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Bucking convention has been baked into the Amani Project, which is dedicated to creating opportunities for East Africa cyclists, since its inception.
And in 2023, the organization is upending one of its own projects — the Evolution Gravel Race — to make it more accessible, equitable, and, depending on how you look at it, more interesting than before.
Last year, the Evolution Gravel Race debuted as a five-day stage race in Tanzania, dovetailing on the two-year-old Migration Gravel Race in neighboring Kenya. The late Sule Kangangi, captain of Team Amani and a leader in advancing the cause of East African professional cycling, won the men’s race, while Italian Maria Speretto won the women’s race.
In 2022, riders had five days (with catered meals and camping every night) to ride 850 kilometers and ascend 10,000 meters from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Swahili Coast of the Indian Ocean.
In 2023, they’ll only have two days to do it.
Next year’s Evolution Gravel Race will follow the same route but be split into two 425-kilometer stages. When riders complete the first stage, they’ll have to pause for a mandatory 12-hour break, which begins when they stop riding. They’ll then be sent off for the second stage according to when their 12-hours is up.
It’s a formula that Mikel Delagrange, “head cheerleader” of the Amani Project, thinks can address many issues.
A big one is access. Traveling to Africa is expensive for nearly everyone, as is the cost of producing a stage race. In 2023, the four-day Migration Gravel Race in Kenya will cost $1,200. Evolution Gravel, on the other hand, will be $350.
“With only one camp in the middle, I can dramatically cut the price of the event and make it accessible for everyone,” Delagrange said.
He can also allow more riders to participate, instead of the allotted 100 for the stage race.
As far as the racing itself goes, Delagrange has long been ultra distance-curious but has found the sleep deprivation factor off-putting. Most riders who win some of the world’s biggest bikepacking ultras do so at the cost of extensive periods of not sleeping.
By putting a mandatory stop in the middle of the race, where riders can sleep in tents, eat, or do whatever, Delagrange believes that it will create not just a safer dynamic but a more interesting one.
“None of us [race directors] like the idea of ultra where the one who goes without sleep wins,” he said. “It’s not necessarily best athlete but one who does crazy risks.
“I think this can be quite dramatic in the sense that there’s a chasing of the hare effect on the second stage. Once first one goes, everyone knows what the target is. People can work together or whatever to track this person down. You won’t know exactly who will win until they reach the water. We’re hoping to create a new dramatic effect in these ultras.”
In addition to creating a safer and more interesting dynamic, breaking the entire distance of 850 kilometers into two parts might also strike people as being more obtainable, “as kind-of an entry into ultra,” Delagrange said.
For those who prefer the stage race and are ultra distance-curious, the Migration Gravel Race and Evolution Gravel are still just days apart on the calendar, with MGR running June 20-23, and Evolution Gravel beginning on June 27.
Registration for the Evolution Gravel Race opens Wednesday, December 15 at 7:00 P.M. local time/5:00 P.M. CET/11:00 A.M. EST