This June the second edition of the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) took place, it's an event I took place in last year and because I enjoyed it so much I have been back to East Africa three times in the last year all for gravel riding trips. So when returning this time, I thought it would be a good idea to explain why I love it so much, and what the differences are between riding gravel in Europe.
[This content has been produced in paid partnership with Komoot.]
So firstly what makes East Africa special? I might be looking at it all with rose-tinted glasses, as my first time there was also my first time riding and racing off-road which I have now realised is my favourite way to ride a bike, however now that I have been to quite a few gravel events around the world, I still do believe it’s the most incredible experience that you can have on a gravel bike.
The gravel and off-road community have always promoted the idea of travelling to unique places, and landscapes and embracing not just the racing or distances travelled but the culture of the places that you visit. For someone from the UK, it was a big cultural experience riding through some of the most remote villages in Kenya, amongst animals you thought you would only see in National Geographic.
The people are incredibly kind and welcoming. And in the Migration Gravel Race, you are up against the best riders from East Africa like Sule Kangangi who spoke in the video linked below.
What makes it so amazing is how different it is to riding anywhere in Europe. So I thought I would lay out some of the main differences that have stood out from my own and other riders' experiences, in the hope it convinces you to give an East African adventure a go or help you plan for a trip you already have in mind.
This one has two elements to it, one that you may have already thought of - seeing animals like leopards, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and elephant which, trust me, never gets old.
But the other being sheep, goats and cows on the road. The Maasai people hold the value of sheep, cows and goats very highly and transport them around. Riding in the Maasai Mara (a savannah) involves coming across large groups of these animals, making it fun and games to get through. The animals are very used to human contact so you don’t have to be afraid to work your way through - however it does slow you down, and you should be aware of what could be around any corner.
Rough roads (thorns) speed
The roads are rough! Very rough. It’s the main thing that is discussed around events like MGR. But it's so hard to avoid, and to me is part of the beauty of riding around such remote areas. Potholes, corrugation, sand and black cotton (a very sticky mud that is often found when there is heavy rain) are the main things you have to contend with, but as long as you are prepared you’ll enjoy the adventure.
Equipment choices do however make a difference, so if you have the ability to run 42mm+ tyres and some sort of suspension system whether that’s strong core stability or an actual suspension like a SRAM RockShox it will make your life a lot less achy during and after your adventure.
These roads cause many punctures, all riders suffer from them, some more than others based on tyre choice and pressure. But one thing is to be sure, you need to be running tubeless at all costs. There are a lot of plants with thorns all over the place, and using an inner tube even for an emergency repair is asking for another puncture just down the road. Bring some extra sealant, plugs and gas canisters instead and try your best to stay tubeless throughout.
Of course, travelling to any new place you notice a change in food, and that is the same as any of the East African countries. The food changes in the different counties, from Rolex chapatti in Uganda to ugali, curry and wilted spinach in Kenya. There are plenty of alternatives, often including vegetarian but rarely any vegan options. For ride food, sweet doughnut-like pastries, glucose biscuits and fizzy drinks are sold at shops on the side of the road. I love the food, with an exotic range of fruits to choose from most of the year.
Landscapes are very different in each of the East African countries. For this, I will focus mainly on Kenya and the Maasai Mara (find a write-up of my trip to Rwanda here). The wide-open landscape really shows off the morning sunrises and early evening sunsets, most vegetation is low, including thorny and prickly bushes and shrubs. The areas we rode in were littered with incredible wildlife which is always a unique addition to any view, spotting a giraffe or zebra by the side of the road.
There are hills and climbs but it is mainly long stretches of rough roads along what feels like a basin although you are between 2000m and 3000m elevation most of the time. It's important to put on your suncream as it's not often you are sitting in the shade under a big tree.
The Maasai people control the land and animals in this area, and they have a great understanding of the environment and the wildlife within it. Their way of life is inspiring; very calm and respectful whilst also showing resilience and strength. Chief Salaton Ole Ntutu organises much of the MGR route and local cooperation. They follow the race ensuring the roads are clear from animals and stick around when you have a mechanical to ensure you are ok. Salaton explained: “when you go to a new place or village you drink water from that place, you eat food from that place so you need to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to the earth”.
To conclude, there are so many things to explore in East Africa and an off-road bike is definitely the best bike for this region. If you are keen to try a trip for yourself, there are plenty of organised events about now like the Race around Rwanda (they also do a bikepacking trip), Migration Gravel Race and Evolution Gravel race. Alternatively, you could explore some areas off your own back, just be aware of the animals out there! There are support vehicles for races like the Migration for a reason.
If you are interested in the full Komoot collection from Migration Gravel Race, follow this link to Komoot's website or check out the details below.
Don't forget, you can follow Finley's adventures via his social media as he embarks on some truly incredible adventure bike rides all over the world.