The men­tors

Chris Froome’s child­hood men­tor tells David Brad­ford how grow­ing up in Kenya be­stowed a spe­cial kind of tough­ness

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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

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