Johannesburg – Should Chris Froome of Team Sky win the 100th Tour de France this year, he should be feted with a parade down one of the most famous streets in the world. A ticker-tape parade along Fourth Avenue in Parkhurst may not be the Champs Elysees, and the Jolly Roger pub not quite the Arc de Triomphe, but there are less cobbles and it would be no less than the suburb’s fittest and famous resident – Jenny Cryws-Williams aside – would deserve.
Around midnight on July 27, 2008 I stood at the Arc de Triomphe and shook Froome’s hand at the end of the Tour de France. Five years later Froome would be the favourite to have the Arc as a backdrop for his moment of triumph. I bade Froome, the Kenyan-born-Brit raised in South Africa, and John Lee Augustyn, the South African who had been the youngest rider in that year’s Tour at the age of 21, a good night as they headed out to celebrate finishing their first Tour.
The two were not dressed for a night on the town. They were in their Team Barloworld tracksuit pants and T-shirts as the suitcases with their normal clothes were on the team bus. They looked tired, but the night was young and at 23, so was Froome. Four years later he would be on the Champs Elysees having finished second in the Tour de France behind his Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins. A year down the line and Froome is no longer a super domestique, but a team leader. Standing at the Arc de Triomphe that night, did he have any inkling of how things would change in four years?
“Honestly, no!” said Froome. “That Tour was a harsh reality check for me. There were times I thought I may never get to the top of the sport and may have to reconsider my ambitions and settle for something a little more achievable.”
To finish the tour was a wonderful achievement for a man in his first season as a true professional in Europe.
He had only turned professional at the age of 22, with Robert Hunter, the South African rider, convincing the team management to sign Froome.
That first year was a baptism of fire for him and Augustyn at the Tour as the team was ripped apart by a positive doping test returned by Moises Duenas and four other riders abandoning the race. Eventually there were just four at the end. But he soldiered on, the team desperately seeking some small success from the final stages. He was 16th on the final time trial, 84th overall and 11th in the young riders competition.
“The main goal for me in that Tour was to get to the finish and especially under those circumstances. I couldn’t have been more relieved to finish on the Champs Elysees,” said Froome. “Most of the stages towards the end were mostly survival for me at that point, but I had been quietly looking forward to the long final time-trial. Finishing 16th there as a neo-pro did give me confidence for the future.”
Froome’s mother had died five weeks before the 2008 Tour de France. “It was a difficult time for me but her memory definitely carried me through those tough stages. She always encouraged me to pursue a career in doing something that I loved, A key moment was when she took me to my first organised bike race where I met David Kinjah who became my mentor and training partner back in Kenya. Kinjah was always a role model to me and a great example as to how anyone can ride a bike at a high level, regardless of support and funding.”
Kinjah still races in Kenya at the age of 40. His favourite claim is “Froome never beat me”. Froome began riding with him at the age of 12, as part of the Safari Simbaz, the cycling club. Froome lived in Nairobi with his mother, Jane, in a one-bedroom flat, and would often stay with Kinjah. Froome moved to Johannesburg to be with his father when he was 14 and went to St John’s College in Houghton
“It wasn’t easy trying to juggle school sports, cycling and academics but I was grateful to at least be allowed to leave the boarding house to train out on the roads,” said Froome. “When I’d go home on the weekends I’d often use the M1/N1 highway back to Midrand as it was the most direct road. The traffic would usually be at a standstill on a Friday afternoon so I didn’t see it as being too dangerous. The metro police weren’t impressed and chased me off several times. I trained with Matt Beckett, who was at school with me, and others. My hero was Ivan Basso, the underdog against Lance (Armstrong), but I stopped supporting him when he went positive. In South Africa I looked up to the Barloworld pros as a teenager.”
Froome, who lives in Monaco during the cycling season, bought a house in Parkhurst a few years ago and shares it with his fiancé, Michelle Cound.
He returns to Johannesburg every year to train at altitude and catch up with friends.
“Parkhurst is one of the few areas in Johannesburg where you can walk to the restaurants and coffee shops within a residential area, while at the same time being fairly central to the rest of Johannesburg. I enjoy the relaxed vibe there, perfect for switching off after a long, hard season.”
It would be the perfect place for a victory parade down Fourth Avenue, should Froome win the Tour. The owner of the Jolly Roger is a cyclist. Champers at the Jolly Roger sounds like a fine idea. – The Star