Eritrea: Land of Promise
Eritrea: Land of Promise
By Final Kilometre,
It was former UCI President Pat McQuaid who pushed for the global expansion of the sport, around 2009, when Cycling was quite stagnant. The same races were competed by riders from the same nations, with a few exceptions but not many. Tour of Oman, Tour of Dubai and the Montreal and Quebec classic races didn’t exist, to name just a few. A large portion of the world wasn’t involved and didn’t care about cycling. Fast forward to 2014, and things have changed. A Slovakian cycling superstar, and Britain is arguably one of the most successful nations in the sport. Go further down the ladder and there’s an even more diverse scene of riders from countries who may not yet be making waves on the World Tour, but will be in the future.
It gave me the idea of a series of profiling nations who you may not even know competed in cycling, yet have promising futures.
I start with Eritrea. A small country in west Africa, relatively poor for many years and a conflict with Ethiopia, which used to be part of Eritrea for many years, dominated the Eritrean landscape. Now more affluent and peaceful, the Eritrean people have turned back to a sport that they dearly love, cycling. Dating back to the Italian occupation of Eritrea up to the 1940′s, Eritrea have had cycling in their blood. The Tour of Eritrea (Or Giro d’Eritrea, as it is known in the native Italian tongue) ran for two years in the 1940′s and captured the imagination of the locals. In 2001, it was brought back as a celebration of 10 years of Eritrean independence and has fueled the desire of Eritrean cycling ever since. In 2013, Eritrea won 4 of the 7 events at the African cycling championships, including a fourth successive victory in the Men’s Road Race. This is why I chose to start my series with Eritrea.
An obvious choice to start with when talking about Eritrean cycling. The only black African rider, let alone Eritrean rider, to ride for a World Tour team when he joined Orica-GreenEdge in 2012. His first breakthrough was on the African continent, when he finished 5th overall in the Tour de la Paix in the Ivory Coast at just the age of 19, finishing ahead of riders such as Nicholas Roche. He took it upon himself to move to the UCI World cycling centre in Aigle, Switzerland in 2009 and rode prestigious amateur races with the team. He came 6th overall in the Tour de l’Avenir, the U-23 Tour de France, and was 2nd overall including 2 stage wins in the Tour of Eritrea. In 2010, he was 1st in the African Championships Road Race, Individual Time Trial and Team Time Trial and 1st overall in the Tour of Rwanda. This was the catalyst for his leap up to World Tour level, with interest from ProContinental teams already. He stayed in the amateur ranks for one more year, and it paid off. He won the ITT and TTT at the African Championships again, and won Kwita Izina Tour overall (with 3 stage wins). He was courted by 4 World Tour teams but chose Orica-GreenEdge. His first season was a steep learning curve, but he continued to win National and African championships and was the first Black African to race in a Grand Tour when he rode the Vuelta a Espana. His 2013 season was plagued by visa issues, but he’s moved to the African MTN-Qhubeka team for 2014 and hopes to be a leader in their World Tour races, hopefully including entry as a Wildcard to the Vuelta. Although Daniel has had a hard time adjusting to the pro peloton, he has been a pioneer for Eritrean cyclists and is still only 25, with many years of riding still ahead.
Natnael Berhane burst on to the scene at a mere 19 years of age in the 2010 Tour of Eritrea, winning one stage and the overall classification. He won the African Road Race Championship in 2011 and 2012, and won the 2012 Tour of Algeria, after coming 3rd in the 2011 version. This led to him signing as pro contract with the Europcar team for 2013, competing at the ProContinental level. He got a good win in the African Championships TTT but his real breakthrough was in May at the Tour of Turkey where he produced a fine ride to win the Queen Stage. He finished Second overall on the road, but was promoted to First overall when previous winner Mustapha Sayer was banned for testing positive. In 2014, he’s already started well with the overall victory at the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, becoming the first African winner of the race based in Gabon. 2014 may well bring more victories for Berhane, but at just 23 he is one of the most talented riders about with great scope to improve. It will be interesting to see how Europcar’s step up to World Tour level affects him and whether he can become a trailblazer for cycling, even more than Teklehaimanot.
Merhawi Kudus is in my opinion the most promising out of the 3 Eritrean’s I’ve been describing here. At 18, he won a stage and wore the Yellow Jersey in the Tour of Rwanda, before a stellar 2013 which included 1st overall and a stage win at the Tour de Cote d’Or in France, 1st in the Freccia dei Vini in Italy and a stage winner in the Tour of Eritrea. He also came 2nd overall in the Vuelta Ciclista a Leon in Spain. This doesn’t just show promise from African based races, he’s come to Europe at a very young age and won races against Europeans used to the culture and the conditions. In an article by Gregor Brown for Cycling Weekly, John-Lee Augustyn said “He’s so light on the bike, He’s got skinny legs but they travel fast”. Kudus said himself that “It’s better being on the team with other Eritrean’s like Daniel Teklehaimanot”. Kudus has already shown great promise this year, his first as a professional with the MTN-Qhubeka team, with a 2nd overall place in the 10 stage Tour de Langkawi. Kudus will be riding some major races but not the hardest that MTN will be entering this year, with the Settimana Internazionale Coppi E Bartali at the end of March one to look out for him.
I think what Kudus says is important, “It’s better being on the team with other Eritrean’s”. The adjustment to European life and European culture is the huge factor in whether we can see African/Eritrean riders win some major races. These guys are prodigiously talented but if they are not happy off the bike, motivation can wane and performances suffer. Africa in general is a hugely untapped source of talent in cycling, and although the infrastructure for races may not yet be readily available, having African heroes delivering great performances could provide realistic dreams for these guys. As a continent, Africa uses the bike possibly more than any, with it being the main vehicle for many around the continent. I’m confident that the guys I’ve portrayed can be hugely successful and maybe, in 20 years time we could be discussing Eritrea as one of the powerhouses of world cycling.
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