When Amanueal Tsegay broke away on the second day of this year’s Tour of Eritrea he was accompanied all the way to the finish by pleading and cries from his team car: dai! dai! dai! It’s an Italian word, the first one an Italian will turn to when cheering on an athlete, and it rings out on Eritrea’s roadsides whenever bikes are raced.
When, a few days later, Zemenfes Selemun won the last stage of the Tour and snatched the yellow jersey in the process, he crossed the finish line right outside the opera house that had been built in Asmara by Italians almost a century earlier. These are the origins of Eritrean cycling: Italy’s colonial flotsam, which the Horn of Africa nation has picked up and refashioned for itself.
Since 2012, there have been more than a dozen appearances by Eritrean cyclists in the three big European tours (Italy, France, Spain). The claim that this is just the beginning rings true when you see the attitude to the national sport, from grassroots to government, “A human can not survive without bread, and cycling is like that for us”, says Miriam Habtai, who works with women cyclists in Eritrea. “There is no weekend without cycling in Eritrea. No weekend”.
Eritrea celebrated 26 years of independence from Ethiopia this year. Although the reasons are argued about, nobody denies that thousands of young Eritreans leave the country every year illegally, and risk their lives to cross to Europe. The government is criticized for its record on human rights, the state of the economy, the absence of elections and indefinite national service. The government points to success in its health service, an expanding mining sector, a lack of crime or corruption and the increasing number of foreign journalists it lets in to report. And somewhere in accounts of what Eritrea “is really like” lies the sport of cycling.
In the capital Asmara, the presence of Eritreans on the international cycling circuit is trickling down. “Our riders have put Eritrea’s name out there”, says Yemane Negasi, who rode in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games. “People here want to follow the great riders”, he explains, predicting that Eritrea will eventually have “forty or fifty riders racing internationally”.
Two days after the Tour ends, the winner’s bike and a few others are in for repairs at the Asmara bike shop of Tekeste “Gigante” Woldu, another Eritrean Olympian (1968, 1972). Also sitting there are brand-new racing bikes worth several thousand euros. The shop doesn’t sell many of these high-end bikes, but they do sell. In a city whose urban infrastructure is struggling and where you don’t need to tell the barman what kind of beer you want because there’s only one brand, you can still pick up the best bicycle technology the world has to offer.
This is possible because of a dense support network: bikes are handed down, relations help out, pros donate bicycles, clubs contribute if a rider has potential. When Mekseb Debesay was about to win the UCI Africa Tour in 2014 he remembered it was his grandmother who’d got him started, “When she lived in Italy she sent us a bicycle, a Bianchi”. Later, he said, she sent money for another one. Somehow, the bikes are found.
Added to all this is the natural elevation of cycling towns like Asmara, or Mendefera further south, which supply thin air and steep gradients. And if you were looking for a national activity to follow on from the independence war Eritrea fought for three decades – characterised by a refusal to acknowledge the odds, collaboration for the greater good and total self-belief – professional cycling is a good fit.
The international success of Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane (all veterans of the European Tours) is attracting more and more young people to the sport. “All they want to do is cycling”, says Miriam Habtai. “They don’t know how to ride a bike but after they’ve seen all the glory and the achievement, they just want to start”.
The government puts up the money for the Tour of Eritrea each year. Cycling success remains an antidote to Eritrea’s tarnished image in the West and is a tool for building low-key connections internationally. Its riders, coaches and administrators go about the business of racing abroad discreetly and successfully. Foreigners travel in and out of the country to work with or report on the country’s national sport without difficulty (although you need a permit to leave the capital).
Eritreans and Ethiopians ride in the same pelotons around Africa with little fuss even though the countries have been in a military and diplomatic stalemate since their border war almost twenty years ago. 2016 was the first time cyclists from both countries rode the Tour de France at the same time. Nobody noticed.
The four Eritreans riding with the only African team in world cycling’s top division, Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, have either won or been the runner-up in the Tour of Eritrea on their way to the top. But the Tour remains on the lower rung of the Africa circuit, where the usual rigors of bike racing are supplemented with angry dogs, random road-kill and camels that need to be coaxed away from the roadside.
During the Tour, officials from cycling’s world body, the UCI, vent frustration because of local officials and drivers who don’t get a lot of practice at complex stage races. But the shouting gains the respect of those who work on the Tour, not resentment. Experience and expertise are accruing around the event.
Meron Teshome Hagos, who rides with the German team Bike Aid, feels the cycling itself in Eritrea is also becoming more sophisticated “because of those Eritrean riders who are already racing with the best in the world”. “We were used to the old school”, he says “but now you see the changes”.
No Eritrean rode in the Tour de France this year, although two went in the Giro d’Italia. “When we have riders racing in France or in Italy, we’re all in front of the telly watching the races, cheering on our cyclists”, says Yemane Negasi. But the European tours were followed closely in Asmara long before the Eritreans started to race in them: Eritrea has been looking out at the world through the window of cycling for three-quarters of a century. Now the world is beginning to look in.