On a warm January day in Paris a good few years ago, Christian Prudhomme, the race director of the Tour de France, remembered being told by Bernard Hinault, the five-time winner of the race, that African cycling was rising. Hinault had been in Gabon for a race and watched a group of Eritreans destroy the rest of the field in the mountains. “When they are ready, they will hurt,” said Hinault.
On a cold, crisp July day four years ago, a yellow ribbon was tied around a young oke’s tree in Parkhurst. The tree, its bark pale and stripped bare of leaves, stood outside the Johannesburg home of Chris Froome, the first and, for now, the only African-born rider to win the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, the grandest cycling race of them all.
On Sunday, Froome wore yellow on the final stage of the Tour de France for the fourth time and Africa, from Nairobi to Parkhurst, had reason to celebrate loudly. Froome identifies as British and rides under the Union Jack, but he remains a son of Africa, having been born in Kenya and schooled in South Africa.
It was along the dirt roads of Kenya that he fell in love with cycling, and on the roads of Johannesburg that he learned the skills that served him well on the journey to the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées.
African cycling is rising. Froome has shown what can be.
Froome returns to Johannesburg most years to train, escaping the Monaco winter. He rides the Northcliff hills, the Cradle of Humankind and, for a long day in the saddle, a 230km loop that takes in the Suikerbosrand reserve to the south of the city. He sometimes trains with Daryl Impey, born and raised in the south of Jo’burg and the first African to wear the yellow jersey when he won a stage back in 2013.
Froome was the man who took it from him on that race, riding up next to Impey on the eighth stage to tell his former teammate he was going to go hard in the mountains that day. Froome did just that.
Impey knew it would be his last day in the jersey. He is not a climber.
Louis Meintjes is a pure climber. He finished eighth behind Froome in the 2017 Tour de France, the second year in a row he has made the top 10 at the event. Meintjes is 25 years old, 1.7m tall and weighs just 59kg. He looks younger. He has the face of a schoolboy. This is his third Tour de France, and the second he has completed. He was forced to give up the 2015 tour, his first, because of illness, just a few stages before reaching Paris. He is Africa’s next Tour de France superstar.
On Wednesday, three days after the event had ended, he returned to real life, tweeting: “[email protected] problems: Empty fridge, dead car battery, sore legs, unpaid bills.” He is paying bills, putting in his dues for a future tilt at winning the Tour de France. He has finished eighth twice, both times finishing second in the white jersey competition for young riders, with fifth and fourth places on stages.
He has sprinted with Alejandro Valverde, the Spaniard who has won four stages on the tour and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic four times. Meintjes is learning, watching and growing. “Winning is definitely the dream,” he told news organisation EWN last week.
“There are always other competitors and your result depends on how quickly the other guy goes and how quickly you go. So, I’m definitely dreaming of winning the Tour de France and I’m trying to take the small steps to get there.”
Froome had his Damascus moment when he began to believe that he could compete against the best of the best – in 2011 at the Tour of Spain, where he managed to shell the big names on the eighth stage, eventually finishing second.
Meintjes had his in Belgium. “For me, it was when I finished 11th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège [in 2015],” he said. “To be in the front group with those guys was a big moment for me. They were the best riders in the world and it was a hard race.”
Impey’s role has changed at Orica-Scott, the Australian team in which it is likely he will end his career. He rode what he called the “time trial of my life” on the second-last stage of the 2017 tour in Marseille, but his job was to be the team captain and look after Simon Yates, the Englishman who beat Meintjes to the white jersey.
He was one of four South Africans to complete the tour, part of a growing yet select list. Team Dimension Data had two of them in their squad, Jaco Venter and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg. Their job was as domestiques (workers) for a team headed up by Briton Mark Cavendish before his premature exit after a crash.
Thirteen members of their team are African and in their three years on the tour they have proved hard contenders. Seven stage wins in three years, with the 2015 victory coming on Mandela Day, and spells in the yellow and polka-dot jersey, do not come easy.
It is rumoured Meintjes will return to Dimension Data next year, which feels right. They are the heartbeat of African cycling on the big stage. They have Africans learning the craft on their feeder team. Remember the name Nic Dlamini. The youngster from Capricorn township outside Cape Town recently shone at the under-23 Giro d’Italia.
Dlamini dreams of competing in the Tour. One day someone may put a yellow ribbon outside his family’s house in Capricorn, where he returns each year. One day, we may recall the words of Hinault: “When they are ready, they will hurt.”