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Ultimate African Gravel: Migration Gravel Race

By: Betsy Welch; Images: Courtesy, Wahoo | From Issue 107

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ON MY WAY TO KENYA, AND ITS CAPITAL NAIROBI, I can’t pretend to know exactly everything going on in people’s heads, but with 60 of us from all over the world about to head to the East African plains to race bikes for four days, I can imagine that both excitement and trepidation are predominant. The ex-WorldTour guys, who have been invited to the race to give the locals a run for their money, will be thinking: Should we race hard, or let them win? While the 20 or so young guys from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, whose nerves are surely firing, will be wondering: Will we be able to keep up?

As for the regular riders who are here for the experience—from Spain, the Netherlands, the States or expat communities in Kigali—they’ll just be thinking: Did I remember my Di2 charger, do I have enough gels and did I train enough? For the numerous people with cameras and lenses and the deep pockets of the cycling industry, their focus is: Will we get the content? And for the race organizers, whose minds I would least want to inhabit, their main thought is: Can we really do this?

As a cycling journalist who has little fear while traveling abroad and even less ego to defend while cycling, my own mental hamster wheel has little to do with riding and reporting. Instead, I have a major-ish medical issue that I have tried to downplay to everyone (including myself and my doctor). I am not supposed to be exposed to sunlight and, yes, I know that Kenya is on the equator.

ultimate african gravel

With notebook out and recorder on during the five-hour ride to The Mara, I choose the bus full of Kenyans and Rwandans, because I want to see how they are feeling and what they think about the mission of this race. I plunk myself next to Rwandan cycling legend Adrien Niyonshuti, who is here as mentor to half a dozen of his young compatriots. We talk about the comings and goings of well-meaning Western mzungus and whether this race could make a difference in an East African’s chance of going pro. Really? Gravel? I ask him.

Niyonshuti says, sure, gravel might seem funny. But if one of his boys does well at the Migration then maybe the national federation’s ears will perk up. That’s a huge deal for an aspiring professional rider. “Let’s say, if the Migration sends an invite to the federation, they will see gravel race and laugh,” he says. “But when they see the result, then they’ll say, ‘Oh, good. How’d you win, how’s the race?’”

ultimate african gravel

DAY 1

The Wild Bandas to Maji Moto Camp (146km)

We leave our eco-camp accommodations on a road that the WorldTour guys say is worse than Belgian cobbles. But the excitement is like a drug, so I numb out to the jostling. Along the way, school children run up to the fences and shriek and burst into laughter when we call out greetings of jambo! Eventually, we turn off the bumps and the gravel race turns into XC mountain biking.

Well into the how-the-hell-did-they-find-this-single track on the first stage, I find myself riding with Ian Boswell. This can only mean one thing—the former road pro turned gravel pro has had one or more mechanicals. He finds me at a very low point, because somewhere along the extremely fun and technical single track my iPhone has ejected from my Camelbak pocket. I tell him why my mood has soured and, magic, he produces it!

We pedal together for an hour or so, and our conversation quickly goes from how losing your phone has become far worse than losing your wallet to: “Holy shit, we’re riding bikes in Africa.”

Ian is like me in that he was intrigued by the premise (and promise) of this race. Of course, we want a more diverse peloton—and Ian certainly knows that winning a gravel race can change your life. We also both admit to a healthy dose of skepticism. What if the Migration Gravel is just a different flavor of white saviorism? Who’s to say that what we think about cycling— or anything—is correct? Eventually, David Kinja catches us, and soon Ian takes off with him. Kinja mentored and coached Chris Froome for years and completed the Cape Epic six times; he might be Kenya’s most famous cyclist, and so I smile, knowing he and Ian will have an amazing conversation.

That evening, nearly all 60 of us gather around a campfire for an informational talk about the Maasai people. Tall and stately Salaton leads the conversation and interprets for the other guys when we ask questions. The Maasai don’t have a word for stranger, we learn, and they know by an animal’s footprint how old it is. To become a warrior, a man has to live in isolation in the bush, learning the ways of his elders.

Salaton asks if we have any questions, and before I know it, a question slips out. I regret it as soon as I ask (this is exactly the shit that Ian and I were talking about): “Can a woman be a warrior?” The guys giggle and one says, “She can be a warrior’s boyfriend.”

DAY 2

Maji Moto to Wild Camp No. 1 (160km)

We are nine “warriors’ boyfriends” at this race: Nancy Akinyi and me, two Dutchwomen, two expats living in Nairobi and three other Kenyans. The men’s race is 50-deep, and of those 50, three were in the UCI WorldTour, one is a pro triathlete and 20-or-so are East African guys who want to make it big. You can’t compare the two fields, but I’m used to that—gravel races in the U.S. can barely fill 20 percent of the start line with women.

ultimate african gravel

“My body is rapidly deteriorating, and I take ibuprofen with my breakfast of thick porridge-like ugali. The constant bumping over rough terrain has made noodles of my forearms, and my hands have lost their grip strength.”In Kenya, Nancy is a complete outlier. I have been intrigued by the quiet 28-year-old from the beginning. On the bus ride from Nairobi to The Mara, she told me that she used to train with Kinja, Froome’s coach, so I hunted him down when we stopped for fuel and peppered him with questions in the gas station parking lot. “There is a reason we don’t have many girls,” he said, talking about his mentorship and coaching program Safari Simbaz, “because they run off with the boys and that’s it.”

When Nancy went to Kinja looking for help in becoming a competitive cyclist, he threw her on the soccer pitch instead. When she didn’t run off with another player, he knew she was in it for the proper reasons. She was not looking for a husband; she wanted to be an athlete.

Nancy gets lost on the first stage, and I’m feeling good—it’s likely those two factors that lead to me winning it. On day 2, I feel like Nancy has it out for me. I realize it at an aid station, some 50 miles into the stage. I am gulping down salty potato chips and watermelon when someone says there is a hippo splashing a few hundred meters downriver. Mikel, one of the race’s founders, asks me to give a brief course update to the camera, and I do so, extra dramatically.

Then, behind me, I hear riders splashing through the river crossing so I turn to see who I’ll get to commiserate with: it’s Nancy and two Kenyan men. The guys slow their bikes and roll over. Nancy’s head is down, her tiny dreadlocks bouncing under her turquoise helmet. She glances up at me. She doesn’t stop. Nancy is an aspiring East African pro, and somehow I am the competition. She wins the stage and disappears to stretch and listen to music while I hobble from the shower to the beer cooler.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve gone to write about something and embedded myself too deeply. Once I got into an argument with a subject about health insurance; he thought I was judging him, but I only asked because, also uninsured, I was seeking solidarity.

DAY 3

Wild Camp No. 1 to Wild Camp No. 2 (130km)

My body is rapidly deteriorating, and I take ibuprofen with my breakfast of thick porridge-like ugali. The constant bumping over rough terrain has made noodles of my forearms, and my hands have lost their grip strength. I’m also constantly stressed by the weather forecast; despite my futile prayers for overcast skies, it dawns brighter every day.

I want to at least try and race Nancy, so I keep her in my sights on the black ribbon of single track that serves as stage 3’s opener. We roll fast, and for an hour I feel okay, channeling every ounce of competitor in me. But then the descending begins, and my forearms light up like fire. I can’t fight through it, and the truth is, I know Nancy wants this much more than me.

Throughout the day, I have to get off my bike and walk to relieve the searing pain in my back and arms. I can’t hide how bad I’m feeling. A Land Cruiser full of race staff passes and asks if I’m okay. Then the media guys lumber by. The only ones who don’t stop are the Maasai on their motos; they probably already think I’m crazy.

When I finally make it to the camp, losing the stage to Nancy for the second time, I tend to my discomfort by palling around with the Maasai guys who are our cooks and course marshals. Before dinner, they slaughter a goat. We are invited to watch; but only a few of the mzungus (and none of the East Africans) choose to partake. Later, a smiley guy, forever saved in my WhatsApp contacts as Maasai David, gives me my own mswaki—a twig to use as a toothbrush.

I’ve never once considered not finishing a bike race or bailing out of something I’ve started and it’s hard for me to admit, but I think I’ve overdone it. I’m worried about my body; the beautiful beaded bracelet I bought from a shy Maasai woman grows tighter around my swelling wrist each day.

DAY 4

Wild Camp No. 2 to The Wild Bandas (140km)

It’s chilly when we start and word passes through the peloton that there is lion scat around the camp. Skyler from Portland, Oregon, says he heard howling in the night. I wonder if the slaughtered goat had anything to do with it.

“I would be lying if I didn’t admit how relieved I am to finish. I collapse onto the cool, smooth concrete porch at The Wild Bandas, and someone brings me an extra-large bottle of Tusker.”

ultimate african gravel

Because it’s the last day, animals are very much on my mind. Although I have seen some—mainly zebras, giraffe and wildebeest—other people’s iPhone footage led me to believe that I haven’t been looking up enough. That’s how hard the riding has been. Or has it? By Day 4, other riders who may have started in the back are starting to work their way past me. Corey from Atlanta, Simon from Belgium and the Dutch girls seem to be getting stronger every day.

Meanwhile, at the pointy end, the race is on; Laurens Ten Dam, Sule Kangangi, Kenneth Karaya, Geoffrey Langat and Ian Boswell have been trading spots on the podium every stage. In that way, the race organizers are learning what they hoped to—that some of the East African guys can hang with the mzungu pros.

The race organizers have promised us that stage 4 is the most akin to traditional gravel…and they haven’t lied. We roll fast through some of the most pristine landscape on The Mara. I am thankfully riding with Marc, a running coach from Spain, who nudges me when we pass an elephant.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit how relieved I am to finish. I collapse onto the cool, smooth concrete porch at The Wild Bandas, and someone brings me an extra-large bottle of Tusker. I feel lightyears away from the person who started this race four days ago and even distant to the one who, months ago, bound and determined to get to Kenya, essentially disobeyed both her boss and her doctor. We have an awards ceremony and celebration later that evening, and I couldn’t be more honored to stand right below Nancy on the podium. The race organizers call every rider up to accept a medal, and we each walk through a tunnel of arms as our Maasai friends chant a blessing.

When nearly everyone has been honored, it starts to sprinkle, then rain in earnest, and soon we are all scrambling to escape the downpour. Later, when we are lounging around the camp, yawning and drowsing but not yet wanting it to really be over, someone says that Maasai blessings bring the rain.