Last year, ProContinental outfit MTN-Qhubeka (now WorldTour Team Data Dimension) won the hearts and minds of cycling fans the world over with their plucky performance at the Tour de France. I recently met another, equally ambitious, African team aiming to be the first Kenyan squad to take part in the Tour.
Kenyan Riders Downunder, founded by Singaporean photographer Nicholas Leong, and initially funded by Mathieu and Marie Anne Vermerson, recently combined with Riders Downunder, a Queensland team of Australian and Kiwi riders, to become an African Continental team racing on the African, Oceania, European and Asian UCI circuits. The squad has around 108 days of international racing on this year’s programme, which should give the riders even greater international exposure.
Based at altitude in Iten, Kenya, Leong runs camps to find and train Kenyans with the potential, attitude and desire to become professional cyclists. It’s not always easy to find riders with all three, though Leong has a number of successful converts from the ranks of cyclists delivering milk and providing taxi services.
I found out more about the team from Karl Hardy of Melbourne-based Schnell Carbon Fibre Wheels, one of the team’s equipment sponsors. He has been in the industry for over 10 years, initially supporting more junior cyclists through to the Australian national road series (NRS) teams.
The team had recently raced in Australia at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour against the likes of Sky, including two-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, Orica-GreenEDGE, BMC and former Giro d’Italia champion Damiano Cunego. The riders may not have won any stages, or jerseys, but they were able to hold their own in a quality peloton and animate the racing.
Hardy explained that one of the roles of the local Australian and Kiwi riders was to mentor the Kenyans, showing them how to train, passing on bike and racing skills, race tactics and generally getting them up to speed and competitive. The riders are already fit and their lean physique, physical ability, plus plenty of fast-twitch muscles, enables them to readily suffer on the bike. He told me about one Kenyan had ridden 200km to compete in a 160km race who then rode 200km back home!
It’s not just about the racing, it’s also about helping the Kenyan riders adjust to life on the road, as part of a team, and supporting their dietary requirements. Another of the team’s sponsors, sugar-free Nunn Hydration, works particularly well for the Kenyans whose bodies aren’t used to either large amounts of sugar or carbohydrates. So it’s a steep learning curve for all involved.
From observation it was clear the integration of the two teams was going well. I spoke to 27-year-old co-captain Suleiman Kangangi, who represented Kenya at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. He talked about the team’s recent participation in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour:
The race was hard, especially on the hills but, as a team, we took it day by day to see what we could get from the race. It was like a dream, such a beautiful feeling, to ride with Chris Froome because he’s now an icon in our country.
We have other Kenyan riders but they’re not yet ready to compete at this level. They are good but have to progress. Racing is about more than just talent and most of us have started racing criteriums here in Australia to help build our confidence.
The team, which has nearly 30,000 followers on Facebook, has plenty of product sponsors but is now seeking a naming-rights sponsor to help them achieve its long-term goal of racing in the Tour de France.
Calling all CSR department heads, this could be a great human interest story and a serious feel-good factor for any major corporate, couldn’t it?
All photographs © Richard Whatley