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Vienna | 29.9.2008 | 13:08 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Pioneers of the Pedals
  A recent incident on the road of Alpe D'Huez might shake the world of cycling to its roots.

But this time it could be shaken for a positive reason: a dream was born of cycling as a more colourful and global sport.
A Road of Legends
  The climb up Alpe D'Huez is the Wimbledon Centre Court of cycling. The 14 kilometres up the French mountain has seen cycling legends written and rewritten.

Who can forget the piratical Marco Pantani's various charges up the 21 harrowingly steep hairpin bends in the 1990's or Lance Armstrong virtually sealing his 2004 victory there on an individual time trial.

The ascents I've just mentioned were sub-40 minutes, so when, in the dying days of this summer, two men huffed and puffed up there in 42 minutes and 43 minutes respectively, you might wonder why I got my knickers in the proverbial twist?

Well I'll tell you: the two men, Zakayo Nderi and Samwel Myangi, were both from the hills of Kenya. One used to shine shoes for a living; the other rode a clunky taxi-bike. They were complete amateurs who had sat on a proper racing bike for the first time only a few months earlier.
A Dream
  This is all part of the dream of the Tour de France fan Nicholas Leong from Singapore. He wants to see an African rider taking part in the world's most prestigious endurance event.

He told me how he was watching the race year after year and was struck by a vexing paradox.

Through long distance running, East Africans had shown themselves to be the World's most gifted long distance athletes. They have naturally-ocurring high levels of haemoglobin - the blood's oxygen carriers - and this, among other physical attributes, gives them a congenital ability that the EPO cheats can only ape via drugs. As Nicholas Leong points out: "All the measurements people use to look at the capabilities of long distance cyclists such as V02 Max (maximal oxygen consumption) and anaerobic threshold are the same for long distance cyclists and long distance runners."

Yet no Kenyan or Ethiopian has ever ridden the Tour de France. Indeed no Kenyan, Ethiopian or black African of any nation has ever become a professional cyclist.
Cultural and Economic Barriers
  This is partly, of course, a question of economics. The dodgy road surfaces and the prohibitive cost of decent equipment has made the bicycle mostly a clunking Chinese-made tool for transporting goods slowly, not a mode of racing around the countryside.

It's also a question of culture. Whereas Leong says almost everyone he met in Kenya seemed to have a cousin who could run a marathon in a time under two and half hours, the average Kenyan is unlikely to have seen a cycle race, not even just on television. This sets him apart from sporty young dreamers in Belgium, France or Italy.
The Price of a Fairytale
  The idea of Nicholas Leong taking his riders to the hallowed ground of Alp D'Huez was to gain some attention for the project.

"We just wanted to put it out there, and wait to see what happens," says Leong, who admits that he, because of lack of specific experience and funds, that his quest has been run along low-budget, amateurish lines. "It's kind of like Keystone Cops," he laughs, listing the need for technical expert, a nutritionalist and, of course, a marketing man to collar a sponsorship deal.

Leong is actually a professional photographer and his project has cost him all his hard-earned savings. But he thinks it's worth every penny. After all, you can't put a price on a fairy-tale.

When, in Rome in 1960, Abebe Bikila, the shoe-less marathon runner who became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal, it buoyed the confidence of a whole continent. Before the East Africans, despite their impressive natural endurance abilities, hadn't been seen on the global stage.

In a cycling world financed by corporate sponsorship - an African cyclists could be something to believe in.
Grooming the Talent
  That's not a wish list. It's a vital prerequisite.

Natural talent is not enough. It has to be harnessed and groomed. Marathon hero Abebe Bikila was pretty much just running for fun until he was discovered by chance by a Swedish coach who taught him training regimes and brought him to competition.

Whereas a major marathon without East African participation would seem absurd nowadays, the opposite was true back in 1960, the year of Bikila's Olympic triumph. The Ethiopian was unheard of before the race. No-one took him seriously, including Emperor Haile Selassie who reportedly thought he was pathetically skinny and would cast a poor light on his country. The commentators in Rome didn't even know how to pronounce his name.

Bikila's victory was a shock of seismic proportions and African distance running has never looked back since.

No-one could expect the same of African cycling, for the reasons mentioned earlier. But, let's be honest, cycling could do with a new story, so maybe sponsors should be paying attention to this experiment. Cycling, though a passion for Europeans and Australasians, is pretty much ignored elsewhere.

For a sport funded by its marketability, with teams carrying the names of telecommunications networks or refrigeration systems, a broader audience could be a welcome life-jacket in the current stormy waters : "Look at football," suggests Leong: "everyone in Africa is watching the European Leagues. It's massive. Why? Because Ivoirians, Ghanaians and Nigerians want to watch their countrymen in action."
Pioneering Heroes
  Leong admits that he might not even have the best East African talent at his disposal. You can't watch a single stage of the Tour de France in English without the commentator mentioning Miguel Indurain's phenomenal lung capacity (that, and the commentator's favourite cheese from the region Le Tour is passing through). Europe's top cyclists are the best from a huge pool of wannabes, Zakayo Nderi and Samwel Myangi are just two East Africans who happen to love cycling.

But they still might become pioneering heroes.

*All photos Nicholas Leong.
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