The endurance sport of choice in Kenya and East Africa is running but that hegemony has slowly been challenged in recent years. Cycling has steadily grown in Kenya during the 21st century, providing pathways to international competition. Chris Froome may remain the country's most famous cycling export but at the lower level a new generation of cyclists are making their way into the global peloton.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, four Kenyans will line out in the road race in what will be the biggest cycling event of the year for them. The quadrennial event, however, is not the end destination in the careers.
With the Kenyan Riders Safaricom team and affiliated German Continental squad Bike Aid, Simon Blake has played a key role in providing the pathway to the Commonwealth Games for the riders. The exception is 46-year-old David Kinja, who 'discovered' Froome and remains the 'doyenne' of Kenyan cycling. A five-time Commonwealth Games veteran in both the mountain bike and road events who also lined out in the time trial Thursday.
The team also continues to ride in memory of John Njoroge who was killed just months after the 2014 Commonwealth Games while racing the Tour of Matabungkay. The Kenyan trio of Suleiman Kangangi, Peter Waruiru, Salim Kipkemboi and Ugandan duo Charles Kagimu and Viena Ssekankga though have benefitted from Blake's coaching and multifaceted roles. The quintet and Kinja will all contest the Commonwealth Games road race Saturday.
Having watched a number of Kenyan runners at the 2005 Singapore marathon, Nicholas Leong wondered of their cycling potential. Journeying to Kenya, he then founded the Kenyan Riders Safaricom team and accelerated the growth of professional cycling in East Africa.
Based in the northern Kenyan town of Iten, which sits at 2,400 metres in elevation, and close to the Ugandan border, with the backing of Leong Blake has been focused on building the foundation from which Kenyan cyclists can springboard into Europe and begin their career as professionals.
"Just creating a culture of bike racing is essentially what I am trying to do in Kenya," Blake told Cyclingnews of his aims. "Not just training the boys to be the best they can be, but create a support network of even someone to run a bike shop in Kenya. A real bike shop. Something which doesn’t really exist at the moment and then we can buy stuff for them as opposed to bringing in excess luggage every single time I fly."
The Commonwealth Games and World Championships, for now, are the pinnacle of the sport for Kenyan cyclists. Rare opportunities to test themselves against a world-class peloton. The model Blake is building though is bottom down with the focus on developing rider skills and tactics with gradual development. The deep end of the sport such as the Commonwealth Games road race is necessary at times to accelerate that growth. Complemented by an international race programme with Bike Aid.
Kipkemboi originally came through the Kenyan Riders Safaricom team, joining Bike Aid in 2017 and riding a predominantly European race calendar including the Tour of the Alps. In 2018, Kipkemboi took a historic win when he triumphed on stage 3 of the Sharjah Tour. The historic UCI stage victory an example of the benefits in developing youth who then prosper on the international stage. The challenge now for Blake and the team is repeat success and ensuring the base of the pyramid continues to expand.
Although the cycling culture in Kenya continues to develop, at present the "competitive part of the peloton is really small. Maybe 15 people and max 20", Blake says. Races by and large aren't associated with the national federation. Instead, the likes of Alex Tibwitta and Steve Strong put on traces such as Tour de Machakos for local riders.
"We might get a field of 80 but they are just slow recreational riders," Blake adds. "If the riders make mistakes in Kenya it is easy to get away with them. One, because generally, they are the strongest and two, the field is so small."
The solution to the amateur racing scene has been to seek out races across Africa at 2.2 level with the Tour of Rwanda the "best race in East Africa" by Blake's assessment. The Tour du Maroc and Tour Eritrea two other 2.2 races the team has competed in.
"You get to see where you are in relation to Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia and some really good guys who have signed with Dimension Data," he said of the Tour of Rwanda which will become a 2.1 classified race from 2019. "That is what they are aiming for. Continental and Pro-Continental licensed riders so they can see how good they need to be."
Like a number of African riders, Kenyans also face visa issues in travelling and competing across the globe. A national federation that often hinders progress another obstacle for Blake et al to negotiate. Undeterred by the obstacles, Blake remains focused on developing young talent. The former runner though admits that "we need to be pushing the leading edge because that is where we are going to get our sponsorship," he says.