One year on from Kenyan-born Chris Froome’s Tour de France victory, we look at the impact his win has had on the cycling industry in southern Africa. By Lynette Eyb. (Originally written for AFKInsider).
Even before he crossed the line in Paris last July to become the first African-born cyclist to win the Tour de France, Chris Froome had pledged to ensure his success reverberated around the continent.
“I would like my performances here to help inspire and motivate a lot of youngsters, especially young Africans who find it very hard to believe that they can get out of Africa and get on to the European scene, or make it into a pro peloton,” he said during the 2013 Tour de France.
“My experiences are an example that if you really want to make something happen, you will find a way. You will make an opportunity yourself.”
Nairobi-born Froome was introduced to cycling in Kenya, before moving to South Africa, where he spent his formative years in Johannesburg, attending high school and, later, university.
He competed for Kenya at the 2007 All Africa Games before switching to ride for Britain, the country of his father’s birth.
After finding support at Team Sky – the bosom of British cycling – Froome’s career flourished.
He may have represented Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics and he may have won the world’s most prestigious cycling event for a British team, but in Kenya and South Africa, he is still very much seen as the local boy made good.
His success has sent rippled across southern Africa, where a new generation of cyclists is taking to two wheels.
Dave Bellairs, director of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust, which runs the annual Cape Town Argus Pick’n’Pay Momentum Cycle Tour – the largest timed cycling event in the world – says it’s an exciting time for the African bike industry.
Bellairs, who knows Froome personally, says the Tour de France win has led to a surge in leisure cycling in South Africa.
“I can only describe the effect Chris has had in one word and that’s ‘profound’,” he told AFKInsider. “Chris winning the yellow jersey has had a tremendous effect. Certainly we’ve seen this in road cycling – while it wasn’t necessarily waning it, it had reached a plateau, but since his win we’ve seen a renewed energy in the number of people who are taking to and riding on the roads.
“What is evident here in South Africa is that there are a lot of armchair riders who follow the Tour de France now as a result of the number of African riders who have achieved success at various levels – the likes of Chris Froome and also Daryl Impey, the first African rider to ever wear the yellow jersey.
“What we are seeing is a lot of these armchair riders are now getting up and participating, and I think that is down to an African doing well in the Tour de France.”
These thoughts are echoed by James Walsh, a filmmaker who has spent the last three years documenting the development of the Kenyan national cycling team (see the trailer below for a taste of James' excellent work).
“I think most Africans who know about Chris are proud of him and now have added interest in tuning into broadcasts of the big cycling races,” he says.
“Five years ago, the Tour de France would have been the only cycling-specific broadcast. Now we get the classics and many of the week-long races in the build up to the Giro (Tour of Italy) and the Tour de France broadcast on SuperSport, which is pan-African.”
Bellairs says it helps that Froome is a gentle, likeable man, someone he describes as the “perfect ambassador for the sport”, and the man least likely to forget his roots.
Walsh agrees, citing a post-Tour visit Froome made to Kenya. “He has been a huge role model for many African athletes,” he says. “He visited the subjects of our film, the Kenyan Riders,at their base in Iten last November during his off season and Sky produced a documentary on him.”
Walsh says that if Kenyan cycling can harness the talents of its riders the way athletics officials have nurtured the talents of middle and long-distance runners, then the future is bright for cycle sport on the continent.
“Africa has so much physiological potential when it comes to cycling,” he says. “If the continent can get access to quality instruction, equipment and world class racing, I think it has the potential to be a player on the international scene, which would obviously translate into success for the local bike industry.
“The Tour of Rwanda could be called Africa's Tour de France. We filmed in Kenya and then the Tour of Rwanda in November 2012, and nearly six million people turned out to watch the race come by during the eight-day event.
“We (now) have a pro-continental team, Team MTN-Qhubeka, the first such team to be based in Africa, competing at the best races in the world.”
That team – sponsored by Samsung and made up of riders from Eritrea, Rwanda, Algeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Lithuania, Spain, Germany and Italy – will make its Grand Tour debut at this year’s Vuelta (Tour of Spain). Its team ethos is based on the ambitions of Qhubeka, a community initiative that works to distribute bicycles to rural Africans to improve mobility.
“If Kenya and Africa can properly tap into Chris' success, then I think a huge racing culture could develop,” says Walsh. “More sponsors are entering the sport all the time – and more people are doing it recreationally.
“The sport of cycling is flourishing amongst the middle class in Africa – it's considered the new golf.”
'Cycling's the new golf'
It’s the same phrase Bellairs used when I spoke with him the day before. Bellairs is convinced that the emerging black middle and upper classes in South Africa hold the key to sustained growth in cycling.
“The problems we have in South Africa is that cycling traditionally has not been the desired mode of transport of the poor. When you look at the rest of Africa, the bicycle is the primary mode of transport because it’s cheap, where as in South Africa it’s perceived as the poor man’s mode of transport.
“That is changing, but one needs to first change the culture of cycling to make it an acceptable means of transport.
“In South Africa it’s the CEOs and chief operating officers and financial directors who are participating in the sport as a hobby – these are the people we term ‘healthy outdoor lifestyle individuals’.
“What we’re seeing is more of black executives riding bikes than playing golf. That’s huge because on the one hand you need sporting icons to hold up – and we have those in some of our young black riders who are coming through – but you also need a certain sector of the community to be seen to be cycling to make it seem cool. So when the black CEO of a multinational is seen riding his bike, suddenly it becomes acceptable.
“If you went into the townships in South Africa dressed in Lycra 15 years ago, they would have thought you were stark raving mad, but now you can go into townships wearing Lycra and you are cool, you are somebody to look up to.”
Bellairs says there is also a shift towards making the country’s cities and towns more cycle-friendly.
“What they’re doing now is starting to put infrastructure in that allows people from more rural areas to cycle safely into town,” he says.
“Cape Town is at the forefront of driving commuter cycling in that they’ve invested significantly in infrastructure for bicycles. Durban follows behind that but, in reality, here in South Africa we have other priorities – we have health as a priority, education as a priority.
“We don’t have the budgets for cycling that you see in Europe – we have some huge priorities that don’t revolve around white people riding bicycles.
“But as more and more of our black community moves into the middle and upper classes and these people are exposed to different sports and have more disposable income, then we’ll see this continue to change as cycling becomes more aspirational.
“Cycle sport isn’t like running – you can just buy a pair of shoes and go out for a trot. The barrier to entry is a lot higher with cycling – you need a bike and then the helmet and the shoes and then the clothes, so as a result it pitches itself at a certain section of the community, and that’s the section with higher disposable income.
“You’re looking at between 6 and 10,000 rand for an entry level, bottom of the range bike with kit and helmet. A reasonably top-end bike will set you back close to 100,000 rand.
“We know there are half a million bikes sold in South Africa every year, and that cuts across from rural areas with entry level bikes for farm labourers through to top-end hand-built Italian carbon fibre bikes. It’s big business.”
This potential is evident in the move into cycling by The Pro Shop owner MoreGolf.
In September last year, MoreGolf bought the country’s leading cycle retailer, Cycle Lab, along with a number of other cycling-related businesses. The golf and cycling businesses are now housed under the MoreCorp umbrella.
MoreGolf MD, Rhys Hughes, says the company plans to bring to the bike market the same dynamic approach that has seen it dominate the golf scene.
“We have achieved in excess of 30% growth over the last three years,” he says. “With the sport of cycling on such an impressive growth curve, there is definitely a gap in the market to provide a one-stop solution to enthusiasts at all levels, from recreational to professional.”
While road cycling might be riding a Tour de France-inspired wave, mountain biking in South Africa continues to boom.
World Cup and Marathon World Championship events this year showcased the country’s excellent off-road facilities and brought billions of rand into tourism coffers, particularly in KwaZulu Natal, where Pietermaritzburg enjoys a reputation as a cycling hub.
The province says it was expecting to reap a R79-million reward for its R24-million investment in cycling events over the last three years, plus a further R1.68-billion in terms of marketing exposure.
Bellairs, though, says cycling has the potential to generate much more than profit margins or tourism dollars.
His annual Argus event raises in the region of 10 million rand for (mostly) bike-based charity projects, however its ripple effect reaches further.
“We estimate that charities that buy entries from us will put three times that back into the community,” he says. “So we estimate that somewhere between 25 and 35 million rand over and above what we do is raised by the 120-odd charities that had an allotment of entries for this year’s cycle tour.
“Our ambition is to take that and turn it into 50 or 60 million rand. Then what you’re seeing is a massive double-edged sword: people riding bikes, which is keeping them fit and healthy, but it also results in a massive amount of good being done in communities.
“I think the Froome and Impey effect in the South African context is that it’s exposed more and more people to the sport of cycling.
“Where they’d usually be watching cricket and rugby they’re watching cycling and then they’re getting out there and participating – and that can only be good for Africa and for African cycling.”
I originally wrote this article for AFKInsider, an African business website.