Suleiman Kangangi, a Pioneer in African Cycling, Died at the Vermont Overland Gravel Race | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Suleiman Kangangi, a Pioneer in African Cycling, Died at the Vermont Overland Gravel Race

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Published September 21, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 21, 2022 at 10:21 a.m.


Suleiman Kangangi - COURTESY OF SALTLAKE_LIAN
  • Courtesy of Saltlake_lian
  • Suleiman Kangangi

When Suleiman "Sule" Kangangi, a professional cyclist from Kenya, began the 59-mile Vermont Overland gravel race in West Windsor on the morning of August 27, he had every reason to expect his team to win it. A little over three hours later, his teammates had finished first and third. It wasn't until later that afternoon that they learned Kangangi, their team captain, had perished from injuries sustained in a crash nobody saw and no one can fully explain.

"Sule is our captain, friend, brother," Team Amani said in a statement posted on Instagram. "He is also a father, husband and son. Gaping holes are left when giant's [sic] fall. Sule was a giant. Instead of leading us at the front of the pack, he will now lead us as our guiding pole star as we press forward in the realization of his dream."

Kangangi, 33, was a pioneer in the African cycling community. The odds had been stacked against him from the beginning. When he was 12, tribal clashes occurred in his village, and he had to leave school. For the family to survive, his mother hired him out as a cattle grazer for $8 per month. Playing sports was not an option.

He was born in Eldoret, a city of 500,000 people in the Rift Valley, near the famous running town of Iten. Situated 7,900 feet above sea level, Iten is the home of legendary runners, such as Edna Kiplagat and Mary Keitany, and the site of a high-altitude training center. Many local runners had gone abroad to win big marathons and get sponsorship contracts with large brands, bringing recognition and resources back to Kenya. Kangangi sensed that the locals were not as sanguine about cyclists, who had yet to achieve the fame of Kenyan runners.

The first time Kangangi saw a bike race was in 2010, when he was 22 years old, and the race passed through Eldoret.

"I was amazed and stunned by the speed, how the bikes were flying," he told a reporter from VeloNews last year. "Not only that, the town was [at] a standstill, and everyone was cheering."

Kangangi wanted to experience that speed, that feeling for himself. He joined a local cycling club and started putting in the miles.

In 2016, Kangangi became a professional road racer, signing with Kenyan Riders Downunder, the first Union Cycliste Internationale team to be registered in East Africa. He then raced for four years in Europe, Africa and Asia with Bike Aid, a Germany-based professional team whose mission is to develop African cycling and athletes. In 2017, he became the first Kenyan to finish on the podium in a race on the international professional cycling calendar. At the same time, he was organizing charity rides for children in Kenya and working to develop opportunities for young riders.

Like all professional road cyclists, Kangangi dreamed of riding in the Tour de France. As he reached his early thirties, however, he sensed another opportunity that was more realistic and served his personal desire to grow cycling in East Africa: racing on gravel.

Gravel cycling is less than 15 years old as a discipline, and it has surged in popularity as interest in U.S. road cycling has declined. Where road races are intense affairs with shaved legs, $12,000 bikes and fierce competition, gravel events are like marathons, where all kinds of people share the start line, from elite professional athletes to people in jean shorts just hoping to finish. That spirit of inclusivity, along with a large network of underused dirt roads, has fueled a boom in the sales of gravel bikes and accessories in the U.S., along with a packed calendar of gravel races and rides that attract thousands of riders.

Picking up on that trend, Kangangi and American Mikel Delagrange, an international criminal lawyer at the United Nations and an avid cyclist, organized the Migration Gravel Race in Kenya in 2021. Held in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the four-day stage race traversed 650 kilometers of rugged gravel roads and single-track trails and attracted former World Tour professionals, such as Laurens ten Dam, Thomas Dekker and Vermont's Ian Boswell. The idea was to hold a world-class event on the East Africans' home turf, so they could test themselves against top-level riders, learn race strategies and tactics, and create future racing opportunities.

Kangangi finished second in the 2021 race to ten Dam, who retired from the World Tour at the end of 2019 and had raced in 10 editions of the Tour de France. In all, seven East Africans finished in the top 10.

Given the success of the Migration Gravel Race, Delagrange and Kangangi decided to build a gravel cycling team for East Africans.

"Once we saw that our riders in their own contextual milieu were performing better than expected, the idea was, We need a vehicle to get them into races that are handpicked for their talent," Delagrange said.

At the end of last summer, that vehicle became Team Amani, a professional gravel and mountain biking team composed of riders from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Similar to a traditional road team, Amani has corporate sponsors from the cycling industry, such as Wahoo, SRAM and POC, and the 12 members of the team earn a salary.

This year, the team began competing in full force, with Kangangi as the leader. In March, Kangangi and Kenneth Karaya competed as a two-man team in the Absa Cape Epic, a mountain bike stage race in South Africa. Karaya didn't finish, but Kangangi went on to complete the race solo. The team also organized a second edition of the Migration Gravel Race, which was won by Amani team member John Kariuki, and a new event called Evolution Gravel Race, a five-day point-to-point race in Tanzania, which Kangangi won.

Racing in Africa was always part of the plan for Amani, but an important goal was to travel to the U.S., which has the biggest and most competitive gravel scene in the world.

Boswell, a retired World Tour professional living in Peacham, is the athlete liaison at Wahoo, and he and the fitness technology company were leading the effort to secure visas for a few Amani riders to race in the U.S. this season. The visa process took much longer than expected, but since arriving in early August, Kangangi and his three Amani team members had competed in the SBT GRVL race in Colorado and in the Gravel Worlds race in Nebraska, finishing in the top 20 in both.

During their stay in the U.S., the Amani riders also had a chance to experience world-class training facilities for the first time. They underwent aerobic testing at the Wahoo Sports Science Center in Boulder, Colo., hitting numbers matched only by the world's best cyclists. They also learned about their unique nutrition needs through salt-loss and carbohydrate consumption tests.

At the Vermont Overland, in West Windsor, Kangangi's teammate Kariuki finished in first place, more than four minutes ahead of the next rider. Another teammate, Jordan Schleck, finished third.

Delagrange was following the Overland on Instagram from his home in Switzerland.

"When John crossed the line, we were just freaking out," he said. "It was a moment of absolute joy because we had been targeting the U.S. for so long. And then one minute later, I got a call that changed all of our lives forever."

Kangangi had crashed by himself on a smooth dirt road descent and sustained severe internal injuries. No one witnessed him go down. Everyone who knew him and knows the racecourse is perplexed by what could have caused the accident.

Boswell was able to recover Kangangi's GPS data from his cycling computer, and it showed him traveling at 31 miles per hour just before he crashed. The handful of riders ahead of him, however, had hit speeds of up to 50. Kangangi was not going too fast for the conditions.

"I've seen all the evidence, and it really just is completely random," Boswell said. "He was an incredibly competent bike rider. The road was smooth dirt. There are much rougher and technical sections on the course that he already rode."

The Vermont Overland, which includes nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, is a unique gravel race because it contains seven or eight sections of what are known in the state as Class IV roads — unmaintained public rights-of-way that resemble Jeep trails. They are often hilly and rocky and challenging to ride on a gravel bike, which is a drop-bar bike like a road bike, but with wider tires and better gearing for climbs. Minor crashes are fairly common in gravel races, but life-threatening crashes are extremely rare.

There are a number of possible causes of Kangangi's crash. His bike may have failed. His hand may have slipped off the handlebar. An animal may have run in front of him. But in the absence of concrete evidence, the crash is being treated by the cycling community as a freak accident.

In a post on Instagram, Vermont Overland owner Ansel Dickey wrote: "There are no words that can describe the magnitude of the loss that was Sule Kangangi's unfortunate accident and death this weekend ... I know that people are anxious to learn of the circumstances of Sule's passing. In complete transparency, no one knows how Sule's crash occurred."

Kevin Bouchard-Hall, one of the best gravel riders in the Northeast, was with Kangangi for most of the race. A few miles before the crash, they had descended together at high speed down a notoriously rough and long Class IV section called Pope Road. If someone were to crash on the course, it would probably be on that section. But Kangangi rode it cleanly with Bouchard-Hall, setting one of the fastest recorded times on that segment.

"This guy knew how to ride his bike," Bouchard-Hall said.

A few seconds after he crashed, Kangangi was surrounded with people who were trying to save his life. Bouchard-Hall, a physical therapist, performed CPR until the first EMTs were on-site. An emergency room doctor who was in the race stopped to help and rode with Kangangi in the ambulance, assisting the crew with clearing his airway, inserting chest tubes, and administering transfused bags of blood and IV fluids.

After an hour of CPR with no heart rhythm, Kangangi was pronounced dead at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He is survived by his wife and three children, ages 10, 6 and 4. A memorial fund has been set up to support his family, for whom he was the sole breadwinner.

Kangangi would surely have been proud of his teammates' performance in the Overland. The team planned to return to European racing this month, starting with the Gravel World Series in Spain.

Delagrange hopes people will remember Kangangi as a defining character in the timeline of East African cycling. Before him, there was only the traditional and nearly impossible path of Eurocentric road racing. After him, the opportunities have opened up.

"He would not tolerate us moping about and being sad," Delagrange said. "He'd want us to get back up and fight."

Find the memorial fund established for Kangangi's family at gofundme.com/f/sule-kangangi-memorial-fund.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tragedy at the Overland | Suleiman Kangangi, a pioneer in African cycling, died in a Vermont gravel race"