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NAIROBI, Kenya (VN) — Simon Blake, one of the primary architects of the Migration Gravel Race said that when his co-architect Mikel Delagrange complained that the stages weren’t long enough, he had to keep his mouth shut until Delagrange could first ride the route.
“Before the [ride] that Mikel came on, he was saying ‘I think it’s just not hard enough,” Blake said. “He was looking at all these big bikepacking races, ‘oh, it’s just not big enough.'”
Blake reminded his partner that Kenyan roads aren’t like the smooth and polished gravel roads in The Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. They are rough and punishing — so racing shorter distances on the challenging roads presents as big a challenge as racing longer distances elsewhere.
“You can do 100k and you finish and you lie down and you’re just spent. So, we’re trying to bring distance down and he’s trying to bring it up,” Blake said. “After stage one, he’s like ‘yea, it’s hard enough. This race is gonna break people.'”
The Migration Gravel Race kicks off this Wednesday for its four-day trek across southwestern Kenya, and VeloNews will be there for the entire journey. Keep an eye on VeloNews.com, and on our Intagram feed, for regular updates from this inaugural event.
This year 61 riders will be starting the four-day stage race in the Maasai Mara of southwestern Kenya. Participants range from East Africa’s top road pros, to Unbound podium finishers Ian Boswell and Laurens ten Dam, to passionate recreational cyclists from across the globe. We will all be riding and camping in the lands of the Maasai; members of the pastoralist tribe will also be acting as course marshals, SAG moto drivers, and camp hosts. Support along the course is minimal, with one water checkpoint during each stage. Animal sightings are likely.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the stages, each beginning with a quote from the humbled Delagrange himself.
Stage One – 146km, 1,650m climbing
“When I did it there was a light cobbled terrain, like Ronde style cobbles for 60k with a headwind. It’s possible you won’t get the headwind, but the other bits will be there.”
Day one is a shamba, or village, day. The course starts off with a difficult, rocky section for roughly 40 – 50km (think Paris-Roubaix on rocks). Then, it moves on to a climbing section with most climbs also on steep, rocky pitches. We then descend through shambas, cross a foot bridge, and hit the checkpoint for the stage. The second half of the stage is notable for very strong headwinds and a mildly cobbled track.
Stage Two – 160km, 3,200m climbing
“Notably difficult because of the climbing, and because it’s so high it rains a bit and you’re in the clouds.”
The Queen’s Stage. This stage is hard; think, a Tour de France climbing stage on gravel. The route starts immediately uphill. Rangers will be on hand at the earliest points to ensure that the climb is clear of elephants. Climbing will take competitors to the top of the escarpment at roughly 2,800m. The first first 60km continue uphill until descending to a checkpoint. The route passes thorough shamba land high on the mountains. Visibility can sometimes be limited by low hanging clouds. In heavy rain, mud (black clay) may be a factor. After the checkpoint, roughly 100km of climbing and descending remain. This will be an all-day stage for most competitors.
Stage Three – 130km, 1,500m climbing
“You get into beautiful, quick, fast gravel on Stage three. You’ll see average paces go from 18k/hr to 28/k hr.”
Stage three is the reward for completing the first two stages. Stage three starts on hardpack black gravel and traverses over wide open savannah. Plains animals like wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles are likely to be seen in abundance. Compared to the previous two days, this is a fast stage with gravel conditions favoring high speeds all day. There are bridges at the bottom of many descents. and almost all have hidden dips or holes not visible until you come upon them.
Stage Four – 140km, 1500m climbing
“When I famously went up this big climb toward Richard Bransons’ game lodge, there were all these zebras and giraffes on the side of road, and I looked down, and it was like, ‘Off course! Off course!'”
On the fourth and final stage, competitors will be treated to a vast array of wildlife throughout the day, as the route travels through some of the most pristine landscapes in the Mara. This stage can be very hot on the plains. Rangers will be on hand for the more densely populated animal zones – particularly in the last 15km of the race. Those who manage to complete this epic race will be welcomed home by all manner of creatures as they ride into Bandas in the Wild under the MGR finishing banner.