By The Economist,
ERITREA would appear on no one’s list of cycling powerhouses. No African rider has ever won the Tour de France—no black African has ever even competed in it—and the last time an Olympic cycling medal was bestowed on an athlete from anywhere on the continent was 1956.
The closed and desperately poor nation, which split off from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year-long separatist conflict, is a minnow even within the broader context of African sports. Unlike, say, Kenyan distance runners or Cameroon’s football team, Eritreans are yet to achieve significant international athletic success in any major event.
Nonetheless, anyone who has visited the country can tell you that cycling is its unofficial fifth state-sanctioned religion. Introduced by the Italians at the advent of colonial rule, the bicycle has become the primary means of transport in much of the country, where petrol supplies are often patchy.
You cannot walk in Asmara, the capital, without hitting a peloton—be it a cyclist from one of the country’s professional teams or youngsters riding in hand-me-down lycra on rusting commuter bikes. And though competitive Eritrean riders are yet to make a name for themselves outside the continent, they have compiled an impressive record within it. The national men’s team has won the African Championships in four straight years, with the women’s team posting similarly impressive achievements.
Now, at long last, Eritreans are getting a chance to show what they are capable of on the world stage. The Vuelta a España, a race around Spain, may not be quite as prestigious as the Tour de France, but Spaniards have dominated cycling in recent decades, and this year’s event includes luminaries like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. It also includes the first-ever pro team from Africa in a grand tour, MTN-Qhubeka, which features two Eritreans, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus. Their countryman Natnael Berhane is also racing, for Team Europcar.
With one day to go, MTN-Qhubeka has held its own, ranking a modest 14th of the 22 teams but ahead of established competitors like Cannondale and Trek. Mr Teklehaimanot, 25, has led the charge, posting the 51st-best time of 163 riders.
Unfortunately, politics may interfere with the country’s long-overdue emergence as a formidable cycling contender. A stint at a training academy in Europe can be crucial in the development of riders who want to compete at the highest level. Three young Eritreans—Meron Teshome, Metkel Eyob and Tesfom Okubamariam—were recently invited to attend the Training Centre of the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body, in Switzerland.
However, the country denied their applications for entry visas because of their nationality. European immigration officials are reluctant to approve visits by Eritreans, since it is the tenth-largest source of refugees in the world. Africa’s other big cycling nations (South Africa, Rwanda and Algeria) produce far fewer refugees, so their riders are much more likely to be granted entry to Europe—though only South Africa can claim a similar calibre of cyclists.
It should be evident to European authorities that professional athletes who have won highly coveted invitations to train abroad present a very low risk of requesting asylum or overstaying their visas. A bit more attention to detail from consular officials is all that is needed for riders from Eritrea—a country that could desperately use some good news—to begin reaching their full potential.