Inside Africa

High altitude pedal power: Kenya’s elite cyclists chase the world stage

CNN  — 

It’s eight o’clock in the morning. Kenya’s elite cycling team, the “Kenyan Riders,” is already hours into training.

Today’s ride is five hours long over 130 kilometers. Early morning rides, sweat soaked foreheads and yoga sessions help the team keep pace with global competition.

That pain is part and parcel of a massive undertaking: becoming the first African team to qualify for the Tour de France, the pinnacle of cycling endurance.

South African team “MTN Qhubeka,” now named “Dimension Data,” received a wild card entry in 2015 – which was a first for the continent. However, in the 115-year history of the iconic French road race, an all-African cycling team is yet to qualify.

“The Home of Champions”

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Kenya is an endurance running powerhouse. In the past 15 years, 12 Kenyans have won the London Marathon. It’s also home to Dennis Kimetto, the current marathon world record holder.

Now, there’s a push to see if the country can produce world class cyclists.

The aspiring pedal spinners have joined the runners in Iten, a town known as “The Home of Champions.”

It’s nestled in the rift valley region 7,000 ft. above sea level, making it the ideal high altitude training grounds for elite athletes.

“If you go with the school of thought that says that Kenyan athletes have a genetic advantage, most of the traits that would be beneficial to running would also be beneficial in endurance cycling,” said Simon Blake, a coach of the “Kenyan Riders.”

How the “Kenyan Riders” got going

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The team was formed in 2009 by Singaporean cycling fanatic, Nicholas Leong.

“He (Leong) wondered why there were no Africans at the top of cycling, when they were dominating road running. He came out to Kenya to try to find out and to see if he could start a team that brought Kenyan cyclists to the top of cycling,” said Blake.

Leong secured funding by presented his idea of the “Kenyan Riders” to a show called Lion’s Den, where established business people agreed to support the project.

Kenyan Riders has some rising stars. The 19-year-old Salim Kipkemboi, who used to sell firewood by the roadside, was swooped up by the group in 2013 and recently finished fourth in the Sharjah Tour. Suleiman Kangangi, who’s been on the circuit for a while, is the lead cyclist of the team and recently placed third in the Tour du Rwanda.

Uphill battles

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However, after eight years the team has still not made a dent against those competing in the Tour de France.

There have been improvements in Kenya, like more clubs, bike mechanics and organized races, Blake said. Yet the infrastructure and support are not there to match, according to the “Kenyan Riders’” coaches.

“You can make heaps of mistakes here and if you’re strong, you still win. Whereas in Europe, there’s things happening every couple of kilometers that you’ve got to be watching for,” said Ciarán Fitzpatrick, a “Kenyan Rider” coach.

“The next challenge is just equipment. We’ve got nice bikes from all over the world. But, to get spare parts for any of these bikes when they break, it has to come from overseas, ” Fitzpatrick commented.

Developing the youth

Training the next generation.

“Africa is a hard place for cyclists and especially as a platform for professional cycling but we’re getting there slowly,” said David Kinjah, who’s regarded locally as the “Father of Kenyan Cycling.”

Kinjah, 46, is one of the country’s most decorated cyclists. He caught the cycling bug in the early 1990s after commuting on bike.

“In school I was quite active in football, so I found myself with the cheapest bike I could to use as a transport [to practice]. That was the beginning of cycling for me,” he said.

The type of bike he started off with, nicknamed the “Black Mamba,” is still used widely in Africa. It is a very basic with no gears, used primarily for carrying food or farming materials.

“Most of the young people start on those heavy, metal bikes before they grow into proper racing bikes,” Kinjah said.

In 1995, he joined the small but passionate Kenyan national team. Since then, he’s traveled the globe competing in renowned events like the UCI World Championships and the Commonwealth Games.

But it’s not been without struggles. Kinjah said he was once loaned a bike from the French Cycling Federation, because he didn’t have a proper one to race on.

Today, the veteran rider dedicates his days to the “Safari Simbaz,” a camp he started, unofficially, in 1998 to develop young cyclists in Kenya.

“We don’t have specific training programs like professional teams, like the “Kenyan Riders.” We are more of a reserve cycling team. We get lots of young cyclists coming and going, and they’re learning how to be good riders, how to behave on the roads, how to ride the climbs,” Kinjah said.

The dwellings of a Tour De France legend

Chris Froome of Great Britain and Team Sky in action in 2016 at the Tour de France.

The “Safari Simbaz” camp is located in the remote village of Muguga.

It might not look like the training camp of champions, but these simple dwellings birthed cycling legend and four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome.

“Chris Froome is one of the young boys that we worked with for a long, long time when he was young here in the village. This used to be his home,” Kinjah said.

“As he grew into a stronger young man, we recruited him into mountain biking and road biking. We did lots of tough rides until he went to South Africa to join high school and university.”

Kinjah said the Kenyan-born Brit was good, but had equal, if not better, competition in the camp.

But Froome had something the other kids did not: support from his parents, and most of all – an unwavering passion to become a pro-cyclist.

“He did lots of crazy things to get to the goal of riding professional. Sometimes we laughed at him and at the things he did. But he always wanted to do things in the right way, train in the correct way, get the correct nutrition, no shortcuts. Because of that, he rose up,” Kinjah remarked.

The road to the Tour

The future of cycling in Kenya depends on the work on the ground: developing young riders from grassroots, creating new clubs and teams, and pushing a positive energy into the scene.

“A Kenyan team of just Kenyans, black, African Kenyans, just preparing to go to the Tour de France, it’s a good dream. Yes, it’s a good determination. The world would like to see it, but it will require a lot of funding, a lot of developments. You’re looking at, at least 10 years or more,” Kinjah said.

The lack of support for cycling in Kenya is undoubtedly one of the main factors for the sport’s slow growth.

Still, that’s not stopping Kenya’s determined cyclists from climbing to the top.