PARIS (Reuters) - As softly-spoken off the bike as he is brutal on his machine, Chris Froome completed a long journey out of Africa to claim his maiden Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
As much as kids from Kilburn, London, are not supposed to win the Tour, as 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins would say, kids from Kenya are not supposed to prevail on the French roads either.
“I’d like my performances here to help inspire a lot of youngsters, especially young Africans. They have to believe they can get out of Africa to make it to European teams,” the 28-year-old Froome said.
This is exactly what Froome, born in Kenya of British descent and schooled in South Africa, did.
He started riding at 17 with local cycling coach David Kinjah in the highlands of Nairobi and in 2006, took part in the Under-23 world championships representing Kenya.
It was hardly an auspicious beginning - crashing into a policeman on the first bend of the time trial event.
Froome joined the Barloworld team in 2008 and rode his first Tour de France, finishing 84th and with little hope of one day winning the world’s greatest cycling race.
“The first time that I thought that ‘ok, realistically I could become a GC (general classification) rider to contend in grand Tours was during the 2011 Vuelta,” said Froome, who joined the well-oiled Team Sky in 2010.
“Up until then I was finding it difficult to keep my performances high for three weeks. The Vuelta 2011 gave me the confidence that I do belong to the group of riders who belong in front of the general classification.”
Froome, first described by Sky principal Dave Brailsford as “a rough diamond, in need of shaping and polishing”, worked for team leader Wiggins at the Vuelta in 2011 and still managed to finish ahead of him.
“When I very first joined Team Sky they asked me what my aspirations were,” said Froome.
“I set goals. Short, long-term goals. Being able to target the Tour was one of the long-term goals.
“I work pretty well within Team Sky’s system. I’m independent but I also enjoy structure, routine, that’s what team Sky is about. They offer a structure for the riders. They have everything planned.”
Froome, the first man since Eddy Merckx in 1970 to win at top of the iconic Mont Ventoux with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, was made to wait as he matured as a rider in the shadow of Wiggins, who last year became the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
Behind him was Froome, who expressed frustration in the mountains, where he seemed able to beat his leader. But team orders are team orders, and Froome reluctantly obeyed.
With no Wiggins this year, the Briton absent as he recovers from illness and injury, Froome quickly set about making his mark.
On the first summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines in the Pyrenees, Froome soloed to victory in awe-inspiring fashion and never surrendered the yellow jersey, despite suffering in the queen stage to l’Alpe d’Huez.
“The worst moment was on l’Alpe d’Huez when I could feel I was completely flat on energy and it’s a horrible feeling,” he said.
“When you have no more fuel left in your body and you see the sign 5 kilometers to go and you know it’s uphill, it’s something tough to get through mentally but thankfully I had (team mate) Richie Porte with me.”
Froome is eager for more glory.
“Personally I think the Tour de France has to be the pinnacle of our cycling calendar, it’s the most sought-after victory,” he said.
“Having said that the decision would be very much based on the parcours, on how suited it is to me, to my other team mates. But I’d love to come back targeting the tour every year.”
A fantastic climber and an excellent time trialist, Froome will most likely be pleased with the route of the 2014 Tour, which will start from Leeds.
“It has been a fast progression for me. I’ve learnt so much but I still have improvements to make in my climbing, my time trialing, my descending,” he said.
“But I can’t tell you what the future holds. I have been a pro for five years only.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Justin Palmer