When Chris Froome crossed the finish line in Paris last night he ticked off the final kilometre of a remarkable journey from the mountains of Kenya to Tour de France glory on the Champs-Elysees.
British victories in the Tour suddenly resemble buses – you wait 99 Tours for the first one and then two come along at once – but the significance of Froome’s win will reach much further around the globe than that of Bradley Wiggins 12 months ago. Froome made sure of his victory with third place on Saturday’s stage 20 to Annecy-Semnoz, emerging with a lead still north of five minutes heading into today’s processional stage under the lights in Paris.
But the Tour had already looked won in the days before, with Froome a clear cut above his rivals throughout.
That it was a performance which lived up to his billing as the favourite made it no less remarkable for a man who has taken an unique path to the top step of the podium.
In the village just outside Nairobi where that journey began, his first coach David Kinjah was watching on with pride as Froome climbed the final kilometres to the summit of Annecy-Semnoz to write his name in history as the winner of the 100th Tour.
This was where Froome, the son of a former England hockey youth player, slept five to a room on the floor of Kinjah’s hut in between training rides through Ngong hills, a world away from the traditional cycling education.
“No doubt they’ll celebrate by going out for a long 200 kilometre ride, attacking each other the way they always do,” Froome said with a smile when asked how he imagined Kinjah and his current crop of students marking his victory. In fact, Kinjah was out on a more leisurely ride yesterday morning, but one in which anyone was welcome to join in as long as they turned up wearing yellow.
This is exactly the sort of thing Froome wants to see.
“I’d like my performance this year to inspire youngsters who find it very hard to believe they can get out of Africa and get to Europe and make it in a professional peloton,” he said.
Froome made his Tour debut in 2008, finishing 84th for the Barloworld team. He would not return until 2012, but by then he was part of Team Sky’s attempt to crown a first British winner, finishing second overall as he helped Wiggins to victory.
By then, he knew his own time was coming.
“I think the first time I thought I could realistically contend in a Grand Tour like the Tour de France was the 2011 Vuelta a Espana,” Froome said of a race in which he finished second, ahead of Wiggins. “Until then I’d found it very difficult to perform consistently highly in the stage races.But my performance there gave me a lot of confidence and belief.”
By then, the reason for much of Froome’s early inconsistency had been discovered with a diagnosis of bilharzia, a debilitating tropical disease he had contracted while playing in Kenya’s rice paddies as a boy.
“One small cold could stop me training and I’d get stuck in a cycle,” Froome recalled. “It was really hard to find motivation but that’s where having a support structure around you, friends and family, lifts you and helps you see the bigger picture.”
At the age of 28, he surely has more years like this in him and, worryingly for rivals already left in his wake, Froome believes he can still get better.
“I got into the sport late and I’ve only been a professional for five years,” he said.
“This is my sixth year and it’s been a really, really fast progression. I’ve learned so much, but I refuse to accept I don’t still have improvements to make.”
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