For the last few days in Mai-I-Hii village, Kiambu County, a selected group has been keenly following on television the thick and fast action of the Tour de France thousands of miles away.
One particular man has been the centre of their attention: Chris Froome. The Kenyan-born Briton, current owner of the yellow jersey, is well on cause to win the greatest road race in the world.
Barring the unexpected, the 28-year-old will ride into Paris over the weekend to claim the crown of king of cycling.
It will have been a long journey for him that started somewhere in Kenya, in the quiet village of Mai-I-Hii. The best person to tell his story is well known Kenyan cyclist, David Kinjah.
He is, aptly, known as “the cyclist” and he is a familiar figure in the neighbourhood. At his modest home you cannot cannot fail to notice the number of racing bicycles parked by the walls. They are dozens of them.
On the day Froome was consolidating his hold on the yellow jersey this week a sizable crowd was in Kinjah’s house glued to the television screen as they watched “one of their own dominate the best of the best road cyclists in the world.
Boys watching him
“Chris is one of us, and that is why all these boys here are watching him race,” Kinjah quipped as he walked to the garage, to check on the bikes and ensure they were ready for riding the next day.
The eyes of the 41-year-old lean, tall cyclist with dreadlocks light up when he began to talk about Froome. Unknown to many, Kinjah is the person who introducing Froome to the world of cycling, nurturing the young talent that is now the focus of attention at the Tour de France.
“I honestly did not imagine that one day, the 12-year-old Chris that I mentored would be a champion,” Kinjah said as his hands gestured around his modest corrugated-roof home, which is filled with cycling medals, trophies and spare parts for tens of bicycles of his Safari Simba racing team.
“I am a top mechanic but most importantly a trainer. I have a group of 20 cyclists under my wings.
“I teach them the skills required to race, safe riding methods, and everything to do with this sport,” he said.
“With time, they pick up and start developing into cyclists that can now compete for a place in the cycling kingdom. That is what I did with Chris,” Kinjah said.
Kinjah is proud of what Froome has managed to achieve. But he regrets that this achievements cannot be shared by Kenyans because he is now a British citizen.
Rejected by the federation
“I am proud that Chris’ name is now out there. He was rejected by the federation here but he did not give up. Look at where he is,” he said.
According to Kinjah, the win is for the British people because of the frustrations that cyclists in Kenya go through from corrupt officials in sporting federations.
“We met here in late 1998 when his mother approached me to train him in cycling. He was a very energetic kid and a go-getter. He quickly blended with the team and we made a great pair,” he said.
“Most Kenyans think that wazungus are wealthy but Chris had to borrow a road bike from a sympathetic teacher as his mother, a psychologist, who was then living in the servant quarters of a wealthy family could not afford a new one.
“In 1999, we started training and he got really committed into the sport. We would go for mountain cycling within Limuru and sometimes ride all the way to Namanga. He was a skinny boy with a lot of energy,” Kinja said.
In 2000, Froome was able to warm up in cycling events but he could not race because he was still undeveloped. He moved to South Africa to concentrate on his studies, frequently returning during school breaks to Mai-I-Hii to join Kinjah’s cycling team for training session.
“He was able to join a good cycling team but would always keep in touch. He would call me and send me emails. We talked about his training schedules,” Kinjah said.
Kinjah would occasionally go to South Africa to link up with Froome and participate in competition together.
“Chris is a very hard working guy. He is resilient and has a positive mentality. I enjoyed his energy in racing and whenever he stumbled, he would pick himself up.”
“So what are Kinjah’s best memories of Froome?
“Well, Chris is a very funny guy. He is down to earth and honest. I remember one day when we were eating roast maize at my place in Kikuyu and everyone was amazed that a mzungu could actually enjoy mahindichoma.
“That’s my memorable moment with him. In the village, he was a darling because he would ride all over here alone, cook for us, help us repair the bikes. He was literally one of us.”
“We still talk and are very close with his family. We talked last Sunday, when he called about the Tour de France. I do not take credit for his achievements but I am proud of them,” Kinjah said.
As Kinjah dresses up for a ride lets out that he is wearing the boots Froome used in last year’s Tour de France.
“That is how special our friendship is.
“We spoke about the big stage (Mount Ventoux). It is one of the most significant stages in the Tour. I gave him our support as Kenyans and he promised to make Kenya proud,” Kinjah said.
He added that despite Froome competing in British colours, he is still Kenyan at heart. Froomes’ racing bicycle has a Kenyan flag painted at the frame. “Had we not had these issues with the federation, I believe we would be talking about a different scenario in this sport. A Kenya would featuring in the Tour de France,” he said.
Froome represented the Kenyan team at the All Africa Games in 2007 where he won silver. He switched nationalities because of the frustration he got with the local administrators of the sport.
“Chris’s mother was Kenyan though they still had British nationality. He opted to switch nationalities so as to compete without management frustrations. Unfortunately, his ties with Kenya were severed in 2008, when he lost his mother,” Kinjah reveals.
“I think Chris was right to switch his allegiance to Britain in 2008, even though it was a big loss for Kenya. He had little support from the Kenya Cycling Federation. What could he do?” What about the doping question that Froome has to deal with?
Kinjah smiled and confidently said Froome was amongst the new breed of clean runners who wants to race clean.
“I understand that after the Lance Armstrong’s drama, there is a lot of scrutiny especially when one is deemed to perform well. We can see from this year’s Tour de France that all the top riders who had doping issues are a no match for Chris. He is natural.”
Kinjah said that a Froome Tour de France win should serve as a wakeup call to the Kenya Cycling Federation to put their house in order.
“I remembered when he hurled his bike in frustration at the chairman of the team at the Commonwealth games. He told him to his face that with such management of the sport, Kenya would not feature anywhere, but he (Chris) would. He has indeed kept his word,” Kinjah said.
He turns to monitors Raymond Muchiri, 15, a trainee, who is working on his speed on the cycling board. Perhaps another Froome in the making.