Starting a Cycling Culture in East Africa

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

How do you introduce professional cycling to an area of the world that has absolutely no cycling tradition? If you’re Mikel Delagrange, the founder of the Dutch-African partnership Amani, you sponsor high-profile races and bring in professional cyclists.

That is what Delagrange has done in East Africa, in order to convince local athletes that they can succeed at the traditional European model of professional road cycling. “If you take a myopic approach,” said Delagrange, “it actually is about the lack of racing opportunities.”

Delagrange is an American attorney working at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. His work, helping victims of war crimes to bring the criminals to trial, took him to Kenya, Uganda, and DR Congo for ten years. He is also a passionate cyclist and is keen to see people in East Africa have access to professional races. The first step in that long-term plan was the four-day Migration Gravel Race held in June 2021. It brought 61 riders from all over the world to race 650 km over single-track, game trails, red clay and hard-pack gravel across the wilds of Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve.

The winner of the men’s race was former WorldTour rider Laurens ten Dam who had all to do to finish ahead of Kenya’s Suleman Kangangi. Kangangi was delighted that the race had brought professional cycling to the region. “I think it was beautiful when this idea came about,” he said. “People have now seen more than before with the media attention on this race… To see ex-professionals, like the big riders who are here, was important for East African riders – to see how fast these guys can go, and learn from them. This will help these guys improve their skills, their communication and, most of all, they can train even harder for the next event.”

That next event is not far away. This coming summer, just five days after the second edition of the Migration Gravel Race ends in Kenya, Evolution Gravel will kick off in Tanzania. Evolution Gravel will cover 850 kilometres and 10,000 meters of climbing over five days. Delagrange said that the long stages – they average 180 km – and two days that feature over 3,000 meters of climbing will challenge riders in a way that the Migration’s shorter, more technical stages did not.

“We pass through five different climate zones,” he said. “The stages are all quite long with an eyewink toward an ultra-event but not quite. [There are] smooth gravel roads, so anyone who’s ridden the Migration will already know it’s quite a departure. There are a couple of flat, long stages and a couple of 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.”

While the Migration Gravel Race and Evolution Gravel represent rare opportunities for non-professional cyclists to travel and race their bikes in East Africa, the events are also intended to provide high-level racing on African soil and to support aspiring East African professionals. Their public visibility is aimed at attracting industry partnerships from the West in order to help fund the development of East African cyclists.

And this goal is already being achieved, with the establishment of Team Amani. 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 recently 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 dialled,” Delagrange said.

But he doesn’t expect these novice cyclists to become World Tour racers overnight. “We’re hoping to leverage corporate partnerships to see what happens,” Delagrange said. “It’s a way to give [the riders] a little comfort to see if we help them do something differently, if it results in something different.”