NAIROBI, Kenya — Two cyclists with African roots are making history in this year’s Tour de France, giving the continent’s cycling enthusiasts something to cheer for as the tour ends Sunday.
South African competitor Daryl Impey was the first African to wear the coveted race leader’s yellow jersey during one of the early stages.
Now, as the tour enters its final day, Chris Froome, a 28-year-old Kenyan-born British rider, is the favorite to win the grueling 2,115-mile, 23-day race.
“Froome’s performance is an inspiration,” said Jock Boyer, the American coach of Rwanda’s first professional cycling team, Team Rwanda. “And Darryl Impey wearing the yellow jersey as a South African definitely was a big deal” for Africa.
Froome, 28, was born in Kenya but trained in South Africa — and he races for Britain’s Team Sky. But there are hopes his success will give a boost to professional cycling in Africa, where a growing consortium of race organizers face funding shortages, poor equipment and a lack of training.
“The talent is here but we’ve got to be patient,” Boyer said. “Funding is a challenge … starting with just decent tires is huge — and bikes that are not way too old.”
It was a far cry from the slick, moneyed event that is the Tour de France. But the “Tour de Congo” marked the continent’s most recent cycling competition, held for the first time in June in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The last big sporting event the DRC hosted was Muhammad Ali and George Forman’s 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight boxing match.
Despite the reported $1 million investment the event was somewhat chaotic with late starts, poor food, stray dogs and potholed roads all taking their toll.
Boyer's team from Rwanda dominated the 600-mile, 12-day competition that drew dozens of riders from across Africa and even from France.
“They were kind of winging it,” Boyer said of the organizers.
In Kenya, Froome’s performance has so far put him minutes ahead of his closest rivals after some particularly impressive performances in the tough uphill alpine stages and is generating enthusiasm among young cyclists.
Renowned Kenyan cyclist, 41-year-old David Kinjah, was Froome’s mentor since his early days — introducing Froome to cycling when he was just 11 years old. The young Froome was an eager fan and Kinjah — then as now — was Kenya's most famous professional cyclist.
Kinjah still lives in the same simple home in the village of Mai-ai-hii outside Nairobi where Froome, a skinny white kid and disciple of Kinjah’s hard-charging, style of cycling, came to learn to ride.
“He wasn’t anything special, just a normal crazy boy. We weren’t training for the Tour de France!” Kinjah said of Froome.
But “Chris was always a determined young kid. He refused to stop and go home. He always wanted to do the long rides.”
Today, Kinjah manages the Safari Simbaz youth cycling team, which competes in national and regional competitions.
Among the 10 teenagers who currently eat, sleep and ride bikes at Kinjah’s training camp is lanky-legged 15-year-old, Raymond Muchiri, who, like Froome, found his way to Kinjah's doorstep as an 11-year-old fan.
Kinjah recently paid $600 to install a satellite dish so he and the boys could watch the Tour de France live in between training sessions.
“I had seen Kinjah on TV and I wanted to be a cyclist like him,” Muchiri said. “I want to be a professional.”