Migration Gravel Race: to give African cyclists a chance

In Swahili, fursa means “opportunity”. Among East African cyclists, this word is embodied through a gravel bike. A racing but robust frame, wide treaded but rolling tires, this hybrid frame which carries a set of more inclusive values ​​in its wake, is gaining more and more followers around the world. Through it, some African athletes hope to realize their sporting dream.

Just look at the Tour de France peloton, for example, to see the obvious. Much of the world is missing from the World Tour of road cycling. In 2021, less than 2% of professionals in the world’s top division were African: 11 out of 578 in total.

These figures testify to the thick glass ceiling of cycling in Africa. Its causes are multiple, as much due to travel restrictions and administrative problems as to the shortage of equipment and linguistic and cultural barriers. But in the eyes of human rights lawyer Mikel Delagrange, the biggest problem is the lack of racing opportunities on the African continent.

Reverse the trend

For this American, amateur cyclist, who came to cycling thanks to the victories of fallen champion Lance Armstrong, it is obvious: “If you don’t confront the best, your level will stagnate and you will never reach the level that is necessary to appear in the World Tour.” Aware that offering the opportunity to a few Africans to participate in high-level races far from home would only benefit the lucky few, he preferred to reverse the process by inviting big names (who, if they are not on the World Tour , testify to an excellent level) in two important events that he created in 2021 between Kenya and Tanzania.

“The experience is thus shared by a whole community of runners, continues Mikel Delagrange in the magazine Outside. Propelled into new territory, Western athletes can also discover another culture and create strong ties with athletes they would not necessarily have the opportunity to meet elsewhere.

Amani means “peace” in Swahili. “The atmosphere is indeed peaceful in the evening when we all gather around the fire, testifies Marin de Saint-Exupéry, one of some 40 Western cyclists to have participated in the Migration Gravel Race in Kenya in recent days. But as soon as the sun rises, everyone is in the world of competition.

Mountain sickness

He is used to long-distance cycling races, but he does not hide having suffered on the dry land of the Kenyan highlands. “It hits, it’s hard and it goes fast, he describes on the phone. The effort is intense, the pace steady. Everyone goes full speed ahead and if you want to claim victory, you have to be in the lead pack from the start. Afterwards, you have to resist as long as possible.

Over four days, the participants of the Migration Gravel Race covered 650 kilometers in the Masai Mara nature reserve at an average altitude of 1900 meters. “I hadn’t anticipated the lack of oxygen and after being delayed by a puncture on the first day, my head was spinning and my heart racing on the second,” says Marin de Saint-Exupéry. The following days, gastric problems forced him to retire and follow his competitors in a broom wagon.

He therefore regrets not having been able to follow all of the singletracks, technical trails and red clay tracks that criss-cross these plains inhabited by the Maasai. Although he was able to observe zebras as well as giraffes, antelopes and hippos, the animal that interested him the most was covered in dust and moved on two wheels.

A springboard

Well equipped and sometimes better trained, it was mainly members of the Amani team supported by the project who fought for victory. “But this year, if he hadn’t had a problem with his derailleur two minutes from the end, the Italian Mattia De Marchi would have won it”, specifies the French cyclist.

For women, Kenyan Nancy Akinyi, winner last year and bronze medalist at the 2019 African Games in Morocco, had to bow to Italian Maria Sperotto and American Lael Wilcox, known for her long distance performances. On the men’s side, Kenyan John Kariyuki won the race ahead of Ugandan Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi.

If everyone plans to participate in the Evolution Gravel Race, which will take place on Sunday in Tanzania, many are those who dream of the most famous gravel races in the United States. Unbound Gravel, Gravel Locos, Steamboat Locos, as many names as opportunities to shine elsewhere than on their continent. And to show what they are capable of despite a terrain strewn with pitfalls.

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