“The Shortest Man In The Village Who Can Soar Like An Eagle” is our current passion project. You can read about it, and watch a trailer here.
In January, we went to Eldoret. Spent New Year’s Day trying to find a bike race that didn’t actually exist. Visited Langgas. Hung out with Zakayo and the guys as they transformed an old pool hall into The African Cyclist Training Camp. Took lots of photos and cheered the start of a brand phase for Nick’s crazy project. It was a time of possibilities. We were all pscyhed.
But then, we came home, got caught up in a bunch of other projects, and Kenya felt like a million miles away. That’s why there’ve been no updates on Zakayo for… well, way too many months. We kept in touch with Nick, of course. Heard about the monthly races he was organizing, the amazing new talent that he kept discovering. In May, he even found money for a French coach to go to Eldoret. And a few months later, when he confirmed that the team was planning to ride in the Tour du Rwanda, we knew we just had to be there to witness it all. Zak’s first big race. And he was going as leader of the Kenyan National Team. How could we miss it?
We arrived in Eldoret a couple of days before the team was supposed to leave for Rwanda. And walked straight into high drama. Mwangi called to tell Nick that Eriko, one of the team’s best riders, had been run over by a minibus. Please come now. We raced straight to the hospital.
Eriko had been out testing his new bicycle seat when the accident happened. A passerby saw him writhing on the ground decided it was a great time to steal his wallet. Eriko managed to crawl to his mangled bike, and wrap his arm around it. The passerby decided it was too much of a hassle to take that too and left.
A banged up head, scabs all over his leg, an injured shoulder. It was clear Eriko was in no shape to ride, let alone compete. Someone else would have to take his place. The coach chose Hillary Kiprotich, a 20-year old who had recently joined the camp. He wasn’t as good as Eriko, but he had competed in the Tour du Rwanda before. None of the other riders had that kind of experience. In fact, one of them, John Tjenga, had only been in the team for six weeks. Prior to that, he’d been eking out a living as a woodcutter deep inside Mau Forest.
John’s an amazing climber – so good, he won the red jersey for competitiveness on the first day of the race – which was also the first day he’d ever properly raced. But riding downhill terrified him. He crashed on day four. A spectacular, scary, tumble, all dust and wheels and flying shoes. Medics had to lift him out of a roadside drain and rush him to the nearest hospital. Miraculously, John suffered nothing more than a few ugly bruises. But the accident meant he had to drop out of the race.
And that really, was the story of Team Kenya throughout the tour. The riders had incredible talent but virtually no race experience. On the mountains, they were a wonder to behold. These unknowns who came out of nowhere and stunned everybody. But they hadn’t yet learnt tactics. And although Zak and Mwangi had no problems, some of their teammates couldn’t overcome their nerves. There were four crashes in the first four days alone.
I will never forget the morning our car rounded a corner and we saw Kiprotich lying flat on the ground. He’d skidded along a slippery bend and literally somersaulted into the air, before hitting the ground. But the boy was lucky. He sustained nothing more than a few minor scratches, and was able to continue riding.
Another teammate wasn’t quite as fortunate. Sammy crashed not once but twice, and hurt his back. By the fifth day of the Tour, it was clear he was in pain. But Sammy insisted on carrying on. On the final day, Sammy struggled hard to keep up with the peloton and was finally dropped. We drove behind him, yelling and cheering and cajoling. In Nick’s words, he was suffering. Yet despite everything, Sammy finished in a very decent overall time. Nick pumped his hand hard at the end of the race and called him a ‘warrior’. Sammy liked the description.
He might as well have used it on Mwangi as well. The man rode in the time trial with a bee stuck inside his helmet. He said afterwards that he used that as an incentive to finish the race as quickly as possible. It worked. Mwangi clocked the best time among the Kenyans in the trial, finishing seventh overall – not bad for someone who had never ever trained for a time trial before. But he suffered severe allergic reactions as a result of being stung repeatedly by the bee. Poor Mwangi had to put up with the pain and humiliation of a swollen face and big huge bulging eyes for the next few days.
Oh yes, there were dramas and there were mishaps, silly mistakes and heart-stopping accidents. And yet, Team Kenya still managed to finish third, behind far more experienced and far better equipped teams from Morocco and Rwanda. Individually, Zakayo was seventh – the highest ranked Kenyan in the Tour.
This was a team where even the most experienced rider had just six months of proper coaching. Others, like John Tjenga, had only ever ridden on a race bike weeks before the Tour. In comparison, the Moroccans had been cycling together for at least six years. We thought it was amazing. The Kenyans though were a bit harder on themselves. They won €1,688 in prize money and lamented that they didn’t win more. “We learn tactics now,” Zakayo told us just before leaving Rwanda. “Then we come back again.”