Gravel Culture: Iman Kagumba - Inside the migration gravel race

Posted By Gravel Union On 19 July 2021

I was honoured to recently participate in the Migration Gravel Race - the first gravel stage race to take place in my country, Kenya, and the first multi-stage gravel bike race in East Africa.

650kms long with 8000m of climbing in four days with untamed trails is no joke. Was I well prepared? I thought so, but I was about to be proven wrong on the first day of this beautifully torturous route.

Day One - 120kms 1,500m elevation (the ‘easy day’)

I woke up fresh and ready to hit the gravel (as usual). I was on my 650B full-suspension bike, which weighed roughly 17kgs including 3litres of water. I had bars, gels and some spares crammed into my new Brooks handle bar bag.

The race started. 20kms into the first stage was a series of gradual rolling climbs with a proper rocky surface. The climbs were tough, especially with my heavy bike and big 2.4” tyres. My maximum speed on these long hills could barely get to 20kmph and I suffered! Halfway up one of the climbs I spotted Ian Boswell from US, Geoffrey Langat from Kenya, (a very strong cyclist one of the top cyclists in the event) and others at the side of the road repairing punctures as I slowly rode passed. I thought to myself that I was safe from that, because my tyres were tubeless and really thick so I wouldn’t get punctures. I guess I was a little overconfident on this!

40kms into the race and we rode into the forest. With my small Garmin Edge 130 computer, the mapping was clear on the big roads, but as we slowly rode into the interior and the precision of the maps got more complicated for me. I met a long 10km downhill stretch which was really fun! Singletrack down the hill into the forest and then just like that, I got lost!

One hour of shouting and screaming for help in the forest, on the verge of breaking down, walking through bushes getting massive scratches from acacia thorns and what not. I panicked. Not for one second did I think of walking back the same route I came down. But then I remembered my Garmin Edge 130, so then I just calmed down and walked through more bushes, back to where I deviated from the track. Upon getting to the track, I issued a huge sigh of relief - I’d been pretty worried about lions….. But just at that second, I got a front wheel puncture. I put in more sealant, pumped it up and I rode on towards the first checkpoint at km 75, this was around 10.45am.

55kms later, puncture, again, front wheel, somehow there was no sealant left. I hadn’t cut my tyres, they were just full of big thorns, nail sized thorns. I took them out, used puncture plugs, pumped the tyre back up and kept riding in hope of getting to the checkpoint. A few kms later, no air in my tyre again. I decided to put a tube in and kept pushing but the tube didn’t hold – there were too many thorns in my front wheel. I tried to keep cycling, but the bike wasn’t moving so I took the tube out, returned my nozzle, used the co2 and pumped it full. The tyre got me to km 70!

I had battled a head wind not less than 20kmph and it was becoming a long day, so one of the MGR marshals on a motorbike decided to carry me to the checkpoint at km 75 to try and fix my tyre and even possibly get a replacement. Unfortunately, I was already too late and the mechanics had left. So, I ate some fruit and dropped back to the camp - it felt like the end of my race. My inability to finish Stage One meant that I was going to be disqualified. I was hurt, emotionally broken, disappointed, sad, alone and at this point I just wanted to go back home.

Day Two – 164kms 2500m Elevation (Queen Stage)

I had got my bike fixed the previous evening. I was already in a hopeless situation – there was no chance of a podium for me, so my mindset switched to making the best out of this race and just having fun. I already learnt that my bike was not an endurance bike. With a large chain ring of just 36t, I could barely keep up with the gravelleurs on the flat sections, which was around 40km at the beginning of the stage two, and the heavyness couldn’t help me catch up with them on the hills either. I needed more power for that, which clearly I didn’t have. The only advantage I had was on the descents. The route was super-hilly and felt like it was all climbing, but I averaged 30kmph and managed to do the first 40kms in one hour thirty minutes.

I had already accepted my fate. I thought to myself I would try and enjoy the ride and that if I got to the checkpoints before the cut off times, then I would continue, but sadly I didn’t reach the checkpoint in time. The hills killed me. With only 83kms and 1231m in my legs, I took the escape route back to the camp.

This was the hardest day, but I did half of it, so to me it was slightly easier. I rode easy and enjoyed the ride to the camp and took pictures.

Day Three – 130kms 1300m elevation (‘The real easy day’)

I woke up with fresh legs. Safe to say I was motivated to finish this stage. For the first 80kms I rode with a friend from Dubai, Omar, who is an endurance cyclist. These 80kms were fairly easy. We did the climbing in the beginning and then descended for 40kms with a few rolling hills. The stage was beautiful with sightings of more wildlife.

80kms into the ride, the route got flat-ish with a heavy head wind. Omar left, I was again alone. Almost last, with no ability to keep up with any of the gravel people on the flats – it was like trying to keep up with the roadies. I suffered.

For 50kms I was alone, tired, hopeless, slow and bored. Then I got a puncture and I was too tired to fix it. I kept pumping my wheel up for the last 20kms until I got to the stage finish.

Good news, I did complete the whole of stage three and I felt motivated for stage four.

Day Four – 160kms 1500m elevation.

If you followed my story well so far, I finished stage three with a puncture. I asked the mechanic to check my bike out and even handed him my sealant and trusted he would do it. Some hours later I checked on my bike and it was perfectly fine - punctures sealed and the bike was rolling well. I was quite motivated, had good dinner and breakfast. This was the last stage and I was excited to give it my all. In the morning of the race, I got dressed and was last to leave the camp with Omar, but no sooner had we begun riding than I noticed I had punctured again!!! What was going on?

I had only ridden around 1.5kms, so I walked back to the camp to try and see what’s going on with the tyre, only to find out that the mechanic hadn’t put any sealant in the wheel that had a puncture from the previous day. My brain shut down. One of the camp managers helped me to put a tube in the back wheel but It didn’t hold - the amount of thorns in my tyres from the riding I’ve done was uncountable. Just like that, I ran out of options, tubes and sealant.

Tired, I just lay in the grass and breathed. That was the end of the MGR for me. Torturously beautiful.

I learnt a lot. I experienced. I made friends and I don’t regret my participation in the MGR. In fact, I would do it again. There were not as many mosquitoes and bugs as anticipated. I slept peacefully, though at times it was super cold. My knees were burning hot in most of the days and I had a lot of stomach issues during the race.

My advice for any readers who may want to participate in the next year’s MGR

  • Carry enough sealant and tubes, because, you never know.
  • Take as many pictures as you possibly can, even when you’re lost in the bush!
  • Have a light bike please, you don’t want to be the Iman of next year 
  • ENJOY!!!
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