Ian Boswell heads into SBT GRVL this Sunday as last year’s runner up on the men’s 142-mile black course. In addition to racing objectives, he is focused on mentoring four East African competitors, who will use the event to pave the way, so to speak, to future opportunities in cycling.
Kenyans Sule Kangangi, John Kariuki and Nancy Akinyi join Jordan Schleck from Uganda as part of the Fursa presented by Wahoo programme, making their trip to the United States and a special opportunity to race three signature gravel races, beginning with SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The four athletes will also compete at Gravel Worlds in Nebraska on August 20 and Vermont Overland on August 27.
Boswell travelled to Kenya last June to compete in the inaugural Migration Gravel Race, where he finished fourth in the gruelling four-day stage race across the wilds of the Maasai Mara. It was the first gravel race held in East Africa, founded by the AMANI Project. This year Kariyuki and Kangangi won the men’s edition of the gruelling event.
“I didn't make it back this year, but we met all these athletes last year. We got to spend a lot of time together in Kenya at that race. And then I just wanted to provide a little bit of additional support,” Boswell told Cyclingnews about how the Fursa programme was born.
“That's kind of the beauty of cycling, you know, that you get to come to the US and race against the best athletes in the world. But equally, you know, the cultural experience of coming here is great.”
The word ‘fursa’ translates from Swahili to mean opportunity and describes what the US-based smart fitness and training company aims to achieve with a partnership with the AMANI Project, a non-profit organisation that promotes inclusivity in cycling and creates opportunities for riders based in Africa.
US races represent the cream-of-the-crop for global gravel racing and Boswell said it has taken more than 18 months to make ‘fursa’ a reality.
“I went over last June to race the Migration Gravel Race in Kenya. For us Americans and some European athletes, it was fairly easy to get entry into Kenya, a little bit of paperwork, some COVID testing and then we were in Kenya. It’s a different pathway from East Africa,” Boswell, who works as an athlete manager for Wahoo as his full-time career, told Cyclingnews.
“These athletes faced hurdles, as every opportunity that opens, there’s something holding them back. They weren’t able to get visas, despite working with the Department of State and various people. I think a lot of it was a backlog from the coronavirus pandemic.”
What was to be a 2021 trip originally, then became a spring 2022 trip and then moved to late summer as visas for the foursome were finally approved, Boswell said. Earlier this week Kangangi, 33, Kariuki, 25, and Schleck, who turns 20 in September, were in Colorado ahead of SBT GRVL to experience the new Wahoo Sports Science testing centre, in Boulder, which opened this month.
Akinyi, 32, travelled to Birmingham, England to compete for Kenya in mountain biking at the Commonwealth Games. She finished seventh in the women’s elite cross-country event.
Boswell noted how aspiring athletes in East Africa see running as a path to a professional sports career, not cycling. The initiative with Fursa is to eliminate hurdles for aspiring women and men riders from East Africa and carve a path to professional racing, be it on the road or off the road. Team AMANI can now look beyond the two big off-road stage races in Africa - The Migration Gravel Race and Evolution Gravel.
“Just being in a somewhat remote part of the world, it’s hard to have access to racing regularly against international competition,” he said. “We're seeing [athletes from] countries that haven't traditionally been powerhouses in cycling really come to the front, whether it's Colombians or Slovenians. Now with East Africans, we've seen they have some phenomenally-gifted athletes, and I think that there's that potential there in cycling. There’s been a lack of support [in cycling], and really more than that, an opportunity for these athletes to come and showcase their ability on an internationally-recognized stage. Now they can race in the US and see where they stack up against the best gravel racers in the world.”
Three distinct US races and more in Europe
The three races were chosen both for calendar placements and for their diverse geography, which lends themselves to different race skill sets.
“The difference between Steamboat and Lincoln, and Vermont is vast. You have this kind of high-alpine course at Steamboat and you have this very traditional kind of Midwest course that is flat, chunky gravel in Nebraska. And then finishing off with Vermont Overland, which is a short event, but there's tons of climbs, and it's super intense.”
What are the riders looking forward to the most on a first visit to the US?
“I speak the most to Jordan, and he’s looking forward to some hamburgers,” Boswell said with a laugh, noting that he began coaching the Ugandan rider at the end of last year. “The race is the big focus for them. They've come here to try to perform and, you know, to really show the world that they're not just here for a holiday to the US that they're here to make names for themselves.”
Team AMANI collaborated with the Wahoo Sports Science team to ensure each athlete had advanced preparation, providing each athlete with SYSTM software on their respective Wahoo KICKRs.
“While cycling crowns World and Olympic champions, nearly all have come from Western Europe and North America. In order to create a sport with more opportunity and representation, we want to make sure that the exceptional riders from this currently underrepresented region get the chance to compete against the best in the world,” said Mikel Delagrange of Team AMANI.
“These four athletes faced a year-long delay due to unforeseen visa challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve been training harder than ever before and are ready for the chance to prove themselves. We’re proud to be able to give them that chance through the ‘Fursa’ program.”
Once the athletes complete the trio of gravel events in the US, they will travel to Europe to compete in additional off-road events, including the final UCI Gravel World Series event, and qualifier for UCI Gravel World Championships, the Hutchinson Ranxo Gravel race in Spain in mid-September.
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