Ask someone to name a Kenyan cyclist and they're likely to reply Chris Froome. The two-time Tour de France champion may be the most famous cycling export from the African country but Stewart Crowley is aiming to ensure he has company in the WorldTour ranks in the years to come.
Crowley is the team manager of Kenyan Riders Down Under who test themselves against Froome and Team Sky at next week's Jayco Herald Sun Tour. First, the team will line up Sunday for the 1.HC Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. The team's second UCI event of the month having also started the 2.2 NZ Cycling Classic with newly crowned New Zealand national champion Jason Christie.
While the team is predominantly made up of Kenyan riders, there are several Australian and New Zealand riders on the roster this season to provide leadership and share their experience of racing at UCI level.
"There are no favourites in the team, everyone has to perform to keep their spot," Crowley told Cyclingnews of the roster. "Cycling is a team sport and it's now very common for international cycling teams to be a multicultural melting pot. We are just the same however our base is of Kenyan men. It will be interesting to watch how the Kenyan athletes slot into their roles within the new team. [Sports director] Garry Elliott and I have specifically recruited a team of cyclists from African, Australian and New Zealand who will gel quickly and can win bike races."
The roots of the team extend almost eight years back to a running event where team founder and current CEO Nicolas Leon witnessed the performance of several Kenyans and sought to transfer their talent to the bike as Crowley explained.
"Nicolas was watching the Singapore marathon in December 2005 and the Kenyan runners dominated the competition. He went and introduced himself to the Kenyans and then followed them back to their hometown of Eldoret," he recounted. "Off the back of that experience, he had this idea that he would create a cycling team starting with Kenyan runners in 2006. Since then, they've had a good camp based cycling programme in Iten Initially coached by Frenchman Jerome Casagrande then Rob Higley, Ciaran Fitzpatrick and Simon Blake.
"Since 2011, the Kenyan Riders staff have been developing Kenyan cyclists to the point now where they are competitive at the NRS level in Australia. With the start of the new season at the end of 2015, it seemed the right time to bring in a professional sports director with Gary Elliot and some New Zealand and Australian riders that are performing at the Continental level and see if we can take the next step. This adds the next challenge to the programme for the Kenyans to move forward in the world of cycling."
Jason Christie started the 2016 season for Kenyan Riders Down Under by winning the NZ national road race (Alphapix/John Cowpland)
The team currently provides scholarships to young cyclists through a school-based talent identification programme in Kenya run by Ciaran Fitzpatrick, described by Crowley as "very successful", which should see them shortly enjoy the fruits of their labour.
"The current crop has been working with Rob Higley, Ciaran and Simon since 2011. Simon has been introducing BMX pump tracks into rural Kenya and we have seen the results of increased bike handling skills and interest in the sport. The riders have been building strength slowing and surely," he said of the role the duo have played in the short history of the team. "We've started to see some results, Suleiman came 10th at Taiwan KOM Challenge in 2014 and held the hill climber's jersey at the Tour of Rwanda. In the amateur races, they've done fairly well, and they go to Europe each year. Joseph Gichora won stage 6 of Haute Route and came third last year, and Ayub Kathurima also won a stage.
"They've been under the radar for the last couple of years, which has allowed them time to develop, and it's time now to make the step into international competition."
With its strong running culture, Crowley believes that once the team can produce a rider of international note, the influence of the bicycle in Kenya will rival that of neighbouring countries Uganda, Tanzania and close by Rwanda whose recent cycling history is wonderfully covered in Rising from the Ashes.
"We thought it would be similar in Kenya to Rwanda but there was a culture of running in Kenya and especially where the team is based in Kenya which is up in the Rift Valley," he said of the interest in cycling in Kenya. "In Kenya the kids see these World and Olympic champion runners every day and that's what they aspire to do. So we are looking to provide an alternative so they can see these Kenyan cyclists competing on the world stage and say 'I'd like to ride a bike' and know it's possible to ride a bike professionally and see the world. But for them, they currently still see professional running as their aspiration.
"When the school kids see there is an opportunity to travel to Australia, to Asia, to Europe, to America and that these riders are earning a decent living, then they'll see that as aspirational and they'll want to be involved. It's still early days."
Kenyan Riders Down Under harbour the ambition of joining the Pro-Continental ranks after two years of racing the Oceania, Asia and North American UCI circuits in 2016 and 2017. With a silent backer ensuring the team's short-term future, Crowley's mission is to ensure his riders can turn their promise into performance.
"We need to perform well in Oceania, Asia and in America. If we are not performing well in Oceania, or Asia and America, then there's no value in going to Europe because we won't be competitive," he said of the team's racing calendar. "It's about providing the appropriate racing at the right time. If the team does really well this year then maybe we'd look at fast-tracking. However, the riders need time to develop. There is no shortcut to success in cycling."
First up though is a meeting with Froome at the Sun Tour where the final day Arthurs Seat stage will allow the Kenyan riders to test their legs against the defending Tour de France champion. Froome will be one of the riders in the peloton who won't be surprised by their presence in the race due his previous connection with the team.
"Chris Froome we can probably say is they guy they are trying to follow. He came and visited the camp in 2014 after the Tour de France and spent some time with the guys," Crowley said. "He was really impressed with their setup, we are hoping he would like to be involved and mentor the next generation once we are established. All the guys look up to Chris Froome and he is a fantastic role model, he's one the best."
With Data Dimension becoming Africa's first World Tour team this season, the opportunity for Kenyan cyclists to join the top ranks of the sport are at all time high.
"We think the Kenyan athletes would be very good World Tour riders with the right development and progression through the Continental and Pro-Continental ranks, they definitely know how to suffer. That's what cycling is about isn't it? Who can suffer the most."
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