The Ride of His Life

Nicholas Leong chose to set up the Kenyan Riders in Iten, a town in Kenyaʼs Great Rift Valley known to produce world-class marathon runners.

Driven by his passion for the Tour de France, Singaporean Nicholas Leong has spent the past decade turning the world’s best runners into champions on wheels while making a social impact at the same time.

BY ALYWIN CHEW
PHOTOS SPH LIBRARY, NICHOLAS LEONG
 

I

f the Kenyan Riders ever make history by becoming the first all-black African team to win the Tour de France, they would thank one man for it – Singaporean Nicholas Leong. Yet, he is possibly the most unlikely person to set up a cycling team, let alone one with Kenyans.

More adept behind a camera than on a road bike, the 48-year-old former commercial photographer’s only connection to cycling is his near-obsession with the Tour de France, the world’s oldest and most prestigious cycling race. He is fascinated with everything about the race, from the physical endurance required to the myriad team strategies.

When asked what inspired him to set up a Kenyan professional cycling team, he says: “They are winning marathons all the time, and the physiological requirements are similar to what a Tour de France cyclist needs. So, why not?”

That catalysed his decision to move to Kenya in December 2006 to set up a team. His goal: to help Kenyan athletes break into a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans. He says: “I had a pretty comfortable life as a commercial photographer... But maybe life is not just about that. I wanted to know I wasn’t on this earth simply to take up space.”


IMPACT ON THE GROUND

The Kenyan Riders are making a considerable impact on the local community of Iten, a small town 2,400m above sea level in Kenya’s Elgeyo-Marakwet County. Drawing the team from milkmen, shoeshiners and other manual labourers, Leong is using sport as a social economic leveller.

He employs unusual methods to recruit cyclists for his team. He has timed the fastest riders of the bicycle taxi, a common mode of local transport, as well as local milkmen, who make deliveries on bicycles. One of the first to join was Zakayo Nderi, a shoeshiner Leong met on the streets.

It was imperative for Leong to kick-start a competitive cycling industry. The community would benefit from job opportunities like bike mechanics, professional cyclists and masseurs. He says: “We needed to build a platform from which the locals can acquire the necessary skills. We accept that we cannot be a ‘big industry’ hirer and are not opening a large manufacturing plant employing hundreds or thousands.”

What sets the Kenyan Riders apart from other cycling teams in Africa, and which may be their success formula, is their emphasis on cooperation and collaboration between local talent and foreign expertise. Foreign coaches are hired to develop local training methods with local equipment and resources.

To inspire younger generations to chase their dreams, Leong is working with schools in Eldoret and Nakuru in western Kenya to establish a foundation for the sport and award scholarships to students that show potential. On the choice of the two locations, Leong says: “Our staff are from there. There is talent there. There is the need there.”

Aside from offering young riders free training and equipment, those who show real talent will be awarded a stipend. The best of the lot may even get drafted into the team.


IDEAS INTO REALITY

Leong’s journey to Kenya started with an audacious plan to follow the winner of the 2006 Singapore Marathon home. He had a hunch that the winner would be a Kenyan. That year, Kenyan runner Amos Matui won the race for the second consecutive time.

Leong says: “I bought a ticket to Kenya on the night of the Singapore Marathon because I knew the Kenyans were going to return home after the morning race. I simply gambled that the marathoners would be on that same flight.”

After landing in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Leong followed Matui and other runners to Iten. The town is home to some of the world’s fastest runners, such as David Rudisha, who won gold at the 2012 Olympics for the Men’s 800m and is the current world record-holder of that event.

Leong, who met Rudisha before he became a superstar, says: “It’s stuff like that that is amazing. You see these skinny guys walking around Iten with no money, no support and nothing to their names. All they have is the talent to run very fast. A few years later, you see them on TV, beating a world-class field. It’s pretty inspiring. This is the sort of culture (the Kenyan Riders) are trying to tap into.”

It was rough-going in Iten at first for Leong, who was trying to sell the idea of cycling to a population made for marathons. After two years of scouting and fervent persuasion, he finally had a team – of just four. In 2008, Leong sent two of the riders, Nderi and Samwel Mwangi, to France on an experiment. The mission: to scale the legendary Alpe d’Huez, a short but treacherous 21-hairpin stage in the Tour de France. Nderi completed the course in 42 minutes and 8 seconds – just three minutes short of Lance Armstrong’s timing in the 2004 competition.
 

What sets the Kenyan Riders apart from other cycling teams in Africa, and which may be their success formula, is their emphasis on cooperation and collaboration between local talent and foreign expertise. Foreign coaches are hired to develop local training methods with local equipment and resources.
 

Today, the Kenyan Riders are a professional force with several competitive wins. These include a second-place position in the 2011 Haute Route in the Alps, one of the world’s toughest races, and first-place finishes in 2014 in the Tour de Machakos in Kenya and the Singapore Cycling Federation Celebration Road Series.

Most recently, the Kenyan Riders merged with an Australian team to form Kenyan Riders Downunder to boost their chances of competing in more global competitions. Made up of cyclists from Australia, New Zealand and Kenya, Leong hopes that they can learn from each other’s experiences to improve themselves professionally. The outfit will be based in Melbourne from this year.

Nearly a decade after embarking on this project, Leong has no regrets. He says: “Some days when things aren’t going well, I think to myself, ‘Nick, this is insanity! What were you thinking?’ Then we have good days when we’re optimistic and think we’ll get to the Tour de France with the most romantic team in the history of sport.”

The Kenyan Riders Downunder comprises cycling talents from Kenya, New Zealand and Australia.

 


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