On the morning after the day before, Daryl Impey was feeling a little more tired and beat up than usual after the first week of the Tour de France.
“I started the stage with a small hangover,” admitted Impey. “Not a good idea at the Tour.”
It was a hangover earned the hard way after he had become just the second South African to win an individual stage at the Tour by outsprinting Belgian Tiesj Benoot on the 170.5km stage from Saint-Etienne to Brioude on Bastille Day. He was toasted with big glasses of red wine by his Australian Mitchelton-Scott team. Impey drank deep after an emotional team manager, Matt White, spoke of his pride in the South African, saying he embodied the spirit and credo of the outfit. His team roared their approval.
“In 2012, when we created this team, the last person on the roster was Daryl Impey,” said White, who had fought back tears as he sat in the team car watching Impey win. “He was the last rider we signed. Seven years on, he has proved that he is the most valuable and respected teammate we have got in this organisation for one very special reason. For 90% of the year, he is doing things for you guys. He does things for his team. And when those 10% chances come along, he takes them with both hands.”
In Impey’s career, 90% has been a fight to create 10% worth of chances, to break down the barriers that stand in the way of African cyclists. Cycling, for so long a closed shop guarded jealously by Europeans, has meant outsiders from the former colonies – the Africans, Australians and Americans – have had to work harder to make an impression. That is why Impey’s achievements are all the more incredible.
He is the first African to wear yellow at the Tour de France, the first to win a World Tour stage race (not once, but twice at the Tour Down Under) and the second South African after Robbie Hunter to win an individual stage at the Tour. He is the first African to win two stages at the Tour with his team time trial win in 2013.
Cycling in his blood
Impey was fated to be a cyclist. His dad, Tony, was a professional, regarded as one of the toughest. A first ride with his father on a mountain bike in 1997 began a journey that saw him turning professional as a teenager, living in a dorm in Marseille trying to convince a French manager to give him a chance, to breaking into Europe, riding on Lance Armstrong’s team, losing it all as a team collapsed, coming home, starting again, pushing, riding. Always hoping. Always fighting. Always asking to be believed in.
In 2008, his friend Hunter convinced the management at Team Barloworld to sign Impey. They also picked up another young man by the name of Chris Froome on Hunter’s recommendation. That squad included Geraint Thomas, who made his Tour debut in 2007 as a 21-year-old with Barloworld, finishing second last in Paris. Hunter remembers Thomas slumped on a chair at the after party, a hollow shell of a youngster holding on to a beer for dear life. How things had changed 11 years later, when he held off his teammate and friend Froome to become the first Welshman to win the Tour.
Impey’s career hit another bump in the 2009 Tour of Turkey when Dutchman Theo Bos grabbed his jersey in the final kilometre of the final stage, flinging Impey to the ground. He had broken ribs, cracked vertebrae, facial injuries and a fractured jaw. Impley had been leading the race and after being helped back on to his bike, he crossed the line with his neck in a brace to ensure he took the victory. He would take months to recover, his year ruined. He had to start again.
Hunter told him not to give up. He had gone to Europe as a youngster, living off scraps and scrapping to make his name at the end of the 20th century. Hunter is all fire and brimstone, and he thundered against the Europeans who told him there was no space for an African to become his continent’s most successful road rider. Impey, a kinder, calmer man, steeled himself for the battle ahead.
After a year-long stint on Armstrong’s Radioshack team, Impey thought he was back in the big time with an Australian team called Pegasus. Unfortunately, it was owned by Alex Gillett, son of George, who along with business partner Tom Hicks bought and sold Liverpool Football Club in one of the darkest times for the Premiership club. Pegasus Sport collapsed before it began. There was no money. Impey was left stranded. He had to start again.
Making the most of every opportunity
He returned to South Africa and rode for Ryder for a spell. Again. He raced in Morocco and Iran. Then small races in South Africa. He kept looking north, kept waiting for the call from Europe. He was in Iran when it came. A German team took him on for half a season. Another 10% chance. Impey gave it 100%. Again.
He kept looking. Kept hoping. He had heard an Australian team was starting with backing from Gerry Ryan, an Australian businessman who was a cycling nut. Impey began calling White, who was putting together what was then called the GreenEdge team. He bugged him endlessly. Impey was a puncheur, a rider who could time trial, climb decently and sprint. He could do everything. He told White he needed him on his squad. White ummed. He aahed. Then he said yes. Impey would fill the last spot on their roster for this new team in 2012.
If Impey was fated to be a cyclist, then he was fated to be a part of this Australian team that has changed its name down the years as sponsors, mostly belonging to companies owned by Ryan, have come and gone. He was picked for the 2012 Giro d’Italia as a leadout man, carving a path for his team’s fast men in the maelstrom of the bunch sprints. He was so good there, the team made him abandon the race to prepare for the Tour de France. From despair to La Grande Boucle, the grandest of grand races.
He toiled endlessly for Simon Gerrans in the sprints, delivering the Australian to a stage win at the 2013 Tour that would eventually result in him becoming the sixth Australian to wear the yellow jersey. Impey was on the same time as Gerrans overall, within touch of the jersey, but he would have to take it from his roommate. A nervous Impey asked Gerrans if he would do him and his country a favour. Gerrans agreed and at the finish in Montpellier, where Hunter had won for Africa six years before, he stood on the podium as the first African to wear the most famous jersey in cycling.
But cycling and life were not done challenging Impey. In July 2014, just before the Tour, he was informed he had returned a positive sample for probenecid, a banned diuretic that can be used as a masking agent. The test had been done in February, but the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport blamed the delay on the death of the laboratory technician. Impey appealed. He had bought empty gelatine capsules from a Durban pharmacist in which to put bicarbonate of soda to help negate lactic acid build-up.
The pharmacist had dispensed probenecid to a customer before he served Impey. He had till slips proving the time and purchases. Impey was exonerated, but it was too late. He missed out on the Tour de France. His character had been doubted, his name sullied. But he would rise. Again. It was what he had always done.
Impi firing up Impey
Impey has always wanted to wear the South African flag on his jersey at the Tour de France. He has craved having his nation’s colours cross the finish line of a stage of the Tour as champion for a day. Impey was the Mitchelton-Scott team leader, tasked with riding in support of Brit Adam Yates. He asked White if he could have a go on Bastille Day, on a stage with short climbs and a sprint that would suit him. White told him to try.
Mr 10% tried and succeeded. White was beside himself in the team car when Impey dug deep on the final climb, decimating the chasers before playing cat to Benoot’s mouse in the final sprint. He has no idea what he shouted when he crossed the line. It was guttural. He pounded the flag on his chest and the tears flowed. Then the wine flowed. On the bus, they cranked up Impi by Johnny Clegg as they had done in 2013. More tears. More wine.
On Sunday 28 July, Impey, the South African who had celebrated along with his country on Bastille Day and had a hangover to show for it, celebrated finishing his sixth Tour de France a little harder. There was too much wine, tears and smiles. He was a Tour de France stage winner from the land at the tip of Africa.