A Sport Like No Other
Cycling is a culture in Eritrea. From the youth to the elderly, Eritreans use cycling as their primary mode of transportation. Introduced by the Italians during colonial rule, the sport has currently enabled the nation to be one of the top professional cycling countries in Africa, and the world. For instance, the national team won the African Championships for eight consecutive years. However, there are uncertainties behind the successes. Many Eritreans who aspired to follow the path of their friends into professional cycling have not been able to pursue their dreams because of financial constraints, as EBR’s Samson Berhane reports.
For Hagere Lemdemariam, 18, cycling is a big part of his life. Born in Asmera, the capital of Eritrea, Hagere did not grow up like most kids playing with toys. Cycling has been his hobby since childhood and the interest soon became a full time career. His family, who realized his aspirations, bought him a bicycle for 7,000 nakfa in 2015, allowing him to follow in his older brother’s path.
He did not disappoint. Three years later, in a cycling championship held earlier in 2018, he won a bronze medal for his country. That will not be the peak of his success. “I want to be a world champion and celebrated cyclist, and of course win more gold medals.”
Hagere is just one of thousands of Eritreans whose life and culture is linked with cycling. Many people in Eritrea ride bikes with huge enthusiasm, using them not only for transportation purposes, but for racing as well. That love for the sport has helped Eritreans cyclists hold top positions in the sport in the continent.
For decades, Eritrea was at the top of cycling in Africa, winning dozens of medals in every championship. Even more, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kidus made history in the most famous bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France.
Natnael Berhane, who was named Cyclist of the Year in 2012, and Amanuel Gebregzibher, who was the winner of the African Continental Road Championships, have become names to be reckoned with in professional cycling. Many others cyclists, most of whom are from Asmara and Mendefera, a town 54 kilometers south of the capital, have raced in European tours and won dozens of medals.
While such successes have contributed to rehabilitate the country’s bad image, especially in the western hemisphere, they also attracts more and younger people to the sport. This includes 19-year old Hanibal Tesfagabir. “We grew up hearing the success stories of Eritrean cyclists. That prompted us to strive day and night so that we could be professionals,” he said.
It is also a good way for young people, frustrated by the government’s closed door policies, to transform their lives. “My brother, who is in Holland, is one of the best paid cyclists. I want to be like him so as to help my family and the country,” says Hagere.
Cycling is a part of every day in Eritrea. Indeed, although there are no recent reports, a census undertaken by the government in 2011 revealed that there were more than 250,000 bicycles in Eritrea, a country with a population of between four and six million. “Cycling is in our blood,” argues Tewelde Yohannes, President of the Eritrean National Cycling Federation. “You can see everyone riding a bicycle here. The hard work and determination of our cyclists help us in making the most successful road cycling team in Africa.”
The legacy of Italian colonization in the 19th century contributed to Eritrea being filled with cyclists and cycling fans. Evidence suggests that Italian soldiers introduced the first bicycles to Eritrea to transport mail door to door. Bicycle races in Eritrea started in 1936, with only Italians allowed to compete.
Shortly after, Eritrea cyclists were allowed to compete and some had the chance to race in the Olympics. That was not disrupted after Eritrea was annexed by the Ethiopian imperial regime. Almost all the Ethiopian cycling team members at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, were Eritreans.
After the country separated from Ethiopia in 1995, Eritreans once again established their own clubs. There are now 10 cycling sport clubs in Eritrea with Asbeco, Eritel and Sembel being the most successful. Eritreans came top in the African Cycling Championship for eight consecutive years, including the African Championship this year in Rwanda- where Eritrean cyclists won 10 gold and 10 silver and bronze medals.
The Cycling Federation has an annual budget of seven to eight million nakfa, making it the largest beneficiary among all sport activities. More than 2,000 professional cyclists are registered with the Federation so far. The figure increases every week as many youths are recruited by the clubs. “There is a competition every week, with the exception of the summer season, so as to recruit more cyclists,” explains Tewelde.
Against such a backdrop, however, some still complain that the level of attention paid by the government is minimal. Nahom Kiros, 19, is one of them. “There are many youths who sit at home, while having the necessary skills, because they are not able buy a racing bike [which costs between 5,000 and 7,000 nakfa]. I was one of them until people helped me.”
The Federation is aware of the problem. “There are budget constraints. The financial resources we have on hand are not enough to organize all the events we schedule, let alone to include all Eritreans who aspire to be cyclists,” says Tewolde.
Financial constraints have also deterred many from competing in the international arena: the national team as unable to participate in the Tour du Rwanda in August, 2018, because of a lack of funds for travelling, as the Federation told the organizers.
In fact, it was with less than 72 hours to the start of the competition that Eritrea pulled out, and were replaced by Cameroon’s SNH Velo Club.
In the past, Eritreans have won medals at Tour du Rwanda; Daniel Teklehaymanot won it in 2010. Had the country taken part this year, Eritrea would have had the fourth-most riders, with 28 cyclists, behind Rwanda (44), South Africa (37) and France (30).
Tewolde thinks that the lack of large enterprises in the country has left them with no sponsors. “There is no entity capable of sponsoring events and cyclists in international competitions. Many companies, like Nike, Puma and Adidas extend their help in other countries. The lack of a strong internet connection isolates us from the rest of the world. Because of that, we are not able to promote our cyclists and get the attention of big corporations to sponsor us in big events.”
In spite of the challenges, however, many cyclists are still hopeful that they will shine in the sport. “Nothing could stop us from being at the forefront of cycling in international championships,” concludes Hagere. EBR
6th Year • Sep.16 – Oct. 15 2018 • No. 66