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Interview: David Kinjah – the man who made Froome

Joseph Delves
29 Aug 2017

A mentor to generations of Kenyans, meet David Kinjah, the cycling godfather who taught Chris Froome how to ride

It’s 2013. In the shade of a room crowded with innumerable bicycle parts, trophies, cycling magazines and soft toys, a gaggle of boys lean in to get a closer view of the rider on screen.

The small satellite TV is a new addition. Bought the previous year by their coach David Kinjah, its purchase was something of an extravagance, although it’s about to prove a good investment.

The focus of their attention is one of Kinjah’s former pupils and, like them, a member of the Safari Simbaz team.

Meaning ‘wandering lions’, the name refers to how he and the boys watching learnt to ride a bike while bunking at the compound up in the highlands north of Nairobi.

Over 4,000 miles away, the rider on screen is about to win the Tour de France.

Chris Froome might hold a British passport but he was born, and first rode a bike, in Kenya. The man who taught him how is David Kinjah.

The first black African rider to sign for a European pro team, in a country more readily associated with distance running, the road that led Kinjah to racing bikes and becoming the one-time coach and mentor of the world’s most famous cyclist is a long one.

Having left school at a young age, like most Kenyans Kinjah dreamed of becoming a footballer.

‘Kenya is really a footballing nation with a running problem,’ Kinjah explained when BikesEtc caught up with him ahead of this year’s Tour.

‘But the beach where I played was a long way away, so I would run there,’ Kinjah recalls.

‘It was about 34 kilometres every day, and I was starting to turn into a runner by accident.

Luckily, my friend’s dad had a bike that we used to learn to ride, and then I found a BMX in a junk shop and started riding that to the beach.

On the way, I would get into little races with the people I’d see each day, so I started trying to make my bike faster by putting on lower handlebars and a big seatpost made out of an old pipe.’

With his newly improved ‘super bike’ Kinjah started going out riding by himself.

Unlike some other parts of Africa that had been colonised by France, at the time there wasn’t much in the way of cycling culture in Kenya.

‘There was one bunch of guys I saw around who were proper cyclists. They wore Lycra and funny helmets. One day I started following them.

‘They must have been having an easy day because I kept up with them for a long time.

‘Eventually, one of them asked me what are you doing on this funny bike?’

Curious about the young rider on his strange bike, the cyclists invited Kinjah on one of their rides high up into the mountains.

Much of Kenya sits at high altitude and theory has it that this is the likely cause behind its incredible number of endurance runners.

Although Kinjah lived near the coast at sea level, as soon as you move inland from where he lived at the time, the hills rise quickly upwards.

The route the riders would take climbed through the towns of Mazeras and Mariakani, then around to Kaloleni at around 200m altitude.

‘On the very first hill they started attacking and I got dropped,’ says Kinjah. ‘By the top I was pretty angry. I thought these guys have invited me along to use as a punching bag.’

But when the riders regrouped they told Kinjah they were impressed with his riding. Despite this, the youngster didn’t think he’d keep up on the next climb and told them to go on ahead.

‘A bit further along, I saw their bikes lined up by a roadside kiosk. They were there having chai [tea] and mandazi cakes. I didn’t stop because I had no money, but when they saw me pass they finished their tea quick and started chasing me.

‘I didn’t want to be their punching bag again so I kept pedalling. When I got over the hills to Kaloleni, I could only see one rider following!’

The riders quickly took Kinjah under their tutelage, and one, a man called Sabri Mohammed even found a spare bike so that he could fix it and start training properly. ‘I thought, “These guys aren’t so bad after all!”'

Mohammad taught Kinjah to fix bikes, and soon he was riding with a club.

Increasingly obsessed with cycling, by 1999 Kinjah was accomplished enough to start racing abroad with a Kenyan amateur team, and having ridden well at the Tour of the Seychelles was invited by the head of the UCI to try to qualify for the following year’s World Championships.

Having gained a wildcard entry, and without much support forthcoming from his own national federation, the French team loaned him a time-trial bike to compete on.

The following year, Italian squad Index–Alexia offered Kinjah a contract to ride alongside Giro d’Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli for the 2002 season.

The move would make him the first black African to ride at such an elite level. Sadly, the team collapsed in 2003, leaving Kinjah to eke out a living riding at smaller races in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In the following years, Kinjah regularly competed at the Commonwealth Games, and at mountain bike races. He also threw more of his energy into running the Safari Simbaz project (see safarisimbaz.com) which he’d set up in 1998.

Echoing the support given to Kinjah by the riders who’d taken him on that first ride in the mountains, the Simbaz were a loose group of local kids who Kinjah looked out for and taught to ride and fix bikes at his home outside Nairobi.

In Swahili, ‘Mzungu’ roughly means ‘aimless wanderer’. Originally applied to early European explorers, the term has become a default description for European people across the African Great Lakes region.

For Kinjah, the arrival of one at his Safari Simbaz compound was something of a surprise.

‘I first met Chris Froome through his mother when he was 11. She was divorced and looking for someone to take care of him while she worked as a physiotherapist.

‘Chris’s older brothers were back in the UK at university. So Chris was left behind. He was really a mama’s boy and he seemed kind of lonely.

‘They lived in a rich person’s area, but were staying in servant’s quarters. All the other kids he knew were in better schools, so he was by himself a lot.

‘He’d come by the compound on his little BMX. His main friend was his bicycle.’

Despite Froome’s shy disposition and the initial curiosity of the other kids he quickly appeared to feel at home at the compound.

‘There were no white people coming to the village. So to see Chris was quite weird at first. Suddenly there’s this kid who comes every day when the schools are closed and hangs around.

‘There were no other Mzungu kids there, but he didn’t seem to care.’

In fact, despite being the only white kid to ride with the Simbaz, in most respects the young Chris Froome didn’t stand out much at all.

‘He knew nothing about racing, he was just like any other kid. Everything was interesting to him. He wanted to learn how to fix his bike, he wanted to come on longer rides with us.

‘Then he started asking to come to races. He was focused from the beginning but he wasn’t a strong rider. He was young, he was skinny, he was shy.

‘We didn’t take him seriously. But upstairs he was very disciplined.’

The young Froome started spending much of his free time at Kinjah’s ad-hoc academy.

Known as ‘the straight one’ for his beanpole physique, he started competing in the boys’ races where riders on heavy Dutch bikes and battered BMXs rode alongside those lucky enough to own, or have begged, a proper racing bike.

With so many youngsters riding and racing, Kinjah’s compound quickly became the centre of the Kenyan cycling scene.

Still, Kenya at the time wasn’t necessarily the idyll it appeared. Prolonged poverty, increasing ethnic tensions and the al-Qaeda bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, meant that cycling around the countryside and townships was a potentially risky undertaking, particularly for a 14-year-old white boy.

Having graduated from Banda School in Nairobi, and with the family’s fortunes looking up, the 15-year-old Froome moved to South Africa to further his education.

At the late age of 17, he finally got his own road bike. Despite the move, the cycling bug had stayed with him, and in the holidays he would return to ride with Kinjah and the Simbaz.

‘He seemed very happy to be back with the boys,’ explained Kinjah. ‘Always making clumsy jokes.’

Kinjah started coaching Froome remotely, despite having only sporadic access to the internet.

Racing with the Simbaz, and on his own in South Africa, Froome was also starting to win junior events. Still, Kinjah had no inkling that his young charge would go on to triumph at the highest level.

That changed at the Tour de Maurice in 2005. A six-day race around the island off the coast of Africa, Froome won a stage, but found himself bullied by the local favourites, a pair of brothers who at the time dominated cycling on the island.

Knocked off a podium place he felt to be rightfully his, on returning home he promised to Kinjah that next year he’d teach the other riders a lesson, and poured all his energy into training for the event.

On the second stage of the 2006 race, Froome found himself alone with his former tormentors, who started teasing him about his chances and swearing at him in patois.

‘He turned and said to them, “Shhhh!”’ says Kinjah, holding a finger to his lips. ‘Then he just rode away.’

Froome won that stage, and the following one, before taking overall victory. ‘That’s when I knew this kid was serious!’

Breakthrough

Although a breakthrough race for Froome, a win in Mauritius wasn’t likely to attract much attention outside of Africa.

To pursue a career as a cyclist, Froome needed results on the international stage, and without a permanent spot on a pro team, this would mean being called up by his national federation to compete abroad.

By now the strongest rider in the country, the Kenyan Cycling Federation was nevertheless surprisingly reluctant to select him.

‘I fought hard for Chris to go to the Commonwealth Games in 2006,’ says Kinjah. ‘The Kenyan Federation didn’t want to send him. They thought Kenya should be represented just by black athletes. I got really mad. We fell out so badly I almost ended up getting banned from cycling by the Federation.’

While Kinjah’s academy provided and developed much of Kenya’s cycling talent, its founder had long had a fractious relationship with the head of the country’s official cycling federation, Julius Mwangi.

With a fleet of bicycles sent from Europe to the Simbaz somehow disappearing after having been first delivered to the Federation, the two were already on poor terms even before Mwangi’s refusal to select Kinjah’s promising Muzungu.

However, with the potential Commonwealth Games squad consisting of Simbaz, Kinjah and the riders threatened to go on strike unless Froome was allowed to ride.

Eventually, the Federation relented. After having borrowed money to attend the qualifying races in Egypt, Froome eventually secured an invite to compete in Melbourne at the games.

But the difficulties didn’t end there. Not only did their bikes never arrive, but Kinjah claims the Kenyan officials deliberately tried to scupper the team’s chances at the games, even going so far as to hide their food and water supplies for the race. It’s a claim that’s also been repeated by Froome.

Despite these difficulties, Kinjah took off on a long breakaway during the race. Caught towards the close, the Kenyan riders lit up the event, with Froome attacking after his mentor was reeled back in.

He eventually finished at the head of the six-man Kenyan squad, coming 25th – two places ahead of the older rider. It was a ride that caught the attention of Team GB performance director David Brailsford, the man who would become Froome’s boss at Team Sky.

Later that same year, Froome used Mwangi’s email login to surreptitiously enter himself for the UCI Road World Championships.

It was a sneaky move but it paid off massively. A good showing at the race meant he was picked up by South African team Konica-Minolta, and the following season he secured a spot on the Barloworld Team (alongside Geraint Thomas), along with a call-up for the Tour de France in what was only his second season as a pro.

A strong performance at the 2009 Giro d’Italia resulted in a move to Team Sky. Playing super-domestique to Bradley Wiggins, in 2012 he finished second in the Tour de France.

That was the year Kinjah decided to buy himself a TV. The next summer he and the Safari Simbaz used it to watch Froome win his first Tour.

Before the season was over, Froome would return to Nairobi to show Kinjah and the Simbaz the yellow jersey.

It was an emotional return for the wandering lion. But while Froome may be the most successful Simba to date, Kinjah has plenty more young protégés.

Since the future Tour champion lodged at his house, the project has grown to support around 40 young boys, providing them a place to stay, along with teaching them to ride and maintain bikes paired with the IT and life skills to help find work.

‘We choose cycling because it’s powerful. It’s not a sport for cry-babies,’ says Kinjah. ‘Cycling suits Kenyans because you need to be lean, you need to be smart, you need to endure, and you need to be hardcore.

‘Kenyans are already hardcore because of the lifestyle. We just need to transfer that to the bicycle. There’s no one eating chips or hamburgers in the villages.

‘Some of the kids who come have parents who don’t value education, so they have lots of time to train. But we don’t want strong, stupid cyclists.

‘That’s why we teach mechanics and IT, because not everyone can be Chris Froome.’

Despite a huge desire to help everyone who turns up at the project, limited resources mean that not every Safari Simba can always borrow a bicycle.

And while Kinjah is still an advocate of the life-changing potential of the bike, football allows him to support more young people.

‘Bikes are so expensive,’ he explains. ‘We play a lot of football.’

Tactical thinking

It’s a sport Kinjah believes helps to develop the type of tactical thinking that can make for a good cyclist. More importantly, though, it means he can help more people.

‘A ball is less than a dollar,’ he tells BikesEtc. ‘And you don’t need shoes, so everyone can have a go. When we don’t have to choose who can come it’s much better.’

Nowadays, for those who show real potential, the Simbaz have a feeder programme that works with African teams like Dimension Data, home to Eritrean riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane, along with Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti.

It’s this programme that Kinjah dreams will produce the next Chris Froome – and perhaps Africa’s second Tour de France winner.

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