While Ethiopia has produced famed cyclists, it has never garnered as much popularity as athletics or football. However, this year, when Tsgabu Gebremariam became the first Ethiopian to participate in the prestigious Tour de France, it shed light on the potential of the sport in the country. Some insiders say youth are a promising demographic, since many cities have ideal training environments. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with cycling insiders about the significance of Tsgabu’s career trajectory and developing a more robust presence of the sport in Ethiopia.
When Tsgabu Gebremariam Grmay took the stage at the Tour de France on July 2, he made history. Competing in the most prestigious event in the world of cycling was enough for the 24-year-old to go into record books as the first Ethiopian ever to race the La Grande Boucle.
“I am…so happy. I still cannot believe that I am going to do the Tour,” said the debutant on the team press release, one week before the 103rd Tour, which was comprised of 21 stages and covered roughly 3,500 kilometres. “It was a very long way coming from Ethiopia to race the Tour de France….[A] few years ago…thinking about coming from Ethiopia and participating in the Tour de France, it was something impossible for me and for all Ethiopian people. But now this thing is going to change.”
The young man from Mekelle, the capital of the State of Tigray, has a career trajectory that is likely to inspire others. He is a two-time national champion and a two-time national trial champion. Tsgabu’s major progression arrived in 2010 when he secured fifth place in the Tour du Rwanda, one of Africa’s renowned international cycling competitions. In 2015, he became the first Ethiopian cyclist to win the African road race championship in the elite category. He also secured a stage win and an overall runner-up rank at the Tour de Taiwan in 2013.
Joining the African UCI Continental Centre in South Africa and World Cycling Centre in Switzerland in 2011 as an amateur and later joining the professional team MTN-Qhubeka for three seasons developed Tsgabu’s talent. He then signed a lucrative contract with Lampre-Merida, an Italian road bicycle racing team, in 2015.
In his first season with Lampre-Merida, he rode and completed the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, two of the major European tours in Italy and Spain, respectively.
Despite all these successes, 2016 is the year in which Tsgabu was able to attain the most rarefied of feats: participating in the Tour de France and Rio Olympics. In France, he showed to the world why the Italian team recruited him. In a matter of a few years, Tsgabu has participated in almost all the major continental and international cycling competitions.
His illustrious career has garnered approval from Ethiopia cycling luminaries. Michael Ketema, a 46-year-old retired cyclist, has been following Tsgabu’s professional journey and commends his grit. “He is very talented. His dedication and hard work brought him to this success,” he says.
Others credit his family for supporting him through the early years of his competitive training. “His father, who was a cyclist too, and his brother Solomon, who competed for the national team in the same sport, know what it takes to be a top rider,” says Yonas Teshome, the EBC sport journalist who produced a special programme on Tsgabu’s career. “Now his younger brother started cycling. Tsgabu was one of 12 family members who shared two rooms. This did not hinder them from exercising cycling. “Sport is in the family’s blood.”
Even before the young Tsgabu took cycling seriously, riding was part of the family’s lifestyle. “I grew up cycling, going to school every day with a bike, going to the shop. I grew up with a bike,” he told news channel France 24 last month.
Tsgabu even keeps close company with other elite cyclists. His girlfriend is the 22-year-old Hadnet Asmelash, who races for the Trans-Ethiopia team. She is a seven-time national cycling champion from Axum, and dreams of following her partner’s path to be a professional cyclist in Europe. In addition to dominating the domestic championships at this young age, she successfully finished her undergraduate degree in sport science. Though they are not spending much time together, she says she follows all of Tsgabu’s races.
Despite the accolades he’s received at the international level, some say he doesn’t receive enough attention locally. “Everyone should be proud of him. We need to acknowledge his effort for every accomplishment,” says Michael. “Tsgabu has been quietly growing to be one of the few cycling stars in Africa. He comes home after every victory and major race abroad where he wears the national flag, but I have not witnessed one formal reception arranged for him. Whenever he comes back only friends congratulate him at some small, informal dinner party.”
While Tsgabu’s fans are often upset at the low coverage he receives in the local media, he tries to be lenient. “[The lack of coverage] is not only for cycling, I believe we do not give enough coverage for athletics too. We talk about football even when our heroes win Olympic medals,” he said in an interview with DireTube over a year ago. “The [minimal] attention given to cycling does not surprise me much. In my opinion, our football team’s achievements in recent years can be associated with the improved local coverage. Ethiopian media has the power to turn our cycling sport into a success.”
Aynalem Yirgu, 59, a former cyclist who rode in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, admits ignoring heroes is not strange in Ethiopia. “Many people do not even know our living legend, Geremew Denboba, who represented his nation in four Olympics as a cyclist and as a coach beginning with the Melbourne Games in 1956. Cycling should have been our international success next to athletics,” he says.
Aynalem, who is currently coaching a local cycling team financed by Garad, an agent of Samsung Electronics, sees the potential of growth in cycling. “We have everything to succeed in this sport. Cycling demands endurance, strength, speed and other attributes, which we usually prove in long distance athletics,” he says. “The high altitude in Addis Ababa and Mekelle is a plus.”
Exploiting the enormous cycling potential of Ethiopian youth might not require massive resources. It is reported that the maximum annual budget to run a five-men cycling team is less than half a million birr, which is just short of a signing fee for a single player in Ethiopian football. However, Addis Ababa only has three cycling teams. “Only a handful of institutions have shown commitment to support this sport. They are neither getting rewarded for their effort nor benefiting from media coverage. Though it looks cheap to own a cycling team, attracting donors is still a challenge,” Aynalem argues.
According to Michael, the major problem is insensitivity from stakeholders. “Encouraging regional woredas and Addis Ababa’s districts to run one cycling team each can change everything. Organising as many competitions as possible helps to produce good cyclists,” says the former Ethiopian Electric Power Authority team cyclist. “Levying heavy taxes on imported bicycles might contribute to the ever-growing price of racing bikes. I expect the national federation to play a vital facilitation role in this regard.”
The Ethiopian Cycling Federation (ECF) itself seems to be suffering severe financial constraints. “The annual budget we secure from government is just ETB350,000. We organise fundraising events through competitions,” says Gedion Haile, 33, Head of the ECF. According to him, the Federation recently distributed 110 tax-free imported bicycles to different regions. There is another plan to encourage government institutions to organise cycling teams. Acknowledging the responsibility of his office, Gedion is hopeful about cycling’s prospects. “Should the efforts prove successful, we may have many Tsgabu’s.” EBR
4th Year • August 16 2016 – September 15 2016 • No. 42