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Chris Froome: from Nairobi to the Champs-Elysées

AFP

This year’s Tour de France winner Chris Froome has taken a long and improbable path to cycling glory, that has seen him go from riding mountain bikes in the hills of Nairobi to being on the cusp of claiming the sport’s greatest prize.

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After 20 long and often gruelling stages, Sunday evening saw a yellow-clad Chris Froome ride the final 133.5 kilometres from Versailles to Paris’s famed Champs-Elysées to become the second Brit in succession to claim victory in the Tour de France.

But while the final stage of the Tour is normally little more than a gentle procession for the "maillot jaune" (yellow jersey), for Froome it seemed like the final leg of an unlikely journey that started out a world away in the streets of Nairobi.

Born in the Kenyan capital in 1985, it was here that as a young boy Froome first developed an interest in bikes, though at the time it was of the mountain variety.

Safari Simbaz

He started out riding with a local group called the Safari Simbaz (the Travelling Lions in local Swahili) founded by ten-time Kenyan cycling champion David Kinjah, whom Froome credits for “igniting [his] passion for cycling”.

Unlike most of Great Britain’s current crop of riders, Froome did not benefit from the UK’s first-rate training programmes and facilities from a young age. But under Kinjah’s guidance, this proved to be of little hindrance to his development.

"Kinjah helped me see you didn't need the best bike or perfect conditions," Froome told Britain's Guardian newspaper in January.

"You can just get on a bike and go – no matter where you are."

Riding the rural roads in the hills around Nairobi – one of the world's highest capitals at 1,795m above sea level – no doubt helped Froome acquire the kind of stamina and determination that saw him triumph on the slopes of Mont Ventoux earlier this month.

From mountain bikes to road racing

But it was not until he moved to South Africa to attend boarding school at the age of 14 that Froome began to develop an interest in road cycling. It would take another three years before he even caught sight of the Tour de France, watching Lance Armstrong and Italy's Ivan Basso battling it out in the French Alps on television in Johannesburg.

“I was 17 and I was fixed on it. I was in awe of the ambiance of the crowd and the mountains. I had that 'Wow, I'd love to do that one day' feeling,” he said in the Guardian interview.

He eventually turned professional in 2007 at the comparatively advanced age of 22, starting out with the South African Konica Minolta cycling team, before joining Team Barloworld a year later and racing in the Tour de France for the first time in 2008.

If Froome’s path to professional cycling had seemed like an uphill struggle, something akin to one of the Tour’s more challenging mountain stages, the next few years would prove more like a sprint finish as he headed towards the summit of road cycling.

Up until the 2007 world cycling championships, Froome had raced under the Kenyan flag.

But with a British-born father and grandparents, Froome had always considered himself more of a Brit than a Kenyan and his performances early on in his professional career attracted the attention of Great Britain cycling coach Rod Ellingworth, who invited Froome to race for Britain in 2008.

“Although I was riding under the Kenyan flag I made it clear that I had always carried a British passport and felt British,” Froome told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper in July 2012.

Breakthrough

He joined British team Sky for the 2010 season and made his breakthrough a year later, finishing second overall in the 2011 Vuelta a España – all the while suffering, it later emerged, from the effects of a debilitating tropical disease.

It was the 2012 Tour de France, however, that marked him out as a potential future winner in cycling’s most prestigious competition.

His performances were seen as vital to Wiggins’ eventual victory and there was even a suggestion that he may already have been the stronger rider, particularly when, on stage 11 from Albertville to La Toussuire, Froome made a breakaway from Wiggins near the finish before being told to back down by team bosses.

This led to debate before the 2013 Tour as to who exactly would lead Team Sky, with both Wiggins and Froome both staking their claims.

But when Wiggins withdrew with a knee injury, the stage was set for Froome, and on Sunday evening, the man who started out riding mountain bikes on the hills of Nairobi completed his journey to the pinnacle of the cycling world.

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