Posted on January 16, 2009

One Man’s Quest to Find First Black Winner of the Tour De France

Xan Rice, Guardian (Manchester), January 16, 2009

There were carpenters and mechanics, bicycle taxi operators and farmers. Some wore leather shoes, others battered trainers. One man wore scuba diving boots made from wetsuit material. Much of the lycra on show began life hugging torsos on other continents.

There were, however, some constants among the 40 or so Kenyans lined up at the bottom of a valley in the distance-running capital of the world–a lack of helmets, pure glucose powder as the energy booster of choice, furrowed brows when gazing at the course ahead: 15.5 miles, gaining 1,500 metres in altitude. And, of course, the bicycles: big, solid, Indian or Chinese-made roadsters with no gears and names like Phoenix and Five Star. “My bicycle is so heavy, about 15 kilogrammes,” said Samuel Wanjala, who rode nearly 100 miles just to get to the race in Iten, western Kenya. A proper racing bike would help if he were to “meet with Lance Armstrong . . . and put him aside”.

He was joking but that is exactly what the organiser of the race, Nicholas Leong, hopes will happen in the next few years. A 40-year-old commercial photographer from Singapore, Leong has already invested nearly three years and tens of thousands of pounds of his own money in his quest to prove Kenyans can transfer their running success into the almost exclusively white world of professional cycling.

“In 106 years of the Tour de France there has never been a single black rider,” said Leong, at the start line in Iten last weekend. “I am trying to help change that.”

The search for a “black Lance Armstrong” in a country with precious little cycling history might at first seem outlandish–but Leong is deadly serious about his African Cyclist project.

He took two Kenyan amateur riders from the town of Eldoret, 20 miles from Iten, to tackle the famous Tour de France climb at Alpe d’Huez in August last year. Zakayo Nderi, a 26-year-old shoe-shiner who had never ridden a racing bike with gears before leaving Kenya to train for the ride, made it in 42 minutes 10 seconds, then the fastest time of the year and an achievement that would have placed him in the top half of Tour riders when a time trial was last held on the mountain in 2004. Publicity about the feat helped to secure sponsorship from a French hedge fund manager, enabling Leong this week to open a full-time training camp for up to 10 riders near Eldoret, along the lines of numerous high-altitude running camps in the area. Negotiations are starting on hiring a professional trainer from abroad.

Last Sunday’s race, the first in a series to be held every two months, was designed to identify new riders to join Leong’s team. The participants are promised a monthly salary of more than £200–excellent money in these parts.

The start line had been chalked across the road, and there were no water points despite the heat. Repair kits were rare; one man taped a screwdriver behind his seat while the rider who discovered before the race that his rear tyre was flat simply accepted his ride would be very tough. “This is like the earliest days of cycling in Europe,” said Leong, before climbing aboard a pickup serving as the lead car. “The bikes, the people, the spirit!” Though he never cycled competitively, Leong has followed the Tour on television since his childhood. In other sports he watched black players became ever more common during the 1980s and 90s. But the Tour has remained resolutely white, a fact that Leong says is solely down to lack of opportunity.

He wrote to a dozen professional cycling teams urging them to seek out African talent. Only one replied, with a “sympathetic no”. So Leong decided to test his theory himself.

He avoided seeking professional advice. “People would have thought I was a kook,” he said. But had he done so he might have been discouraged.

Tim Noakes, a renowned professor of sports science and exercise, at the University of Cape Town, said that while marathon runners and cyclists often shared outward physical characteristics, the processes involved in running and cycling were completely different. But Leong persevered. After six months of searching for a promising rider to support he stumbled across Nderi, from the Kikuyu tribe, who had run competitively at school but enjoyed riding more. Samwel Mwangi, 24 and also Kikuyu, who packed supermarket shelves and rode a “boda-boda” bicycle taxi, soon joined Leong’s team, along with a third rider, Sammy Ekiru, a Turkana. When news got around town that they had been put on contracts, people’s attitudes to cycling began to change.

“Before when we used to train for fun people would say ‘Have you not got work to do?’,” Nderi said. “Now people see they can earn money from this and want to be cyclists too.”

Leong’s three riders took the podium positions in Sunday’s race, but not before a complete unknown had threatened a grand upset. Ishmael Chelanga, 23, the man who wore diving boots, finished a close fourth. His bicycle cost him about £30. He said he was a boda-boda operator in Eldoret, and had only been cycling for leisure for five months. What’s more, he was a Kalenjin who had run competitively at school.

Though Leong could barely contain his excitement, he did not give a contract to Chelanga, whose £80 prize was more than he earns most months. To be sure Chelanga was serious about cycling, he asked him to come back for the next race. “I’ll be stronger,” said Chelanga. Then he rode home.

Can they do it?

Dan Hunt, coach to Rebecca Romero, Olympic gold medallist in cycling and silver medallist in rowing:

“Off the back of what Rebecca Romero has done there has been a lot of talk about talent transfer, but the athletes you are looking for need a very specific set of skills and physiological qualities. The more complex the task, the harder it is to transfer from another sport because the skills and learning required are simply too much.

The Kenyans are physically very gifted but I’m not sure which box they would fit into in cycling. There are question marks over how they might adapt. Men’s road cycling has a massive pool of talent worldwide and you need more than just a big engine and a strong pair of legs.

Trying to teach an 18- to 25-year-old runner the tactical ins and outs of road racing would be difficult, the bike handling would be a question mark, and the repeated ebb and flow of pace in a road race might be hard to handle. It’s not like an endurance run.”