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Betsy Welch diary: Migration Gravel Race stage 1

Betsy Welch learns that headwinds, rough roads and an – almost – lost phone cannot match the majesty of riding in Kenya.

MAASAI MARA, Kenya (VN) — Somehow, despite the fact that I am nearly 9,000 miles from home, the start of the Migration Gravel Race goes off exactly like every other gravel race I’ve been a part of.

Too stubborn to test my borrowed bike computer before the race, I end up fiddling with it at the start and fall immediately to the back. Irritated with myself, I wonder if I am looking at the course or if it’s just a random line. Then, I look up and lock eyes with a young Thomson’s gazelle and see four more scamper into the brush to the right of me, and I immediately forget about the device. I am in Africa.

Wednesday’s opening stage is 120k long with 1,500m of climbing. Benign by some standards, but the stats belie the difficulty. We’ve been warned of cobbles and headwinds; both present themselves immediately and don’t let up for the majority of the day. The initial part of the route is on the stretch of road that we drove in on Tuesday; we had two punctured tires on the bus route here and know that our bicycle tires could be next.

A moment of reprieve from the rough roads. Photo: Betsy Welch

Riding in the opposite direction on Wednesday morning in the soft dawn light, though, I’m reminded why I prefer experiencing the world by bike.

Children in their school uniform sweaters peek out behind the finger euphobia, the long narrow cactus fence lines that separate their homes from the road. They smile, shriek, or run, and I learn quickly that my attempts to greet them in Maasai or Swahili are better received with a ‘hi’ or ‘hello.’

Even though the road is rough, the sights are distracting enough. Riders are puncturing here, but I am trying to carefully choose my lines while still taking in the sights.

We finally turn off of the brutal baby-head lined road and begin to climb. Now, the rocks are loose. Eventually, the climb tops off and takes us to a plateau, flanked by bluish-green wheat fields on one side and aging cornstalks on the other. There are two smooth stripes of double track to choose from, and it feels like bliss. When we begin to descend, it gets rough again, like Moab, Utah-rough, and I smile to myself, grateful that I have been on so many silly adventures on my gravel bike to prepare me for this ride.

The singletrack descending continues, and the headwind is momentarily gone, and I’m having a blast. Then, when I go to grab my iPhone from my hydration vest pocket, the stoke immediately dissolves. It’s gone. I drop my bike and start to hike. I’m panicked and desperate. I run into Kenyan mountain bike pro Nancy Akinyi and Ian Boswell. Nancy asks me if I’m OK, and I tell her I’ve lost my phone. Ian says, “I found it!” I suffocate him with a huge hug.

A smile for a muesli bar. Photo: Betsy Welch

He and I ride the rest of the singletrack together, descending into a dry creek bed where the bike computers prove essential. We talk about how much being a mountain biker can benefit you during gravel races. We also swap stories that we’ve learned from the Kenyan and Rwandan riders. Can this race really do what it’s attempting to, which is to elevate the potential of the African riders, and open doors for them? The jury is out, and we both agree that we might leave Kenya with more questions than answers.

I ask Ian at what point his ride became an adventure, rather than a race, and he says that a series of setbacks — including unsuccessful tire plugs and a few wrong turns – led to him adopting a “party pace” mentality. He’s kind enough to let me try to hold his wheel. Then, I hear David Kinjah — otherwise known as Chris Froome’s first bike coach – behind me. “Back to business,” he says, cruising up on his mountain bike.

Kinjah, like Boswell, was unsuccessful in plugging a tire early in the day. Apparently, the Kenyan rode off-course into a village and found some glue. Now, that there are two of them with me, I know that my minutes are numbered. I smile to myself as they distance themselves, knowing that the conversation will be better than the ride.

After the checkpoint at 78 kilometers where I am offered water, peanuts, bananas and chain lube, I spend the rest of my ride mostly alone. This is par for the course in gravel, especially on a route as rough as this one. There is very little reprieve from roads rutted by either cow hooves or motorcycle tires, and I get frustrated at times. Inevitably there is a herd of cows, sheep, or goats tended by a Maasai man in bright pink or red to break up the monotony.

Soon enough, the bike computer says there are five miles to go. We are friends now; without it, I would still be out under the African sun. Amazingly, the road is smooth during the last push to the camp where we’ll be spending the night. When I make the turn with about 800 feet to go, it’s as if the gazelle from the morning has conspired with the monkey from the afternoon; a beautiful black-faced vervet looks at me, then looks away, then runs with its long trail tailing across the road.

I am in Africa!

Migration Gravel Race stage 1 results

Men:

  1. Laurens Ten Dam (NED), 4:48:59
  2. Suleman Kangangi (KEN), 5:01:28
  3. Thomas Dekker (NED), 5:11:02
  4. Kenneth Karaya (KEN), 5:11:02
  5. Jordan Schleck (UGA), 5:24:32

Women:

  1. Betsy Welch (USA), 6:46:00
  2. Nancie Akinyi (KEN), 7:29:24
  3. Dorien Geertsema (NED), 8:10:26
  4. Mieke Luten (NED), 8:10:26
  5. April Kelley (KEN), 8:34:38