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Kenyan professional cyclist Suleiman “Sule” Kangangi can remember the first time he heard about Unbound Gravel.
“I got a picture from my friend, he was sitting on this sofa,” Kangangi told VeloNews. “I’m like, ‘why do you sit on a sofa in the middle of nowhere?’ He started telling me, ‘no no no!’ This race is getting popular, it’s the biggest gravel race in the U.S.A.’ That’s the first I knew that gravel was racing.”
Oh, that sofa in the middle of nowhere. Over the years the now-defunct Chaise the Chase set-up that Salsa Cycles used to plunk in the middle of the Flint Hills became synonymous with the race that used to be known as Dirty Kanza, and that race came to define the discipline of gravel. But can you imagine seeing it through African eyes?
While it may have taken three years for the notion of ‘gravel as racing’ to sink in for Kangangi, now the concept has come full circle: in two weeks, he’ll be competing against some of the world’s best in the Migration Gravel Race in his own backyard. In a nation where the WorldTour was always considered the goal for an up-and-coming pro, now gravel is presenting a different way.
WorldTour or bust
Like most Kenyans, bikes formed part of the landscape of Kangangi’s youth. He can remember stealing his grandfather’s ‘Black Mamba’ after school (for decades, ‘Black Mamba’ has been used to refer to any heavy, utilitarian bikes in Kenya).
However, in 201o when Kangangi was 22, he saw a race roll through his hometown of Eldoret, a city of half a million in the Rift Valley. He was instantly smitten.
“I’d never experienced something like that,” he said. “It was the first time I’d seen people racing. I was amazed and stunned by the speed, how the bikes were flying. Not only that, the town was [at] a standstill, and everyone was cheering.”
He joined a local club and began riding with intention. Unlike with the sport of running, cycling is woefully underfunded and undersupported in Kenya, so Kangangi was never part of a development program or national team. He soldiered on, eventually finding his way onto amateur teams that occasionally made it to small races in Europe and Australia. Things turned around in 2016 when he was picked up by Kenyan Riders Downunder, a continental squad composed of Kenyans, Aussies, and Kiwis that would be the first UCI Continental team to be registered in East Africa.
From 2017-2020, Kangangi raced with pro conti team Bike Aid, where he traveled to stage races in Asia, Australia, and on the African continent. In 2017, he placed third overall in the Tour du Rwanda.
Although Kangangi wasn’t racing at the WorldTour level, the dearth of resources he and his teammates were given to compete at the elite continental level was shocking.
“Magazines, books, CDs — that’s where we got information,” Kangangi said. “I would say that was the main way of getting information. Much later we started going to the Internet, to YouTube, we started going to Cycling Today, VeloNews.”
And then there was the racing – and traveling – itself. Of all the challenges associated with being an East African pro, Kangangi remembers two vividly.
“First I will say the culture itself,” he said, “especially when it comes to food, that was a big shock. But the bigger shock was the speed. Especially the crits. My first race was a crit with a less than 1k lap, 47 times. The average speed was in the upper-40s, 48kph or something. I’d never seen someone going that fast in my life. We were a team of nine, and I was the only one to finish the race. I think I was lapped twice. That was shocking, the speed of the crits.”
In spite of the odds stacked against him, Kangangi — just like his contemporaries in Kenyan cycling – didn’t abandon the dream of grand tour racing. The influence of four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome kept those dreams tethered to road cycling. However, as he’s watched the meteoric rise of gravel from thousands of miles away, Kangangi is beginning to see another way.
“I’ve always had a dream of going to the Tour de France,” he said. “When I started cycling, that was the dream. But now I’m 32, that dream is fading quickly. But I realized, I’m used to these gravel roads, this is part of me. I don’t have to go find them. If I want to go training I just take my gravel bike and I’m already there. It shows, you can always change your dreams. You start imagining yourself winning. Why not change my dream and go for something which is realistic for me?”
Gravel as another way
Two weeks ago, Kangangi competed in and won the first-ever Gravel Gorilla Race in Rwanda. At only around 55 participants, it might pale in comparison to the 4,000 that show up for Unbound Gravel. But don’t forget – the first edition of the Kansas race only attracted three dozen.
“Gravel is not something that’s so popular in Africa,” Kangangi said. “So for them, it was well-attended. The roads are perfect. Perfect gravel and really beautiful. From the stuff I see from Unbound and other places — it has potential. The scenery is beautiful and you’re always going up and down. The children don’t see the bikes often, so they’re running alongside you.”
And so while Kangangi has begun to consider gravel from a professional standpoint — the East African winners of the Migration Gravel Race get entries and travel to Belgian Waffle Ride Asheville and SBT GRVL — he’s also completely invested in it at the community level, as well.
In order to help build the stoke for the Migration Gravel Race, Kangangi has been spearheading the Migration Gravel Series in Kenya, as well. He’s hosted two events near Nairobi; nearly 130 people showed up. Although he’s up against a country full of Froome fans, Kangangi thinks that gravel won’t be such a hard sell once people understand that it’s actually the stuff they’re used to.
“Last week I organized an event for school students,” Kangangi said.” It happened on a gravel road. It’s just natural for them. I couldn’t do it on tarmac, it’s too dangerous for them. They were enjoying it. I say it’s a natural fit, it’s just that everyone wants to be Froomie, ride a good road bike. But maybe with the Migration Gravel Race, people will see, ‘oh I can do something else with my cycling.'”
For Kangangi himself, much of the excitement ahead of the Migration Gravel Race has to do with the fact the action is coming to him, to Kenya. The top two finishers at Unbound — Ian Boswell and Laurens ten Dam — are both on the startlist, as well as retired pro cyclist Thomas Dekker. Not only does this create real competition for him, but it lends credence to the event itself.
“This is the first time we’re having such a big race in Kenya,” Kangangi. said. “I know it’s not a road race or a Tour of Rwanda, but this is massive for the homeboys, for everyone who wants to be a good cyclist in the future. I think it will just open even more roads to the younger generation here. That excites me a lot for the future.”
If Kangangi is one of the top East African finishers at the Migration Gravel Race, he will have the opportunity to see what that different dream — the one isn’t on the tarmac roads of Europe but rather on gravel — feels like. It’s a possibility that motivates him just as much as if he were training for the WorldTour.
“Now we know there are other African cyclists who can do it, go to race outside their country,” he said. “These are big races on their own. I know the aim was always to go to the Tour or Giro, but with this, they are big on their own, and I don’t feel like less privileged or less anything to have the ambition to go to those races and try to do well.”