Eritrea and cycling: An unlikely relationship

Eritrea cycling

Many fans of the Tour de France will have, alongside the colourful team jerseys, seen riders proudly wearing their national champion’s jerseys. Alongside the likes of French national champion Warren Barguil, and Germany’s national champion Max Schachmann, Natnael Berhane of Cofidis cycling raced in his national champion’s jersey. Unlike well-known countries such as Germany and France, Berhane was representing the small African country of Eritrea. Bordering Ethiopia, the former Italian colony is more widely known for its war of independence with its larger neighbour, as well as its highly questionable human rights record. However, despite its relative size, the country punches well above its weight in cycling terms on the continent, and in recent years its riders have begun to make appearances at the big European tours.

Although Berhane was the only black African rider at the tour de France, he is certainly not an outlier. Berhane is part of what is a relatively recent history of Eritrean riders appearing in the European grand tours. In Africa, Eritrea’s cycling prowess is well known.  On the 15th of March the men’s team, which did not include the likes of Berhane, won the African Continental Championships Team Time Trial. On the 19th of March Mekseb Debesay was the winner of the 166.4km road race, with fellow riders Henok Mulubrahan and Merhawi Kudus positioning in the top 10. Debesay is a former member of South African based Team Dimension Data, a team that regularly competes at the Tour De France.  Kudus is a rising star of the Eritrean cycling. At only 25 years old, he has already spent 3 seasons with Dimension Data before switching to Astana in 2019. This year he has already won the tour du Rwanda, and finished in the top 25 in the recent Tour of Poland. Unfortunately he did not make the team for the upcoming Vuelta, but hopefully he will be joining Berhane on the grand tour stage in the not too distant future.

So why is Eritrea, a relatively small, poor and troubled nation, able to produce talented cyclists? Eritrea was a former Italian colony, which brought with it the Italian love for cycling. This led to an intrigue amongst the Eritreans, and with their relatively lean physiology and a capital city at high altitude, it appeared to be the perfect match, and perhaps one of the very few positives to come out of a colonial experience on the continent. In 1939 Eritrean Ghebremariam Gebru won the first cycling championship cup in Eritrea, beating Italians. This was an early indicator of the potential Eritrea had when it came to the sport. Since 1937 Eritrea has hosted an annual national cycling championship.

Despite being a part of Ethiopia at the time, from 1960 until independence 19 cyclists from Eritrea represented Ethiopia at Olympic Games, and in the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico games they were the only black African cyclists to take part. One of Eritrea’s early trailblazers in cycling was Tekeste Weldu, otherwise known as ‘Jegante’. Jegante was the first Eritrean to turn professional after the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. He came 50th and managed to impress Italian athletes and trainers, who invited him to race in Italy as a professional.

The country had to wait until 2012 before the next big talent emerged from Eritrea. In 2012 it was the climber, and probably most well-known Eritrean rider amongst modern day cycling fans, Daniel Teklehaimanot who took part in the London Olympics road race. Prior to this, Teklehaimanot had been among the first Eritreans invited to train at the prestigious UCI training centre in Switzerland in 2008, the same year he won his first National Road Race Championship in Eritrea at the age of 19.  At the Olympics Teklehaimanot came in 73rd, and in the same year signed for Australian team Orica GreenEDGE.

As a member of Orica, he became the first Eritrean to participate in the Vuelta a Espana in 2012, and then he participated in the Tour de France in 2015 as part of MTN-Qhubeka. This race also saw the first appearance of a young Merhawi Kudus at the age of just 21. While Kudus finished 10th in the young riders classification, it was Teklehaimanot who made headlines. He once again made history by becoming not only the first Eritrean, but also the first African to wear the iconic Tour de France polka-dot jersey as the King of the Mountains, for which he received a hero’s welcome. Unfortunately, after a relatively successful few years, Teklehaimanot is without a team, having left Cofids in 2018. Still only 30, he certainly has a lot more left to offer and will hopefully be given another chance.

This year’s Vuelta a Espana see’s 25 year old Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier taking part for Team Dimension Data. Ghezbreizgzahbier has been part of the team set up since 2016 and comes into the race on good form. In the Vuelta a Burgos a few weeks ago he finished 3rd in the youth classification and made it into the top 10 of the final standings, as well as the points and mountains classifications. Coming into a grand tour off the back of this form will hopefully result in him pushing for a stage win at some point.

While hopeful that Teklehaimanot gets onto another grand tour team, with the likes of Kudus, Berhane the 19 year old Mulubrhan and Ghebreigzabhier, Eritrean cycling is certainly still producing talent. To really break through requires one of these young stars to get their hands on one of the Grand Tour leaders jerseys. Getting an Eritrean rider into either the Maglia Rosa of the Giro d’Italia, the famous Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France or the Maillot Rojo of the Vuelta a Espana. Winning it may be a step too far, but to wear it for even one stage of a race would do great for the profile of Eritrean cycling, and perhaps even African cycling as a whole.


Featured image | 194 teklehaimanot en kudus | filip bossuyt | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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