Safari Simbas: No shortcuts in long cycle for recognition and honour

Saturday July 20 2013

PHOTO | MOHAMMED AMIN (From left) Haroun Mwangi, Vincent Chege, Joseph Kuria, Peter Gathere, and veteran David Kinjah pumping hard on the pedals during training at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Kikuyu, on July 19, 2013.

PHOTO | MOHAMMED AMIN (From left) Haroun Mwangi, Vincent Chege, Joseph Kuria, Peter Gathere, and veteran David Kinjah pumping hard on the pedals during training at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Kikuyu, on July 19, 2013. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ALLAN OLONGO [email protected]

They all work in silence, occasionally exchanging a tools, each keen on ensuring that his bike is in super working order.

It is almost like their life depends on it and somehow, it does. Without a functioning bicycle, they cannot engage in the love of their lives.

They exchange banter in warm companionship and then enthusiastically greet the team leader’s call to hit the road. Welcome to the world of cycling group, Safari Simbas, at Mai-I-Hii in Kikuyu, Kiambu County. The team is composed of about 20 riders headed by their coach, training and mentor David Kinjah.

They describe their world as round, to literally mean that it revolves around cycling bikes. It is a humble group within a humble setting, but their achievements and determination isn’t humble at all. As we head out for a typical training day for them in Limuru, I pull aside speedy 15-year-old Raymond Muchiri.

Muchiri, just like the current leader at Tour de France, Chris Froome, has come to Kinjah to help him nurture his cycling dream.

“I want to be the world’s best cyclist. I have the passion and the tolerance required,” he shares.

Muchiri, who adores Froome, says that with the right training, exposure and support, his dream could be soon a reality, as he jumps on his bike and puts in a burst of speed to catch up with his racing mates. “This is my cycling team. They are my family. As you can see, we have limited access to funds and bicycles. We make do with the little that we have,” Kinjah says. “We have already done so much with so little.” The Safari Simba cycling team operates outside the Kenya Cycling Federation’s calendar because Kinjah was banned after differing with the federation.

“After we differed at the Commonwealth Games in 2006, I decided to go it alone. I source for my own bicycles that are second hand from Taiwan. I also buy spare parts and we are able to modify the bicycles for the Safari Simbas cycling team. I have managed to get sponsors to some competitions.”

Kinjah has seen many competitions. He is one of Kenya’s greatest cyclists. He captained the Kenya Cycling Team to the 2006 Commonwealth Games, his last international engagement. KCF subsequently banned him after they differed.

Very demanding sport

“The federation felt that I was a threat because I started questioning the way they were running the sport.” According to Kinjah, the federation stopped providing bikes to the team and expected each member to enter local and international competitions using their own machines, yet there was a budgeted provision for the purchase of bikes. In his trophy cabinet, are medals and recognition in the sport. He raced in the 2001 Crocodile Trophy in Australia, Willingen Bike Marathon in Germany in 2003 and the Cape Epic in South Africa, where together with Kamau, they managed an impressive 10th position finish in 2005.

Although Kinjah occasionally competes, at 43, the legs are not getting any stronger and he prefers imparting his knowledge of the finer aspects of the sport to under privileged boys.

So what are the challenges that the team is facing? “With no money and no support from parents, Kenyan riders stand little chance of making it.”
Kinjah says that cycling is a very demanding sport that requires massive financial backing which is mostly available through sponsorship.

“At Safari Simbas, we do not have that. It makes it difficult to keep the boys motivated because just like any other person they have needs to meet and bills to pay. The boys also need to have well-functioning bikes and sometimes the spares might be an issue. They need to be on diet to be fit and all these requires money. Another challenge is the lack of support from the federation despite Kinjah being a decorated cyclist with local and international honours.

“The Kenya Cycling Federation do not care about us. Look at what they did to Chris Froome.”

For the 2006 Road World Championships in Salzburg, Froome used official federation e-mail to enter himself, without the knowledge of officials who did not support him. “I obtained the password for the e-mail account, and Froome wrote e-mails pretending to be the chairman and entered himself for the tournament.

“They never gave him support. That is the kind of federation we are dealing with.”

In Salzburg, Froome had to take four buses and walk two kilometres to his hotel and then got lost in the rain on his way to the manager’s meeting because his map had smudged in the rain. He eventually made it though, wet and miserable, because of his drive and determination.

At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Froome was a one-man team – competing, attending manager’s meetings, arranging for his meals.
Within the Safari Simbas team is another champion, Davidson “Terrorist” Kamau, who won the Tour de Rwanda in 2006. It was a great feat because they had also entered the race without the knowledge of the federation.

“We went, we rode and we conquered. We were the only Kenyan team and we made history by being the only non-Rwandese to ever win that competition,” Kamau says, beaming with pride.

Been denied entry

He adds that in that edition of Tour de Rwanda, there were seven teams, with the hosts Rwanda entering five and the other two being from Kenya and Uganda.

Kinjah says that when the Kenyan officials of the federation got wind about their exploits in Rwanda, they communicated to their Rwandan counterparts and since then, they have been denied entry to the competition.

“For this sport to grow, witch hunting must stop. These officials kill talents through corruption. If they had supported the sport, Froome would have been flying the Kenyan flag at the moment,” he says.

What drives Kinjah? “As a professional cyclist, I feel like it is my duty to give back to the group of young boys, who are interested in the sport.”