Tour de France riders take on the gravel of East Africa.

Former Tour de France riders will battle the elements and each other in the inaugural Migration Gravel Race in Kenya from June 23 – 26. Elite road cyclists Laurens Ten Dam and Ian Boswell are favourites to win the gruelling 4-day stage race through the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, but are acutely aware that not all kilometres are created equal.

Boswell and Ten Dam are the most high-profile riders in an international field of 61 that includes some of the most talented cyclists from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and other parts of Africa. Boswell beat Ten Dam recently at Unbound Gravel (200), the world’s premier gravel event. They firm as clear favourites, but they know all too well that they face one massive uncertainty at MGR: Africa.

Africa presents myriad challenges. Unpredictable and potentially dangerous road surfaces include single track, game trails, red clay and rough hard pack gravel. Temperatures will rise and fall significantly during the four stages, which feature 8000m of total elevation at an average elevation of 1900m. This will test the lungs of every rider, even respected climbers like Ten Dam, who finished in the top 10 of both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, and Boswell, who competed in all three grand tours.

Elephants, zebra, wildebeest and other game will also greet the riders. Local Maasai rangers have been employed to clear sections of the course of wild animals, but riders have been told to expect sightings of African game that would excite any tourist or wildlife photographer.

There’s also a Schleck in the field. Not Andy, and not Frank, and he’s not from Luxembourg. Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi is a Ugandan rider. The most fancied of the African riders in the men’s field is Kenyan Suleiman Kangangi, who rides for German professional road team Bike Aid and is a foundation member of Kenyan Riders. He represented Kenya at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and has one distinct advantage over his more famous rivals. Kangangi has ridden many sections of the course in training, and to assist organisers in mapping the route.

While ‘Africa’ will level out the men’s field, the women’s field appears even more open, and even more exciting for fans following the race live on the MGR website. Dutch duo Mieke Luten and Dorien Geertsema appear the strongest on paper, but face strong competition from the likes of Kenyan Nancy Akinyi and Nairobi resident April Kelley.

Ultimately, the outcome is as unpredictable as Africa.

While Chris Froome directs his team around the roads of France in the coming days, his former colleagues in the pro peloton will be fighting off fatigue in the land of his birth.

Images: Simon Connellan, Bradyn Shock

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