Over the years, cycling has been considered the poor man’s transport in the region, even after it was commercialised into the first boda-boda taxi.
But Team Amani, a group of cyclists drawn from Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, is out to change this narrative and cement the place of cycling as a professional sport in the region.
Started in 2021, the team has scaled great heights to win a number of major global competitions and have since cycled their way into a record deal with Meta, for a commercial video that, according to them, has been one of their biggest achievements so far.
Mikel Delagrange, teamed up with the late Sule Kangangi, a Kenyan professional cyclist, to start Team Amani, with one goal: To make cycling a sport in East Africa.
“Many of the cyclists I met while working in the region said they needed some racing opportunities, because it’s one thing to race in Africa but the main show is in Europe; and it’s not easy to access the European races for financial and political reasons,” Delagrange said.
But that put the idea in his head, and although the “last thing in the world” he wanted was to start an organisation because “there are so many already,” this was close to his heart and passion but which also risked not being realised by a lack of opportunities on the continent.
To actualise the idea, they organised the first cycling race that would bring European cyclists to Africa: The Migration Gravel Race – a four-day stage race in the Masai Mara, and which was first held in Tanzania last year.
From this race, they would recruit the first members of the team, with whom they have since been training and participating in international races across the world, some of which they have won.
Nancy Akinyi, one of the team’s captains, was among Delagrange’s and Sule’s earliest recruits into the team. She told The EastAfrican that even though she had been cycling since joining the university in 2016, she has never had an opportunity to make a living out of it as a sport.
“I started cycling as a pass-time, but ended up falling in love. I finished my degree, filed the papers and threw my life into cycling. But I’ve never had a chance to race against the world’s finest until Amani,” she said.
She now fully lives off cycling and has won a couple of races at the global stage, which she says wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t joined Team Amani.
“Racing bikes aren’t cheap,” she said. “And when travelling for the global races, getting a visa is quite difficult, tickets and insurance are also very expensive. There are just so many hurdles that it’s very easy to give up even before starting,” she said.
Today, Team Amani has 12 members – six Kenyans, four Ugandans, and two Rwandans – all professional cyclists who make a livelihood from the sport and have found confidence in the team to advance their careers.
“Soon, people are going to be seeing riders from East Africa and get very worried, because they’ll know if they’re there, the race is going to be really hard, and that’s the dream,” said Delagrange.
The latest global race they shined at was the Vermont Overland in the United States this past August, which happened to be their moment of greatest victory and greatest loss at the same time.
While John Kariuki, a member of the team, won the race, Sule, the Team Amani co-founder who was also their captain, died tragically after crashing at high speed during the race. They are yet to find out what caused the crash.
Still struggling with the fresh memories, both Delagrange and Akinyi pause inadvertently at the mention of Sule’s name, before agreeing that, “things certainly won’t be the same without him, but we have to press on in his memory and honour.”
Delagrange has now immersed himself into looking for commercial opportunities and partnerships for the team to enable them afford the best racing bikes and equipment, hence the excitement about the Meta deal, that saw them produce an advertisement for the American tech giant.
“Meta approached us because of how we employ technology in our team to communicate or even train together virtually,” he told The EastAfrican. “The deal came as a surprise and has indeed been a huge milestone for us.”
“We felt like Hollywood stars during the shoot,” said Akinyi. “It was like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Team Amani is now set to establish a permanent cycling facility in Iten – the town in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya’s Rift Valley region, famed as the home champions, the country’s athletes.
“We’re going to try to use the altitude in Iten, which is very important for cycling, to get a lot of professional cycling teams from Europe to start coming to Kenya to train. This will give our members the chance to learn from them and continue to increase their skills,” Delagrange said.
Eventually, the team dreams of having the cycling sport recognised across the continent and producing African cyclists who are internationally recognised, appreciated and lauded, and they won’t settle for anything less, they say.