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Betsy Welch diary: Migration Gravel Race stage 2

Sometimes the after-the-ride is even better than the ride. Especially when the ride is this long and punishing.

MAASAI MARA, Kenya (VN) —  I had a long time on the bike today — 10 hours and 15 minutes to be exact — to think about what I’d write in this dispatch from stage two of the Migration Gravel Race.

But what I really want to tell you now about is the campfire.

We’re at our first ‘wild camp’ of the race, which means that we’re not staying at an eco tourism lodge like after Wednesday’s opening stage, or like the one we stayed at on Tuesday night. We are somewhere near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, in a makeshift village of tents and a kitchen and showers on private land that the race organizers have rented from the local Maasai.

This is one of the most poignant details of the race – the organizers have employed dozens of members of the Maasai tribe to act as motorcycle support, cooks, camp hosts, and more. Some of them have been traveling with us all along ,and others we only see when we camp on their land.

Keeping us warm at camp. Photo: Betsy Welch

In fact, if it weren’t for race director James Savage’s relationship with the Maasai — in particular with one man named Salaton Ole Ntutu — the Migration Gravel Race wouldn’t exist at all.

Both Wednesday and Thursday’s stages included countless moments of asking myself ‘how the hell did they come up with this route?’ We seem to spend very little time on major, or even minor, roads and mostly ride on singletrack that seems purpose-built for bikes. I realize today that these are not just goat paths. They must connect something.

When I ask Savage how he did it, his answer is “Google Maps.” And then, “and Salaton.”

Savage was born and raised in Kenya and owns and operates Savage Wilderness, an adventure tourism company started by his father Mark. This is his first foray into a major bike race, and he says he spent the last 18 months refining the route, which meant poring over maps on the Internet, then going out in trucks, motorcycles, and e-bikes to ride it, and then, consulting with Salaton when he had a question.

Salaton Ole Ntutu. Photo: Betsy Welch

The result is something much wilder than any gravel race I’ve ever done. Thursday’s stage two was 60 percent terrain that would be fit for a cross-country mountain bike race. The singletrack seems almost purpose-built, and I guess it probably is — for moving livestock and connecting villages. I still can’t believe that not everyone at this race is a mountain biker. I spent most of the day with Marc, a Spanish physiotherapist who lives in Kenya and works with elite runners. He says that he’s never mountain biked in his life.

He sends every descent.

Thursday’s stage began rough for me. I was happily in the main group for the first 10k or so until I hit a few washboards and lost my water bottles. I managed to recover one of them only to discover that it leaked. Not from the top or the nipple, but from the bottom of the bottle. My drivetrain became a sticky grape-flavored dust-covered disaster, and — as I seem to be in most gravel races — I was suddenly alone.

Fortunately, the road surfaces were much more friendly than what we encountered on stag 1, and about 40k in to the race, we began a stunning, sinewy climb up a smooth red-dirt road. Although I normally love climbing, I was so beat from Wednesday’s stage that I couldn’t seem to muster much power. The only thing distracting me from my suffering was the fact that we were climbing into a totally new eco-zone, one green and leafy and misty in the clouds.

Riding with friends is better than riding alone. Photo: Peter Halliwell

When I finally caught some other riders, my mood improved dramatically. After we topped out on the climb, we rode some ridiculously fun singletrack, and it was like a United Nations of riders ripping down the trail. Dorien and Mieke from The Netherlands, Patrick from Kenya, Marc, and Peter from the UK. Before I knew it we were at the first checkpoint for a much-needed refill of water and some watermelon and potato chips.

“Should we be looking out for any animals on this next stretch?” I asked. The guys at the aid station said no, that they were more in the plains and we were headed deeper into the forest. However, not 250 feet from the aid station, I girly-screamed and stopped. Zebras to our right.

Maybe if you live in Kenya you get used to it. I’m not. Photo: Betsy Welch

The next 100k or so were hard — steep at times, both going down and up — but of course, other things made up for it. Kids were abundant along the course again, and there was plenty of call and response. Habari? (what news?)  Nzuri! (fine!). We descended into river bottoms fringed with palm trees and pedaled through sand that has definitely seen the hooves of elephants. Park rangers were on hand to steer us in the right direction when the trail seemed to disappear; one even couldn’t help but express his shock when he saw my blond ponytail poking out of my helmet — “She’s a girl!”

Marc and I finally made it to camp together, 10 hours and 15 minutes after we began; without him I would have suffered for lack of moral support. We both headed straight to the showers where he opted to wait for for a Maasai camp host to warm his water bucket over the wood-fire while I opted for a more immediate cold plunge. Our tents were set up when we arrived, and another belly-warming dinner was almost immediately ready.

As we sat around, eating and having a beer or a coffee, our camp hosts built a fire. The race directors delivered the results from the day and went over the plan for tomorrow. Turns out, Savage finally is finally giving us a break with a stage that might not break us, and we get to sleep in a bit tomorrow. What’s even better is that the news keeps everyone sitting around the campfire, swapping stories, even longer.

It wasn’t easy to get water to our remote camp; we appreciated every drop. Photo: Betsy Welch

 

Migration Gravel Race stage 2 results

Men:

  1. Laurens Ten Dam, 7:12:55
  2. Ian Boswell, 7:16:05
  3. Suleman Kangangi, 7:19:33
  4. Geoffrey Langat, 7:28:28
  5. Thomas Dekker, 7:48:48

Women:

  1. Nancie Akinyi, 10:02:24
  2. Betsy Welch, 10:16:59
  3. Mike Luten, 11:16:36
  4. Dorien Geertsema, 11:16:36