Kenya Riders dream of becoming first black African team at the famous Tour de France

Saturday March 14 2015

Kenya Riders team during a training session in Iten. PHOTO | NICHOLAS LEONG |

Kenya Riders team during a training session in Iten. PHOTO | NICHOLAS LEONG |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By VERAH OKEYO
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The black mamba bicycle may be the end to the clichéd narrative of ‘Africa is the next big thing’ in the cycling world.

If the number of wins that they have had on continental events is a pattern to predict the future, the nine-man team that is Kenya Riders may be the first black man team to compete in the famed Tour de France.

Kenya Riders’ founder, commercial Singaporean photographer Nicholas Leong told Sunday Nation Sport: “Professional cycling is a fairly obscure sport in Kenya but Kenya Riders is going to be the face of the new narrative that the world is looking for”.

Leong believes that Kenya Riders will restore the honour that has been lost in the cycling world after the doping scandals of Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich, all cycling heroes.

This dream, Leong says, will be realised because Kenya Riders are made up of men who ride purely for pleasure, not competition.

A visit by Sunday Nation Sport to the team’s training camp in Iten, the home to many of Kenya’s globally acclaimed athletes, found the Kenya Riders on a break but it is evident from the young men’s passionate activities in cold weather that the sport is being treated seriously.

Unlike in the west, where athletes are exposed to gear bikes and hobbies that involve navigating rugged terrains, all the members of Kenya Riders have is the daily milk delivery routine of cycling for long distances carrying more than 50 litres of milk.

In track cycling and the global governing body for the sport, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), Tour de France is ‘protour’, the third and highest level in professional cycling. Operating on an annual budget of US$400,000 (Sh36.5million) with less than 10 people as support team of coaches, a physiotherapist and mechanic, the team has managed to get a stellar resume in the continent and in the international cycling scene.

The money, given to the team by a French couple Mathieu and Marie Anne Vermersch for the last five years, is just enough to rent houses for each of the athletes and pay their monthly salaries that total Sh25,000.

There is no comparison between Kenya Riders’ budget and the more than $US 1 billion that teams in the west that compete in Tour de France command annually.

FOURTH AT HAUTE

Two years ago, cyclist John Njoroge — now deceased — finished fourth in the week-long Haute Route competition.

Haute Route, organised in the Alps in France, is considered the most laborious cycling competition in the world, as it requires the cyclists to cover over 65,000 vertical feet. It is used by most athletes to prepare for Tour de France.

Njoroge who used to deliver milk on a bicycle, died in an accident in the Philippines in August last year during a race. During that year’s Tour of Rwanda, Africa’s largest amateur cycling competition, Njoroge finished fourth, a mere two minutes behind South African professional cyclists.

Two other cyclists, Sammy Ekiru and Suleiman Kangangi, also have milk delivery history.

In 2011, two other members of Kenya Riders were 13th in the L’Etape du Tour, a competition that had more than 10,000 riders including those from countries that have the advantage of a long history of professional cycling culture and sponsorship.

All the aforementioned races, as Leong hopes, will prepare Kenya Riders for the Tour de France. Since inception 111 years ago, there has never been a black African team in Tour de France and it is that aspiration that has pushed Kenya Riders not to set their targets modestly.

However, Kenya has had a claim on the title when Chris Froome, who was born and raised here, won the title in 2013. So great is their resolve that the team drawn from milk vendors, farmers, shoe shiners and other manual jobs used by people who scored low on the economic scale, have received attention from The Guardian, The New York Times and other world acclaimed media houses.

A South African production house, Sinamatella, shot a documentary detailing their journey to recognition amidst a mountain of challenges. At the heart of this story is Nicholas Leong’.

When he was approaching his ‘actualisation’, Leong says he watched Kenyan marathon runners and figured if they were as good they must be able to cycle too. He resigned from his job, took all his savings totalling about Sh25 million and followed the winners all the way to Iten.

The reception was a deep contrast to what he expected. “Here bicycles are used for survival, the skills are completely ignored, and it was hard to convince people that money could be made out of it,” he recalls.

Then there was the knowledge gap that he had to put into consideration. “There are David Rudishas, and other marathon heroes but people who have never rode a bike with gears do not have anyone to look up to… they were very sceptical.

“There is a relative disadvantage in Kenya, because Kenya Riders are competing against a people that have been riding BMXs their entire life.”

However, undeterred Leong put up a billboard at the foot of a steep road and challenged the locals to climb the hill to the top using the black mamba and he would pay the winner Sh100,000.

In Iten, with a favourable training climate of 2,400 metres above sea level and with the winner of his little challenge, Leong set up the camp and began scouting for talent, his emphasis focused more on getting the young men to grow an interest in cycling as a sport.

In the formative years, Leong would shuttle between his home in Singapore and Kenya, spending his money earned from his photography business after all the sponsors he had approached ‘gently’ turned him down.

He would enroll the cyclists to continental and amateur races, their performance boosting their confidence and draining them closer to the ultimate Tour de France dream.

A year later, Leong got the team sponsors as well as company that supplied them with the necessary tools: the machines come from bike makers Polygon and apparel from Quickspeed.

Then there was meddlesome Kenya Cycling Federation.

There was a time the federation called them from Tanzania when they were training, asking them to just stay in the country, giving them no reason at all.

Although Leong is not keen on pointing fingers at the federation only saying that he ‘has figured out how to work with everyone’, something in his voice gives away his desire for more support from the federation.

Kenya Riders is the first generation of the sport, and Leong hopes the team will leave a culture that the next generations will build on to compete fairly with the rest of the world.