Meet Kenneth Karaya

Get to know Lachlan Morton's Cape Epic teammate

October 21, 2021

Kenneth Karaya first started cycling on his uncle’s “Black Mamba.” That’s what Kenyans call the single-speed bikes that they use to move firewood, jackfruit, and water.

When Kenneth was a boy, he would race through his village and around the nearby shambas — a farm or plot of land — snaking past potholes and traffic. He saw snippets of the Tour de France on the TV news and read about cycling in the newspaper.

One day, when he was out on his old bike, he met a group of racers on the road and followed them back to their camp. They were the Safari Simbaz, a team set up by David Kinjah, Kenya’s first-ever professional cyclist and one of Chris Froome’s early mentors. Kinjah believes that cycling can set young people on the right road for life. Through cycling, he believes young Kenyans can gain the skills, character, and opportunities that they need to be independent. He invited Kenneth to join them.

“They taught me how to fix bikes, how to race, and how to take clients out on our trails,” Kenneth says. “I could earn money. They opened a bank account for me. They showed me how to save and how to interact with people. The Simbaz have really impacted a lot of youth around here. Even if you don’t become a pro cyclist, you can still go to work at a garage and earn a living there. It’s been big for me.”

When he was in high school, Kenneth started racing with the Simbaz, mostly on dirt. On off-road circuits, young riders like him were less likely to get hurt and could always make it back to the start if they broke their mountain bikes. He and his friends still got to do road races.

“You can’t just say ‘I’m a mountain biker’ here in Kenya,” Kenneth says. “If you want to race the whole year, you have to combine both. If this month, there are two races for the road, you do them. If next month, there are two races for off-road, you do them.”

At first, 15 or 20 boys would show up to those races. The number of riders grew year after year. Today, races will often attract 200 participants. All of a sudden, cycling is no longer just a means for people to get from village to village and transport their firewood and water. In Kenya, it’s an aspirational sport.

“[Some of] these rich guys, they never used to ride,” Kenneth says. “They used to say that cycling is for humble people. They would say, ‘As for us, we’ll drive or take the bus. You guys can ride your bikes.’ But they have come to realize that this sport is something. That is good for us, as racers, because then we can associate with different kinds of people.”

Kenneth comes from a humble family. On his bike, he has come to see that he can compete with anyone, especially on the dirt. Kenya’s roads are cluttered with potholes and clogged with traffic. It’s only really safe to ride in groups. That’s why Kenneth prefers mountain biking.

“Once you go to the forest, it’s you and the trees and the trails and you get that feeling of freedom,” he says. “Once you are on a mountain bike, you can get that feeling without anyone disturbing you. You can go between the trees, you can go up hills, go down hills, enjoy the scenery and the good weather, just riding around.”

All that riding is now paying off. Kenneth often wins races in Kenya. He has finished third overall in the Migration Gravel Race against international pros and did the 10to4 Mountain Bike Challenge around Mount Kenya. That was his favorite event so far. Team Amani, a Dutch initiative that is working to provide East African riders with chances to race, invited him to Europe, where he got to ride the Haute Route Dolomites and Vulkanbike mountain-bike marathon as well as several smaller contests. Opportunities to race abroad are still very hard to find though. This past summer, Kenneth was invited to the United States to do a series of gravel races, including SBT GRVL, BWR Asheville, and Vermont Overland, but wasn’t able to get a visa in time to do the trip. He knows that he has to make the most of every chance that he gets.

Racing this year’s Cape Epic with Lachlan Morton is his biggest test yet.

“I just want to do my best,” he says. “I have never been to such a race. I don’t know much about what might happen. I don’t know the level of competitors who are going to be there. At the moment in Kenya, I dominate the off-road races quite easily, but Cape Epic is a big, big race. It is the Tour de France of mountain biking.”

Kenneth hopes that the Cape Epic will lead to more opportunities in the future, but for now, he just wants to soak it all in and learn, so he can go back to his village with stories for the local kids who are now racing around on Black Mambas.

“I want to tell kids that they can make it,” he says. “I want to change these young guys who want to be cyclists, change their mentality, for a better future. For us, if you get the chance to go to the Cape Epic, you have to push really hard and show people that you can make it in cycling.”

After racing beside Lachlan for eight days on South Africa’s toughest trails, Kenneth will have one heck of a story to tell.

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