Kenyans are renowned world beaters in middle and long distance running, and Iten is the undisputed home of champions. But now, a group of young lads from Iten are determined to throw a new sport in the list of Kenya’s all-conquering disciplines. Cycling. And they have the ambitious dream of making it to the Tour de France someday. And even harbour dreams of taking part in the Olympic Games.
So as the country celebrated 56 years of self-rule on June 1, Suleiman Kangangi, Charles Kagimu, Caleb Omwoyo, Ndung’u wa Keya, Jeff Kiplagat and 22 other young cyclists gathered on the slopes of the Aberdare Ranges to explore the area on two wheels.
Dragging their monster bicycles along, their too-tight Lycra kits and loads of passion, power and confidence, the 27 cyclists rode through 75 kilometres of the punishing, hilly course up and down the mountain before calling it a day.
Along the way they had to weave in and out of traffic, competing with motorcycles, cars, buses, lorries and carts, many of which left in their wake thick fogs of black smoke.
“The roads in Kenya are not cycle-friendly, so we really have to concentrate. The speed bumps and potholes are dangerous and on top of that, there are no cycling lanes. And motorists don’t have any respect for us so if you’re not careful, you’ll be knocked down,” said Kangangi, who was part of a five-man peloton that went on to win the race in under three hours.
Kangangi would know. Because together with Kiplagat and Kagimu, he is one of the very few Kenyans who have had a chance to practice cycling as a profession.
The trio is attached to German club Bike Aid, and they spend most of their time in Berlin preparing to take part in races across the world. Kiplagat’s contract with Bike Aid is however yet to be renewed.
In the four years Kangangi has been part of Bike Aid, the trio has competed in 17 countries including Gabon, China, Slovakia, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Congo, Eritrea and France, which is the undisputed home of cycling.
With every international race they take part in, the trio have collected valuable experience about cycle sports and plan to use their exposure and experience to turn around the future of cycle sports in Kenya.
“In other countries cycling is very big. But in Kenya we don’t have a cycling culture. So the sport is not very developed. Other African countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia are more active and although there are several challenges standing in our way, I know we shall get there,” Kiplagat said.
Indeed the challenges standing in the way of the development if cycling in Kenya are many. Lack of cycling lanes, or having lanes where public service vehicles frequently overlap, is one of the biggest challenges. And that is not all.
Lack of proper leadership, lack of willing corporate sponsors, poor media coverage of events, few bicycle vending shops and unavailability of spare parts, thieves who steal bikes and lack of policies on road use by bicycle riders are just a few of those challenges.
“There is a federation that is in charge of cycling in Kenya. But none of their representatives is involved in this race. None of them is here. And that is a big problem,” he adds.
Considering that many of the riders in Iten come from poor families where getting food is a problem, the fact that they have good racing bikes was remarkable.
Modern bikes can cost anything from Sh30,000 to Sh1 million, depending on type of bike, the brand, its weight and the material used to make it. For example, a bike made of carbon is lighter than one made of aluminium, and so the former tend to be more expensive than aluminium made bikes.
“Money is another big challenge. For you to succeed especially in international competitions, you must have a good bike, and that is expensive. Then you must have money to maintain it, by buying the required spare parts.
“And you must also have a good diet especially during the weeks before a major race. The clothing we wear is not cheap either. It is also time consuming because you need to train for at least two hours daily to attain optimum fitness levels. So you see talented people opting out because they don’t have the time or the money or both.
“As Kenyan Riders we are lucky to have a financier, but many other talented cyclists don’t have this kind of support. So they end up cycling just for fun, yet they could be good enough to go professional if they had the right support,” Kagimu said.
Kenyan Riders is an Iten-based Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Continental team founded in 2016 and based in Kenya.
It participates in continental circuit races organised by cycling body, the UCI, and raced in some of the top events in the world.
The team was formed by the merger of two teams, the Kenyan Riders and Pro Team Downunde, and it feeds European teams like Bike Aid with talented Kenyan cyclists.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union in English) is the world governing body for sports cycling and oversees international competitive cycling events.
It is based in Aigle, Switzerland. Through its member associations, the UCI issues racing licenses to riders and enforces disciplinary rules, such as in matters of doping.
As the interview progresses, the looks on the riders’ faces shows just how much they enjoy every bit of the sport despite the fact that cycling in Kenya remains a minority pursuit.
But working for Kenyan Riders behind the scenes is Simon Blake, an Australian cycling enthusiast who resides in Iten, scouting for talent, nurturing it and eventually giving potential Kenyan cyclists passage to teams abroad.
Blake also sources for funding for the Kenyan Riders from his contacts abroad so that his riders have the best bicycles, spare parts and diet.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think Kenya has a future in cycling. The talent is there. And although there are several challenges, I am positive that things will change. Since I got involved in cycling a decade ago, I have seen some growth. And although it is slow, I am sure we shall make progress I the near future,” he said.
Kangangi and his friends have started from the very bottom, but they are slowly, tirelessly and fearlessly making the strides. They recently competed in the Tour de Rwanda, which is one of Africa’s most prestigious race.
“It is all about passion. And it is funny because it is a talent I never knew I had. I used to ride my black mamba bike to transport things for people, to get around or just for fun. But I never thought I could earn a living from it,” says Kangangi, who is the captain of the team.
“It is sad that there is no nurturing of cycling talent in Kenya. There are no primary or even secondary schools encouraging pupils or students to ride bikes. And that has reinforced the notion that cycling is not in our culture,” said 23-year-old Caleb Omwoyo, a powerful and talented rider who is hoping to break into professional cycling soon.
“If we encouraged young kids to ride good bikes, and to compete among themselves. They would start viewing it as an important pass time and we would have more professional cyclists. That could boost our performance in international competitions.”
Even if practised at an amateur level, cycling is a really good way of getting around.
And it has several benefits such as increased cardiovascular fitness, increased muscle strength and flexibility, improved joint mobility, decreased stress levels, improved posture and coordination, strengthened bones, decreased body fat levels and the prevention or management of disease. In addition, cycling could be the answer to the long traffic jams that have become the norm in Kenya.
“With us there are no exhaust fumes pumping out poison. So if more people turned to bikes, everyone will benefit because we will all breathe cleaner air. So other motorists, especially public service vehicles, need to respect cyclists on the road. And the government should construct roads with cyclists in mind,” added Kangangi.