NAIROBI, KENYA: Kenya is a sporting nation, but it is largely known for its athletics and rugby prowess. Few would place Kenya and cycling in the same sentence.
James Mwaura Mbugua, however, aims to change this as he pursues becoming a professional cyclist. He was born and bred in Narok, where his Ugandan father sought refuge after escaping the Idi Amin regime.
And now, the 25-year-old has become the first ever black man and African to be selected for the world’s most challenging ultimate racing competition, the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme.
The race takes place annually in Russia, with cyclists crossing seven time zones and covering 9,211 kilometres.
James is set to travel for this competition, which is three times longer than Tour de France, in July. He speaks to Hustle about it.
When did you discover a love for cycling?
December 2014. I was staying with my uncle in Rongai, but needed to go back home to Narok. I didn’t have any money for transport but I had a bicycle. I decided to ride it home.
On the first day, I got a puncture and was forced to go back to my uncle’s house. He wasn’t happy about my plan to ride to Narok, so he gave me money to take a matatu. I used the money to fix my bike and sneaked out of the house before he woke up so that he wouldn’t stop me riding.
How long did it take to Narok?
I left Rongai at 5am and got to Narok at 6pm. I had a few incidents along the way, though.
Just after Limuru, I was hit by a truck and fractured my wrist. In Suswa, I got a puncture and a kind gentleman, Peter Ng’ang’a, came to my aid and gave me matatu fare to Narok. I didn’t take the matatu; I kept riding.
Why were you so determined to ride all the way?
Once I set my mind to it, I had to accomplish it. Somewhere along that journey, I started riding in memory of my father.
When I was 16, my family was attacked by gunmen in our home. My father was outside at the time, and when I realised he had been shot, I rushed out to help him. I was shot at four times. He was shot two times in the chest. He didn’t make it.
One of the last things he said was that he’d sired a hero. He called me his hero. When I was riding to Narok, that’s all I could think about. Proving him right.
You were shot at four times and survived?
Yes. Physically, it took me nine months to heal. During that time, I got into depression and tried to commit suicide more than once. I remember the psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr Odhiambo, telling me God had saved me for a reason and that even if I kept trying to kill myself, I wouldn’t succeed because God wasn’t ready for me to die. It took another four years to recover mentally and emotionally.
When did you start cycling professionally?
I made the decision right after I rode to Narok from Rongai. I was amazed I’d done it. I started training in the hills of Narok. One day as I was riding, I was stopped by an American, Richard, an ex-professional cyclist and coach. He asked if I’d be interested in being trained by him. I said yes. That day, we travelled back to Nairobi.
How long did you train with Richard for?
For about three months before he had to return to the States. In 2015, he got me into a few races, including a 256-kilometre race in Rwanda, which I won. It was my first medal.
After that, he got me into two others races, one in the States and one in India. I couldn’t go to the one in the States because I didn’t raise the funds for a plane ticket and accommodation. But I went to India.
How did you raise the funds for this?
Through friends and family. We managed to raise just enough for the plane ticket, but not for a hotel. When I got to India, I didn’t have a place to stay so I ended up on the grounds of a stadium. I’d sleep under the bleachers.
Why didn’t you just go back home?
My ticket was valid was three months. People had sacrificed to get me to India and I wasn’t about to go back empty handed. I slept in that stadium for eight days without eating.
On the third day, I was spotted by a group of people who came to the stadium for fitness classes. They liked my build so they asked me to help them train. I did it for free for five days until they discovered that I was homeless.
They took me to a hotel and I had my first meal in over a week. I still remember it was an egg and chicken roll. After that, they paid me to train them.
Did you make it to the race?
I didn’t make it for the race I intended to, but I signed up for 11 local races. I came home in April 2015, 90 days later, with 11 medals and Sh54,000.
Is cycling a lucrative profession?
Very. The challenge for beginners is getting funded to attend races in the first place.
After I came back from India in April, I was invited back for two other races, Hell Race and Himalayan Mountain Bike Challenge. I waited for promised funding that didn’t come. So, I decided if I could ride to Narok, I could ride to India.
Riding to Narok is one thing, but riding to India? That’s insane.
It’s determination. It was a 21,000-kilometre route, which took me 71 days to complete. The route I took was Nairobi – Marsabit – Ethiopia – North Sudan – Egypt – Suez Canal – Israel – United Arab Emirates – Iraq – Iran – Pakistan – India.
Did you make the race this time?
I missed the one I intended on, once again. But when I got to Himalaya, another race was starting in a nearby town. I rode there. At the registration booth, I told the organiser I’d come all the way from Kenya and wasn’t going home without racing.
He was inspired by my story and waived the registration fees. I won that race and got Sh100,000. The organiser also bought me a brand new bike and my ticket home.
This must have opened more doors for you.
Yes. I got the Africa Top 40 Under 40 award. At the time, I was to go to Malaysia for another race. I was given the award by Vimal Shah and told him I didn’t have a plane ticket. He bought my ticket to Malaysia where I competed in four races, won them all and came home with Sh500,000.
How much would you say you’ve made from racing to date?
Altogether I would say about Sh1.5 million over three years. This year is when I intend to start making the big money. My goal is to win the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme 2018. There isn’t a monetary attachment to it, but the winner becomes a Red Bull and Volkswagen ambassador. Highly paid ambassadors can earn up to Sh40 million a week. That’s what my eye is on.
What do you need for the Red Bull race?
I need Sh2 million. Currently, I’ve raised just over Sh400,000.
Once you’re done with the race, what next?
My goal would be to defend the challenge three times, which would be a record. Apart from racing, I want to set up one of the biggest sports centres in Africa and a sports academy. I have seen so much in my life, I have relied on the kindness of strangers. I want to pay this forward. There are children whose dreams are to be doctors, pilots, architects and yet these kids are homeless, roaming the streets. No future pilot, doctor, architect should ever roam the streets. I want to play my part in ensuring this.