Every time Chris Froome glanced at the sticker of the Kenyan national flag shield on his bike as he tore through the last part of the 21-stage, 3,500 km Tour de France, he relived his childhood and the difficulties he went through to win world cycling’s most coveted title.
The flag reminded him of his roots, the humble beginning of the new winner of the 100th edition of the 2013 Tour de France.
It reminded him of a country that will forever have a special place in his heart. And that is not his adopted country of Britain, France where he currently resides or South Africa where he honed his cycling career but Kenya, a country that is famed for its long distance running prowess.
The 28-year-old Froome, who won bronze at the 2007 All African Games for Kenya, became Britain’s second consecutive Tour de France champion after Bradley Wiggins last year when he won the prestigious race on July 21 in France.
“I had my mechanics put the Kenyan flag shield sticker on my bike. Whenever I looked at it, it reminded me of my roots. I wouldn’t say I feel a Kenyan inside but I feel Kenya has a special place in my heart,” said Froome, who represented Kenya at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and four years later for Britain at the Delhi Games.
The whole scenario reminded Froome of his childhood friend and cycling mentor David Kinja, who literary dragged him back on course when I was almost giving up while still a teenager and raw in cycling. He later dumped mountain bike racing to represent Kenya at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
It doesn’t sound like the best moments but Froome remembered at one time when coming to the end of a 200km training session with Kinjah in Ngong. It was the last 30km and Froome was absolutely finished and out of gas.
“I couldn’t keep up with Kinja but he would amazingly smile and laugh at me saying ‘Froome just keep going you are only 30kms away. You can’t eat a whole sheep and then fail to finish its tail. You can’t stop now…keep going’. That is something I will always remember,” said Froome, who describes Kinja as a persistent person who is difficult to spend only a few hours with and leave not feeling inspired or wanting to get on a bike and start riding.
“For me as a young teenager that was the highlight and I thank God for having met Kinja. Going and staying with Kinja and just to enjoy being on the bike with him while in training are the moments I will forever treasure,” said Froome.
STAGE NINE TOUGH TO TACKLE
Froome, who signed for British Cycling team, Team Sky in 2010, said there is a particular stage nine during the 2012 Tour de France which was difficult yet he found himself isolated from his Team Sky colleagues.
“I was alone in a big group of our rivals but I was quite fortunate to go through the stage not losing major time to my rivals. That is when I remember what Kinja used to tell me. It was quite inspiration and I had to pull through without any fear,” said Froome.
Froome said it’s fulfilling and inspiring seeing Kinja still working with youngsters in a similar manner many years later.
“That is the main reason why I decided that Kenya will be my first destination after we broke for holiday three weeks ago,” said Froome, who was accompanied by his fiancée Michelle Cound.
Froome said it has been busy for him taking part in other competitions even after winning Tour de France.
“But I felt this was the perfect time being back in Kenya to see my mentor Kinja, who just picked on me saying Chris Let’s go ride. It was a real honour riding with Kinja as the captain of the Kenya team,” Froome explained.
“That is why I was split between flying Kinja or my fiancée who was in South Africa for the Tour de France. Matters of the heart are dear hence my fiancée won but that is why I am here for Kinjah and Kenyan cycling.”
Just like Kinja gave him hope to soldier on, Froome said he is back in the country to give budding cyclists hope for the future and good lifestyle just like Kinja did despite the challenges they face in life.
Upon touching down in the country two weeks ago, Froome proceeded to Kikuyu to visit Kinja’s Safari Simbaz Cycling Club where his cycling career started back in 1999.
He later visited Kenya Riders Club in Eldoret that was started by Nicholas Lyong from Singapore before proceeding for holiday in Diani where his family also lives.
“It was so emotional meeting Kinja ….the first word I heard from him is that Yes you did it man!” said Froome.
CHRIS FROOME FOUNDATION
Froome is already thinking of establishing a Chris Froome Foundation in the next 18 months to start collecting funds to grow the sport of cycling in the country and the region.
“It’s still early days to say at the moment but I want to set up the right structures that will come up with an entity that will be independent from local federation to raise funds and source for equipment for cycling clubs in the country,” said Froome.
“I would like to see a project in Kenya that will produce nicely groomed riders.”
Froome said Kenya boast of natural ability going by the way local athletes have dominated in long distances race yet cycling is struggling.
Froome knows that there are impediments that are curtailing the development of cycling in the country and part of him coming back is to see if and how he can try help out on the development of cycling in Kenya.
Taking a swipe at Kenya Cycling Association, Froome said he finds it absolutely sad and disappointing that someone has been in power for almost 30 years yet he has nothing to show.
“Any cyclist you speak to will tell you about a story of his frustration with KCA top officials and how they stopped them from developing,” Froome said. “These are some of the things that will have to change in Kenya for cycling to develop.”
Froome said even though he habours no hard feelings towards KCA chairman Julius Mwangi and things about the past, they never treated him well as a rider.
“It made sense to me that time I grew up in Kenya that I should ride as a Kenyan but after frustration I started to explore ways of seeking a license from Britain after KCA declined to give me one,” said Froome adding that he really wanted to advance especially when he moved to South Africa to further his education but the conditions in Kenya couldn’t allow since KCA were reluctant to facilitate the logistics for easy travelling.
“They refused to give me a license hence the reasons I went looking for a British License,” said Froome, who was born on May 20, 1985 in Nairobi, to Kenyan-born mother Jane and father Clive, a former hockey player who represented England at under-19 level.
Froome dedicated his Tour de France victory to his mother, who succumbed to cancer five weeks before his Tour debut in 2008.
Froome said moving to South Africa exposed him as it is virtually impossible for any cyclists in Kenya to go straight to pro tour scene in Europe owing to the lack of support infrastructure.
“Cycling is a challenge in Africa as the infrastructure is not the same as Europe. The roads in Kenya are quite dangerous especially in Kenya and finding a good location to train is tricky,” said Froome adding that the continent needs a cycling structure that will allow the game to infiltrate to the youngsters.
“Equipment are expensive hence the need of governments to waive taxes to allow youngsters to access quality bikes.
Froome intends to wed his fiancée Welsh Michelle Cound towards the end of next season and is still debating on whether to hold it in Kenya, Monaco, France or South Africa.“If I am to wed elsewhere then Kenya will definitely be my honeymoon destination,” said Froome.
But before there is another Tour de France race. It is of course the ultimate event, the most sought after victory of all the cycling tours. It has the largest following than the World Championships. The only thing that comes closer to Tour de France is the Olympics.
That is why Froome is eager to defend his title next year. “I have to prepare myself the best way possible to try and challenge for the title gain next year,” said Froome, who predicted an extremely difficult race especially after winning it once.
“Lot of people are looking at me as the favourite and the man to beat and it’s going to be really hard but if I have the kind of preparation I had before this year then I am confident I will do it with the support of my Team Sky.”
With the Tour de France victory, Froome definitely made many friends and foes alike as his life took a different turn. “Life has become more busy and it’s like there is always a function, something to attend to or a camera trailing me wherever I go,” Froome said.
“It’s teaching me now how to learn how to manage myself better especially with the heightened doping cases in sports.”
Froome said despite the celebrations, it was difficult for him savour it all when people started associating his victory with doping. The soft-spoken Froome said it hit home quite hard but it’s something he expected coming after the disgraceful fall of Lance Amstrong, who was stripped off his Tour de France titles for doping. He knew whoever was wearing yellow jersey in Frances would be questioned about it.
“My mind jogged back to when my mother brought me to a race that Kinja had organized and how we really hard to get to ride the tour of our lives only for people to turn around and say but you are doping,” Froome said. “People asked lots of questions about it but I came to accept it because of the past and I knew in the future that journalists will give me tough time on that.”
Armstrong, an American former professional road racing cyclist, won the Tour de France a record seven times in consecutive years between 1999 and 2005 but was stripped off and banned from competing for life for doping offences by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in 2012.
Commenting on the latest revelation my Amstrong that he aided UCI on doping program in 1999, Froome said : “It’s scary but I hope its not true but I believe Amstrong is one guy who did it in his era and personally it will be good to know what exactly happened that time so that we can put it behind us once and for all and focus on the better aspect of the sport.
"We need to focus on the younger riders who are talented so that people can stop lingering on the past and focus on current day cycling.”