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Evolution Gravel and Team Amani — the movement to develop an East African pro cycling culture marches on

After the success of last year's Migration Gravel Race, the Amani Project rolls into 2022 with a new stage race and a team.

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Fursa, the Swahili word for opportunity, became the subtitle of last year’s inaugural Migration Gravel Race.

The four-day event in Kenya drew former WorldTour pros and up-and-coming East African talent to a brutally hard stage race in the remote wilderness of the Maasai Mara. 60 participants from around the world formed friendships and tested fitness. After the event, some of the East Africans had the opportunity to race and ride in Europe. Lachlan Morton chose Kenneth Karaya, the Kenyan who finished third at the Migration, to be his partner in the Cape Epic.

Now, an official off-road team consisting of some of the East Africans who competed at the Migration is in the works.

Related: Meet Kenneth Karaya, Lachlan Morton’s Cape Epic teammate

It’s fitting, then, that the title of the newest gravel race in East Africa — produced by the same team that created the Migration — is Evolution.

Mikel Delagrange, the founder of the Amani Project, the large umbrella under which the Migration Gravel Race, Evolution Gravel, and other up-and-coming projects operate, said that the symbolism of the new race’s name is multi-fold.

Nancy Akinyi, who won the Migration Gravel Race, leads riders on a reconnaissance of the Evolution Gravel course. (Photo: @saltlake_lian)

“For one, we start in the cradle of mankind in Tanzania,” he said. “The first Homo sapiens remains were found near there. We also wanted to play on the word ‘evolving,’ and how people think about cycling. Where they think about cycling. What they think they can do on a bike. All of that is evolving quickly at the moment.”

So too is the vision of the Amani Project. Delagrange said he and his partners always envisioned multiple events in East Africa to help further the mission of creating opportunity for aspiring pros, and the success of the Migration Gravel Race has helped hasten the process.

Related: The Migration Gravel Race is bringing Unbound winners and East African pros to Kenya

While the Migration could have stood as a one-off success story, stopping with one race in Kenya would not have, as Delagrange likes to say, ‘moved the dial.’

“There’s only so much in terms of revenue and in terms of a single race on the calendar can do,” he said. “We’re trying to lift three, four countries up with getting their athletes opportunities and access to the sport. A bunch of athletes got an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten off the back of the proceeds from the Migration. We’re still combatting the idea that Africa is a country. It is a continent, and the countries are quite distinct.”

Evolution Gravel

This summer, five days after the Migration Gravel Race ends in Kenya, Evolution Gravel will begin in Tanzania. According to Delagrange, the races are distinct beyond the cultural and geophysical differences contained within the countries borders.

First, Evolution Gravel is a point-to-point event.

“The race goes from crater to coast,” Delagrange said. “We pass through five different climate zones on the way. The stages are all quite long with an eyewink toward an ultra event but not quite. Smooth gravel roads, so anyone who’s ridden the Migration will already know it’s quite a departure. There are a couple flat long stages and a couple massive mountain stages. Then you end at the coast, the Indian Ocean, which is a huge incentive for riders. You’re just a short ferry ride from Zanzibar. It’s a really a nice way to end a race and also expose people to the cultural influences that have nothing to do with the Masaai or things you find in the mara.

Evolution Gravel will cover 850 kilometers and 10,000 meters of climbing over five days. Delagrange said that the long stages — they average 180k — and two days that feature over 3,000 meters of climbing will challenge riders in a way that the Migration’s shorter yet more technical stages did not.

So, who is Evolution Gravel for?

“This race will be daunting for people,” Delagrange said. “We didn’t want to make it so exclusive that only pros could do it. I think there’s a crowd out there that’s interested with flirting with the ultra thing but not interested in seeing who can do without sleeping the longest. We’re hoping that some who’ve been walking the tightrope between ultra and gravel, that this will be something that appeals to them.”

Speaking of tightropes, Delagrange and his partners at Amani are walking multiple ones. While the Migration Gravel Race and now Evolution Gravel are amazing opportunities for non-professional cyclists to travel and race their bikes in East Africa, the events also have a very specific purpose: to provide high-level racing on African soil and to support aspiring East African professionals.

In order to do that, they need talent and dollars — in the form of industry partnerships — from the West.

“This is the kind of thing I have to remind people who ask, ‘hey can you cover my costs?'” Delagrange said. “We’re not that kind of organization. I’m not Unbound. It’s the same format as the Migration — every penny we raise goes straight back into Amani.” 

Team Amani

While multiple gravel races were always part of the Amani Project’s vision, a gravel team was not. “The point,” Delagrange said, “was to try and create an independent revenue stream so these East African athletes weren’t always beholden to a sponsor.”

Nevertheless, after the dust had settled from the Migration Gravel Race, the Amani Project had proof that a deeper investment into the growth of an East African pro cycling culture was a move that, once considered unconventional, might make sense for a bike brand.

“Historically, if the athletes reached the age of 21 and hadn’t made it to a pro conti team, they were useless,” Delagrange said. “That’s not true. They have everything it takes to make a splash. That’s why we came up with our team. And, we pushed our corporate sponsors to back the play. If they’re really gonna focus on the sport, they have to have bread on the table.”

Re-fueling in Tanzania. (Photo: @saltlake_lian)

Now, with the backing of brands like Giant, POC, and Factor Bikes, Amani will focus on three projects this year — the two gravel races in East Africa and the newly-formed Team Amani. Ten riders will receive salaries and support — “all of the things that were super ad hoc last year we’re making sure are dialed,” Delagrange said. 

The push for the cycling industry partnerships to fill in the sizeable gaps that revenue from race registration simply can’t cover is a reminder of the many hurdles a pro cyclist in East Africa faces.

“This is where there’s a huge blind spot with how it works in the West,” Delagrange said. “People don’t have their families to rely on or a socialized system they can rely on. Kenneth [Karaya] said it best the other day — if  you make one mistake in Kenya you hit a rock. That’s why they all have side hustles.”

“It’s inspiring on one level, but it’s difficult if they’re constantly worried about these things — performing and winning the prize money, the pressure is very high. We’re hoping to leverage corporate partnerships to see what happens. For one year, what happens? I’m not expecting them to win Unbound. But it’s a way to give them a little comfort to see if we help them do something differently, if it results in something different.”

To see if opportunity can lead to evolution.