By Sean Lee,
“They’re the next Columbians.”
Those prophetic words, uttered earlier this year by none other than five time Tour de France winner Bernaud Hinault, were in reference to a promising performance by the Eritrean national team at January’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon.
The statement came after stage four of the seven day event when the six man squad from Eritrea not only led the African teams’ classification but also had five of its riders in the top twenty overall.
The young team (all were born in the 1990s) faded towards the end of the race but Hinault’s words were out there providing food for thought to all who follow cycling.
Many readers had their say, coming up with theories ranging from racism to genetics and everything in between, but popular opinion seemed to be the lack of opportunity and role models.
It seems the wheel is turning.
Earlier this week Natnael Berhane, an Eritrean neo-pro riding for team Europcar, claimed stage three of the Presidential Tour of Turkey, becoming the first black African to win a HC level race.
Riding strongly to join a breakaway of four other riders with just three kilometres to go, Berhane attacked in the last few hundred metres to beat Kevin Seeldraeyers (Astana) and Mustafa Sayar (Tarku Sekerspor) by six seconds.
This victory, won on the Queen stage of the Tour and with a mountain top finish, was Berhane’s first win outside of Africa. It was enough to propel him to the top of the general classification, a position he stands a good chance of holding.
Within Africa his record speaks for itself. He is an overall winner of the Tours of Eritrea and Algeria, has come second at the Tour of Rwanda, has won stages in each of those races and also the Tropicale Amissa Bongo and has twice won the African road championship.
He is an accomplished cyclist and at just 22 years of age has the world before him. He dreams of one day riding the Tour de France and idolises team mates Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland who he sees as perfect riders to model himself on.
He follows in the footsteps of compatriot Daniel Teklehaimanot who made his WorldTour debut last year with Orica-GreenEdge. Teklehaimanot also made his Grand Tour debut last year, securing a ride in the Vuelta a Espana. Berhane hopes that his day will come just as quickly.
Both riders were members of the World Cycling Centre, an initiative set up by the UCI to develop and nurture young riders, especially those from poorer nations with limited cycling infrastructure. It assists its students with training programs, tactical knowledge, nutrition, language lessons and medical testing and provides a means for riders to gain valuable experience.
Most importantly it provides opportunity, that all important element for riders from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But don’t think that the story ends with Teklehaimanot and Berhane. They may be the first, but they won’t be the last.
Already a third Eritrean is attracting attention. 18 year old Merhawi Kudus was a stage winner of the UCI rated Tour of Rwanda last November in what was only his first UCI registered event. He claimed his win in a similar fashion to Berhane, by attacking on the final climb, and hopes to following in the footsteps of his two WorldTour countrymen.
Along with Teklehaimanot and Berhane, there are three other professional cyclists hailing from Eritrea. Meron Russom, Jani Tewelse and Ferekalsi Debesay all ride for second tier team MTN-Qhubeka – a South African squad that is making its own inroads into the Eurocentric world of cycling.
And let’s not forget that Ethiopian rider Tsgabu Grmay, who also rides for MTN-Qhubeka, won a stage of Tour de Taiwan earlier in the year as well.
With an increasing number of role models to follow and opportunities opening up, this trickle of African talent into the cycling gene pool could soon become a torrent.
It will take time, but Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane may become the African versions of Phil Anderson. While Phil paved the way to Europe for a generation of Australian talent, so to could Teklehaimanot and Berhane become the African pioneers.
Couple this with the growing recognition of races such as the Tours of Rwanda, Eritrea and Burkina Faso and an African emergence might not be the pipe dream that it first appears to be.
Perhaps they really will be the ‘next Colombians.’