Track Cycling

In pandemic, opportunity: How e-racing lowers barriers for African riders – CyclingTips

In a nondescript room of a grey-walled building, the hum of indoor trainers fills the air. Two riders spin next to each other, staring intently at screens, while on Zwift their avatars move through a volcanic wasteland on Watopia. Exertion and the humid air of the room send sweat beading across their skin, as they ride as hard as they can, going nowhere.

It’s a scene that plays out in living rooms, basements and garages around the world every day, with cyclists increasingly turning to indoor training and e-racing for a sporting edge.

But what’s different about this particular tableau is that it’s not happening in Europe or North America: the two riders are young Kenyan athletes, and they’re training in a room in the small rural town of Iten, at 2,400 metres above sea level, six hours drive north from Nairobi.

These riders, and soon others like them scattered across east Africa, are the COVID-19-led bandwagon of a new program being trialled through a number of African cycling clubs and teams.

This project harnesses technology to reframe the pause of the pandemic as an opportunity: to provide valuable racing experience, to overcome barriers to entry, and to overturn entrenched prejudice.

The birth of Team Amani

A decade ago, American lawyer Mikel Delagrange moved to The Hague to take up a role as a lawyer working with victims at the International Criminal Court. There, he got an outsider’s perspective of the European cycling scene – sometimes insular, often cliquey and largely white.

Delagrange, who describes himself as “a cyclist first and an international lawyer second”, has spent the majority of his career working in central and east Africa, and when working in the field he became familiar with the cycling scenes of the countries he visited.

There, he saw talent and hope for advancement, but he also saw the obstacles facing African riders trying to make it to Europe. Some of those obstacles were financial, some structural, and some were rooted in the soft prejudices inherent at the European level.

When not assisting victims of state-sanctioned war crimes and persecution, Delagrange found himself comparing the cycling pathways available to cyclists in the Netherlands to those in Africa, and resolved to try to shift the status quo.

Through a bike and coffee shop in the Hague that Delagrange co-owns, the Team Amani project was born, with a goal of creating a more welcoming space for riders from Africa who would otherwise be failed or excluded by the structures of the European racing scene.

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What are the barriers?

Now: imagine you’re an up-and-coming African rider, with a dream of turning your passion into a profession.

Your country may have recently been at war. You’re quite possibly coming from a background of poverty. You don’t have easy access to equipment, and whatever’s around is still expensive. Racing opportunities are irregular. There’s almost certainly a maze of corruption that you have to navigate your way through.

And once you’ve made it to the pinnacle of the sport in your country or continent, the next step requires you to travel to the other side of the world, to a team helmed by a grumpy old Belgian guy, in a country that’s unlike your own in almost every way, where you’ll be the only Black rider on the team. You have a language barrier, you’re dealing with cultural and professional whiplash, and you’re homesick.

That’s the reality that’s faced most African riders racing in Europe, but there are plenty that haven’t made it that far.

Part of the issue, Delagrange says, is the old European talent scouts – what he calls the “Jaaps and Paolos” of the world – who see African talent through a specific filter.

“They’ve been around cycling for 30 years and have had that rider from Eritrea, or that rider from Ethiopia, and when they’ve invested in him, he got sick or he took that first year salary home and bought a farm, or spent it, or ‘didn’t have the work ethic’ or whatever anecdote they want to pull out,” Delagrange explains, kind of sing-song-y as he runs through the tropes he hears.

“It’s far more pervasive than outright racism … it’s subconscious. It’s like a lesson that’s been ‘learnt’ and never revisited. That is the hardest thing to combat.”

While working in east Africa, Delagrange got to know the people behind the clubs and teams that were trying to bridge the gap from Africa to Europe, and collaborated with them to build the Team Amani project – an initiative seeking to sidestep the existing structures of European cycling and give African riders a gentler landing.

Back in the Hague, “we built a team of European-based riders that are committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive point of entry for young up-and-coming talent, to get a taste of what it is like to live and race in Europe,” Delagrange says.

Team Amani’s riders were committed to set aside their own ambitions to support the visiting east Africans. “We simply want to give the [visiting African] riders a frame of reference and a bit of self-confidence at an early age so as to minimise the attrition rate when they advance to the WorldTour,” Delagrange tells me.

This kind of cycling exchange program was the plan until COVID-19 turned the world upside down. But then, lockdowns closed borders and forced people indoors. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Delagrange says, and that inventiveness extended to the Amani Project’s quest to increase inclusivity in cycling.

As European riders took to Zwift in droves, Amani Project riders in Africa joined them. The travel restrictions blocking African riders from getting to Europe had just become an amazing opportunity.

Mikel Delagrange (centre) talks to riders in Kenya prior to an e-race. Photo: Lian van Leeuwen

Team Amani riders in The Hague race against riders in Kenya. Photo: Lian van Leeuwen

e-racing in Africa

Cycling is an expensive sport – that’s the case regardless of whether you’re in Kuurne, Kansas or Kigali – but when you add travel expenses from Africa to Europe, a racing opportunity becomes a tens-of-thousands-of-euros proposition. And, as Delagrange notes, that’s “for a select few, for a highly-pressurised audition to ride as a professional”.

For a much smaller investment, a clubhouse in Africa can be outfitted with smart trainers or power meters, and entire teams can begin to use them for racing, training and testing via Zwift.

While Team Amani’s e-racing project started small and out of necessity, its potential has become increasingly obvious. “With a hand-me-down power meter and an ANT+ dongle, you can race alongside Lachlan Morton on Zwift from the comfort of your clubhouse in Kenya,” Delagrange told me. “I know this, because we organised that.”

John and Evans from Kenyan Riders in Iten racing on Zwift.

Through a number of sister clubs that have themselves toiled for years to provide opportunities for African riders, the idea of e-racing is spreading across the continent. In a matter of weeks there will be thriving and friendly competition underway on Zwift, between Team Amani’s sister clubs in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and beyond.

Let’s meet them.

Sister clubs

Kenya

In Iten – a small town at high altitude, famous for producing long-distance runners – Team Amani works with the Kenyan Riders team, which, through a number of iterations over a decade racing across Asia, Australia and Kenya, continues to work toward its goal of producing the first Black African Tour de France winner.

The team’s development coach, Ciarán Fitzpatrick, is an Irishman who’s lived in Kenya since 2011 and has a Kenyan wife. He’s familiar with the obstacles facing African riders – including the costs and the lack of racing opportunities.

“The pool of competitive cyclists is very small so it’s difficult to gauge your progress there,” he tells me. “When we do go [to Europe] we find that the trip ends at around the same time the guys are starting to look comfortable in the races. Then, with such a gap before they travel again, the benefits are often lost, rather than built upon.”

The ability to race on Zwift “can help us a lot”, Fitzpatrick says. “If we can race consistently in these races, it can help us to get used to the intensity of racing at higher levels which will mean one less thing to get used to when we go overseas. It can also allow us to give chances to a much larger number of riders so that when we do go overseas we have chosen the best of a large pool.”

In the Iten clubhouse, from cobbled-together old trainers and second-hand power meters, a rotating cast of Kenyan Riders arrive and pilot their avatars around smartphone screens and laptops. “We have the disadvantage that we are racing at altitude while pretty much everyone else is at sea level, which may cost us 5-10%,” Fitzpatrick tells me. “We just do our best to meet the challenge and know that it won’t be there when we meet on the road.”

Rwanda

To Kenya’s west is Rwanda, perhaps the African country most closely linked with cycling. In the years following the 1994 genocide, the country has undergone a dramatic transformation. That’s the backdrop to Rwanda’s resurgence in cycling, which began in 2007 when a team of cycling industry people, including Tom Ritchey and former US professional Jock Boyer, helped establish Team Rwanda, with five childhood survivors of genocide on the squad.

That project led to the resurgence of the Tour du Rwanda into the African continent’s most prestigious bike race. In Adrien Niyonshuti, the project produced the first Rwandan Olympic cyclist; his story is told in the documentary ‘Rising From Ashes’.

Boyer and his partner, Kimberly Coats, saw the potential of cycling not just in Rwanda, but across the entire continent, eventually broadening their focus to create Team Africa Rising. With a mission of unifying African countries through the sport of cycling, they hoped, the work of integration and diversification of the European peloton could begin.

Jock Boyer gives a pep talk to riders from Team Rwanda.

But as Boyer and Coats found, progress in Africa can be hard-won. After the Rwandan Cycling Federation was mired in a corruption and sexual assault scandal, the pair were forced to shift their support away from the national team to Rwanda’s two Continental teams – Team Benediction Ignite, run by Felix Sempoma, and Skol Adrien Niyonshuti Cycling Academy (SACA), run by Niyonshuti himself. These two teams, under the Africa Rising banner, are now partnered with Team Amani.

Uganda

Corruption is an issue plaguing the sport in the neighbouring country of Uganda, too. Masaka Cycling Club, Team Amani’s sister club in Uganda, is an amateur racing group operating outside the auspices of a corrupt national cycling federation.

Club patron Ross Burrage – an Australian who works in Masaka through a role in the not-for-profit sector – doesn’t mince his words describing the barriers facing Ugandan riders: “Greed and corruption has destroyed cycling in Uganda. Those in the cycling Federation who are in the position to develop the sport have literally destroyed it.”

Masaka Cycling Club’s independent pathway – which has also been funded by donations from outside of Uganda – gains a substantial boost through its alliance with Team Amani, whose “e-racing initiative is a game changer for Ugandan cycling,” Burrage tells me.

“East African cyclists face many barriers beyond simply their talent being noticed. The e-racing platform immediately positions this talent on a level playing field with the rest of the world.”

Talent and testing

The benefits of platforms like Zwift are greater than just access to racing, however, with Boyer and Coats enthusing about how it can help identify rider talent thanks to precise power data. “Virtual platforms for training and testing are a game-changer for developing worlds, and will fast-track the ability for talent to be detected and trained in remote areas in Africa,” Jock Boyer tells me.

Those on the ground in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and further afield in Africa are unanimous in their conviction that the talent’s there – but the opportunity hasn’t been. It’s taken e-racing and a global pandemic to get to a point where those involved in African cycling feel that a level playing field may finally be possible.

Jock Boyer and Kimberly Coats, having helped guide the sometimes-stormy course of Rwandan cycling over the years, are watching the development of the e-racing initiative with renewed optimism from their new base in Wyoming, USA. There, they’ve been able to build on existing relationships with commercial partners, and have secured a grant from the Rob & Melani Walton Foundation that Coats tells me will be reallocated to an e-racing program.

With philanthropic and industry support, the Team Amani project is poised to spread throughout the continent. “We will work with Kenyan Riders, Masaka Cycling Club, Team Benediction Ignite, SACA, Benin and Sierra Leone,” Coats says, “and we will also send trainers to Youcef Reguigui (ex-Dimension Data) who’s developing cyclists in Algeria.” Teams in Togo and Nigeria are also slated to join the movement.

Eventually, Coats explains, “we hope to get some of these young riders exposure to the pro ranks via the Zwift racing programs.”

But the opportunity is bigger and more symbolically important than that, too, because regardless of whether there’s a pro contract waiting at the end of it, African riders are at last – finally – equipped to race people from all over the world, with many of the hurdles facing them lowered or removed entirely.

And rather than the long-established models of support that have been applied in African cycling by western actors in the past, Delagrange tells me, this project is different because it is conscious of concerns around ‘white saviourism’.

In the past, Delagrange explains, there has been an inherent inequality to the power balance of western intervention in African cycling. It checks out: if you’ve got nothing and are being offered a box of year-old event jerseys, then you’re inclined to say ‘yes’, even if it doesn’t get to the core of the problem.

This project, Delagrange says, flips the model. “We come into this asking ‘how can we help’,” he says. “Not saying, ‘this is how we will help you’. Almost to a person, the answer we hear is that they want to race.” And in a world where borders are closing and planes are grounded, Zwift is where the racing is.

Stage three of the Tour du Rwanda, one of the last races to be run before the coronavirus pandemic halted racing. Photo: Nils Laengner

A road to inclusivity

And so, in nondescript rooms of cycling clubhouses in Iten, Kigali, and Masaka, the air will soon be filled with the hum of indoor trainers. Connected by the internet and the Zwift platform every Thursday night, teams of cyclists from across Africa will race those in the Hague and beyond in the Team Amani x Africa Rising intercontinental group ride.

It’s a utopian vision on an imaginary island, but something real is happening here, too. Barriers are being broken. A cultural gap is bridged. Riders – Black and white alike – ride side by side, rubbing digital shoulders in friendly competition where the numbers don’t lie, and the numbers can’t be ignored.

In the absence of real-world diversity in the professional peloton, perhaps the road to inclusivity and change is this virtual one.