Culture

Kenya’s Migration Gravel Race: ‘This isn’t another feel-good African development story’

How one of the Amani project's initiatives hopes to elevate African riders.

Destination gravel racing is a thing. Look at The Rift in Iceland, the Tour Divide in the western United States, Badlands in southern Spain.

Kenya’s Migration Gravel Race is not another destination gravel race.

It’s not to say that the event, which will debut June 23 – 26 in the lands of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, shouldn’t be on your bucket list. It’s just that the race’s organizers have bigger buckets to fill.

‘We should talk about racing’

The obstacles facing African cyclists who aspire to the professional ranks are numerous and known: a fickle sponsorship model, lack of racing opportunities at home, the cultural chasm riders face if they ever make it to Europe to compete.

The lack of African riders in the pro peloton has been so glaring for so long that, rather than seek solutions, most people have simply shaken their heads, citing the impossibility of the above.

However, from a small cafe in the Netherlands to the sweaty training clubhouses across Africa, and soon, on the gravel roads of the Kenyan savannah, efforts are underfoot to challenge the notions of an impenetrable peloton.

Team Amani seeks to dismantle the barriers facing aspiring African pros. Photo: courtesy Mikel Delagrange

Mikel Delangrange doesn’t like to put himself in the middle of this story, but it’s impossible not to give him credit.

An American-born attorney who has practiced human rights law at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Delagrange is a cyclist first and a lawyer second.

“Admittedly, I was a fanboy in ’99 who was playing American football until I watched Lance ride his bike into the yellow jersey and I never stopped watching cycling from that moment on,” Delagrange told VeloNews.

Four years ago, Delagrange had the opportunity to become a partner in a coffee and bike shop in The Hague. Its former owner had started a cycling team out of the shop — Lola Bikes and Coffee — and also dabbled in bike philanthropy in Uganda. He thought that Delagrange, whose professional life focused on central and east Africa and whose personal life centered around bikes, could help be the “eyes and ears” of the Africa project.

Delagrange says it put him in an awkward situation.

“I was trying to keep my distance,” he said. “It was the boulevard of broken European dreams. We had donated commuter bikes, bike messenger bikes, all these initiatives started by well-meaning Europeans who didn’t have an idea of what would work contextually in Kampala.”

“When people drop Rabobank helmets off or old 80s Shimano bottom brackets or whatever they hope in good faith will go to good use and it’s accepted, they think they’ve done a good service. But it doesn’t move the dial.”

Although Delagrange didn’t feel comfortable with that iteration of bike do-goodery, it also felt strange to not have an African initiative tied to Lola once he took over the cafe. He felt he could use his experience to navigate the pitfalls of international development, especially in the countries he was familiar with like Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.

So, he started talking to all of the people he’d met around the world who had an interest in professional cycling in Africa. He asked them what they needed in the hopes that he and his network in the Netherlands could help provide it. He says that the answer was unanimous: Racing opportunities in Europe.

“It’s very easy to get distracted when you get involved in these types of things,” Delagrange said. “People say, ‘how can you support cycling when they don’t have enough money to put food on the table? We should do a work program, or nutrition program, or education.’ So you can see it’s all in very good faith that people come up with these ideas, and it makes sense.”

“But the best service you can do is shut up and listen. If people don’t talk to me about nutrition and education and they want to talk about racing, then we should talk about racing.” 

The Amani project

If you’re not sure what hosting a four-stage gravel race during the annual wildebeest migration does to help Africans who aspire to race professionally, Delagrange doesn’t blame you.

“There are a lot of antiquated notions about Africa and cycling,” he said.

The Migration Gravel Race debuts June 23-26 in Kenya. Photo: Lian van Leeuwan

The Amani project is Delagrange’s answer to addressing — and correcting — those notions, and the Migration Gravel Race is its third and most recent initiative.  Amani was born from Delagrange’s many months of listening to cycling stakeholders in central and east Africa, and its initial aim was to address the cultural barrier facing aspiring pros from having a fair chance at success in Europe.

The creation of Team Amani, a cycling team composed of Dutch cyclists and riders from sister teams in Kenya and Rwanda, was the Amani project’s way to confront this barrier: By hosting promising African cyclists in the Netherlands for a racing block, the Dutch Amani teammates would also provide a low-pressure cultural immersion experience.

However, when the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to Team Amani’s inaugural season last summer and it became impossible to host African riders in the Netherlands, Delagrange did what many of us were forced to — he got to thinking about what could happen in a rider’s own backyard.

The pandemic forced the team behind the Amani project to consider how it could benefit African riders while they were confined to the continent. It launched its second initiative, the #RideOnline campaign, and with the help of Wahoo put 10 smart trainers in clubhouses in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda. It set up and hosted the Team Amani X Africa Rising Intercontinental Series event on Zwift so that the riders in the Netherlands could race against the riders in Africa.

Delagrange believes that racing on Zwift (as well as using its standardized testing system) taps into a trove of opportunity for the African riders, pandemic or not.

Zwift in a Kenyan cycling clubhouse. Photo: courtesy Mikel Delagrange

“Using this event on Zwift, getting all the clubhouses online, networking, becoming a coalition of guys with similar interests, stories, and then taking the best riders from these groups and racing under one umbrella — can we get them the attention they deserve? You hear these stories about being plucked from obscurity because of what they’re doing on Zwift. That’s our ultimate objective, to get these guys exposure so they get that call, they get a shot.”

The Migration Gravel Race in June is Amani’s third way to give African cyclists a shot.

Racing in their own backyard

While stage races in Africa aren’t a new concept — the Tour du Rwanda has been running since 1988 — a gravel one is. So is the notion of bringing top-level gravel pros over from Europe, the U.S., and Australia so that African cyclists have the hometeam advantage.

Delagrange says that hosting a race for the top cyclists in east Africa is yet another way to approach the same old issue: The dearth of racing opportunities for aspiring African pros.

“Even with Team Amani, it’s still a hugely pressure-packed environment to bring Africans to Europe,” he said. “Most of the other guys are playing in their own backyard. These Dutch and Belgian guys, even the same age, they still go home for dinner. Why not make people come here and race these guys in their backyard?”

The Migration Gravel Race covers 650 km and 8,000 meters of climbing over four days. Photo: Lian van Leeuwan

The Migration Gravel Race is the third prong of Team AMANI’s approach to increasing opportunities and access for African cyclists. If the COVID-19 situation allows, 50 riders (a 30-20 split of international and African) will race for four days through the Maasai Mara National Reserve, during the time of the annual wildebeest migration. Delagrange and a handful of local riders did a recon of the route in November; it was as mind-blowing as expected.

“Every night they set up in tents somewhere in park, really out in the wilderness,” he said. “You begin to understand the different sounds between a wildebeest and a hyena. A local Maasai guy sets up a fire, he has his spear and you trust him because he lives here, he knows this stuff. I’ve never had a camping experience like it.”

As with everything that the Amani project does, the Migration Gravel Race hopes to achieve multiple goals within one aim. Providing a potential development option to locals Maasai herdsman is one. Traditionally in East Africa, all national parks and reserves were set up as conservancies just before the period of independence. The land was given to whites who then put game lodges on it and benefitted from the tourism dollars.

Delagrange says that offering the residents of these lands opportunities outside of traditional tourism models challenges outdated systems.

“The Maasai are saying, ‘Why do we need to keep this undeveloped? Are you saying these animals have a higher value than our children?’ Delagrange said. “It’s a paternalistic view, right, ‘it should just be done for benefit of humanity.’ But that’s losing. People are increasingly saying, “I need to feed my family and I’m going to cultivate my land.’ The nomadic lifestyle no longer suffices.”

The Maasai are directly involved in the production of the race. Photo: Lian van Leeuwan

Delagrange is under no illusion that one gravel race can turn the tides of a legacy of colonial power structure. But, the dial can’t be moved without a nudge. That’s why the Maasai are a key stakeholder in the Migration Gravel Race, acting as paid camp hosts, cooks, suppliers, and motorbike drivers.

Furthermore, he hopes that the Migration Gravel Race could serve as a model for other, smaller races on parklands throughout Africa — a Migration Gravel Series. Delagrange views it as a concept that could appeal to middle-class Kenyans who live in Nairobi and could start to build a culture of cycling within the country.

“I don’t think we’ll move dial of getting riders into the pro peloton until there’s a culture of pro cycling in the country,” he said. “You don’t just get a Chris Froome out of nowhere, out of the ether. We’re starting little by little to build this up.”

The tenor of the Migration Gravel Race will benefit from the caliber of international riders in attendance. EF Education – Nippo’s Lachlan Morton, Mitch Docker, and Alex Howes as well as former World Tour pros Laurens ten Dam and Thomas Dekker will line up against some of Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda’s best.

The sponsored riders will be asked to leave bikes and kit behind in Africa; they’ll likely take home so much more.

Of all the hopes that Delagrange and the folks on Team Amani have for the Great Migration Race — from its local economic impact to the potential cycling culture it could create — the ultimate goal continues to be clear.

“We’re going to challenge what people think about cycling as this European, white-dominated sport,” Delagrange said. “You’re looking at these guys —wait, they look like cyclists but they’re Black and they’re racing at home. This isn’t another feel-good African development story. We’re not putting out a helping hand. This isn’t why we stand to benefit. We stand to benefit from a more international, more inclusive sport.”