Out of Africa: Chris Froome’s former mentor talks about his rise

Before he was a grand tour contender, Sky’s Chris Froome was a teenager in Kenya, riding under the tutelage of David Kinjah

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Velo magazine. We present it here, following Chris Froome’s overall victory on Sunday in the 100th Tour de France. Pick up a copy of Velo at a bike shop or bookseller near you, or on the Apple Newsstand or at Zinio.

With his second-place finish at the 2012 Tour de France, Chris Froome burst onto the biggest stage in professional cycling. But the career of the British-Kenyan cyclist started thousands of miles away in a tiny village on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

“As a child, it’s got to be one of the best places to ever grow up,” Froome told Velo. “You’ve got so much freedom. Your parents are not trying to keep you indoors because some strange man might take you away. I had my little bike and I would go out and see my friends. I just lived an outdoor lifestyle. We were about 30 minutes from the city, out in a residential area. On weekends, my mother would take me down to the Great Rift Valley road, which is very bush. A very rural area.”

Froome started racing on a mountain bike. He had a couple of friends from school who would go out every Friday on a road ride; Froome would be there with his mountain bike, tagging along. When he was a young teenager, he met David Kinjah, who was the captain of the Kenyan cycling team.

“With dreadlocks, [Kinjah] was a very flamboyant character,” Froome said. “He’s the one who got the spark in me about [competitive] cycling.”

While it has been 15 years since those first rides, Kinjah remembers it like it was yesterday. He first took Froome on trips through the country’s mountains and planted the seed that has led to his cycling prowess.

“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,” Kinjah said.

A 12-year-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,” said Kinjah, who is 40, 13 years older than his protégé. And, so, Froome became part of the Safari Simbaz, boys from the neighborhood, mostly orphans, who Kinjah trained — and still trains — in mountain biking and road cycling, and also taught in the repair of bikes so they could 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,” Kinjah said.

But Kinjah never dreamed that his pupil would race on the most dominant team in the Tour de France, let alone finish second. “In the beginning, Chris could barely reach the pedals of an old road bicycle he got from one of his primary school teachers,” said the flamboyant professor, speaking while slumped on a dusty couch in his living room, 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 a fan of mountains, camping, and having fun as his mentor. “We cycled regularly to my parents’ farm, 50 kilometers away, camped in the meadow where, one time, cows ate half of our tent,” Kinjah said. During these rides, he also came to know the stubborn fighter in Froome.

Because of Froome’s young age, Kinjah didn’t always want to let him ride the entire trail; so it was during a tour to Kajiado, which was 60 miles away. Froome was supposed to stop cycling, join his mother in the car, and continue on to the overnight campsite. Although he was exhausted and slow, Froome categorically refused to step into the car.

“For hours his mother and I talked to him, but whatever the cost, he wanted to cycle the same distance as I. Chris was very ambitious. In my opinion, sometimes too ambitious,” Kinjah said. This enormous ambition occasionally landed Froome in trouble. During and after races he regularly fainted; this also started happening when he moved and began training in South Africa at the age of 14. “He knew his limits insufficiently, didn’t always pay attention to his diet, and maybe was also under pressure from his team, his coach, and himself,” Kinjah said.

Even when the two were separated, 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,” Kinjah said. “Chris was already a smart rider who could easily win against many South African competitors. If our phone credit ran out, we quickly bought new credit.”

During school holidays, Froome often came back to Kenya. The two always organized a Kinjah-Froome race that got out of hand the last time. Froome claimed that he finally would be able to beat his mentor, “which I obviously didn’t believe,” Kinjah said.

They organized a race. Froome was on a good bike, wearing cycling shoes, cycling gear, and a helmet, Kinjah on a heavy mountain bike with normal pedals, in T-shirt, shorts, and a bandana. But, when it became sunny and very hot, Froome took his helmet off and hung it on his handlebar. As they cruised down the mountain at 35mph, the helmet fell, and landed right in front of Kinjah’s bike.

“I got launched and slid for meters over the hot tarmac,” laughed the Kenyan, pointing one by one at the inches-long scars on his knees and arms. “This is Chris Froome, this is Chris Froome, and this is Chris Froome. But he has never beaten me.”

Proud papa

Kinjah is extremely proud of Froome’s results, which include second at the 2011 Vuelta a España, second at the 2012 Tour, an overall win at this year’s Tour of Oman, and second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.

From the beginning, the Kenyan saw Froome’s potential in climbing. They would ride endlessly up and down 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,” Kinjah said.

Since 2008 a British flag — and not a Kenyan flag — has been fluttering next to Froome’s name, but that makes no difference to Kinjah.

“It’s not about nationality,” Kinjah said. “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.”

That last bit of insight was gained through personal experience; many times Kinjah was forced to travel to international competitions without any equipment. While the federation promised him otherwise, at the world road championships in Plouay in 2000, he had to start on a borrowed bike, far too big for him, that he’d managed to arrange only the night before. The same happened when he and Froome competed together on a Kenyan team at the Australian Commonwealth Games in 2006. They were left with no choice but to borrow bikes from a local cycling shop.

In light of this, Kinjah is 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 rider.

After he has put his head out of the doorway and screamed something to one of the bedrooms next door, a shy Safari Simba appears with a muddy pair of cycling shoes in his hands.

“With these, Chris rode 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 grumbled. The boy stood next to him, shyly staring 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 [paid to] it, except for some small, simplistic reports on the news.”

Indeed, Froome’s experiences more than a decade ago are reminiscent of that lack of awareness of the Tour, and European cycling in general.

“I only really started seeing the Tour on TV when I got to South Africa,” Froome said. “That was the time of Basso, Armstrong, Ullrich, those times. That was the first real competitive cycling that I had ever seen.”

Froome’s hunt for yellow

Because his internet connection is too slow for live streaming, Kinjah follows the Tour de France by social media. From that perspective, he’s convinced that Sky leader Bradley Wiggins deserved to win last July.

“I understand that it was frustrating for Chris because he was in such great shape and probably could have won the Tour relatively easily,” he said. “Of 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.”

Kinjah 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,” he said. According to the Kenyan, it’s even difficult for Chris’ brothers, Jeremy and Jonathan, to contact Chris. “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.”

[Editor’s note: Asked for comment on this story, Froome’s agent, Simon Bayliff of global sports and entertainment agency Wasserman Media Group declined, saying, “We are aware of the unofficial Chris Froome book that is being published and so we are particularly sensitized about Chris adding further content to it that would otherwise go in his own official book in the coming years.”]

With videos of the Tour, Kinjah gradually tries to teach his pupils about the meaning of cycling in Europe and how one of their own Simbaz has become one of the biggest stars in the sport.

Above all, Kinjah’s 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, who suddenly died a few weeks before his 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.”