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Kenyan cycling develops with Asian photographer's focus

By Patrick Johnston

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Fascinated by the notion of turning the world's most gifted long distance runners into kings of the saddle, Nicolas Leong packed up his life in Singapore and moved to Kenya's Rift Valley.

It mattered little to him that he knew nothing about the world of professional cycling, and barely more about the East African nation he was moving to.

The dream tantalized him relentlessly until finally he stepped on a plane. Now, six years on, the former commercial photographer says the structure is in place for a generation of champions to flourish.

"It was just an idea that wouldn't go away," Leong told Reuters as he reflected on a step some would call foolhardy and others courageous.

"All these Kenyans were winning marathons all over the world (and) I thought it would be really good if you gave them a bike, that was essentially the idea," he added, on a rare trip back to his homeland.

"They have more dominance in the marathon than anybody has dominated any other sport. The Brazilians are not as dominant in football as the Kenyans are running the marathon," he smiled.

Leong was, and remains, convinced the country synonymous with world class runners will produce the first black team to compete in the Tour de France.

With a long history of producing elite distance runners with stamina the envy of the world, Leong felt Kenya could spawn cyclists with the skills to suit the grueling demands of that sport.

Initially, he wrote to many of the cycling sponsors and teams in the Tour de France, the toughest bike race of them all, with his idea but was mostly ignored before deciding to just do it himself and prove them wrong.

Leong was working in his homeland as a photographer in 2006 when he watched Amos Matui win the Singapore marathon for the second consecutive year.

Ignoring the rejection letters, Leong confidently went up to Matui and explained his idea before telling the Kenyan he would follow him home that evening to start work on his dream.

UNTRAINED KENYAN

Any background in cycling? "None," Leong smirked. A link to Kenya? "None," he added in between laughs. "But there was a bit of a plan," Leong attempted to stress.

The strategy involved finding a cyclist in Iten - the tiny village which is the centre for the production line of Kenyan runners [ID:nL6E8II1RH] - and demonstrate what raw talent there was in the country to would-be sponsors.

"I thought give this guy a bike and he will train and ride up this mountain L'Alpe d'Huez, which is really famous and ridden in the Tour de France," Leong said.

"Lance Armstrong did 37 minutes up this mountain and I thought if we could get a relatively untrained Kenyan to train for a couple of months and you took him there what time would he do, so the guy did 42 minutes.

"Because of that we got somebody interested and investing, an Angel investor, who is now my partner and so we started this company."

The company is called 'Kenyan Riders' and now has 26 people on the payroll with one Irish and two Australian coaches supporting 14 cyclists entering events around the world.

They compete in amateur international races and finished a credible second in the taxing 70-team Haute Route in the French mountains this year where Leong said the look of his team of riders attracted as much attention as their abilities.

"Everywhere we turned up we were the only black people on bicycles, people who have been watching cycling for 10, 15, 20, 50 years they have never seen a black guy on a bicycle especially on the road.

"We turn up and people are very curious about us first of all, we look so different, for obvious reasons, but we also have such different stories to tell."

The Kenyan National Olympic Committee are aware of Leong's project but the Singaporean is diplomatic when discussing their involvement.

"Yeah, well, they are not part of our lives, no. They are terribly interested, they are just not going to do anything."

Without the financial support of the NOC or Kenyan Cycling, Leong has ploughed his life savings into the project and was in Singapore looking for further investment to help achieve his dream of seeing the team compete in the Tour de France.

"It probably has cost me all my savings. I want to see this to it's end, to it's logical conclusion which is to get the first black African team on the world stage.

"We are starting a grassroots cycling program to get people to start at the age of 14, 15, that is going to be our generation of champions. This is sort of the first run of people, so we put the work into them, trying to refine our coaching methods, trying to set benchmarks, the thing the runners have already.

"It costs probably $500,000 a year to run the whole thing, to feed them, to give them salaries, to pay for the coaches, everything," Leong said. "I don't think it is a large amount of money considering what we want to do in 10 years for example."

BIG DREAM

Races in Australia are planned for 2013 with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow the following year also on the agenda as Leong acknowledges the team needs more road race experience.

"We are climbing specialists but all these things take a generation. Everybody looks at Kenyan marathon runners and people think (they) just jumped out of their mother's wombs and did the marathon - they didn't.

"The first generation of runners were doing 800 meters so we have to start a bit shorter, less ambitious but just do a large amount of quality work in Kenya.

"If you think of the running equivalent of the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia or the Olympic road race or whatever the Kenyan has done it and won it.

"If you tell them that is the biggest race in the cycling world they can wrap their heads around the fact that you want to be there, that is not a problem, they think they can win it. The problem is they think they can win it now."

The bold sport-switching plan invokes memories of the 1993 film 'Cool Runnings', loosely based on a team of Jamaican sprinters who represented the country in bobsleigh at the Winter Olympics in 1988.

"It is not a bad thing as they are a bunch of loveable guys," Leong said of the comparisons. "If Hollywood wants to come and do a movie on us then great.

"Essentially it is the big dream at the end of the day, we are a small team, we seem very modest, the guy who runs it is completely unqualified he used to be a commercial photographer for god's sake.

"But we are deeply ambitious and we have got big dreams because we are in a place where people dream very big and they go off and they do it, that is so unique in all of Africa, I can't think of another place like it. It is incredibly inspiring."

(Editing by Ossian Shine)

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