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Power of mentors – from Nairobi to Paris in a pedal stroke

I am making some coaching calls this morning, having just got back from a hectic break -following the 100th edition of the Tour de France. Britain’s Chris Froome excelled throughout the race – climbing brilliantly and time trialling with equal aplomb. The yellow jersey was confirmed on Sunday when Froome and his team mates crossed the line in Paris.

It was a fantastic event – I watched the peloton climb the twenty one hairpins of the unforgiving Alpe D’ Huez whilst I partied with the crazy Dutch fans, I saw the race take off on the penultimate stage in the beautiful town of Annecy and saw first-hand the power of the peloton as it moved at warp speed up and down the Champs de Elysee on Sunday.

Having had the yellow jersey presented to him on the podium in Paris, Froome’s acceptance speech ended with the words “This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time” – in a post doping era, Froome was marking his ground – both to rivals and unfair media commentary on his victory.

As always, the story behind the story fascinates me and having this morning discussed the power of a strong mentor with a coaching client I was interested in knowing more about Froome’s story.

Chris Froome turned professional several years ago but only became known to the wider public when he helped Bradley Wiggins win the Tour in 2012, Chris was his wingman throughout the race, assisting during several arduous stages and indeed finishing on the podium himself.

The career of the British cyclist started however several thousand miles away in a small village in Kenya, the son of British emigrants, he lived with his mother Jane, who worked multiple jobs to pay the rent and food she and her young son needed. Chris and his mother lived hand to mouth, but he recalls his childhood with affection – living in such a rural area his mother was happy to let him roam on his bike – Chris eventually fell in with some new friends and would tag along with them as they cycled through the dusty passes around the village. .

During this time he met David Kinjah – an adept racer who captained the Kenyan cycling team. Chris asked Kinjah if he would teach him how to race – David readily agreed and soon the young Froome spent most of his time with Kinjah riding the hilly terrain close to Nairobi.

During the holidays Froome often stayed with Kinjah and joined the
Safari Simbaz, a group of local boys – mostly orphans, who Kinjah trained in both road racing and mountain biking. Kinjah recall Chris as being absolutely passionate about cycling, eager to increase his ability and a very quick learner.

Chris learned more and more from David and they would cycle out to Kinjah’s parent’s farm and camp overnight before completing the trip home the following day.
On the longer rides it was agreed that Chris would not cycle the full route – due to his youth David was concerned this would be too much for his young body to endure. Froome was supposed to get off the bike and join his mother in her car to save his legs for the following day. But Kinjah recalls that despite being visibly tired and becoming gradually slower, Froome doggedly pedalled on – refusing to get into the car. As the hours wore on both David and Froome’s mother, Jane, insisted that he stop – but Chris wanted to ride the same route and distance as his mentor.

This determination sometimes came with a heavy price tag – when he began racing Chris would often faint after the race and it took some stern guidance from Kinjah to make his protégé pay more attention to his diet and to listen to his body.

When he was 14 Froome moved to South Africa, but he stayed in touch with David – Froome used up most of his phone credit talking to his coach.

“We were like brothers” says David – the two would speak for hours and during the school holidays Chris would return to Kenya and ride with Kinjah.

Froome’s British nationality has meant that unlike Kinjah he rides for a better resourced nation with a deeper cycling heritage and this has afforded him opportunities that perhaps were not available to his mentor.
Kinjah feels no jealousy however, he is extremely proud of his protégé – who donates cycling gear and clothing to David’s group, Kinjah is now training the next generation of Kenya’s cyclists. Indeed, given the dominance of Kenyan distance runners – it could be that access to better equipment might be the only thing stopping Kenya dominating in the world’s greatest cycling race in the future.

You never know how far the ripples will go when you throw a pebble in to the pond….in this instance from the dusty trails of Kenya to the top of the podium in Paris.