ITEN, KENYA —
Kenya has long been known for its distance runners. But now its national cycling team is quickly gaining a reputation on the continent.
The small town of Iten, Kenya, perched nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, has new athletes on the road.
Iten is famous for producing the fastest men and women on earth.
This reputation sparked the interest of Singaporean photographer Nicholas Leong after he watched Kenyans dominate the Singaporean marathon in 2006. He wondered if they could be just as fast on a bicycle. So he began building the Kenyan Riders - a world-class cycling program in a country of runners.
Naturally, he started looking for talent in Iten.
Leong approached Benjamin Kipchumba while he was running intervals on the track.
“When he looked at me he said you can make a very good cyclist," Kipchumba said. "I didn't believe him. I didn't want to. I told him no, I cannot do cycling. I don't know how to ride a bike. I’ve never been on a bike before. My only job is running.”
Eventually an injury forced Kipchumba off the track. Leong persuaded him to cycle as he recovered. Soon, Kimpchumba joined the team.
He was not the only one Leong convinced.
Kenyan Riders pitched Simon Blake, a former runner and mountain bike instructor from Australia.
”And so they said do you want to come over and I thought about it for a long time. I've been here heaps. I do like Iten, Different pace of life," he said. "Why not?”
Blake has been coaching the team for two years in Iten, where a culture of competition pushes his athletes.
“A lot of young people don't all come from here but gravitate here because it’s got a name and there is this hope that one day I’ll make it, get a good time, go to Europe, make some big money,” he said.
But Kenyans have long associated athleticism and winning with running.
Suleiman Kangani, the team’s co-captain, hopes to change that idea.
“Bicycles are a part of the Kenyan people. There have been bicycles since long ago," he said. "But there hasn't been a cycling culture, a racing culture here in Kenya.”
The cyclists have four grueling workout sessions a day, beginning at 6am.
With limited resources, Blake introduced a training regimen of Pilates and homemade weights to build strength off the bikes.
After the early morning program, the bikers quickly refuel before setting off on the day’s ride.
The team spends the next five hours climbing and descending the steep hills surrounding Iten, reaching speeds of 90 kilometers per hour.
“During the ride you think a lot of things, you think about the competition, you don't want to train too hard, maybe you'll empty yourself for the race, you want to try and balance it," Kangani said. "Sometimes when you finish you feel like dying, like you want to go and sleep and not wake up for two days.”
The Kenyan Riders have their sights set on the Tour de France, a race dominated by Europeans and Americans. In its 110 years, an African team has yet to qualify.
Until then, the Kenyan team aims to be the fastest on the continent. In mid-November they compete against top teams from South Africa, Rwanda and Ethiopia in the Tour of Rwanda, Africa’s biggest race.