Kenyan cyclist Suleiman Kangangi strives for podiums. This ambition drives his daily training, sacrifice and suffering and was his initial motivation for taking up a sport that was very foreign to him as a child.
“I didn’t understand anything about cycling when I started,” he reveals.
“I first saw cycling during a local race in Eldoret. People were cheering on the roads, businesses came to a standstill and it was really fun. After the race finished I went to see the podium ceremony and instantly I knew it was something I wanted to try.
I wanted to be like those guys I saw on the podium. All I wanted was to be a local hero, but on the way you start to learn more about the sport and then you start to think, I can make a profession from this.”
The former milk vendor has since stood atop podiums throughout Africa and the rest of the world, most notably at the Tour du Rwanda, in 2017, when he finished third behind Joseph Areruya (RWA) and Metkel Eyob (ERI) from Dimension Data for Qhubeka.
A podium finish in Africa’s most competitive multi-day stage race was all the more satisfying after years of fruitless hard graft and misfortune.
“Over the last couple of years, there was always bad luck coming to this race and for once I was happy things went okay.”
Kangangi achieved the sought-after podium position in the colours of German UCI Continental team Bike Aid. His position in a European team sees him divide his time between the Rift Valley, Europe and the rest of the world and it is something he will never take for granted.
“Cycling is very important in my life because it’s something that I really enjoy doing. It takes me to different places, but, even more importantly, now it’s my source of livelihood.
Before I started cycling, I would say my life was hard and boring. I was selling milk in Eldoret and I guess I’d still be doing that if it wasn’t for cycling. I would work but still struggle to put enough food on the table, but I wouldn’t say that now. I have taken my sister through secondary education and I can really support my family now.”
Kangangi’s family initially had reservations about his choice of sport after growing up in a town famous for middle and long-distance running.
“First, they thought I was crazy for doing cycling because it’s something that doesn’t exist in the culture in Kenya, not from any tribe. They didn’t see the point of me doing it, since they thought it is more of a white man’s sport, but now it’s changed – they see it differently and I have noticed a lot of parents in my area supporting their children to start cycling, so that says a lot.”
The family’s conversion followed Kangangi’s success and the modest wealth which ensued.
“My childhood was no different from many other children in Kenya. I was brought up by a single parent living on less than a dollar a day. I went to school for only five years, so it was never a very easy childhood.”
Hailing from rural Africa continues to present challenges for Kangangi and his fellow Kenyan cyclists, some of whom are teammates at Bike Aid or ride for his first professional team, Kenyan Riders.
“The biggest challenge for a cyclist in Africa has been visas,” he explains.
“It’s not easy to travel to races that you would love to, especially in European nations where cycling is one of the top sports.”
Even after the Kenyan passport holder has secured a visa, obstacles off the bike remain.
“The first trips to other countries were not easy, especially mentally, because you don’t really want to offend anyone, but at the same time you don’t know how these people live on daily basis.
For me to survive, I had to adjust to their ways rather than them adjusting to mine and that way it was quite easy. I really had wonderful people on my side and that made a big difference, especially on first trip to Australia.”
The most difficult moment in Kangangi’s career, however, occurred in 2014 when he was racing for Kenyan Riders.
“It was one of my dark days in cycling,” he recalls.
“I was racing in the Philippines and one of my friends and teammate had a really bad crash and on the way to hospital he died, his name was Njoroge Muya.”
Muya himself stood on the podium at the 2012 Tour du Rwanda and his memory is honoured with an annual road race in western Kenya.
Meanwhile, Kangangi is preparing to race for his friend and the nation of Kenya at his second consecutive Commonwealth Games.
He will compete in the Road Race and possibly the Individual Time Trial on the Gold Coast, against some of the world’s best riders from Australia, the British Isles, South Africa and New Zealand.
“I am excited about the Road Race,” he says.
“Even though it’s a flat course that doesn’t really suit a rider like me, it’s always good to rub shoulders with professionals.”
After April, he will return to the daily grind in an effort to achieve his ultimate goal of riding in one of the world’s top teams and competing in a grand tour.
Images: Bike Aid