Sule Kangangi - Star of Africa
Remembering Sule Kangangi
Sule Kangangi tragically passed away last Saturday after a high-speed crash at the Vermont Overland gravel race. The 33-year-old was an inspiring figure and did tireless work to elevate cycling in East Africa and beyond as captain of Team AMANI. He was one of the riders featured in Rouleur's Youth Issue this year and came across as an optimistic and exuberant force of nature. In order to allow more people to understand the incredible impact Kangangi had on the cycling world, we have published the full piece from Issue 111 below.
There’s a memorial GoFundMe with all proceeds going towards helping Kangangi's family with the costs of losing a husband and father. You can make a donation here.
One Sunday in 2004, Sule Kangangi was riding his Black Mamba bike into the small town of Eldoret, some 300 kilometres from Nairobi. The iconic Black Mamba remains the first choice entry-level delivery bike in rural Kenya.
As Kangangi rode towards the town that day, the 16-year-old found the roads were blocked and filled with cheering crowds. “I had never seen anything like it,” he says. “I was terrified.”
As he forced his way through the crush, he got a glimpse of his first bike race as the competitors flashed by. “They passed so quickly – maybe 50 or 60km per hour on a kind of descent. I didn’t know anyone could go so fast.”
Kangangi recounts all of this as we sip tea and eat samosas. Behind him, shafts of crystal sunlight beam magically through wide leaves in a garden in Kilimani, a quiet and hilly neighbourhood in Nairobi. He looks every inch the sponsored cyclist in freshly unboxed sports gear over a wiry frame marked with the carefreely-worn lumps and scars commonly seen on any elite sportsman. These are especially noticeable close-up.
The story he recounts is so focused and singular that the telling of it is as important as the details. Every piece of it has its place and there is no time for detours or distraction. Intensely focused on his own rhythm as the story unfolds, there are signs of the nice guy in him competing with the guy that needs to win.
The young Kenyan started his first job when he was 13, tending 30 cows for the equivalent of eight dollars a month. By 14, he was on his bike, ferrying up to 60 litres of milk more than 30km a day, seven days a week. It was all he knew.
But as he watched the podium ceremony that 2004 day among the crowds in Eldoret, the course of his life changed forever. “I was so impressed, I wanted to be just like them,” he says. Kangangi approached the winner to grill him for as much information about entering competitions as he could: “He told me to remove my carrier, mudguards and put on plastic pedals. I would then be good to go.”
By the next weekend, he found himself travelling 100km on a bus to enter his first Black Mamba Junior competition. Arriving the evening before the race and not having the money to afford a room, he sat in a restaurant drinking tea until the morning. “I don’t know how many cups I drank that night,” he says.
Nervous and tired from not having slept, he looked along the line at the other competitors, itching to start the race. Cycling tops were handed out with the TRUST condoms logo emblazoned across the chest. Handed an XL, Kangangi was forced to tie it at the front to stop it from acting as a parachute. “It was a 50km race and I remember none of it,” he says, “But I came fifth and still cherish that trophy. I couldn't wait to get back home to show it to my mother.”
Kangangi never had the chance of a high school education. It was expected from a young age that he would help support his family, but it was competitive racing that rapidly took centre stage. “I needed more time to train and started missing work,” he says. “It wasn’t long before I was broke and had problems with my mother.” To this day, he enjoys reminding her how she would berate him: “Stop this cycling nonsense that will never take you anywhere!”
At that moment she had every right to be dubious of how his energy was being expended: the prize for winning a race would be no more than 5,000 shillings (£35). Working every day on his milk round guaranteed 6,000 a month, and winning was not a given.
Living in a single room with his mother was already difficult enough. He was also going through the awkward stages of becoming a young man. Kangangi was fortunate enough to find a route to independence by moving out to share a room with his cousin, rent-free.
Then along came Nicholas Leong. If it wasn’t for this commercial photographer from Singapore with a wild vision, Kenyan cycling might not be where it is today. A Tour de France obsessive, he was at home watching the 2005 Singapore City marathon on television when he concluded that Kenyans, so adept at long-distance running, should also make great cyclists. Spontaneously, he booked a flight for Nairobi that very evening, and sat next to the winners of the marathon on the plane. By the time they landed, he was following them home to Iten, in the highlands of the Rift Valley, to set up his Kenyan Riders cycling team, an outfit that exists to this day.
“I heard of an Asian man recruiting young cyclists, just 30km away,” says Kangangi. “He set up trials that finished with this beast of a climb, but I was always about 25 minutes off from what he expected of us. It felt impossible.” With his confidence rocked for the first time, things took an even bigger turn for the worse when Kangangi found out he had not made the team. The riders who did make the cut were awarded new bikes and a monthly stipend. Soon Leong would even hire them a professional coach. Kangangi’s mother’s words began to ring louder in his ears.
Heartbroken at the age of 18, he left town and moved to Lodwar, in the northwest of the country. “I couldn’t stand that they were on ten thousand shillings a month,” he says. “I left so that I could stop hearing about any of it.” He started working as a Boda Boda [motorbike taxi] driver, but it was not long before Leong started asking what had become of the tenacious young man who had given everything at the trials. He tracked Kangangi down, and unbelievably for the young cyclist, he was offered a place in the team for his spirit alone. “All of this from the goodness of his heart,” says Kangangi. “I found myself in a big hall with ten bunk beds. We slept and cooked together like in the army.”
Kangangi now seized his chance with renewed vigour, training like never before and devouring Lance Armstrong DVDs: “I studied his technique: how to descend and open up the corners. Even how he was pedalling. And from his aggression – a willingness to win.”
With the help of the team’s new professional French coach, Kangangi progressed quickly and it wasn’t long until he caught the notice of the Kenya Cycling Federation, who took him to race in Eritrea. “Cycling has taken me to unimaginable settings,” he says. “But just climbing into that plane was really something – my mother walked around her village telling everyone.”
It was his first international race and he fared well, finishing seventh out of around 50 competitors over a seven-day event. Eritrean legend Daniel Teklehaimanot, the first rider from an African team to wear the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France, won that day. Kangangi was happy enough to simply be within touching distance of the inspirational Teklehaimanot. “I won 40,000 shillings, and came back the richest man in the village,” he says, laughing, “I bought my mum blankets and a TV, I’ve not felt that wealthy ever since!”
Kangangi was spurred on to train even harder as others from his camp fell by the wayside and there would be no turning back to his old life. By 22 he was flying with his team to France to discover Europe and to cycle in the Haute Route, one of the world’s toughest multi-day cycling events for amateur riders. “It was such a culture clash,” he says. “The journey from Paris to the Alps by bus took so long that by the time we got there we were starving.”
He recounts how they were ushered into the hotel restaurant upon arriving in a picture-postcard Alpine setting. The waitress brought out mushroom soup and baguette and they wolfed it down voraciously. “Here we were, 12 Kenyans, and not one of us knew about food courses,” he laughs. “We kept asking for more soup, more bread.”
The group were sat with toothpicks in their mouths when the main course of chicken and rice arrived. “We had no room left in our stomachs; it was shameful.” It was a lesson they should have heeded for the race itself.
They passed through the first checkpoints at speed – the intention was they would show everyone what they were capable of. “We were going so furiously that we left many competitors behind, creating our own group,” he says. “But one by one, we started dropping away.” Not only did they burn more energy than they should have, they had also neglected to carry out any research on who they were competing against. “There were some serious guys, they knew how to be patient and keep us in sight.” The Kenyan Riders’ best placing that day was eighth and their second 14th – it left them feeling like they had failed horribly. “We knew we had to be less like the movie Cool Runnings and learn from our mistakes.”
Kangangi has raced across the world and lived in Europe, competing for Team Bike Aid in Blieskastel, Germany, and in Continental teams as far away as Australia for Kenyan Riders Downunder. They are achievements that have not always come easily. “In Australia and in France, I got to experience racism. In Australia, it comes as abusive words, but in France you can also have this silent attitude that you don’t belong.” Regardless, it has not dampened his desire or slowed his momentum within the sport. At 33, he feels he has yet to even peak.
His involvement with Netherlands-based Team Amani has helped raise his region’s status in cycling, as well as his own personal reputation. Their aim is to change with boldness the face of the sport by enhancing inclusivity for African riders. What resonated with Kangangi was “their desire to bring Europeans to Africa and not the other way around”. To attract sponsors and to build and nurture a network of cycling clubs across Africa is not their only goal: “It was not just races that I missed out on because of problems with visas. I lost professional contracts, too.”
Kangangi is determined to not let young riders have their development hampered as his was. As head co-ordinator for East Africa, he helps oversee two clubs in Kenya, one in Uganda and another in Eritrea. They provide all forms of assistance: help with the bureaucracy of foreign visas, access to equipment and the invaluable training and encouragement every young sportsman requires at the early stages of development.
Team Amani also hopes to level the playing field in cycling. Their Migration Gravel Race is a four-day 650km event through the wonders of the Masai Mara and is set to take place again in June. For the African riders, obtaining visas for once will not be of concern.
Their international competition is attracting not only the best racers and the most important media companies, but they are also in the fortunate position to choose which corporate sponsors they wish to align themselves with. “Not everyone has their heart in the right place,” says Kangangi. “POC for example have made their product affordable for riders in Kenya. This helps the sport grow – to be more than just a fad.
“We promote gravel racing but in the United States it has gone through the roof,” he says. “It’s unreasonable for me to think I can ride in the Tour de France, but I can go to Unbound, the biggest gravel race in the world, and prove myself against the very best.” He believes the top spots are there for the taking.
The limitations set upon riders born into poverty around the globe are not lost on him. “Road racing is a small world for the global elite. Many already come from money,” he says. “In Kenya, you have no training, no equipment and by the time you get to prove yourself you might, if you’re lucky, be in your early 20s. Twenty-two-year-olds are already winning the Tour de France.”
Young East African riders will surely benefit from Amani’s camps and their races but also from Kangangi’s life experience. He is a man who feeds off his own story, but no matter how driven, he glows with a genuine humility. “My mother always asked: ‘What are you going to earn from this?’ But I was always more passionate about winning than money,” he says. It is a mentality that has allowed him to create a life beyond dreams or hopes. “I will always do my best and I will take whatever I get,'' he says, as he gets up to leave. “I only feel bad if I didn’t give it my all. That is all we have. If I have done that, I can accept the rest.”
This is a man who couldn’t give up. Sule Kangangi’s heart is all sunshine and grit and his legacy lies not only in his collected cups and medals. It is also in the energy he continues to share with those kicking up dust as they tear their way towards a finishing line. In East Africa the ride for many has only just begun.
Rest in peace, Sule Kangangi. Donate to his memorial fund here.