Interview: David Kinjah, on Getting Froome on a Bike, Black Cyclists and Kit4Kenya
June 14th, 2017
June 14th, 2017
Chris Froome's family emigrated to Kenya to start a crop farm when he was boy. In a country that strays away from most sports, let alone cycling, you may not expect this part of his life to be attributed to the blossoming of one of the most successful cycling careers in history, but in the most unlikely of places, he stumbled upon David Kinjah, a keen cyclist with a strong drive to transfer his passion for life and bikes on to young children. At the age of 13, Froome, a skinny white kid who barely spoke Swahili, would be one of Kinjah's most famous achievements, but is by no means his greatest.
Kinjah set up a school for young boys in the early nineties, a type of boarding school that would use sport to instil drive and passion for life into the youngsters and help better their education and future prospects. Cycling would be a big part of their schooling, thanks to Kinjah's love for the sport, and Froome was one of the boys to stay at Kinjah's camp. "Chris Froome was one of the boys who stayed at the camp, many years ago" says Kinjah, "suffering like all the others. His dad did not want him to think bicycles, he wanted him to think books, but he thought like me. When you work for yourself you might not get as much money, but when you are happy, you are rich."
I guess as we watch some cringing early races of Froome, from the famous crash in the 2006 Under 23 World Championships, where he took out a commissaire during the Time Trial, sending papers flying into the air like a cliche cartoon strip, and later slipping around on cyclocross tyres like Bambi on ice, we can see Froome may not have been a natural from the very off, but what he did have was passion and a commitment to cycling. "We don't push boys to go and become professional cyclists, we push them to train hard, as part of general discipline, because life is hard" says Kinjah, "We don't entertain laziness. We encourage them to be strong. We just help them grow up good so they'll be a good something".
Tarmac must have come as a pleasant thrill to Froome after growing up around the roads of Kenya. Ollie, a volunteer for Kinjah's camp explains that things are very different to the UK, both in transport and leisure cycling. "There's only a few roads you can actually cycle a road bike on, because of dirt roads, pot holes and traffic. The bypass can be busy, but there's a lot of people cycling on it already, and when they see you they try to race you, even though they're not a Simba!" says Ollie after spending some time training with Kinjah's Safari Simbaz, "You do have to be careful, but most of them are fine because the roads are a bit of a free-for-all."
Racing is present in the country, but not popular. "There, you get a wider range of abilities, so it splits up a lot, and people do the races on any bike, like mountain bikes and single speed bikes even" says Ollie, "There's a bypass that we go on with the bikes, which is good hard training. The boys are really strong!". Though riders are improving, and cycling is growing as a sport, Kinjah explains that the culture still isn't in love with cycling, and the constant evolution of technology means that Kenya struggles to keep up, which means the gap is growing between cycling culture in Africa and Europe.
On the Tour of Wessex, it was hard not to notice Kinjah amidst a very white British pack of riders, and I couldn't help but ask if he noticed a disproportionate representation of black cyclists in the UK, or even the sport; "Yeah. It used to be like that in South Africa, but the Mandella government was very pushy about it. When Mandella came out of prison, one of the priorities was for all of these young people to be empowered" says Kinjah, "And sport can be empowering. The rugby national team had only whites, now they have some of the best black players in the sport. Cyclists are starting to come up good now, and there are many cycling projects taking over. In Kenya, we do not have many white people, so cycling becomes a black man's sport here!", laughs Kinjah, "In the UK, maybe we need to start exporting Simbas and thinking about how we can bring them to the UK to race in the UK. And when we're in the UK, we need to call on the black people to take up bicycles, and think about empowering the black people here too".
It's sad to think there are teams of black riders in Kenya pursuing road racing on junkyard bikes, struggling to get hold of replacement parts, and yet black cyclists are still massively underrepresented in affluent countries like the UK, where bikes and cycling clubs are readily available. Perhaps the empowerment campaign is needed here too, much like the progress of women's cycling to date can be attributed to empowering women and giving them much-needed respect and freedom of choice in cycling. Perhaps the future sees Safari Simbaz in the UK, or even across the World.
While we won't solve the fact that cycling is currently as very white-male dominated sport any time soon, Kinjah is certainly doing great work to bring cycling to Kenya. Since 1999, he has taken on ten full-time boys into his school each year, many of which are now strong cyclists with wives and kids, one of which being one of the most famous cyclists on the planet right now, but it's not enough. Kinjah wants to expand, to build another camp and to better provide for the kids he already has. In collaboration with the Tour of Wessex, Kinjah is now promoting his charity, the Safari Simbaz, in order to raise money to fund and grow the project. Kit4Kenya also allows us to donate much needed cycling kit, shoes, bikes, parts, and anything useful to the boys over there. There are donation drop-off points with various bike shops, and eventually it will all fill a freight container to be shipped over; something that may also double as extra storage and housing once its over there.