Kenyans ride the Tweed Valley Way

(Tweed Coast Weekly, June 20, 2013)

The Kenyan Riders, eleven promising young cyclists, are now in Australia and will soon be cycling the Tweed Valley way.


Invited by Murwillumbah Cycle Club, Cycling Australia and Cycling Queensland, this trip will give the amateur team a better chance of realising their dream of becoming the first ever professional Kenyan cycling team. While here, they hope to ride with MCC and compete in other cycling events around Australia that coincide with their winter visit.


MCC president Dennis Burger says, "We believe this visit will be good for our club. The extra numbers in races, competition for our members and cultural exchange will be a boon."


Club secretary Barry Cosier says that MCC is looking at arranging a restricted open series that will give the Kenyans and members from cycling clubs around the region some great competition. “We're trying our best to make this a fantastic experience for everyone,” he says.


Kenyan Riders have competed for the past two years in other amateur cycling events in Europe and Africa under the sponsorship of a French couple living in Singapore. “We do this on a shoestring budget,” says the Australian head coach of the project, Rob Higley. “We’ve had second hand bikes for years and we finally got a sponsorship from Polygon Bikes in Indonesia.”


Many of the individuals in the team come from very poor backgrounds with little, if any, education, and virtually no prior experience on a racing bike. Competing in amateur events such as the Haute Route and l'Etape du Tour in the French Alps, several criteriums, the Tour or Rwanda, and the Tour du Gabon was a big eye opener for them, says Rob.

He recalls how the team had a breakthrough moment in the Tour of Rwanda in 2011. “I had to teach these guys to trust their team and work and rotate with their team wherever they were. So in the middle of that tour, after making a mistake the previous day and going too hard and hurting themselves, I say to them: ‘Look, the peloton’s too good for you. Cycle out at your own pace at the beginning. If you’re with them, fine, if you’re not with them, let them go.’


“So up the first hill the peloton rode away from them,” Rob says. “And they just worked together on what we’d been doing in training in Kenya day after day: rotating the lead, just doing their own thing for 120 kilometres. Then, with five kilometres to go, we saw the tail car behind the peloton. With four kilometres to go, we caught the car. With three kilometres to go, we were racing to the peloton. And with two kilometres to go, we caught the peloton. So even although we didn’t do anything big on that tour, it was good for the athletes to know that if they do their own thing, they’ll be OK.”


Kenyan Riders is the dream-child of Singapore entrepreneur Nicholas Leong, who argued that the inherent endurance and athletic capabilities of Kenyans, who have dominated long distance running events on the global scene for several decades, should also be tested in road cycling. His ultimate vision is to get a Kenyan national team to the Tour de France.


Rob says Leong did not set an easy target and that there are a number of obstacles to his dream. “We’re up against European and Australian cycling, where kids are on bikes from a much younger age than the Kenyans. They learn the skills of bike riding using gears, cornering, descending, and all the stuff that builds confidence and evolves naturally through casual practice, before they hit their teens.”

In Kenya, bikes are expensive and the market is dominated by heavy steel Chinese Black Mamba bikes that are used to transport goods and people rather than for leisure or sporting pursuits.


The newness of cycling to Kenya is exemplified by Nicholas Leong’s recruitment methods for new KR team members. “A lot of Nick’s athletes came from Eldoret where these guys ride Black Mamba bikes with a cushion on the back to give people lifts and pedal them to wherever they want to go for a few Kenyan shillings,” says Rob. “So Nick would go to them: ‘Ride me to the top of that hill’. And he’d time them -and the fastest guys he’d recruit for the training camp in Iten.”


The Kenyan Riders have now built a bike track beside their training camp to encourage youngsters to take up the sport at an earlier age, however there is no club competition in Kenya yet. “Given all of these setbacks, the team are learning and developing nicely, and the Murwillumbah Cycle Club will offer the regular racing practice that the squad needs,” Rob says.


The growing reputation of the Murwillumbah region for cycling is borne out by the fact that it hosts such elite events as Battle On the Border and Cycling Australia’s under-19s selection trials. It offers magnificent training and racing because of the variety of terrain in the ranges, plateaus and valleys that form the largest erosion caldera in the Southern Hemisphere.


In contrast, Kenyan Riders have only one bitumen road close to their training base in Iten. “We take the road straight down into the Great Rift Valley and then back up the other side. Some days, our warm down is two or three hours’ ride up, out of the valley,” says Higley. “It’s brutal, and why we need to go to places like the Tweed Valley and Europe to get experience on other descents, and other technical roads and courses.”