BUTARE, Rwanda - Daniel Cooper was steering his bike up into the lush hills of northwestern Rwanda, taking in the scene's beauty, when he realized he wasn't riding alone.

Someone was behind the Chicago-area stock trader, pedaling hard and gaining ground on the long rocky incline.

Soon villagers were lining the road, cheery wildly, and Cooper was locked in an impromptu race.

He had the clear advantage - clad in sleek lycra, riding a lightweight aluminum, full-suspension mountain bike.

His competition, a local in rubber boots, rode an ancient steel clunker from China that had spindles for pedals - with 50 pounds of potatoes strapped on the back.

"He passed me with a big old smile on his face," Cooper, 34, said with a laugh. "It was an incredibly embarrassing moment, but also an inspiring one."

Thousands of these guys, Cooper knew, pedaled through the hills of Rwanda, hauling food, water and people on battered old bikes - some even crudely crafted out of wood.

Imagine, he thought as he stood there panting in October 2005, what they could accomplish with a coach and decent equipment.

Two years later, Cooper and some friends - including mountain-biking pioneer Tom Ritchey and Jonathan "Jock" Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France - are trying to give this poor East African nation, known best for a horrific genocide, a new global brand:

Cycling powerhouse.

Through Project Rwanda, a nonprofit group that Ritchey started to champion the bike as a tool of economic development, the men earlier this year launched the country's first national cycling team.

In just nine months, the five young members of Team Rwanda - three of them former taxi-bike drivers - have edged onto the international cycling circuit, competing in the United States and other African nations.

But perhaps more important, they have captured the heart of Rwanda.

On a bright Saturday in September, thousands gathered along the main road in Butare in southern Rwanda to catch the finish of an 80-mile road race from Kigali. And when the blue, green and yellow jerseys of Team Rwanda appeared over the last hill, soaring ahead of the international pack, the crowd roared.

"We started out wanting to give these guys a spot on the world stage," Cooper said from his office in Geneva, Ill. "But instead of affecting the world, they're affecting a nation. They have become an example of what everyone in Rwanda could become."

Cycling isn't what brought Cooper to Rwanda.

President Paul Kagame did.

Cooper and business partner Joe Ritchie, an options trader who grew up in Afghanistan and once funded an attempt to overthrow the Taliban, met the Rwandan leader and were inspired.

Unlike other African governments, Kagame's wasn't a hotbed of corruption. And he seemed keen to rebuild Rwanda after the 1994 genocide that left 800,000 people dead and the nation in tatters.

"We were impressed by what they were doing, and we felt duty-bound to grab an oar and help out," Cooper said.

He and Ritchie began spreading the word back home that neighbors no longer hacked each other with machetes here; it was safe now, and beautiful, and a good place to do business.

The pair began facilitating meetings and helping foster relationships that have led, among other developments, to Costco and Starbucks buying Rwandan coffee.

But there was more to Rwanda than a progressive business environment, Cooper discovered on his many ambassadorial visits.

The "land of a thousand hills" also happened to be an awesome place to bike - and a natural breeding ground for cyclists. Here, Cooper realized, lay a new chance for Rwanda to shine.

Ritchey, who biked around Rwanda with Cooper in December 2005, agreed, but he saw more than national team potential. He began envisioning an entire development program based on bikes.

Ritchey, 50, had helped design the first mountain bike and had built his company, Ritchey Logic, into a leading manufacturer of components for major bike brands.

The right bike, he saw, could help solve a problem facing Rwanda's fledgling specialty-coffee industry. Coffee quality, Ritchey learned, was suffering because it was taking too long to transport the beans to the washing stations where they were processed.

So Ritchey made a bike that can carry 200 kilograms of beans, and within months, he'd had 1,000 produced to be distributed to farmers through a lease-to-buy program.

"They were in such need of an evolution of technology," Ritchey said from his home office in Woodside, Calif. "It was the easiest thing in the world for me to design."

But to develop a national team? There Ritchey needed help. Specifically, a coach.

Ritchey's old friend Boyer, a former national cycling teammate, followed him to Africa in September 2006 for the first annual Wooden Bike Classic: races organized by Ritchey to promote cycling and tourism in Rwanda.

Participating were a number of Rwandans who had been competing locally, with little coaching and outdated equipment.

"I saw bikes I'd raced with in the '80s," Boyer, 52, said.

He also saw raw talent. And like Cooper and Ritchey, Boyer fell in love with Rwanda.

He was back a few months later to select a team.

"Where it was going to lead, I don't think any of us knew," said Boyer, in Butare, where he now spends more than half the year coaching. "Everything happened a lot faster than any of us imagined."

Boyer spread the word that he was looking for cyclists, and more than 20 showed up, from all over the tiny country. After a month of testing, Boyer narrowed the group to five: Abraham Ruhumuriza, 28; Nathan Byukusengi, 27; Nyandwi Uwase, 24; Adrien Niyonshuti, 20; and Rafiki Uwimana, 19.

As they trained, Cooper and Ritchey were busy seeking donations and support.

Soon, the team had new mountain and road-race bikes, shoes, helmets and jerseys - donated or discounted by Schwinn, Scott, Pactimo, Lake Shoes, Louis Garneau.

Within a month, they were on the road.

Niyonshuti and Uwimana in March competed alongside Boyer and another American cyclist in a nine-day mountain-biking event in South Africa. It was the first time the Rwandans had ever raced on mountain bikes, yet Niyonshuti and Boyer placed 23d out of the 278 pairs who finished in their division; Uwimana and his partner, 44th.

Buoyed by their success, the entire team soon was on its way to the United States for a month of training and regional races.

Their results were not outstanding, but their experience was unforgettable.

They saw their first train and their first snow, and marveled at the cars, electricity and running water.

And everywhere they went, they created a commotion.

"When we got to America, no one seemed to know about Rwanda, except maybe the genocide," Ruhumuriza said. "But all of a sudden, everyone was cheering 'Team Rwanda! Team Rwanda!'

"It was nice to have Rwanda viewed in a positive light."

The buzz followed the team back to Africa, to races in South Africa, Algeria, Namibia and Cameroon. The team even came close to its initial goal: winning a spot to represent Africa in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"It's amazing what they've accomplished in under a year," Boyer said. "It would take most teams years to get where they are now."

Where he is now is a place Nyandwi Uwase never thought he'd be.

He started biking to support his mother and siblings after his father died, ferrying people around his hometown of Gisenyi, in western Rwanda, for roughly 7 cents a mile.

Uwase raced in his spare time, riding a 1985 Eddy Merckx model he bought for $100 in 2003. But he never expected to get far in the cycling world; a more realistic life goal was someday trading in his taxi bike for a motorized version.

These days, he talks not only of racing in the Tour de France and the Olympics - but of walking away a winner.

"Now, everything is possible," Uwase said, smiling. "With every race we get better and better. I think we can be the best in the world."

In Rwanda, he already is a star.

Everywhere he goes, children chant his name. And recently, he and his teammates were honored at a dinner with the president.

"He's like a hero to us," said Aimé Mutagoma, 26, a Uwase fan.

Uwase and his teammates are trying to give others the same opportunity. All are coaching other cyclists, passing down their equipment and Boyer's training tips.

Innocent Sibomana, 19, now has Uwase's old Eddy Merckx bike and high hopes. He's gunning for a place on the national team with his coach.

"I never thought the sport of cycling would go anywhere," Sibomana said. "Now everybody is interested in it."

That includes Joseph Habineza, Rwanda's minister of youth, sports and culture, who is budgeting money to support Team Rwanda next year.

And he wants to see them at the 2012 Olympics.

"We want people to see that we've changed," he said, "that we're not just killing each other anymore. Sports can really help us recover our image."

Encouraged by Cooper and Ritchey, Habineza hopes to build tourism around biking, marketing the country to both leisure cyclists and competitors. There is even talk of building an Olympic training center, to serve both Rwandans and visiting teams.

Ritchey, whose Wooden Bike Classic annual event draws competitors from several countries, this year also arranged for South African cyclists to tour the country, led by Uwimana.

"That's going to multiply itself," Ritchey said. "Rwanda is a little gem of a cycling world experience. It's small and hilly, which cyclists love. In just about 10 days, you can see just about everything."

Ritchey also wants to develop bike manufacturing in Rwanda so the country no longer has to rely on cheaply made, overpriced imports.

Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are continuing to build Team Rwanda.

Cooper is trying to recruit corporate sponsors to sustain the team over time.

As for Boyer, is already on the lookout for new blood.

"There's a huge bank of talent in this country that is still untapped," he said. "There might be a thousand cyclists even better than the ones we have."

Contact Jennifer Moroz at jmoroz@phillynews.com.