It was late. We’d just come off a long, somewhat hairy ride to Nairobi when a young man approached Nicholas. He had joined us for the journey from Iten – all six hours – and we hadn’t even noticed him. There were just too many bikes, and bags and gear in the two matatus hired for the trip. He’d tucked himself into the backseat, behind a bunch of boxes and only emerged right at the end.
His name, he said, was Armstrong Mandela. And he wanted to join the team. “I hope you’ll give me a chance,” he told Nick.
“Armstrong Mandela!” We burst out. It was too good to be true. We didn’t know if he could ride to save his life. But we loved his name. His real name.
In conversations with the team later, we realised he’d been at breakfast the day before – a quiet guy, sitting in a corner, drinking tea. He’d just shown up. No one said a thing. We’d all assumed he knew someone at the camp.
Armstrong Mandela wants to join the team.
Who knows? Maybe he’s good.
This is why I love this film, this project that will likely take us a decade to complete. The randomness. The maybes. The hope.
I still remember when Nick was setting up his first training camp in Eldoret – a rundown, former pool hall that the riders had to refurbish themselves. I remember the optimism. There was a debate over where to put what. Who to clean where. A discussion over paint. The riders settled on a pale shade of green.
“The African Cyclist Training Camp”
The words, in red, are still painted on the building today. I remember the sun setting as they finished, the pride with which they posed for photographs after that.
So much has happened since. The camp has moved – three buildings up in hilly Iten. 15 riders, three fulltime coaches, cooks, mechanics, a masseur. The project has grown. Lives have changed. And new people continue to show up, hoping that their lives too, will be changed.
Five days ago, we left Nairobi and hopped onto a plane to Paris with eight riders – Zakayo, Mwangi, Kipchumba, Eriko, Tom, Njoroge, Loriko and Sammy. They’re now here in the French Alps, preparing to show the world something spectacular. Zak clocked 42’10 up Alpe d’Huez back in 2008. It is still the third best amateur time ever. He’d done the race with no training. His technique was all wrong. He didn’t even know which gear to use, when.
So much has happened since.
Right now, we’re waiting for Monday. Waiting for the big race. Waiting for something special.
Back in Kenya, Armstrong Mandela is waiting for his chance too. We hear he’s not bad. We hope he’s really good.