Explore: The wildest race

Kenya’s Maasai Mara is not your usual setting for a four-day gravel event, but that’s all part of the intrigue. From elephants stopping the race to brutally rough off-road terrain and some of the most stunning landscapes in the world, Sami Sauri tells all about the Migration Gravel Race

This article was produced in association with YT Industries

An Acacia tree stands in the grasslands, its trunk gnarled and aged, and its leaves casting an umbrella-shaped shadow on the dry earth around it. The mountains loom in the distance, under the blue expanse of sky. A crow takes flight from the top of the Acacia tree, its sooty wings flapping in the warm air. Nearby, giraffes wander freely over the dusty ground, their heads high and proud on their long necks, watchful over a bustling animal kingdom. Gravel racer Sami Sauri’s voice is the background to the scene. “This is the wildest race in the world right now,” she says.

This is the opening sequence to Sauri’s new documentary film, aptly titled The Wildest Gravel Race in the World, made by her sponsor YT Industries, the German bike manufacturer. It chronicles the Spanish cyclist’s experience at Migration Gravel – a four-day gravel race covering 650km with 8,000m of elevation, through the wilds of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. As stunning as the landscape is, the race itself is known to be brutal and unforgiving, featuring some of the roughest terrain and most arduous climbs in the sport. Sauri, like many ultra endurance athletes, was drawn to the event for this very reason: the intrigue and challenges of the unknown.

“My biggest attraction to Migration was that Kenya would be an incredible place to race. As much as I’ve travelled all over the world I’ve never been to Africa. That was really big for me,” explains Sauri, now back home in Girona. “In the end, it was pretty epic.”

Although she had her personal reasons for wanting to compete in Migration Gravel, Sauri is also quick to point out that she wanted to try to engage with local communities during the time she spent in Kenya, too. A few days before embarking on the opening stage of the race, the 31-year-old led her own gravel social ride, powered by ‘The W Collective’, a community Sauri set up to encourage women all over the world to ride bikes.

“My idea with the women’s collective was linking up riders all over the world. I thought I could do something in Nairobi before Migration to bring people together. We had international women and 15 Kenyan women on the ride, who are now good friends and can ride together,” says Sauri. “For me, there wasn’t really a women’s scene when I started racing, so I’m passionate about opening the door for others to know they have people to ride with wherever they are.”

Sauri explains that all bikes were accepted on the Nairobi ride, allowing women to join regardless of what equipment they had. Afterwards, over coffee, everyone shared their experiences of their ride that day, creating a safe space for women to voice their questions or concerns about gravel racing. Sauri reflects on the event as a highlight of her trip. “It was amazing to meet all these women,” she says. “Then it was time to go and start racing myself.”

In order to prepare for four stages of Migration Gravel, Sauri and many of the other riders competing took part in Safari Gravel in Naivasha a few days before – a one-day event that served as the perfect opener for Migration. For Sauri, this was the first chance she would have to ride her new, custom gravel bike which was presented to her by YT Industries just a few days before the event. With white and blue flowers decorating the frame to reflect Sauri’s love of photographing wildlife, she explains that being given the bike with that design was something she didn’t expect ahead of her travels to Kenya.

“It was amazing,” she explains. “I love flowers a lot and it’s the first time I’ve ever been surprised by a brand with a bike like that. It made the trip even more special.”

Sauri would get her first taste of both the brutality and beauty of Kenyan landscapes during Safari Gravel, riding through the breathtaking, expansive countryside of the Lake Naivasha National Park, climbing high above the treetops through remote villages. She also spotted exotic animals during Safari Gravel, including elephants and lions. “It was like being in a zoo in reality, with all these animals crossing in front of you while you’re racing. For me, it was mind blowing,” says Sauri.

While mechanical issues meant that she didn’t make it to the finish line of Safari Gravel, there was little time for the Spanish rider to dwell on any disappointment. The next day it was time to head into the wilds of the Maasai Mara for the first stage of Migration Gravel – and a six-hour bus journey on the rough roads meant little recovery.

“You have to go literally for a total adventure and not luxury comfort. This isn’t Cape Epic, they aren’t going to give you a five-star hotel,” says Sauri. “I loved it, you sleep in the tent and there’s great cooking where you sit down with people and eat. It’s not like after the race you go home, rest and start over the next day. It’s about getting everything ready constantly as the day moves fast. We went camp to camp, and the logistics are tricky, but it’s my perfect set-up.”

Once Sauri clipped her feet in the pedals and began the 140km opening stage of Migration Gravel, after a rainy night’s sleep in her tent, she explains that it was soon clear it would be a case of simply making it to the finish line, rather than battling for results. She reflects on the pain she felt in her hips and knee – recurring injuries made worse by the bumps and toughness of the Kenyan gravel. It would be a test of mental fortitude for Sauri to make it to the finish of the opening stage, and she could only hope that her injuries would subside as the race continued.

Day two began in one of the most remote areas that the riders would visit, close to the country’s border with Tanzania. It was another long stage with plenty of elevation gain. While Sauri had managed to get a massage the night before, pain was still plaguing her performance. She explains that during the race she found solace by sharing the experience with fellow racers and reminding herself to enjoy the unique and stunning countryside she was racing through.

“The gravel scene in general is not just about racing but a lot about friendship. I shared a lot of moments and kilometres with my friend Maria during this race, which was very special,” she explains. “We stopped the race at one point to let some elephants pass. Everybody was shocked when we saw them. We also regularly saw wildebeests and zebras crossing the road. It was completely crazy,” Sauri adds with a reflective smile.

It was on the third day of the race when things went awry for Sauri. If the last two stages had been about pushing both her mind and body to the limits, things were about to get even more challenging. While the landscapes, friendships and wildlife she had discovered in Kenya were a happy distraction from the injuries she was suffering, they could not protect her from the unavoidable danger of bike racing.

“On the third day, I was feeling good, but I think I got a bit nervous and anxious about the time I was trying to get. I knew I could gain a lot of time on the descents as I love descending, but unfortunately I took one a bit too fast,” she says. “I don’t know exactly what happened but I just know I was on the ground in a matter of seconds. It was one of the biggest hits I’ve ever had. I’ve crashed a lot but it’s never been that painful, I thought I had broken my back at one point.”

The remoteness of the Migration Gravel course meant that the only way back to camp for Sauri after her crash was a three-hour journey in a race vehicle across the bumpy gravel tracks. The race doctor gave her painkillers and she prepared for a long drive lying on a stretcher in the back of the hot van. “I wanted to let them keep filming me at that point because even though it was hard, I know what it’s like being behind the camera and so much effort had been put into the film that I wanted to make sure it was an honest account. I barely fitted in the ambulance and then there were the two guys who were filming me in there as well.

“I remember how hot it was, so I begged them to open the doors for a moment when I felt that we’d stopped. I didn’t realise but we’d actually gone to help another race vehicle on our way that had got stuck. It was a truck so the ambulance was being used to help pull it out of the mud. Exactly the moment they opened the doors was when we were pulling the truck out, and I thought I was going to go flying out of the van. It was pretty surreal. I was like, this could only happen in Kenya.”

While she made it back to the camp in one piece, Sauri was unable to start the next stage because of the painkillers she’d taken and the injuries she’d suffered during the crash. She explains that while she was disappointed not to make it to the end of the race, she didn’t want to waste the opportunity of seeing the Maasai Mara in all its glory.

Rather than relying on the bike to help her do this, Sauri turned to her other love: photography. “I brought, like, six cameras and I didn’t want to spend my next few days in a hospital in Nairobi. I had two injections of painkillers and just kept going, wandering around Kenya, taking photos and supporting others during the race,” says Sauri. “When I got back to Spain and had an X-ray, they told me I’d broken my sacrum. I was like, holy moly. We drove six hours on a bus to Kenya, I spent a day in Nairobi and then carried two bike bags back by myself, all with a broken sacrum.”

Sauri may have returned from her adventures in Africa more battered than when she set off, but she is keen to focus on the positives of the trip. She now carries the memories of wild elephants and giraffes and the free-flowing Mara River and visions of Mount Kilimanjaro through hazy, orange sunrises. She can remember the friendliness of locals and late nights sharing stories around the bonfire and she can hold snapshots of the people she met and the things she saw close to her heart.

Migration Gravel Race is about far more than the result you get at the end of it. “I love riding bikes and the fact I discover the world through them, finding new surroundings and places I would never see on a car or motorbike,” she says. “Capturing memories is as important as racing bikes. For me, one goes with the other. If I’m not holding a handlebar, I’m holding my camera. I need one for the other, they go together.”

YT Indsutries Szepter

Described by YT Industries as the “unruly sibling to gravel bikes of the past”, the Szepter has ancestry that comes not from road bikes tweaked for rougher terrain, but from mountain biking. That off-road heritage shows in the geometry of the carbon frame, which YT, who started out as mountain bike manufacturers, point out is more akin to a downhill bike than a bike purely designed around being more aero and fast.

The integrated mudguards are an unusual but very useful feature. The suspension forks add a bit more heavy-duty comfort at the front end, and reports from riders who used it at Migration Gravel aside from Sami Sauri was that it remained very comfortable and forgiving, which is what you want when you are riding multiple days of rough terrain. But it balanced speed against that greater comfort. And also: fun. As YT Industries point out, this bike has “gravity in its genes”.

Sauri’s model was fitted with gear from her sponsors Sram and Hutchinson, and the paintjob was inspired by wildlife photography, but also by the delicate designs and aesthetic of French pottery, an elegant finishing touch to a bike that is fun, fast, and has a heap of character built into the ride.

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