Tour de France: Chris Froome zooms from riding with lions to pride of pack

Kenyan-born rider is the other great Briton on tour who has gone up a gear with Wiggins

Chris Froome's efforts to protect the race leader, Bradley Wiggins, and simultaneously move a place higher on the Tour de France podium – from third to second – paid off in spades yesterday as he guided the Londoner towards the summit of La Toussuire. And even if Pierre Rolland remained ahead to claim the day's victory, Froome remains the only Sky rider to have taken a mountain-top victory in a major Tour as the winner on the Planches des Belles Filles last Saturday and on the Peña Cabarga in Spain last year.

But if Froome is climbing high in the Tour for the first time, the 28-year-old Kenyan-born rider is a comparative newcomer to cycling's hierarchy. His rise to fame only started in 2011, when he finished as runner-up in the Tour of Spain. He is virtually an enigma in comparison to team-mates like Wiggins and Mark Cavendish.

If Wiggins' love of music and guitars is well-known, and Cavendish's past as a bank clerk and amateur ballroom dancer is almost as frequently dragged up as his 21 Tour stage wins, then Froome's unintentional claim to fame is almost certainly his unlikely career path and his beginnings as a bike rider.

Born in Nairobi, after his grand parents, from Tetbury, emigrated to Kenya to run a farm, Froome cut his teeth as a teenager riding with David Kinjah, the founder of Safari Simbaz – a huge project to help young Kenyan cyclists – in the highlands north of the capital. If the cute Tour de France toy lions – given to stage winners – are familiar to Froome these days, back then he would come across the rather larger, man-eating variety while out on his training rides.

"At weekends, my mother would take me down to the Great Rift Valley road, which is very bush," Froome recounted to the cycling magazine Velo News last year, after his second place for Sky in the Tour of Spain. "Yes, you're riding with animals. Even last November, I went to a mountain-bike Tour and we went past elephants, lions... it's just normal there."

After moving to South Africa at the age of 14, for a spell at St Johns in Johannesburg, the country's poshest private school, Froome studied for an economics degree. He pulled out when he received an offer to race professionally in Europe.

This is far tougher than it sounds. As Froome has often explained, for African riders the geographical distances, the very different style of racing and visa issues when it comes to spending long periods in the EU make it extremely difficult to break into Euro-centred professional cycling. In 2011, there were only five African-born riders in all 68 professional and semi-professional teams.

Froome's earliest experiences as a pro were not all ideal. In 2007, in his first world championship, he had barely ridden down the start ramp of the time-trial course before he crashed into the barriers. In his first full year with the South African outfit Barloworld, and despite his lack of experience, he was flung into the Tour. He came through creditably with 84th place overall.

After taking British nationality and signing for Sky in 2010, Froome suffered another problem – he contracted bilharzia, a parasitical waterborne infection which, as he put it last year, "feeds off red blood cells, which is not ideal for an athlete".

Sky were not impressed by the inconsistency that the bilharzia produced and before the Tour of Spain last year, Froome was out of a contract for 2012. But his second place – still Sky's best performance in a Grand Tour –changed all that. Sky re-signed him a few days later.

"He's a young lad with a breakthrough performance and the thing is to make that not only repeatable but predictable," Sky's Dave Brailsford said last autumn, to the British magazine Cycle Sport. "When he does really well he empties the tank and Tim Kerrison [Sky's sports scientist] has always said that his numbers are really good. It's just about trying to translate that into performance."

This year, as Wiggins' regular training partner on the Mount Teide volcano in the Canary Islands, Froome has shifted up a gear. But although his Tour participation and potential podium finish for Sky is a huge landmark in his career, ultimately – as he told me last year – his long-term dream, probably after retirement, is to work with an African team and spearhead a breakthrough for cycling on that continent.

"I know the UCI have some programmes in place, but are those programmes really working?" he said last autumn. "I haven't seen more Africans in the peloton yet.

"If you look at ethnicity, it's not that mixed up yet. If cycling is to really to take off, you'd need a Tiger Woods to be an example to young Africans and Asians that it is still possible. I would love to work on a project like that."

Froome is already the first African-born pro to set foot on a Grand Tour podium, in the Vuelta. Now he has every chance of doing the same in the Tour de France. As far as inspirations go, that can hardly be faulted.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral