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Second to none
David Kinjah, of Sossi Safari Simbaz, remembers when he took a young Chris Froome under his wing.
Reproduced from Cycle World Magazine. Words by Andy McGrath.
David Kinjah's lively voice crackles over the phone from Kikuyu, a village 20km north-west of Nairobi: "Chris Froome is one cool dude."
Vivacious and dreadlocked, Kinjah is wellknown in African cycling circles. He rode a season in Italy with Index Alexia (earning the nickname 'Leone Nero', the Black Lion) a decade ago. Now he dedicates his time to the Safari Simbaz, an NGO trust that supports a motley bunch of disadvantaged young riders, some school dropouts and others. He takes them in and teaches them to cycle, maintain bicycles and, most of all, have fun. The rooms at Safari Simbaz are an Aladdin's Caves of bikes, kit and second-hand parts.
"The first time I met Chris Froome was towards the back of 1998," Kinjah says. "It was actually his mother [Jane] who was very interested in cycling. She was a single parent and Chris was the only son there [in Kenya], his two brothers were already away in the UK. She was struggling to keep a job; she was not a rich woman. She showed up at one of our events. She said, 'my son loves bicycles and the school's closed. I don't know what to do with him. Do you think you can do anything with him? So I said, 'Yeah, I can teach him how to ride bikes and have fun.'"
Froome and the Simbaz would ride mountain bikes on Kenya's broken roads and around the Rift valley, passing buffaloes and lions on occasion. First impressions of the 13-year old Froome did not suggest a dazzling talent. "He wasn't anything special," Kinjah remembers. His skin colour did set him apart. "We're all Africans here, but having a mzungu (Swahili for white man) in the village was a bit crazy."
They rode through hostile areas unaccustomed to white faces. His mother, Jane, sometimes followed in the car, worried about security. But the young Chris integrated himself into the group and village, earning a string of friendly nicknames. "He was cautious, yes, but he wasn't afraid of doing what we were doing. He learned to be one of us, Kinjah says.
Among older riders ("they were much, much better than me," Froome recalls) his other shining attribute was his brute determination. "His mother would say, 'Kinjah remember, Chris is only kijana [a young boy], it's getting too much, I think.' And I'd say, 'This kijana is very determined.' I'd say, 'Your son doesn't want to stop now'.
Sometimes I'd tell him, 'You're only riding one way. When we get to my parents' house, you'll come back in the car.' Chris would be very, very angry with me. Sometimes he'd even refuse to eat. He wanted to ride back. One of the reasons he got very successful is because he was very determined. He never turned back. It was his mum who had to learn how to be free," Kinjah says. She became one of my greatest supporters, a big friend of mine. She'd make food for us, she'd work extra just to make sure she could come and help us. Chris was like our younger brother," he continues. He signs off the conversation with, "Keep smiling."