Chris Froome’s childhood mentor tells David Bradford how growing up in Kenya bestowed a special kind of toughness
It might have been Team Sky that turned Chris Froome into a Grand Tour winner, but it was the Safari Simbas, a Kenyan training group, that built the foundations of his ability. Based near Nairobi, the Simbas is a charitable project that gets underprivileged Kenyan youngsters on to bikes; it is run by former pro and Kenyan national champion David Kinjah. Froome, who was born in Kenya, first rode with the group aged 12, having met Kinjah on a local charity ride. His mentor-to-be did not have high hopes.
“We would see these white kids on bikes,” Kinjah tells CW, “and we never took them seriously because they were not any good as cyclists at all. They were the children of rich white people, settlers here in Kenya.”
Though Froome was not from a wealthy home, being raised by his mother on a single modest income, Kinjah doubted he would have the work ethic to keep pace with more experienced riders from the group. “We were the guys who hit the roads knowing the hardships in cycling life. If you were white and rich, this was not for you. It was for poor people. You climb on your bike and you go to work or go to training and you hit the big hills... If you’re a good cyclist in Kenya, you are just a hardcore guy.”
When Froome reached secondary school age, his father, who lived in South Africa, was keen that he complete his schooling at a South African boarding school.
“He [Froome’s father] said there are very good schools here, so I’m not going to send any money for this boy to continue in Kenya,” says Kinjah. “Chris told me, I really don’t want to go. Please can you talk to my mum. I want to stay here and ride with you guys.”
Kinjah refused, urging the teenager to take up his father’s offer and make the most of the better-developed cycling scene in South Africa.
Having made the move, the budding rider worked hard and became captain of his school cycling team, regularly updating Kinjah by phone. Though impressed, the coach still wasn’t convinced his
young charge had the right attitude to make it to the top. “I was worried that he was getting dragged into this [overemphasis on] the science of sport, energy bars and all that,” Kinjah recalls. “I told him a pure cyclist has to learn how to keep all that stuff off. It’s how hard you ride, how passionate you are.”
For Kinjah, it came down to a Kenyan version of ‘all the gear, no idea’: “If you are given a rough bicycle and you can kick the ass of everyone on a nice bicycle, then that is cycling for me. I was a bit worried that [Froome] was becoming like a South African boy — good bikes but s**t riders, full of energy bars and bulls**t.”
Despite his reservations, Kinjah recognised a fierce competitiveness in Froome and a hunger to improve.
“I would tell him, ‘You have very skinny legs and you’re not very strong... Use your small gears and spin more.’” It was a technique that had worked for Kinjah himself. “Using lighter gears, spinning at speed, is something I really pushed for Froome. I was giving him three-week training programmes and said, ‘Keep spinning, keep spinning.’”
It was a drill that would become a famous feature of Froome’s riding.
“When he became a big star rider [noted for] this style, I remembered those days.” Fast spinning had not been scientifically tested or proved, explains Kinjah. “It was just my style. We used to call it rapid fire… I knew that maybe I was doing things [technically] wrong but it was working.”
Froome would return to Kenya for the school holidays, often bearing gifts from the bike shop he’d begun working at part-time. “He would come with bits and pieces he had collected from the shop: unwanted pedals, saddles, frames, old tyres and tubes — stupid rich guys in South Africa had thrown away stuff that was as good as new,” Kinjah says.
He noted and respected Froome’s frugality. “Chris was very good at accumulating a little money and saving. Even here in Kenya he would collect avocados and sell to his neighbours — he’d come back to the flat with 20 kilos of avocados, sell them and save the money.”
Froome made solid progress as an amateur in South Africa during the early Noughties, prompting Kinjah to campaign for his inclusion on the Kenya team — eventually succeeding. Froome competed for Kenya at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia, where he attracted the attention of British Cycling’s Dave Brailsford. The rest is history.
What did Kinjah and his fellow Simbas think when they saw their former comrade win the world’s biggest bike race? “We saw it coming,” he says. “I remembered many times when [Froome] would be so tired on the bike but he would refuse to quit.”
Then as now, there was no holding him back. “His mother would get so angry. She would drive 10 kilometres ahead and stop by the roadside hoping Chris would get into the car. But he just went past. [She] would come to me and say, ‘Kinjah, can you please tell Christopher to stop. Tell him he’s only a kinjana [teenager], he’ll get injured.’”
Does Chris Froome, the reigning Giro champion and four-time Tour de France winner, still keep in touch with his Kenyan mentor?
“Not so much,” Kinjah says. “He is like a god now, so they protect him. He’s really a European person now; they won’t let him come to Kenya because they consider it too risky. He is controlling so much money at the team and his life doesn’t belong to him.” Froome may disagree of course — after all, he has a family and a host of other responsibilities that make it difficult to find time to return — but Kinjah sounds more concerned than bitter.
“I don’t really mind that he keeps quiet, but I hope and I wish that he remembers the Simbas,” he says.
“If you can turn up with a rough bike and kick the ass of everyone else, that is cycling for me”
Kinjah and a youthful Froome in 2005
Froome lines up with the Kenyan team in 2006