CHRIS Froome’s growing appetite for cycling could only be properly sated when term-time at St John’s College, one of South Africa’s most exclusive independent schools, was over and and he travelled back to Kenya to stay with his mother in Nairobi.
As a BMX-riding teenager, Froome joined a charitable cycling club, Safari Simbaz, becoming its only white member, and club founder David Kinjah, recalls: “Sometimes Chris would be gone for five months in South Africa and then the schools would close and, all of a sudden, he would appear and say, ‘Kinjah, I’m back’ and then he would say, ‘Can I come tomorrow? Do you have a place for me to stay? Can I bring some food?’.”
Froome said: “I used to go up and stay at Kinjah’s house in the village in Kikuyu for weeks every time I came back for the holidays. It was basic living, but I had the time of my life just training with them, heading up into the forests on our mountain bikes. That’s where I got the love for cycling. Four or five of us would go down to the Great Rift Valley. I loved it but I suffered on those rides.”
As Kinjah’s protégé grew stronger, at 15, then 16 years old, the group would venture further, beyond the villages and open roads around Kikuyu, and up into the verdant Ngong Hills, made famous by Karen Blixen. The Danish baroness had arrived in Kenya in 1914 to manage a coffee plantation and wrote about the intense colours and ravishing landscapes – “dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery” – in her 1937 memoir Out of Africa. The word Ngong is a Maasai word meaning knuckles, a succinct description of the four noble peaks crowning the long ridge that rises from the plain around Nairobi and stretches from north to south, the hills falling vertically to the west, deep into the burning desert of the Great Rift Valley.
The friends would ride up into these hills – through expat enclaves. In the early colonial days, many white settlers, like Blixen, established perfect reproductions of English farmhouses in the green and fertile hills, where the grass was spiced with the scent of thyme and bog myrtle.
According to Blixen, the chief feature of the landscape in the Ngong Hills is the immense vastness of the canopy of the sky overhead. “Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: ‘Here I am, where I ought to be’.”
The steep climbs and stunning vista of the Ngong Hills – rising to a peak of over 2,460 metres above sea level – suited Froome’s early penchant for going uphill on his bike. The fresh-faced teenager lapped it up, breathing easily in the thin mountain air.
“I was born at altitude near Nairobi and have always enjoyed riding at altitude,” Froome said. Here he was, where he ought to be, at home.
Kinjah added: “When we went out to do the hill climbs, he wanted to do it all, to keep up with us. He wasn’t scared. He was a very carefree, upbeat and fearless guy.” The teenage Froome’s intrepid nature had clearly impressed him.
Residents in the Ngong Hills area still reported seeing lions there in the 1990s and confrontations with wild animals were a common theme of Froome and Kinjah’s training jaunts into the untamed bush.An oft-repeated anecdote from Froome’s childhood came from a fishing expedition to the Maasai Mara National reserve. “Every kid who has grown up in Kenya has had mock charges from elephants or rhinos,” said Froome. “The closest I ever came was being chased by a hippo. I was fishing on the Mara River so I was probably asking for trouble but a hippo did come out and chase me. Hippos really do move but I dropped everything and ran up an embankment and held on to roots. I had to wait for a couple of hours. To me it’s just a funny story, to most people in Europe, it’s something completely foreign.
“Growing up in Kenya was just… freedom. You learn so much about life so early. Above all, you learn about independence. It is changing but back then you could do what you wanted and discover life for yourself.”
By the time her son was a teenager, Jane Froome had established herself as a physiotherapist at Karen Surgery on the Ngong road and had become one of Safari Simbaz’s biggest supporters, as well as a friend of Kinjah.
During time off from her work, Jane would make impromptu visits, laden down with baskets of food.
Kinjah recalled: “She would talk to her friends and say, ‘You should come and visit Kinjah and see what he’s done for my son and these other boys from the village’. She would collect donations for us and ask people to give food. She was very generous.”
Home on holiday from St John’s, Froome and his mum would show up with a picnic, and he, Kinjah and the others would head off on a camping trip on their mountain bikes, Jane sometimes following behind in the car. “We rode on the highway a lot of times, which was a bit scary for his mum,” said Kinjah, referring to the fact that Kenya has one of the worst road safety records in the world – the country’s motorists have a proclivity for improper overtaking manoeuvres, speeding and drunken driving. “But Chris was one very confident young man.” he added
Kinjah has fond memories of their long bike rides south on the C58 highway through the Great Rift Valley’s dramatic landscape to Lake Magadi, past steaming and bubbling soda lakes. En route, they would cycle past giraffes striding elegantly across the plains and black rhinos snuffling by the lakeshore, lions lolling under trees, and zebras and ostriches roaming freely by the roadside.
The frisky Froome, said Kinjah with a laugh, “really tried to drop me on every hill, but he couldn’t”. And then their final destination, Lake Magadi, the most southerly of the valley’s soda lakes, would appear shimmering in the distance. In the dry season it is almost entirely covered with a thick encrustation of soda, and the shoreline is fringed with massed pink colonies of flamingos, lending it a bizarre, candy-flecked, lost-planet appearance.
Over the years, as soon as the school holidays rolled around again, the pair would head north, up into the Central Highlands, the fertile, misty, red-dirt spiritual heartland of Kenya’s biggest tribe, the Kikuyu, to visit Kinjah’s parents in the tiny village of Kimbururu. Sometimes they’d camp out and explore the surrounding hills on their bikes. Froome was usually the first to launch into some daredevil prank on the cheap mountain bike he’d acquired in South Africa. “Some of the hills we never dared to ride,” said Kinjah. “But he’d be the first to head down them, often crashing into streams and then picking himself up laughing!”
On journeys back to Kikuyu, Kinjah would challenge Froome to ride as fast as possible to make it back to the village before dark. “It was tough terrain, very hilly countryside and not easy for a young boy but Chris always said, ‘OK, let’s go!’” And they’d race home in the encroaching darkness, plummeting downhill toward Nairobi’s cityscape and the vast expanse of the national park beyond.
“We had a great time riding together but we still looked on Chris in a jokey way. He was fun to be with and we didn’t think that one day he’d be ruling the world in the Tour de France!”
• Extracted from Va Va Froome: The Remarkable Rise of Chris Froome by David Sharp. Scotland on Sunday readers can get £2 off the rrp (£12.99) of Va Va Froome and free p&p in the UK by calling 0845 370 0067 (office hours) and quoting reference VV613.