to them. But they couldn’t care less. They just wanted to see him up close. The more adventurous ones would reach out to touch him. If he tossed down an empty bottle of water — “Agacupa!” — there would be a mad scrabble for the trophy.

On the bodies of some of the teenaged children, Tom noticed deep, angry scars. But, as the days passed, it became obvious there was a lot he wasn’t seeing, too. There were kids, there were their grandparents, but pretty much no one in their twenties and thirties; an entire generation had vanished. Tom realized how little he had really thought about this place before he had arrived. He had expected to find a dangerous country, full of hatred and division. It was, after all, little more than a decade since one in ten Rwandans had been slaughtered by their friends and neighbors. Yet they were getting on with life. There was nothing even to distinguish one as Hutu or another as Tutsi. Eventually, he met an Anglican bishop, John Rucyahana, who had spent a year at a seminary in the United States, and asked him to explain. “This is how we must live now,” Bishop John told him simply.

In Tom’s own small way, forgiveness was something that had been exercising him a lot recently. He arrived in Rwanda in December 2005, a few days before his forty-ninth birthday, in the midst of a spiraling midlife crisis. Nearly two years before, Tom’s wife, Katie, had walked out on him without warning, ending more than twenty-five years of marriage. He came back one day to their home in Woodside, high in the Santa Cruz mountains, to find that she had cleared it out. To say he was stunned would not come close; he was deeply committed to Katie and their relationship. She was, he always said, “the love of my life.” When he eventually spoke to her and she told him she was unhappy and confused, he didn’t have the first clue how to respond.

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 had been part of a crew in California that had pioneered mountain biking. He didn’t much like losing at that, either. Over three decades he’d built a company, Ritchey Logic, which now had fifty employees and patented numerous innovations that had made him a millionaire many times over. It’s a safe bet that any bike shop in the world will have components Tom has either designed or directly influenced. He still rode 10,000 miles on two wheels every year and had managed to organize an aspirational life around the catchphrase “My bike is my office.” He was respected by everyone in the industry, if not always loved.

But he was starting to realize that this had all come at a price. His wife had rejected him; they had a son, Jay, and two daughters, Sara and Annie, but they were either at college or about to go. He had status and money, but happiness remained elusive. “It can be very lonely when you’re just driving ahead, and you look behind you and there’s no one there,” he said. Tom lived in a remote spot, and, increasingly reclusive, he went days without any human contact. He was not a carouser or a sports-car guy, and he already had a shed full of high-end bicycles, that other refuge of the middle-aged man in crisis. He had never quite found time to replace the furniture, so he rattled around the empty rooms, reading psychology books and Christian self-help texts. Sometimes he would head out on long rides in the hills to figure out what was happening, but the answers had stopped coming. For two years, he scarcely designed a new product.

Some friends did try to help; in fact, Tom had started to feel like a pinball being slapped around by well-meaning flippers. The idea to visit Rwanda came from Peb Jackson, an author and vice president of Saddleback Church, Rick Warren’s influential megachurch based in Orange County, California. Jackson had been introduced to the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Denver in 2004, and their casual chat had lasted two and a half hours. At the end of it, Jackson had handed Kagame a copy of Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, a book that has sold more than thirty million copies since its publication in 2002. Kagame lit up. “Purpose!” he said. “If there’s one word that describes me it’s ‘purpose.’” The president, who is not openly religious himself, would subsequently declare his intention to make Rwanda the world’s first “purpose-driven nation.”

Jackson is a snowy-haired, avuncular figure in his sixties who looks like Santa Claus outfitted by Ralph Lauren. He has encouraged numerous influential Americans to visit Rwanda since meeting Kagame — “maybe more than two hundred” — but Tom, a friend of more than twenty years, was one of the first to follow his recommendation. “I knew he was going through difficult conflicts in his life and his marriage,” Jackson said over early-evening drinks at the Serena Hotel in Kigali. He was in the country introducing a delegation of American cook-stove entrepreneurs to President Kagame. “Tom was at the top of his game in many ways, and the mystifying nature of a failed relationship in the midst of success is a factor of bewilderment and stress for a lot of guys. So I thought he’d find something here.”

On autopilot, Tom agreed to go. Jackson hooked him up with an investment manager, Dan Cooper, who was going to the country on business, and both men took their bicycles. Word spread that a couple of Americans were looking for riding partners, and on the first morning in Kigali, a handful of the country’s best cyclists turned up at the Serena Hotel, where Tom and Dan were staying. Only one of them, a diminutive Rwandan with a cherubic face called Rafiki, knew any words of English, but they hashed out a route that would take them seventy miles northwest over four long climbs to Ruhengeri, in the foothills of the Virunga mountains. The ride lasted four hours, and Tom realized he hadn’t smiled this much in years. His was a slump that only privileged Westerners tend to endure, the kind he could not explain to Rwandans, however well he spoke their language.

The next day, the Rwandans went home, but Tom and Dan continued deeper into the country on dirt roads colored the distinctive ocher of volcanic soil. The fact that they were on bikes, rather than inside an NGO’s air-conditioned 4×4, lifted one barrier between them and the local population. Early on, Tom spotted a boy pushing a strange, prehistoric wooden scooter and pulled up. With its rickety handlebars and small, wobbly wheels, it shouldn’t have worked, but here was someone using it to haul probably 110 pounds of firewood. Over the next few days, Tom saw dozens more and even commandeered one for a ride. As an engineer, he thought they were ingenious; as a bike racer, he thought they were hysterical.

The Americans came across a number of traditional bicycles, too: hulking, decades-old Chinese behemoths that the locals had kept on the road using anything they could find — strips of car tires for brake pads, tin cans for reflectors. They were battered, but their continued existence showed there was love there, too. It reminded Tom of the early days of the mountain bike, when some like-minded friends in California had taken balloon-tired Schwinn Excelsiors from the 1930s and patched them up with mongrel components they had scavenged. Seven thousand miles from home, Tom began to feel an unlikely affinity with the Rwandan people. He had always described himself as an “evangelist for cycling,” and here were people, a couple of worlds away from the United States, who shared his passion. Cycling was their national pastime, and they didn’t even know it.

Then, as he came to the end of his trip, he saw the old man and his wife standing by the road. The gentleman, who wore a crumpled suit, came over and very deliberately offered a low bow. This was a greeting not of deference but of gratitude: It signified, to Tom, that they were pleased to welcome visitors. The Americans’ presence in Rwanda meant that the country was no longer toxic. Tom realized how self-absorbed he’d become: The man was grateful to him. These people were dealing with incomprehensible amounts of pain, but with grace and forgiveness. Tears filled Tom’s eyes.

Back in Kigali, as Tom boarded the plane home, he realized he could go back to his life and continue as before, or he could make a radical change. Sitting on the runway waiting for takeoff, he thought, “What I do with my disappointments is going to define me for the rest of my life.” He had some time to think — travel between Rwanda and America’s West Coast involves at least two changes and takes the better part of a day and a half. When Tom landed in San Francisco, he’d already sketched out an outline for Project Rwanda.

In Silicon Valley in the 1970s, did anyone just keep, say, a car or a set of golf clubs in the garage? The first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club was convened in Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park, California, in March 1975. Two early members, Steve Wozniak and a twenty-year-old Steve Jobs, then decamped a couple of miles across the valley, where over the next few months they would develop the first Apple home computer in Jobs’s garage. Meanwhile, the original garage start-up, Hewlett-Packard, founded in Dave Packard’s one-car shed in Palo Alto in the 1930s, was bringing compact technology into the home with the first scientific calculators that could fit in a (rather capacious) shirt pocket and wristwatch calculators that cost $795. Add to that Vint Cerf, a young professor at nearby Stanford University, who was establishing the protocols that would become the building blocks for the World Wide Web, and the mid-1970s was one of the outstanding periods of human creativity, all taking place in an area of just a few square miles.

Right in the middle of it was the Ritchey garage in downtown Palo Alto. Tom’s father, also named Tom, was an R&D engineer at Ampex, an electronics company that pioneered eight-track (and subsequently sixteen- and twenty-four-track) musical recording, but the space had long been taken over by his son. Tom was a man’s man, even as a boy. When he was five years old, he built a three-story tree house in the backyard. It was only when he fell to the ground from fifteen feet, attempting to construct a fourth level, that his father suggested he might want to scale it back. He was eleven when he made a small electric car, and the following year he found plans for a sailboat and promptly built one. “From the youngest age, my father didn’t care if I cut my fingers off,” Tom recalled. “Saws, power tools — I could punch holes in my body, and we’d go to the doctor, and he was okay with it.”

His real passion, though, was bicycles, and this, too, he inherited from his father. Tom was born in December 1956 in New Jersey, and the family moved cross-country to northern California in the early 1960s, when the job at Ampex came up. His father was a smoker and not much of an athlete when he arrived in the Bay Area, but he bought his daughter a three-speed Raleigh bicycle to ride to school and immediately stole it for his own seven-mile commute to work. Some of his colleagues raced small boats, so he started doing that as well, and he joined the Sierra Club, an early environmental group that encouraged its members (and their sometimes reluctant children) “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth.” Tom’s father quickly upgraded his bike to a British-made Raleigh Carlton ten-speed racer, which cost around $100, and on weekends he would head into the hills around Palo Alto and Woodside with a local touring club for fifty-mile rides.

Tom would have been happy enough watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, but his father forced him to come out on one of these rides when he was eleven years old. Tom’s father never made many concessions to his son’s age and pedaled off into the distance as soon as they started climbing into the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to young Tom, but he detested the experience; as he slogged away alone on his sister’s bike, he resolved he would not let it happen to him again.

He started going out on the bike for after-school excursions with his seventh grade friend Donny McBride, whose father also happened to race bicycles, still an eccentric hobby in 1960s America. They made an odd pair: Tom was already tall and looked like a benign Gulliver next to geeky, bespectacled McBride. But they improved quickly, and one afternoon they bumped into a group of older kids in matching blue-and-gold jerseys from the Belmont Bicycle Club. The club riders invited them to a local twilight event, and Tom’s racing career began. When he was fourteen, he upgraded to a Cinelli bicycle that he painted with high-quality English boat enamel. He went out with his father again, and on Alpine Road, a rough, semipaved track that rises 2,000 feet through dense trees out of Palo Alto, he left him trailing.

When Tom had a problem with his Cinelli, the nearest bike shop was a dozen miles away in Cupertino, so he took to fixing it himself. He even started to wonder if he could reverse-engineer a bicycle from scratch. When a friend of Tom’s asked him to repair his Ron Cooper — a bicycle from one of Britain’s most revered frame builders — he pulled it apart and thought, “This is made really poorly!” He was sure he could do better, and with the help of his father managed to track down a set of steel tubing made by the Italian company Falck and some lugs — the sockets that form the junctions between tubes. He build a primitive jig to hold the parts in place, and in 1972, at age fifteen, he built his first bicycle in the family garage with his father looking over his shoulder. He followed it soon after with a second for Donny McBride. The next year, he bought a lathe and a Bridgeport milling machine; still a teenager, he had become one of just a handful of custom frame builders in the United States.

Meanwhile, Tom’s father wasn’t the only experienced cyclist who was discovering that his son was a formidable opponent, a rider who thrived in the hardest races. Now using his own hand-built bike, Tom was beating everyone his own age and some of the best racers in California, too. In May 1973, age sixteen, he entered the prestigious Crockett–Martinez race, even though it was for over-eighteens only. One by one, he destroyed the field, including two members of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He was subsequently disqualified for being underage, but the legend of the “senior slayer” was gaining momentum. “If he rode with the juniors, it wasn’t even a bike race,” said Shawn Farrell, a contemporary who became the technical director of USA Cycling. “He was the greatest natural talent we’d seen in the United States at that point.” Cycling legend Gary Fisher, who is six years older than Tom, recalled him with barely suppressed awe. “He was a hot junior — oh, my God, he was good. He was just this punk kid who was totally unbeatable.”

A key figure in Tom’s development was Jobst Brandt, an engineer from Hewlett-Packard who was a friend of his father’s. In West Germany, Brandt had been the designer of the Porsche 911 braking system, and later in his life, he would achieve renown on cycling websites as a cantankerous retrogrouch with purist views of the sport. When Tom met Brandt, he was in his forties and famous for the sadistic rides that he led around the Bay Area. Brandt’s routes would take the group on and off road — something unheard-of at the time — and were as punishing on their bodies as on the bicycles. In winter he would climb the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada before the snowplows; in summer, he would ride through the heat until his young crew was pleading for a break. His unforgiving stance — he would not wait if anyone dropped behind for either mechanical or physical reasons — is one that Tom still subscribes to even now. The reason Brandt’s acolytes put up with the strictures was that no one else could find trails as stunning and untouched.

Brandt was also an inspiration to Tom in regard to his frame building. Before he met Brandt, he had just been welding frames and fixing up wheels; now he started making his own seat posts, bottom brackets, hubs, and dropouts. Most bike frames were fitted with lugs, but Tom began to pioneer a technique called fillet brazing that did without them. His goal was always to make a bicycle and its components lighter, faster, and crucially “Jobst-proof ” so that they would not be destroyed, however unforgiving the conditions.

Tom made his first lugless bike with large-diameter tubes — “oversized” in bicycle parlance because they were bigger than the standard tubes used in European race bikes — in 1975 and gave it to Brandt. The tubes made the bike more rigid than a standard-tubed bike, but it was no heavier because the tubes were thinner. It was his final year of school, and he struck a deal with Palo Alto High School that he would have to attend classes only from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.; the principal agreed because of the rave notices and publicity Tom was attracting as a cyclist. In the afternoons, he would either go riding — he was now training with the U.S. Olympic squad — or make bicycles. He recalled building up to a hundred frames that year. The business was so profitable that he was able to buy a car to travel to his bike and sailboat races. Tom was a notorious “straight edge”; he didn’t have time for drugs or much socializing of any kind. He needed to graduate with 245 credits, and that was what he scored, exactly 245.

I met Tom at his house in Woodside, a town of 5,417 inhabitants, most of them well known and at least millionaires: Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison, one of America’s richest men; actress Michelle Pfeiffer; and musician Neil Young among them. Steve Jobs had been building a house not far from there when he died in 2011. Before I arrived, Tom had said that we could head out for a pedal around the hills he had first explored with Brandt, but he’d since been struck down by a mystery virus and was forced to rest. I knew it must have been debilitating for him to turn down a ride. When he shattered his pelvis in 2010, he was off the bike for just four days. Around the time his wife left, he broke his ankle and couldn’t ride for two weeks, the longest he had not ridden since he was eleven. Eventually, he became so restless that he went out into his workshop, sawed away the upper part of the cast from his calf, and fixed Velcro straps and a cleat to the bottom half so that he could lock it directly into his pedal and head out on the road again.

Tom bought the plot of land, which overlooks San Francisco Bay, back in the late 1970s, long before it became among the most desirable addresses in the United States. He had just turned twenty, he was newly married to Katie, and they had a baby on the way. His bicycle business was booming, and he loved the fact that this place was on the edge of wilderness. It still is — at the end of his drive a sign offered advice on dealing with mountain lions: “If attacked FIGHT BACK.” Tom started by building a workshop so he could continue cranking out bikes and only then turned his attention to the main domicile — perhaps an early indication to his wife of where his priorities lay. When their son, Jay, was born, there was still no central heat.

The house was a deluxe cabin, really, as unfinicky, sparse, and elegant as one of his frames. Inside there was a homey feel, and it was once again fully furnished — thanks, perhaps, to Tom’s second wife, Martha, whom he married in 2009. But the real highlight was the workshop, a large wooden shed that housed a welding jig, metalworking machines, and the scattered skeletons of frames past and present. It was here that many of the original mountain bikes took shape. After finishing high school, Tom had decided to concentrate on making bicycles and racing for fun rather than real competition. In January 1979, Joe Breeze, a fellow road racer and frame builder from forty miles up the coast in Marin County, came to the workshop with his friend Otis Guy to ask Tom to build them a bike for a transcontinental tandem record attempt. Breeze brought with him what he called a “Breezer mountain bike,” which he had made using lightweight tubing that had previously been found only on road bikes. He combined it with cantilever brakes, Magura motorcycle brake levers, and fat (2.125-inch) Uniroyal “Knobby” tires. Tom, a veteran of trail riding with Brandt, was intrigued and started to think about how he could put his own spin on the design. He decided to make three “mountain bikes” of his own: one for himself, one for a pal of Breeze’s named Gary Fisher, and a spare.

Breeze invited Tom to compete in his first and only Repack race. Repack was a two-mile off-road dash down Pine Mountain, a foothill of Mount Tamalpais in Marin, which dropped 1,300 feet with an average gradient of 14 percent. It has attained posthumous fame because it was last run in 1984 and is now widely regarded as the spot where the sport of mountain biking was born.

The race, on Saturday, January 20, 1979, was a salutary experience for Tom: He had to borrow photographer Wende Cragg’s converted Schwinn “clunker” — the best riders were mostly on Breezers — and after the first bump, the handlebars rotated around so they were facing the wrong direction. He ultimately stopped the watch at five minutes, seventeen seconds, which was more than forty-five seconds behind Fisher and Breeze in first and second place. Tom did have a lightbulb moment, though, and — just as when he had first gone riding with his father — he determined that he would never endure such humiliation again; the fact that he had been riding a girls’ bike on both occasions made it sting a little more. The following year, he unveiled “bullmoose” handlebars, where the bar and stem were brazed into a single unit and the stem forked into two, making a triangle. It would now be impossible for the bars to spin around. Working without lugs, meanwhile, meant he could use stronger, oversized tubing. The final pieces of the mountain bike were in place.

Tom went into business with Fisher and Fisher’s college roommate Charlie Kelly, a writer and rock-band roadie, and they called the company MountainBikes. Their success was built on Fisher and Kelly’s marketing and Tom’s productivity. While Breeze might spend six months working on a bike, Tom could weld a frame in just an afternoon. His friends called him “General Motors” because of his ferocious work rate. Fisher first rode his Ritchey MountainBike in a Repack race on August 11, 1979, another Saturday, and a month later their store opened in San Anselmo, Marin County. In 1980, with just the help of an unemployed eighteen-year-old neighbor, Tom built two hundred mountain bikes and around fifty road bikes. In 1981, he added an extra assistant and made four hundred bikes a year, all hand-finished and painted personally by Tom. They were the first mountain bikes available on the market, and even at a price of $1,300, demand swamped supply.

“If you couldn’t do something in four hours back then, it wasn’t worth doing,” said Tom as we sat at his kitchen table while he sipped hot water with honey. “To me, Silicon Valley is king. It’s where inventive people live; they’ve always lived here. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was this ‘Think it, do it’ bubble. No one stopped to ask, no one held anyone back from doing anything. There was no Internet to figure it out. It was just that creative environment at Apple and Hewlett-Packard, and in bicycle design as well. There’s a beehive of insanity when you’re that driven: You just take eleven pieces of tubing, and you don’t take ten coffee breaks. I not only wanted to build a bike, I wanted to ride it that day, I wanted to test it, I wanted to be on it. I just didn’t have any patience.”

Tom does everything fast, except perhaps talk. His speech quickened and rose only when I asked whom he credited with inventing the mountain bike. “Jobst Brandt,” he replied definitively. “He inspired most of the people who were involved in mountain bikes, and he never gets any credit for it.” For Tom, there was a big distance — spiritually if not geographically — between the innovation of Brandt, Steve Jobs, and himself in the area around Palo Alto and the slacker counterculture of Fisher and Kelly up the coast in Marin, what he called “Haight-Ashbury north.” He paused for a short coughing fit before gasping, as if they were his final words, “But it certainly didn’t happen in Marin! That’s just a smokescreen for a bunch of pot-smoking hippies that want to tell the story. The story gets told wonderfully well, but it’s not real. It’s just fun to say it.”

MountainBikes was dissolved not entirely amicably in 1983, when Kelly sold his share, and the company became Fisher MountainBikes (as a result, it is Fisher who is now most likely to be hailed as “the father of mountain biking”). Tom, despite “a caveman approach to business,” resuscitated his own operation, Ritchey Logic, making frames and components. Most of his innovations came when he was out on the trails — his goal, he said, was to build a bike that never broke down — and to this day, he has never had a desk at any of his offices or even a business card.

The boom continued: Mountain bike sales topped $1 million in 1984, beginning to outstrip road bike sales in the United States in the mid-1980s and in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. In 1996, mountain biking became an Olympic event. Tom had certainly played his part in its ascent. One of his MountainBikes was taken by a new company, Specialized — based in San Jose, half an hour from Woodside — to Japan in 1980 and shamelessly copied. Five hundred of them came back the following year as the Specialized Stumpjumper, and that model has been in mass production ever since; it was even added to the Smithsonian museum’s permanent collection in 1994. “There’s no doubt that the first bike was definitely inspired by Tom,” admitted Mike Sinyard, the founder of Specialized, in the 2006 documentary Klunkerz. “I would say to this day that Tom Ritchey is one of the very best craftsmen in the world. A true artist. The best of the best.”

Tom believes he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “I’m a dot connector, that’s all I am,” he said. “I just try to put two and two together, and you know, I’m good at it. I’m good at taking all kinds of ideas and creating something that makes people say, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ And when it makes sense, they say, ‘I want one!’”

When Tom returned from Africa in December 2005, he started to wonder if he might be able to connect the dots once again. He investigated how the bicycle was used in Rwanda, tried to figure out how he could help. It did not look promising; a bike may be an attainable luxury in the West, but only one out of forty Rwandans could afford one. Rwanda’s basic single-speed bikes cost around 50,000 Rwandan francs — roughly $75 — but Tom discovered that before they were ever ridden, they had to be modified. The local dirt tracks were furrowed and unforgiving, which meant that the cranks and forks were going to bend, the bottom bracket would strip out, and the racks would fall apart. These patch-ups, such as welding on twirly steel rebar to reinforce key joints, might add another $30 to the price, pushing it far beyond the reach of most Rwandans. Despite dramatic improvements in the country’s prosperity in recent years, the average income was still around a dollar a day. A third of the population did not have enough to eat.

A further conundrum for Tom was that, in this new century, did Rwandans still want bicycles? Two wheels beat traveling on foot, but now there were motorcycles or, for the really prosperous, cars. Status is keenly tracked in Rwanda, even though the differences might appear marginal to Westerners. In addition, not everyone shared Tom’s belief that this relentlessly hilly country was a dream cycling destination. It did not help that most of the Chinese and Indian bikes had only one gear, which made it impossible to climb the steepest peaks and inefficient to ride down them.

“In their heads, there were only two bikes: the colonial bike and the wooden bike,” explained Tom. “They didn’t know there were a hundred different flavors of bicycle. I wanted to initiate the thought that the bike was incredibly developed and celebrated, not just as a utility tool for carrying hundreds of pounds of potatoes but as recreation, transportation, and sport. Rwanda is a small country, and ideas travel quickly. So my hope was that if you could explode that idea, you could possibly — and it was just a thought — change the direction of the country.”

One area of potential, Tom thought, was Rwanda’s coffee industry. Before the genocide, coffee — along with mountain gorillas — was one of the few natural resources that foreigners were interested in. The story started in the 1930s, when the Belgians launched a series of “coffee campaigns” that forced Rwandan farmers, most of whom were Hutus, to plant coffee trees. The quality of the coffee tended to be mediocre; with a standardized price set by the government, irrespective of the quality of the beans, there was little incentive to tend crops with much care. There was also the fact that taxes were often collected by local Tutsi chiefs. Still, as world coffee prices rose through the 1970s and 1980s, coffee provided between 60 and 80 percent of Rwanda’s export revenue, and President Habyarimana keenly scrutinized the returns. Each June, after the harvest, it was said that “the aroma of coffee was in the air” — it sounds more poetic in Kinyarwanda — because the farmers, suddenly flush with their annual dividends, could now afford to buy clothes for their children; improve their houses; or, if they had had an exceptional year, buy a cow.

Problems started around 1990. There was a global dip in coffee prices, and Habyarimana needed all his resources to fight the incursions of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Prices paid to farmers were slashed, and all subsidies were terminated in 1992. The situation deteriorated radically during the genocide as farmers were sometimes killed or fled their plots. Those smallholders who remained, or returned many years afterward, were preoccupied with growing food that would keep them alive. Soil fertility declined, insects took over, and trees withered and died. It takes three years for an arabica coffee tree, the variety grown in Rwanda, to reach maturity, time that none of the farmers could now invest. Prices reached an all-time low in 1997 (around 60 francs — or 90 cents — per kilo), and in 2000, 90 percent of Rwandan coffee was classified as low-grade, or “ordinary,” unsuitable for export. The country produced not a single bean of top-quality coffee.

Tom, however, had found a different, more encouraging scene. The turnaround began in 2000, the year of the nadir for Rwandan coffee, as the government increased incentives for its half-a-million coffee farmers. Aid programs from the United Kingdom and the United States were launched; one of the most effective was a U.S.-backed NGO called Pearl, which helped organize the farmers into cooperatives and instructed them in how to produce high-end coffee for foreign markets. The improvements in quality were almost instantaneous; in 2002, a Pearl cooperative called Maraba in southern Rwanda, not far from Butare, was visited by two premium roasters, Community Coffee from New Orleans and Union Hard-Roasted Coffee from London, and both companies were impressed enough to place large orders. The price, $3 per kilo from Community, served notice to everyone — and crucially the farmers — that high standards could lead to high rewards. The following year, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s sold Maraba coffee in all of its stores in the run-up to the annual poverty-awareness day, Comic Relief.

There was a recurring sticking point, though. The main complaint from foreign buyers was the speed with which the cherries were processed after being picked — a period that should not exceed eight hours and ideally ought to be much less (the coffee cherries are the ripe red fruit that contain the beans inside). Coffee is different from other fruits in that it stops ripening immediately after it is harvested from the branch. The seed begins to ingest the moisture and sugar inside the cherry, triggering fermentation. If the coffee bean is not removed from the fruity pulp with water at a special washing station and then processed very quickly, it can develop rotten or overripe flavors. But in Rwanda, it was far from straightforward to satisfy these demands. A cooperative such as Maraba had 1,350 members dotted around the remote hillsides, around 6,500 feet above sea level, where the heirloom bourbon coffee they were growing is happiest. The nearest washing station would typically be on a main road down in the valley. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to fifteen miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries on a wooden bike or balanced in woven baskets on their heads.

After some conversations with Tim Schilling, the director of Pearl, Tom began to see his way. A well-made bicycle could change the lives of the coffee farmers in Rwanda, enabling them to earn up to 25 percent more by delivering the cherries within four hours of picking. Tom set some parameters. He needed to create a machine that was light enough to climb the country’s formidable hills but robust enough to survive the erratic trail surfaces. It had to be strong enough to carry up to 440 pounds of produce but also sleek and desirable so that a farmer might even prefer it to a motorized alternative. But most of all, it had to be cheap, not more than $100, practically the same cost as one of the bikes from India or China that had to be fixed out of the box. In early 2006, Tom took the short walk from his house to the workshop.

On January 22, 2007, almost a year after Tom created Project Rwanda, his first coffee-bike prototype — the Ubike, a name soon abandoned, as was the tag “Wheels of Mercy” — was ready to be shown at the Maraba cooperative. Tom’s son, Jay Ritchey, a twenty-four-year-old graduate in global science and sociology from Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college in California, was in charge of the rollout. He was like a missionary of old, only with two prototype bikes and a high-tech portable welder. The test rider was a farmer named Joseph, a man in his forties who lived with his wife and eight children in Cyendajuri zone. He owned 600 coffee trees, which the previous year had produced about 1,800 pounds of cherries and made him 96,000 francs, a little under $150. He already owned a standard pneu ballon bicycle, but on any significant incline he had to climb off and push. The front wheel also tended to flip up in the air, like a capsized boat, when he was riding it and carrying cherries because all the weight was loaded behind the axle of the rear wheel.

The hillside beside the cooperative headquarters created an informal amphitheater, and about seventy farmers gathered round Jay. As the bike came onto the stage, there were theatrical gasps and bemused tittering. Certainly it was a different flavor of bicycle. It was also unmistakably Jobst-proof: Tom had imagined it as a “bicycle pickup truck,” and — with assistance from Tom Mount, head of product development at Schwinn — he had created a two-wheeled take on a stretch Hummer, a vehicle usually used to transport Saturday-night dance parties.

It was normal enough at the front but became weirder further back. The wheel base had been radically elongated, by almost three feet, from a normal frame. There was a roll-cage structure for extra strength and a wooden rack, all of which could support at least 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two adult goats, or three children — and probably much more. But there were quieter innovations, too, such as powerful cable-operated brakes, nine speeds, and a rear wheel that had forty-eight spokes so that it would not buckle on the difficult terrain. Amusingly, for the Rwandans, it wasn’t black. It had a paint job of yellow, green, and blue to match the national colors, and “Hope Bicycle” was painted on the downtube. The price was 70,000 Rwandan francs, or $110.

A few days later, down the road at Koakaka Koperative y’Abanhinzi Ya Kara Ya Karaba — a coffee cooperative better known as Karaba — a second bike was given to a farmer named Celestin Nemeyimana. He was younger than Joseph, in his midthirties, and he had been selected by his fellow members because he was already a regular rider, often traveling twenty miles from his farm to cooperative meetings on his Chinese-made Terex Special. His grandfather had been a coffee farmer, his father was a coffee farmer, and now Celestin tended three hundred plants himself. He was called an extension agent because he informed Karaba’s other remote farmers of the latest gossip from the cooperative. He was engaged and planned to marry after the next coffee harvest.

Karaba had a similar number of members as Maraca, and again a large crowd had turned up to watch the handover. Jay Ritchey was swamped with questions from the farmers, mostly relating to the cost of the new machines. Why should they buy one of these bikes when they could pick up a Chinese single-speed for half the price? Jay answered the queries patiently through his interpreter, Isabella. The Hope Bicycles, he explained, cost $100 to produce and $20 each to ship to Rwanda, so they were not making any profit from the enterprise. In fact, if they sold them in Europe or the United States, they could easily charge five times as much. The bikes would be available through a microlending loan — Project Rwanda was explicitly interested in providing a “hand up” rather than a “handout” — with very low interest rates. The bikes would be paid for by Spread, an NGO that had taken over from Pearl and was still run by Tim Schilling, and the farmers would reimburse it over three years. Part of their contract was a commitment to deliver their cherries by 3 p.m. every day during the harvest; cherries delivered before then would receive a premium price, but if they missed their deadline, the amount would drop. The bikes would, Spread predicted, enable a farmer to boost his earnings by up to 40 percent each year, which would enable him to buy the bicycle and still turn a profit.

There were some wary nods, but the crowd had really come to see the bike in action. A group of thirty formed around Celestin and challenged him to ride up a steep hill across the valley. It was a nasty climb of a couple of miles that none of them had ever conquered on their pneu ballon roadsters. Celestin set off, and a few minutes later a dot appeared on the hill opposite, making steady progress, slowing but never stopping. The group cheered so loudly that he must almost have been able to hear it. Farmers who did not even grow coffee surrounded Jay to see if they could buy the bicycle, too. Eventually, Celestin reappeared, out of breath, his shaven head dotted with perspiration. “You could climb a wall on this bike,” he said. “You could climb up a tree!” Cracking a huge smile, he predicted, “This bicycle will make me a rich man!”

The bicycles appeared to be the final piece of the puzzle for Rwandan coffee. The country was beginning to hit the quality thresholds expected from it for export, and the infrastructure was now in place to support the end product. In 2002, there was just one washing station in all of Rwanda, at the Maraba cooperative; by 2007, as the bikes started to roll in, there were more than one hundred. From two foreign coffee buyers in 2002, there were now thirty.

President Kagame, like the Belgians and Habyarimana before him, had little doubt of the importance of coffee — still Rwanda’s number-one export — to the development of the country. After an introduction from Tom’s cycling partner, Dan Cooper, Kagame flew to New York and had lunch with Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, the world’s seventh-largest retailer. They hit it off, and soon enough Sinegal took his family on a return trip to Rwanda — his grandchildren became pen pals with Kagame’s sons — and Costco was taking a quarter of Rwanda’s best coffee. Sinegal then brokered a meeting between Kagame and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. They spent time at each other’s homes, too. When asked what they had in common, Schultz replied, “For a start, we both have an interest in coffee.”

What he did not say, of course, was that a little image smoothing would not hurt either Starbucks or Rwanda. Starbucks had gone from one shop in Seattle to being the largest global coffee chain, but ubiquity had not come with universal popularity. It was trying to recast itself by becoming the biggest buyer of Fair Trade coffee in the world; if some of that came from Rwanda, so much the better. Kagame, meanwhile, was trying to shed the reputational taint of the genocide and to reposition Rwanda as a serious place to do business. Influential friends could only help.

Away from the mass market, Rwanda was also becoming a destination for an elite band of coffee hunters who traveled around the globe in search of the perfect cup. One of the most intrepid was a man who had been called coffee’s “messiah,” Duane Sorenson, the owner of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. He visited the country in 2006 and prophesied, “Rwanda appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the foremost coffee producers in the world.” There was excited talk of flavors of Japanese plum, dark cherry, candied ginger, and milk chocolate. The following year, after the country’s best coffee producers battled it out in the first Rwanda Golden Cup “cupping competition,” Sorenson — and another small-batch roastery, Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Traders of Chicago — purchased the winner for a record price: $55 per kilo. Sorenson, after discussions with farmers, also decided that bicycles were the missing link and set up a charity called Bikes to Rwanda. Its first initiative was to buy four hundred of Tom’s bikes from Project Rwanda and supply them to its star farmers.

Citizens in Portland, Oregon, which considers itself both the cycling and the coffee capital of the United States, rejoiced. What could be more ethical than spending $5 on an artisanal Rwandan brew picked by genocide survivors? Bonus: The farmers got cool new bikes out of it, too. “Coffee for these people is a way out of poverty,” Clare Seasholtz, the director of Bikes to Rwanda, explained to GOOD magazine in 2007. “This was a way to extend that full-circle idea of connecting the consumer with the origin. We will be able to provide them with something they can use and appreciate, and they are providing us with some really fantastic coffee.”

In mid-February 2007, two weeks after he had first taken his father’s bicycles to the coffee cooperatives, Jay Ritchey checked in again with Celestin and Joseph. Over goat brochettes and bananas, Celestin reported that he had ridden about 130 miles in the past fortnight and had saved himself up to an hour a day, which he’d used to tend his coffee trees more diligently and plant vegetables. He had carried three bags of cement, eight cases of soda, and even the largest woman in his village, who had announced that she would never ride on his other bike again. His only criticisms were that the tires were susceptible to punctures and the brake pads had already worn down to the nub. Joseph had not ridden as much, but his main assessment was that he did not like the wooden rack on the back. It reminded him of the rickety wooden scooters, and he felt that a metal rack would be more prestigious.

Shortly afterward, Cherie Blair happened to pass through Maraba — her husband, the British prime minister Tony Blair, was a long-standing supporter of Rwanda — and was given a demonstration of the coffee bike by Jay. He asked if she might like to ride on the back. “Umm, no, thanks,” she replied, flashing her particular half smile, half grimace.

Project Rwanda was taking shape. Tom would tinker with the design, including — to his bemusement — replacing the elegant wooden rack with an ugly steel one. They would supply 2,000 coffee bikes to Rwandan farmers in year one, built by the folding-bike company Dahon in China, and a similar number in year two, scaling up production much as they had done with the mountain bike twenty-five years before. Ultimately, the hope was that any of the country’s half-million coffee farmers who wanted a bike could have one. Beyond that, Tom mused that Africa needed millions, perhaps billions of bicycles. In line with the idea that this would be investment and not aid, they would also set up workshops at Maraba and Karaba, training local mechanics so the bikes could be fixed and the project would be sustainable. They would keep a supply of parts, such as serpentine six-foot-long chains that might not be so easy to procure in the local markets.

Alongside Project Rwanda, Tom felt there was potential for adventure travel and ecotourism, building hotels and running bike tours. And he wanted to roll the dice. There was cycling talent in the country — he had seen enough Rwandans climbing hills on arthritic single-speeds to know that. They certainly looked like riders, athletic and rangy with not a pinch of body fat. So, for a small investment of seed money, he set up Team Rwanda, a new national cycling outfit. It could be a “marketing tool” for the coffee-bike program, he thought. The goals for this arm would be more modest; initially, it 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. All Tom needed now was someone to run the show.

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