The Kenyan mentor of Chris Froome
The career of four-time tour winner Chris Froome started thousands of miles away in a tiny village on the outskirts of Nairobi. Kenyan professional cyclist David Kinjah took him on trips through the mountains and injected him with the cycling virus.
While it has been fifteen years ago, David Kinjah (40) remembers it like it was yesterday. “After one of my races, a shy blond kid with a BMX-bike asked whether I wanted to teach him mountain biking. This little boy was Chris Froome.”
The then 12-years-old Froome, grandson of British emigrants, lived with his single mother, Jane Froome, in a small, one bedroom apartment in Nairobi. She had no car, no money and worked multiple jobs in order to survive. “Because she didn’t know what to do with her son on school holidays, she asked if he could stay with me for those weeks.”
And so Froome became part of the Safari Simbaz; boys from the neighbourhood, mostly orphans, who Kinjah trains in mountain biking and road cycling, but also teaches them to repair bikes so they can sustain themselves. Froome and Kinjah hit it off remarkably well. “Chris was a quick learner, easy going and soon became as passionate about cycling as I am.”
But Kinjah never would have dreamed of his white pupil riding the Tour de France, let alone becoming second in this high profile race. “In the beginning, Chris could barely reach the pedals of an old road bicycle he got from one of his primary school teachers”, the flamboyant prof cyclist with tied dreads laughs, laying slumped on a dusty couch in his living room, full bicycle frames hanging on wooden beams, helmets dangling at the coat rack and closets filled with cycling magazines.
Froome also appeared to be just as big of a fan of mountains, camping and having fun as his rasta professor. “We cycled regularly to the farm of my parents fifty kilometres away, camped in the meadow where one time cows ate half of our tent”, chuckles the Kenyan prof. But during these rides, he also makes acquaintance with Froome the stubborn fighter. “Because of Chris’ young age, I didn’t always want to let him ride the entire trail.” And so it was that during a tour to Kajiado which was a hundred kilometers away, Chris was supposed to stop cycling and continue the trail to the overnight camp site in the car with his mother. But although Chris was exhausted and slow, he categorically refused to step into the car. “For hours his mother and I talked into him, but whatever the cost, he wanted to cycle the same distance as I had. Chris was very ambitious. In my opinion sometimes too ambitious.”
This enormous ambition sometimes got Froome in trouble. “During and after races Chris regularly fainted, also when he started training in South Africa from the age of fourteen. He knew his limits insufficiently, not always paid attention to his diet and maybe was also under pressure from his team, his coach and himself.” Kinjah and Froome stayed in touch. “We were like brothers, on the phone for hours, talking about girls and secrets and laughing about those stupid, spoiled riders in South Africa who couldn’t even fix their own bikes. Chris was already a smart rider who could easily win from many South-African competitors. If our phone credit ran out, we quickly bought new credit.”
During school holidays, Froome often came back to Kenya. “We always organized a Kinjah-Froome race that got out of hand the last time. Chris claimed that he finally would be able to beat me, which I obviously didn’t believe. So we organised a race; Chris on a good bike, wearing cycling shoes, cycling gear and a helmet, me on a heavy mountain bike with normal pedals, in T-shirt, shorts and a bandana. However, when it became sunny and very hot, Chris took his helmet off, hung it on his handlebar and as we drove down the mountain with sixty kilometers an hour, it let go and landed right in front of my bike. I got launched and scraped for meters over the hot tarmac”, laughs the Kenyan, pointing one by one at the centimeter long scars on knees and arms. “This is Chris Froome, this is Chris Froome and this is Chris Froome. But he has never beaten me.”
Kinjah is extremely proud of the recent performance of Froome. “Chris owes everything to himself, for one hundred percent. If he wasn’t that interested in cycling and hadn’t been so eager to learn, he occasionally might have slipped my attention.” Though, from the beginning the Kenyan saw Froome’s potential in climbing. “Endlessly we’ve been driving up and down the mountains. He’s thin and strong, but too long for a real climber. A real sprinter he will unfortunately never be. But the longer the race, the stronger Chris gets. That’s why he’s a born tour rider. “
That since 2008 a British and no longer a Kenyan flag is fluttering next to Froomes name, makes no difference to Kinjah. “It’s not about nationality. That’s why it’s not my purpose with the Safari Simbaz to set up a Kenyan cycling team, but to develop characters who can achieve as much as Chris. And above all, it’s a smart move. Now Chris has many more opportunities, because he’s no longer part of the Kenyan federation, which is a group of corrupt old men who still put the biggest part of the budget in their own pockets,” Kinjah says out of personal experience. Many times the Kenyan cyclist was forced to travel to international competitions without any equipment. “While the federation promised me otherwise, at the World Championships in Plouay in 2000 I had to start on a borrowed, far too big bike that I managed to arrange only the night before.” The same happened when he participated together with Froome in a Kenyan team at the Australian Commonwealth Games in 2006, they had to borrow bikes from a local cycling shop.
Therefore Kinjah is very happy with the material that Froome donates regularly to the Safari Simbaz. Out of different cabinets and drawers in his living room the Kenyan pulls pairs of gloves, helmets and four pairs of cycling shoes, all received from the Sky team rider. After he has put his head out of the doorway and screamed something to one of the next door bedrooms, within a few minutes a shy Safari Simba appears with in his hands a pair of muddy cycling shoes. “With these ones Chris drove his first Tour de France in 2008. They were a bit too small for him and tortured him those weeks. But as you can see; the shoes are not respected and are treated badly,” he grumbles at the boy next to him, who shyly stares with big eyes at the apparently sacred – but for him very ordinary – shoes. “Many of these boys have no idea. They don’t know how big the Tour is. Here in Kenya there is hardly any attention for it, except for some small simplistic reports on the news.”
Because unfortunately his internet connection is too slow for live streaming, Kinjah followed the Tour de France by social media. He’s convinced that Sky leader Bradley Wiggins deserved to win. “I understand that it was frustrating for Chris because he was in such a great shape and probably could have won the Tour this year relatively easily. Off course, I personally would have loved to see him as the captain and maybe he’ll never get such a chance again. That would be unfortunate. But it would have been very dumb if the Sky management would have changed the leadership underway. Wiggins wouldn’t have deserved this either. Froome only had to wait for him, because they are different riders. But on flat terrain Wiggins was excellent, he’s a good leader and also in the mountains in general he knew how to keep up. How he defended the yellow jersey, how deep he went, that’s incredible. Such a person deserves to win.”
Also Kinjah heard about the ‘twitter war’ between Froomes girlfriend Michelle Cound and Wiggins’ wife Catherine. But according him it was ‘extremely unwise’ how Cound publicly voiced her frustration about how her boyfriend was forced to continue to support his captain, and Catherine Wiggins again responded on this. “Of course I understand how the media enjoys this, but the ladies should have kept this private. It can distract the riders and harm them seriously. That’s why I seriously hope that Chris and Bradley are still good friends, as two UK pro cyclists within one Team Sky.”
Unfortunately Kinjah himself currently has no contact with Froome. “He’s now like a god, fully protected because everything he says and does can be misunderstood or distorted by others.” According to the Kenyan, even for Chris’ brothers, Jeremy and Jonathan, it’s currently difficult to get in contact with him. “It’s a bit like losing a friend, that’s the other side of the coin. But in the meantime Chris gives us so much energy and motivation to continue. Through him we have much more confidence in what we do.”
With videos of the Tour, Kinjah gradually tries to learn his boys about the meaning of cycling in Europe and how one of their own Simbaz currently dominates the cycling top. He further attempts to change the Kenyan cycling from within. “Instead of continuing to kick against the federation, I hope to set an improvement in motion by for example having talks with event organizers. Things in this area are also going wrong.” The Kenyan prof, for example, recently won the Race of Nakuru. However, when he wanted to cash the check of 12,000 Kenyan shillings (120 euros) a few days later at a bank, there was no money in the account. “When I called the responsible person, he asked me to wait for one week so he could collect the money. But till now, I’m still waiting,” the 40-year-old Kenyan sighs, showing the check which he keeps in his wallet.
Kinjah fortunately notices that thanks to his age and achieved cycling performance he increasingly earns respect and organizers start listening to him. “How can you ask boys to pay dozens of dollars for the registration, if they barely have money to eat and because of the lack of transport already had to ride fifty kilometers to appear at the start? More and more organizers luckily begin to understand that this is not the right way to develop Kenyan cycling and that it would be better to receive money from sponsors.”
Above all, Kinjahs dream is that Froome will come to Kenya and will take part in a race organized by his former tutor. “So many people, friends and fans of Chris, ask me to organize it. His recent tour performance is an extra reason for doing this. Personally, I would love to organize this race in memory of Chris’ mother, Jane Froome, who suddenly died a few weeks before Chris’ first Tour de France in 2008. She was the one that supported Chris through thick and thin, it was this special and greatly sympathetic woman that motivated the little boy to become a cyclist.”