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The “long, complicated story” for Team AMANI continued with a new chapter at Unbound Gravel this week. The African squad made its way back to the US this spring with four riders experiencing the fabled lore of the Flint HIlls of Kansas, including 33-year-old Kenyan Geoffrey Langat who finished the XL 350 route in fourth place overall.
Last year Team AMANI, a non-profit organisation that promotes inclusivity in cycling and creates racing opportunities for riders based in Africa, competed in a trio of US gravel events – SBT GRVL, Gravel Worlds and Vermont Overland. It was at the third event where tragedy struck when Kenyan team leader Sule Kangangi crashed during the Vermont race and died. Cyclingnews asked about the healing process for the team on their return trip for US racing.
“I think this will be in process for a while yet, because in many ways, the trajectory AMANI was taking was driven primarily in the African context by Sule. The vision is still there, and everybody has stepped up to play a role,” Paul Martens, US logistic manager for Team AMANI, told Cyclingnews in Emporia.
“But everybody’s also uncomfortable imagining they’re taking [his] place. So as a team, they’re moving forward, and they’re learning new roles and tackling new challenges. But healing is going to continue for years.”
Going into a first appearance at Unbound this year, Martens said that John Kariuki was the strongest rider of the trio riding the 200-mile distance, but that there was still a vacuum on the team with the absence of Kangangi, especially for Kariuki and Schleck, who rode in the US last year.
On a brutally tough 200-mile course Saturday, Kariuki rode in the lead pack in the opening 100 miles. The winner of the 2022 Overland race, Kariuki faded to finish 22nd among elite men in a time of 10:52:55, riding just behind heavy-hitters Tobin Ortenblad, Larry Warbasse, Kyle Trudeau and Jack Odron.
His teammates Charles Kagimu and Jordan Schleck fell back early after the mud pit at mile 11, but moved back into the top 40 for a time, Kagimu finishing 35th while Schleck discontinued his ride after more than 10 hours to the second checkpoint at mile 167.
“This is my first year doing gravel. I’ve been doing the road over the past years, so I’m looking forward to gaining a lot of experience to learn more, especially in the US because this is the home of gravel racing and the cream of the whole world in gravel,” Kagimu told Cyclingnews. He finished 17th at Gravel Locos, with Kariuki in the front group with 11th.
“We are here as a whole team, not like individuals, like other people. We have a team strategy and we will have to work together and help the best guy on the day to have the best result. This will be good for the team, for the continent, for our sponsors and for everybody who believes in Africa and cycling as well.”
Fizik is one of many sponsors that contributed equipment, specifically saddles and shoes, as well as financial support to allow Team Amani to return to the US again this year. Cycling apparel partner PEdALED provided new kits which were unveiled at Unbound. Last year, the team had hoped to compete at Unbound Gravel, but a delay in the visa process saw them refocus for a later start in August at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where Kariuki finished 13th and 20-year-old Schleck finished 35th.
“It’s a long complicated story. But the short version is we finally got visas last summer to race at Steamboat. As we looked at the schedule, we realised their visas were good for a year and Unbound was still on. So John and Jordan came out earlier for the Sea Otter weekend. And then Charles and Geoffrey [Langat] joined us for Gravel Locos and Unbound,” Martens explained.
“And since Geoff and Charles just got their visas right before Gravel Locos, they’re going to stay for a couple of weeks, and we’re going to do BWR in North Carolina, and then also the Colorado [Gravel Grinder] Championships in Trinidad just to wrap it up and spend a little bit of time in Colorado.
“The primary goal immediately is to help these riders have a platform. They are fantastic athletes, and they need access to the best races in the world. And so that’s part of the immediate challenge of just getting them here to race.”
Another goal for Team AMANI is to inspire people to experience East Africa themselves and participate in events such as the Migration Gravel Race, a four-day stage race in Kenya which takes place June 20-23. Along with Safari Gravel Race, June 17, and Evolution Gravel Race at the end of June, there is now an AMANI Race Series.
“With multiple partners in East Africa, we are developing a series of races. Now it’s Migration, Evolution and Safari, gravel. And you can hit all of those in a three-week span. But to raise the level of racing and gravel racing opportunities in East Africa is also part of the bigger dream so that not only do those athletes come here, but our athletes go there.”