Out of Africa
Harare – It might have taken 100 years but the Tour de France has its first winner, born in Africa, and it has sparked celebrations in Kenya, where he was born, and South Africa, where he fine-tuned his skills.
Chris Froome might have cycled, triumphantly, into Paris on July 21, to a wave of Union Jack flags, as the winner of the 100th edition of the Tour de France, but this was by no means just a mere British success story.
Froome was so African, just seven years ago, he represented Kenya at the World Championships in Salzburg, Austria.
This was a triumph that had its roots in the highlands of Kenya, from where men and women have emerged to dominate the world in distance running, as much as it was for those people in South Africa, at Team Barloworld, who showed him how it was done all those years back.
And, as much as this was a success story for Team Sky, who provided their second straight winner of the Tour de France, it was also a tale of triumph for David Kinjah, the 42-year-old Kenyan cyclist who taught Froome how to ride a bike.
When Froome’s Kenyan-born mother, Jane, took her 12-year-old son, still in primary school at Banda in Nairobi, to Kinjah 17 years ago, he wanted the experienced cyclist to teach her boy how to ride a bike and also stay safe in those highlands.
“He was an energetic boy with a little BMX and he was just bike mad,” Kinjah, who coaches a group of young riders called the 'Safari Simbaz', told Sky News.
“He got a lot of strange looks from people being the only white kid in the village, it was unusual. But he quickly learned to speak Swahili and some of our regional language Kikuyu and he was completely comfortable.
“The best language he spoke was the language of the bicycle. That was all he was interested in.
“I always thought that my training would be too hard for him, but he never flinched, never complained. Chris knew what he wanted and he worked hard to get there.
“But back then you could never have predicted that he would go on to top the world of cycling. It was always cycling, cycling, cycling with us but we had such fun together.
“At 3pm every day we stop what we are doing and we watch the Tour. We're very proud of Chris. He hasn't changed one bit. He's not the kind of guy to walk on people's heads, he respects everybody. He never stops working hard, that's why he is where he is today.”
Given that Froome has virtually sky-rocketed from nowhere to number one in the sport, questions have inevitably been asked if this is all a result of his phenomenal talent, and a bit if hard work, or – as if often the case in the Tour de France – another sad story of someone being propelled by drugs.
It’s virtually impossible for the Tour de France now to avoid questions related to drugs and their use by those who try to cut corners and get a head-start to win the greatest cycling race in the world.
The Lance Armstrong fall-out, after the American won seven Tour de France titles in what was hailed around the world as a remarkable success story for a man who beat cancer, only to be unmasked as a drugs cheat, means that controversy is never far away.
The drugs story keeps stalking Froome and even Kinjah concedes that he is now tired of having to answer the same question again and again.
“People should not judge a book by the cover. They don't know Chris Froome and they don't know where he has come from and where he has been,” he said.
“He wants to win seven Tours so he can delete the Lance Armstrong wins and put them all back clean. That's what he wants to do.”
Foome said on Sunday, after his triumphant ride into Paris, that it was inevitable that he has to face questions about whether or not he was doping but all he could do was pass the tests.
One thing was missing, though, as the boy from Kenya finally won the race that matters the most in his sport – the presence of his mother Jane who, 17 years ago, took him to see a professional cyclist for the first time.
Jane Fooome, who like her son was also born in Kenya, died in 2008, just two weeks before Chris got the call that he would be riding for a team in the Tour de France.
“I flew back for the funeral and the ceremony with the family back in Kenya only to get a call 10 days before the Tour saying, ‘Chris we’re putting you in the Tour team,’” Froome told journalists.
“In a way, I couldn’t think of anything worse than trying to get ready for the Tour. But it did kick start me back into the swing of things and forced me back into seeing that life goes on; that this is part of life.
“But ever since then, she’s been a huge inspiration to me, a huge motivation for me to become as successful as I can on the bike.
“I’d like to dedicate this win to my mother. Without her encouragement to follow my dreams I would probably be at home watching this event on the TV.
‘It’s a great shame she never got to come and see the Tour. But I’m sure she would be extremely proud if she was here tonight.”
‘Finally I’d like to thank my close friends and family, who have been there for me every step of the way — especially my fiancee Michelle. This is a beautiful country, with the finest annual sporting event on the planet.
‘To win the 100th edition is an honour beyond any I’ve dreamed. This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.’
Froome now lives in the millionaire tax haven of Monaco, a different world from the highlands of Kenya where he began his love with the bike, and on the other side of the world from Johannesburg, which became his adopted city when he came to South Africa, as a 14-year-old for his secondary school and University studies.
He studied economics for two years, at the University of Johannesburg, before realizing that his dream, and his future, lay in riding his bike and doing things in a way that would make him a world champion.
Monocot, Johannesburg, Nairobi, all these are places that he calls home, but – just to show that this was a Tour de France won by an African rider in the colours of Britain, it’s in Kenya where he really feels at home.
“‘When I return to any of these places it feels like home in a way,” he told reporters on Saturday, as it became inevitable that his ride into Paris would now be a victory procession the following day.
“But one thing that really does make me smile is when I go back to Kenya.
“Even going through customs control, they grin with their big smiles, and that always makes me really happy.”
No doubt about it, he made a lot of Kenyans very happy.